Why should we read the Spiritual Fathers (and who ARE they)? The first time I had heard of the Spiritual Fathers and why we should read them was in my hermeneutics class in seminary. Dr. Wolfe sparked my interest when he explained that yes, we have the Bible and that’s all we need for salvation and faith, but we have a rich heritage of faith and understanding from those who lived in the decades and centuries nearest to Jesus and we should listen to them. John Michael Talbot, with Mike Aquilina, continues the conversation in the book The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.
John Talbot, musician and host of the television program All Things Are Possible, introduces the Spiritual Fathers and what they have to teach us about Jesus Christ, salvation, community, prayer, the public work, charity, stewardship of the earth, and singing. He explains that in essence, nothing has changed, while in development, much has changed. While revelation has not changed, we must grow in our understanding of it. In this building of the spiritual temple of living stones, we firmly rest on what comes before but we take our own place “where no stone has rested before”. We have our place within a great tradition.
One practical way of drawing nearer to God on the ancient path, he explained, is to pray, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” as a breathing prayer that trains our focus on Him – not a vain repetition, not a mere intellectual exercise, but a cry from the heart. Another practical way of deepening your faith is to recognize the trapping of possessions; whether in poverty or rich, possessions that preoccupy the mind and distract us can keep us from God. He touches on these practices and ideas of drawing nearer to God through those of the Spiritual Fathers.
John Michael Talbot weaves the importance of the Spiritual Fathers and their lessons into his own story of the founding of the Little Portion Hermitage and then the fire in 2008. At the hermitage, they lived by the ‘ancient way’ -- living close to the land, honoring nature, establishing relationships with local growers, raising their own crops and livestock when possible, and sponsoring a school of simply living so that modern families can also travel the ancient path of simplicity. They followed rules for common life based on the ascetical council of the Desert Fathers, an “old-fashioned way to be new.” They chose to live in voluntary poverty and voluntary community of good, like Acts 2:44-45, sharing in all things. Their goal was to simplify and declutter their lives, living simply and in tune with nature. As the chapel and books went up in flames during the catastrophic fire, a turning point occurred. He says, “I had consumed all those many books long before the fire consumed them. The last time I saw them, they had indeed ‘become all flame.’ Now I need to become what I found in them. I need to become all fire, with a blaze that can consume the world.” (p.25)
I was delighted to discover that while I was traveling on spring break, I would only be four miles from Little Portion Hermitage. However, when I checked the website for directions, I discovered that as of that very day, it was changing owners and operators, no longer called the Little Portion Hermitage. What happened? He said he had been the founder of it three decades ago, the ‘spiritual father’, and now that he released his book, it had crumbled? I didn’t visit.
Then I read the last chapter after returning home and discovered that John Talbot had already planned his departure before the book was published, beginning a new adventure on the road in ministry at this new season of his life. Maybe he truly had “become all fire” and God will use him in a ‘blaze that can consume the world’. Meanwhile, I am curious if the new owners will operate under the same rules for common life and the ascetic way, or if it will just become a church retreat center.
If you need in introduction to the Spiritual Fathers or would like your interest to be ignited, this book is a great place to start. Also, if you are interested in John Talbot’s life, you will find his tale weaved within it. If you are looking for depth into what each of the Spiritual Fathers taught, he recommends various books in his notes in the back of the book. For more information about the book, check out the web page and the author bio.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Image Publishing in exchange for my honest review.