The era of the ancient Desert Fathers (and Mothers) is one of purest wisdom for the Christian life - St. Anthony the Great, St. Paul the Hermit, and St. Mary of Egypt all provide sobering spiritual advice through their lives and sayings that one can still apply to their own walk with Christ today. The same applies to the great monastic figures of the past as well - St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Benedict of Nursia, and St. John of the Cross, for example.
It is sometimes easy, in my mind, to slip into the notion that these eras of monasticism are long gone - that the modern world has consumed all the quiet space in the world, and that consequently there is no longer room for the contemplative life. Not so.
Here, in my opinion, are the ten greatest monks and hermits of the 20th century (and beyond):
1. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen
"The Incarnation is the greatest proof of God's love for men..."1
I had never heard of this man until Kevin from MonkRock told me of a work entitled Divine Intimacy. A Carmelite monk, Fr. Gabriel's writing seems to be one of the great untapped resources within the Church. It overflows with love of God, rich spiritual insight, and with a profound knowledge of the Fathers, mystics, and other Doctors of the Church. He is recognized as a master of Carmelite spirituality in particular.
2. Fr. Seraphim Rose
"How can a religious seeker avoid the traps and deceptions which he encounters in his search? There is only one answer to this question: a person must be in the religious search not for the sake of experiences, which can deceive, but for the sake of truth."2
Controversial and yet always an engaging and thought-provoking figure, Fr. Seraphim Rose was in many ways, the opposite of Thomas Merton, the famed Trappist. Born Protestant, then becoming atheist, then journeying through various Oriental religions and philosophies, Fr. Seraphim finally ended up as a monk in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Polemical at times, Fr. Seraphim vigorously attacked the New Age movement in his writing, explored the concept of the afterlife (his most controversial writings are on this topic), wrote on atheism and nihilism, and all other manner of topics. He remains to this day a popular and well-known, if divisive figure.
3. Elder Joseph the Hesychast
"Christ does not demand anything from you to give you His holy gifts other than to acknowledge that anything good you happen to have belongs to Him."3
One of the great monastic figures from Mt. Athos, the centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, Elder Joseph the Hesychast and Cave-Dweller was a notable influence on many other monks living on the Holy Mountain. His visions are touching, and his wisdom is as deep as those who came before him. A truly astonishing figure worth reading more about.
4. Bl. Charles de Foucauld
"Do not leave me tearless as I visit the places that witnessed your sufferings; do not leave me tearless when I kiss the path your footsteps trod in Gethsemane, along the Way of Sorrows, to the praetorium and Calvary."4
I would have to say that, of all the Catholic monks and hermits on this list, that Bl. Charles de Foucauld is quite possibly my favorite. Formerly a wastrel and playboy, as well as a rebellious soldier, Bl. Charles experienced a profound change of heart and conversion to Christ that lasted until his martyrdom at the hands of Bedouin marauders in 1916. He died utterly and completely alone, having lived the life of a silent religious living amongst the Tuareg people. His whole life was lived not in preaching with words but with action, something that survives in the religious order begun after his death, the Little Brothers of Jesus.
5. Matthew the Poor
"Reliance on empirical reason hampers the work of faith and frustrates the acceptance of its effectiveness, for it is well known in nature that man cannot walk on the sea or move mountains or rebuke the wind and waves or raise the dead. As for faith, it pays no regard to nature and its laws. Faith can do all this and even more. For this reason, if man depends entirely on his empirical reasoning, his faith will be paralyzed: “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God’ (Jn 11.39, 40)?"5
From what I can tell, Matthew the Poor is one of the most famous figures within the world of Oriental Orthodoxy, specifically the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. Many call him a modern-day Desert Father akin to the ancients like St. Anthony the Great and St. Macarius of Egypt. His appeal as a spiritual writer seems to have crossed all kinds of boundaries - the foreword to a book of his writings entitled The Communion in Love has a foreword by Henri Nouwen, the famous Catholic priest and author of many works on spiritual depression. I also read that he is very popular amongst many Eastern Orthodox readers as well. Like Fr. Seraphim Rose, Matthew the Poor courted some controversy in his own lifetime, specifically within the Coptic Orthodox Church, but this should not turn one away from the rich spiritual wisdom contained in his writings.
