In the Heart of the Desert (ISBN 978-1-933316-56-7) by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis on


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pdf iconpages 79-80
In the Heart of the Desert, Revised: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
author: Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis 
foreword by: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware 
preface by: Benedicta Ward 
Subject(s): Approx. Grade Level


6 – 7 / Lexile measure: 960L)

Format: Size / page count:


6" × 9" / 224 pages

ISBN: Date available:


Available now




What can Christian hermits and monks from the Egyptian desert of the 4th-5th centuries teach us today? The words of the Desert Fathers and Mothers have influenced the spiritual lives of many people, from Saint Augustine to Thomas Merton. This new edition of this popular book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers speaks directly to the heart of those who have experienced the inner desert-edness of sickness, loneliness, or death. If you are suffering from pain and isolation, this book provides a traditional answer to life’s overwhelming troubles. In his gentle manner, Fr. John Chryssavgis effortlessly applies the wise and compassionate sayings of these monks and nuns to the many problems in our modern-day lives. Never before has the ancient wisdom of Christianity seemed so fresh and alive. This revised edition features new illustrations, a new appendix of fresh translations of sayings from the Fathers and Mothers, a detailed index and bibliography, and a new foreword by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware). It also includes the first translation into English of the fifth-century text, the Reflections of Abba Zosimas.


  • Winner of the Silver Midwest Book Award for “Religion/Philosophy/Inspiration”  

Reviews (hide/show)

“At once my attention was caught and held by the stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers which Deacon John Chryssavgis also presents to us so effectively in this [book]…. I have read many other studies on the monasticism of Egypt and Palestine, but scarcely any of them have conveyed to me the true meaning of Desert spirituality in the way that Deacon John has succeeded in doing.”
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, from the Foreword

In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Fr. John Chryssavgis (Professor of Theology at Hellenic College & Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology) surveys a treasury of ancient texts regarding Christianity, particularly those written by earliest Christian peoples who lived and survived in the desert as an act of Christian faith. Their exhortations, spiritual guidances, prayers, encounters with God, internal struggles, and testimonies have survived down the centuries, and here they are presented in an informative overview enhanced with extensive thought, wisdom, and meditation concerning the lives that worshiped God throughout the centuries. An especially welcome contribution to Christian studies and reference shelves, In the Heart of the Desert is a work of considerable scholarship and easily accessible by non-specialist readers.”
Midwest Book Review

“Early Christianity's abbas and ammas—the hermits and premonastics of the Egyptian desert—have never really been out of fashion, but ours is clearly a time of penitence and reflection: the pace of translation and study of these and other contemplatives and ascetics seems only to increase. Chryssavgis (theology, Holy Cross Sch. of Theology; Repentance and Confession in the Orthodox Church) has written a well-informed and sensitive study of the distinctive spirituality of abbas and ammas. 'When we [too] have addressed our demons,' he says, 'will we not also know the presence of angels in our life?...Our heart will beat in unison with the heart of the world.' This outstanding study also includes a complete translation of Abba Zosimas's Reflections. For strong collections in religion in both public and academic libraries.”
Library Journal
“… the desert may also be understood as an inner geography of desolation and abandonment. Father John tells us that anyone who has experienced loneliness, brokenness, breakdown, or break-up—whether emotionally, physically, or socially—will connect with the profound humanity of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.”
Banyen Books and Sound
“The resolute honesty of an Ed Abbey, the prophetic freedom of a Wallace Stegner, the profound love of a Charles de Foucauld— these were the qualities of the Desert Christians who thrived in Egypt and Palestine in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. I’ve known for a long time that they are what I want to be when I grow up. This delightful book makes me more certain of that than ever. The sayings of Zosimas, here translated for the first time, are a wonderful addition to the English corpus of the Desert Christians.

“This is a spirituality for everyone who has ever gone through the desert (metaphorically at least), even if they’ve never lived in it like the early Christian monks. It reveals a practice that sings, a way of living that, as Abba Serapion said, ‘makes us truly alive.’”
Belden Lane, Professor of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University, and author of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes
“A beautiful and sensitive account of the lives and spirituality of the early Christian desert monastics. Chryssavgis’ treatment of these strange, compelling figures is marked by an uncommon depth of understanding; under his discerning gaze, the world of the desert monastics comes alive for the reader. What really distinguishes his treatment, though, is his compassion for these ancient figures, his ability to meet them as fellow human beings who, like us, find themselves caught up in a mysterious and challenging spiritual journey.”
Douglas Burton-Christie, Loyola Marymount University, and author of The Word in the Desert
“This book provides an accessible introduction to the sources themselves, with copious translations, a map, a time-line and bibliography. It also includes a translation into English of some material (The Reflections of Abba Zosimas) which has not been translated before. From his deep knowledge of the area, Chryssavgis has chosen to present them in a way which shows his pastoral concern by using the first person plural to involve the reader throughout.”
Benedicta Ward, SLG , Oxford University, from the foreword
“In a world characterized by superficiality and haste, there are still many who know that truth (and fulfillment) must lie at a deeper level, but who, nevertheless, do not know how to gain access thereto. The key to this profundity is still to be found in the ancient religions, but they, and their ‘theological’ language, have for long been falsely discredited.