6. Thomas Merton
"If, at the moment of death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has always been to us an unwelcome stranger. For when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which He has bought for us by His own death. Those who love true life, therefore, frequently think about their death. Their life is full of a silence that is an anticipated victory over death. Silence, indeed, makes death our servant and even our friend. Thoughts and prayers that grow up out of the silent thought of death are like trees growing where there is water. They are strong thoughts, that overcome the fear of misfortune because they have overcome passion and desire. They turn the face of our soul, in constant desire, toward the face of Christ."6
I think we all knew that this entry on the list was coming. But honestly, I can think of few monks in the 20th century that are more well-known by both religious and secular people the world over as the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Like a few of the figures on this list, he is considered controversial by some due to some elements of his life. However, the spiritual wisdom that lies in much of Merton's writing is just too striking to ignore. At his best, Merton's openness to learning from other religions and philosophies is endearing - lest we forget, even Fr. Seraphim Rose learned and studied under a Chinese Taoist scholar and learned much from him. Thomas Merton's writings extend across the board in terms of style - from poetry to essays, from prose to autobiography, there is almost no literary field he did not explore either. Undoubtedly, he is the most well-known (and consequently, the most controversial) monk on this list.
7. Elder Paisios
"Those who do not co-suffer with those who live in great pain are suffering from the most fatal of spiritual illnesses … Mercilessness."7
Elder Paisios seems to be the most well-known Eastern Orthodox monk of the 20th Century, at least outside of North America. A monk of Mt. Athos, Elder Paisios became known across the world for his spiritual insight, wisdom, and even prophecies. He has since become an icon of hope for the Greek people since his death.
8. Bl. Brother Estephan Nehme
"The contemporaries and the relatives of Brother Estephan Nehme tell that he used to repeat secretly and publicly this expression: “God can see me.” Thus, he put God in front of his eyes and did his work as if he was in front of the Lord. He repeated it with full conscience that God was staring at him and going in his depth so that He realizes his thoughts and his desires.
“God can see me”, was a slogan of the Venerable Brother Estephan Nehme’s life. He meditated its spiritual meaning and took it as an arm defeating all kind of temptations and obstacles that tried to trouble the clearness of his mind, the purity of his thoughts and the lucidity of his creativity. Thinking of God has dominated all his other thoughts, God and only God. Here in his heart, the Lord whispers, making work easier and suffering less painful."8
Bl. Brother Estephan, a monk of the Maronite Catholic Church, is a name not often heard. Only recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, Bl. Estephan lived a life of prayer and labor, under the constant guidance of his spiritual motto, "God can see me". His life, like that of St. Charbel before him, was one of a kind of silent holiness, simplicity, and charity towards others.
9. Fr. Lazarus El-Antony
"I am never alone."9
In my humble opinion, Fr. Lazarus is the greatest living monk/hermit - a true testament to the love of Christ in the world. I cannot speak highly enough of the man. Formerly an atheist and Marxist professor, he turned his entire life around and became a monk in the Coptic Orthodox Church, living in the same area where the famous St. Anthony the Great (one of my patron saints) once lived. If you haven't seen his televised talks, be sure to check them out. He is a living embodiment of the ancient Desert Fathers, and an inspiration, I think, to all Christians.
10. St. Silouan the Athonite
"He understood from the experience of his life that the field of spiritual struggle with evil, cosmic evil, lies within a person’s own heart. He saw with his soul that the tap root of sin is pride, that curse of mankind that tore people from God and thrust the world into endless sorrow and suffering; pride was that true seed of death that had enveloped mankind in the darkness of despair."10
Thomas Merton called St. Silouan "the most authentic monk of the 20th century" (and I still can't find the source of this statement!). St. Silouan, an unlearned and simple man, became one of the great spiritual figures of the Eastern Orthodox world. His spirituality and life was compiled by his disciple Elder Sophrony, and is still available from SVS Press. His words are incredibly striking in their simplicity, profound in their understanding of the spiritual life and of love of God, especially when it comes to love of one's enemies.
1 - Divine Intimacy, "Fourth Sunday of Advent"
2 - God's Revelation to the Human Heart, pg. 19
3 - From here.
4 - Spiritual Autobiography, 92-93
5 - From Orthodox Prayer Life, qtd. here.
6 - No Man is an Island, qtd. in A Thomas Merton Reader, pg. 462
7 -From here.
8 - From here.
9 - From The Last Anchorite
10 - Bishop Alexander and Natalia Bufius, Life and Teachings of Elder Siluan
Source: Ascending Mt. Carmel (Blogspot)
Used with permission.