“In this book, the ancient Christian teachings, both theoretical and practical, are made accessible in a clear and trenchant manner, and the venerable spiritual practices of Eastern Christianity movingly described. This book is a source of deep wisdom, and will be an eye-opener for previously uninformed readers.”
William Stoddart, author of Sufism: The Mystical Doctrines and Methods of Islam, Outline of Buddhism, and Outline of Hinduism.
“An excellent introduction to the spiritual life based on the teachings of the Desert Fathers—as true today as they ever were and applicable to sincere seekers at all levels of spiritual commitment.”
Rama Coomaraswamy, author of The Invocation of the Name of Jesus: As Practiced in the Western Church and The Destruction of the Christian Tradition
“An invaluable guide to the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. John Chryssavgis elucidates the principles and practices of desert metanoia with exemplary sensitivity and depth. The love of God radiates from every page of this book; one cannot read it and come away unchanged.”
Philip Zaleski, editor of The Best Spiritual Writing series, author of The Recollected Heart and Gifts of the Spirit, and senior editor of Parabola magazine
“‘If you have a heart you can be saved,’ says Abba Pambo. This is the very essence of the spirituality of the desert, and of Chryssavgis’ presentation of these men and women, wrapped in a depth of silence, compassion and ascetic simplicity. It will inspire people of all religious traditions.”
Sir John Tavener, composer and author
“The lives and teachings of the early Christian renunciates are a font of wisdom wherein pilgrims throughout the ages have found refreshment and inspiration. This ancient but ever-new spirituality is marked by the clarity, austere beauty and grandeur of the desert itself. In this accessible volume Father Chryssavgis allows us to hear the voices of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in such a way that we too may drink from this eternal spring. Not the least attractive feature of the book is the illuminating commentary and sage counsel provided by Father Chryssavgis himself.”
Harry Oldmeadow, La Trobe University, Bendigo, and author of Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy
“The author succeeds in this masterful work in ways that others have not. He penetrates the spiritual/mystical/psychological depth of the desert contemplatives, the pioneer men and women who forged, through their lives, a vision of holiness in its contemplative dimension. He communicates the spirit of their supernatural, practical Christian humanism, which is always informed by humility, charity, and a keen discernment of human nature. Finally, he understands their commitment to a purified will, one empty of selfishness and grasping, and he is able to see them in the way they regarded one another.”
Wayne Teasdale, author of A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life
“In the Heart of the Desert makes a difficult subject come alive so that the ancient Christian ascetics of Egypt and Palestine are enabled to communicate their lives and personalities as well as their austere spirituality to the sympathetic but perhaps bepuzzled modern reader.”
Ralph Slotten, Professor Emeritus, Professor Emeritus, Dickinson College
“Father John Chryssavgis is well known in the Eastern Orthodox Christian world, and deserves to be known more widely outside it. He has the ability to always put his finger on the most timely spiritual issues, which are yet perennial. This latest book is a worthy addition to his growing body of impressive work. It introduces the modern reader to the Desert Tradition of Eastern Christian spirituality, and its ‘hard walk’, in a manner that is not only immediately accessible and gripping, but perceptive, succinct, and often challenging. The constant quotation from the famous desert stories—in some ways like those in Zen, Sufi, and Hasidic traditions, yet also distinctive, full of the harsh yet fierce illumination of the desert itself—carries the book forward. Wisely, Father John lets the desert people speak for themselves, from their struggle and experience, amplifying and unpacking their words, but never substituting his own understanding in the place of theirs. The selection of topics is excellent: it is a journey in itself, and mirrors the road through the desert- a road for which there are no maps, but which only emerges when we risk to enter the furnace itself. I recommend this book to all persons tired of the pap and fantasy regularly served up under the heading of 'spirituality'; this is a book for people wanting to get on, or already pursuing, a spiritual path. It “tells it how it really is”, conveying that this path is both terrible and wonderful, a path of 'walk and little talk', as opposed to the usual talk which exceeds, and stands in for, walk. The tradition of spirituality which Father John so ably presents tells us what the desert between garden and city is for: the purification and illumination that arises only from the spiritual warfare. If the desert is universal, it is because the spiritual warfare rages in every human heart, whether acknowledged or not. Father John's book encourages us to face this, enter it, and reap its unique power of transformation.”
Jamie Moran, Roehampton University of Surrey
“In this book the Desert Fathers and Mothers show us how, surrounded as we are by a spiritual wasteland, may yet make that desert bloom if we also dare to enter into the heart of its solitude.”
Louis Dupre, Yale University, and editor of Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism
“In a time of unprecedented popular access to the rich spiritual treasures of the great religions of the world, it is becoming increasingly apparent that equally to be treasured are those rare contemporary scholar/sages capable of offering a spiritual exegesis that is both adequate to the heights of the religious heritage in question and sensitive to contemporary spiritual needs. For the Eastern Christian ascetic tradition, noted Orthodox patristic scholar, Fr. John Chryssavgis is just such a one. A new book by Dr. Chryssavgis is thus always a reason for eager anticipation among students of Orthodox patristic spirituality and theology, but a new book of his on Desert Spirituality is a cause for rejoicing. For there is no one in the Orthodox theological world today who is more conversant with those strange and fierce ancient figures known to us as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, or who writes with a surer hand on these spiritual warriors of the wilderness.

“In almost everything Fr. John has written, no matter what the overall theme, be it the spirituality of the Christian East, doctrinal theology, creation and the environment, ethics or spiritual direction, his focus has been consistently centered on the theological and spiritual riches of the ascetic tradition of the Early Church, and most specifically the elders of the deserts of Egypt and Palestine (Sinai and Gaza). As scholarly astute as he is compassionate and wise, the author of In the Heart of the Desert truly illumines the very heart of the spirituality of the desert saints, a heart that, for all its rigorous asceticism, metaphysical transparency and lofty attainment, is very much like our own in its brokenness, suffering, desolation and struggle. Fr. John's deftness of touch, respect for the universal human condition and deep feeling for the reciprocity of the truths of both desert and city bring the flaming witness of the desert closer to us than ever. May we be warned, warmed, healed, illumined and transfigured by the Light they reflect!”
Vincent Rossi, Director of Education for the American Exarchate of the Jerusalem Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church
“Here is a secret to living a rich spiritual life: When you need renewal, ideas, and inspiration, find whatever it is that takes you to your interior desert. If you don’t know how to do this, read this excellent book.”
Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life
“John Chryssavgis is a wise guide in spiritual theology. He writes with limpid clarity, penetrating wisdom and a mischievously light touch. He makes the desert fathers and mothers accessible so that we can learn from the intensity of their focused vision. The desert air seems to pervade their writing. Their stories are sparse and refined to conserve energy. They envision a different reality, where silence is a way of waiting, watching and listening. As John says: It is a way of going within, so that ultimately we do not go without. Listening to the wisdom of the desert tradition is an antidote to too many words. The religion of the heart is a way of stillness and rest even when the struggles and temptations are immense. It is an authentic way of human transformation. John Chryssavgis’ own writing shares the astringent simplicity of the spiritual guides he interprets with such luminous transparency.”
Graeme Ferguson, Senior Minister (retired) of St. David’s Presbyterian Church, Auckland, New Zealand
“The desert can be a fearful and imposing place without a guide, and Fr. Chryssavgis takes the reader through the rugged yet beautiful terrain of desert spirituality with clarity and empathy. The fathers and mothers of early Christian Egypt come alive in this fine study, with the added benefit of an original translation of the ‘Reflections’ of Abba Zosimus. If I were to recommend a single book to introduce the spiritual riches of the desert—solitude, silence, humility, detachment, tears and the encounter with the living God—this would be the book.”
Robert Fastiggi, Sacred Heart Major Seminary
“[In the Heart of of the Desert is] a pleasing book, one that offers us a lively introduction into the world and the thinking of the Desert Fathers!”
Coelestin Patock, OSA, in the journal Ostkirchliche Studien
“The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis was born in Australia, received his doctorate in patristics from the University of Oxford, has taught at the University of Sydney, and, since 1995, has been professor of theology at Hellenic College & Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology Benedicta Ward, S.L.G., provides a Foreword. Father Chryssavgis discusses the important desert fathers and mothers, their way of life, the origins of their sayings, and key aspects of their teachings. His descriptions are interspersed with translations of the sayings. He includes the first English translation of the Reflections of Abba Zosimas, a chronological table, a bibliography, and 16 color plates.
Theology Digest, Vol 51, Number 2 Summer 2004
“Almost every time I have tried to write a book, I have discovered in the last stages of composition that someone else is about to publish a better one on more or less the same subject…This time the book in question is John Chryssavgis’ study, In The Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
Archbishop Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, from the foreword to his book, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in one another and other lessons from the Desert Fathers
“The desert was the laboratory of Christian discipleship for these saints, and we have much to learn from their experiment. Chryssavgis, Professor of Theology and former Dean at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, has not only studied the desert fathers as a scholar, he has spent time with them as a fellow Christian pilgrim. The result is a wonderful introduction to these early ascetics, similar to Where God Happens (2005) by Rowan Williams. His 18 chapters are brief and to the point. They cover all the pertinent themes you would expect—patience, silence, tears, guidance, detachment, and so on, and then three that are pleasant surprises—the body, the environment, and gender. He quotes copiously from the desert ‘sayings.’ The book is complimented by color plates of icons, a simple map of the area, a timeline of people, bibliography, and then the Reflections of Abba Zosimas (6th century) that are translated here for the first time.”
Daniel B. Clendenin, author of Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader
“Given the aim of the series, the scope and content of Chryssavgis’s book are readily understandable. This is a topical survey of an English translation (with consultation of the Greek text) of the fifth-century Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection [London: Mowbray, 1975]). It aims to present the sayings as a spirituality that was ‘revolutionary’ for its time. Unlike philosophy or psychology, it was not concerned with metaphysics or the stages of human development, respectively; rather, it was a ‘spirituality of imperfection’ that developed in Egypt and Palestine in the fourth through the sixth centuries. It eschewed sophisticated education and ecclesiastical hierarchy and, retiring to deserted places, it depended upon the relationship of master and disciple in order to prepare the monk—male or female—for the ongoing encounter with God.”
The Journal of Religion Volume 87, Number 1, January 2007

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