The Desert Fathers dedicated their lives to the search for God

Asceticism and unworldliness: This is how early Christian monasticism came about

Today’s religious orders with their splendid convents no longer have much in common with the origin of Christian monasticism. At that time some Christians went into the desert to live there as hermits. Only much later did they actually come together to form communities. One of these so-called desert fathers is still known today as the “father of all monks”.

When the words “monastery” or “monasticism” are used today, one inevitably thinks of the large and splendid convents that still exist around the world. The image of the monk or nuns is shaped by the ideal of living together within a monastery building, by common prayer and by the management of monastic life through an authoritative Rule of the particular Religious Order. All of which may apply to most of the communities. But the image we have of monasticism today is by no means the original aspiration. The beginnings of Christian monastic life is not to be found here in Europe either. To find them, you would need to venture into the solitude of the desert. The first Christians who wanted to seek God in an ascetic life were drawn into the Egyptian desert. The so-called “desert fathers” form the beginnings of what we now call Christian monasticism. It is worthwhile tracing them and to find the source of how the concept of monasticism first developed in the early days of the Christian Church.

Horrendous and life threatening social circumstances and imperial oppression

The fact that the special way of life of monasticism developed in the early years of Christianity may have different stimulating factors. Perhaps it was the poor social circumstances within the Roman Empire, especially in Egypt, the persecution of Christians had been ongoing for some years now, so perhaps the Hellenic-philosophical ideal of serenity, had caused people to withdraw into the loneliness of the desert barren lands. We do not know the exact setting for this movement and we are still in the dark about the exact origins. In Christianity, however, it is possible to determine the basic features that probably promoted the emergence of western monasticism. The tradition of itinerant preceptors existed from the very beginning, which was particularly zealous in the Syrian-Palestinian region. According to Jesus’ instruction “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you…”[Matthew 28:18-20] they therefore obeyed Jesus’ mandate and traveled the country preaching the gospel in different places. One was not averse to asceticism either: the real focus of the Christian message was on other-worldly exaltation. Awaiting the return of Christ at the end of days, some Christians decided to distance themselves from the world. The key word “unworldliness” hits the core of this basic attitude of the early Christians. It is possible that asceticism was also understood as a spiritual martyrdom. In the young church, martyrdom was extremely pre-eminent and a prime concern; whoever could not die as a martyr wanted at least to be bestowed with the crown of eternal glory through the help of this bloodless and steadfast martyrdom.

All of these reasons may have promoted the emergence of Christian monasticism. Initially, this form of asceticism was probably practiced within communities, later we see the emergence of the first solitary anchorites. These were men and women who consciously withdrew from their communities into solitude in order to practice asceticism in a more austere style. The exact beginning of Christian monasticism is as we have stated unknown. However, there is broad consensus that moving out of the inhabited cultural landscape into the uninhabited wilderness can be understood as the genesis of this new and austere way of life.

The early monks from Syria, Palestine and Egypt preferred the desert as a retreat. The reason for this in the first instance was quite simple: the desert gave a definitive opportunity to escape civilisation and thus “the world”. The noise and chatter of the world could not penetrate the barren wastelands of the desert landscape. Here the monks truly found their silence and solitude. The abandonment of the world, relinquishment of possessions, fasting and sexual abstinence offered the monks an opportunity to genuinely and completely open themselves to the presence of God. The early ascetics found a freedom for God within deliverance from all worldly goods and concerns. Yet, we need to remember that the desert was also theologically a very significant setting: God had revealed himself to the people of Israel in the desert; the desert was understood to be a symbol of that unique Close proximity to God. However, the desert is also the realm where demons inhabited. Many anchorites therefore consciously engaged in conflict against the demons who resided in the desert in order to emerge even stronger.

Paul of Thebes —The anchorite— († ca. 341) is remembered as the very first Egyptian hermit and desert father of whom we have a record, he is also called Saint Paul the first hermit.

The source for the life of Paul is the Vita Sancti Pauli primi eremitae, dating back to the second half of the fourth century and was written by Saint Jerome during his stay in the desert of Chalcis ad Belum—lit. ’Nest of Eagles’—(Qinnašrīn, Syria), in the years 375-377.

Paul of Thebes withdraws to the desert

During the persecution of the Roman emperors Decius and Valerian (a widespread and particularly bloody persecution even if short), Paul, a young Egyptian Christian from a rich and very cultured family, was forced to leave the city and hide in the desert. He had been denounced as a Christian by his family members who wished to take possession of his inherited assets.

Paul took refuge in the mountains of the Thebaid desert where he found refuge in a cave near which there was a spring of water and a palm tree. From his palm he drew the leaves that he intertwined to make his habit and the dates with which he ate until he was about 43 years old, then, it is said that a crow began to bring him half a loaf of bread every day.

As his death approached, he received a visit from St. Anthony, another hermit, whom we call “the great” as he was responsible for the expansion of monasticism. Paul had expressed to Anthony his desire to be buried wrapped in the cloak which Anthony had received as a gift from Bishop Athanasius. Anthony was happy to do this and buried him wrapped in this cloak, in a pit dug — according to the Vita by Jerome— by two lions. For this reason, in the iconography he is traditionally represented dressed in a dress of intertwined palm leaves, surrounded by a crow and two lions.

We note that Saint Jerome, then a priest in Rome had also developed a keen desire to live as an ascetic and to do penance for his sins, Jerome wandered into the Syrian desert of Qinnasrin or Chalcis ad Belum —the Syrian Thebaid—, located southwest of Antioch and approximately 18.6 miles southeast of Aleppo. He rejected his powerful urges of passion, his vile temper and his overbearing pride. But although there he prayed unceasingly, fasted constantly and spent many a night awake, he was unable to find the quietude he sought and soon discovered that he was not made for such a life precipitated by his poor health: his calling was not to live in solitude. 

Jerome penitent in the desert tells us of his experience in his own words:

“How often, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by a burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sackcloth disfigured my unshapely limbs and my skin from long neglect had become as black as an Ethiopian’s. Tears and groans were every day my portion; and if drowsiness chanced to overcome my struggles against it, my bare bones, which hardly held together, clashed against the ground. Of my food and drink I say nothing: for, even in sickness, the solitaries have nothing but cold water, and to eat one’s food cooked is looked upon as self-indulgence. Now, although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison, where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled with fasting; yet my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead. Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, I watered them with my tears, I wiped them with my hair: and then I subdued my rebellious body with weeks of abstinence. I do not blush to avow my abject misery; rather I regret that I am not now what once I was. I remember how I often cried aloud all night till the break of day and ceased not from beating my breast till tranquility returned at the chiding of the Lord. I used to dread my very cell as though it knew my thoughts; and, stern and angry with myself, I used to make my way alone into the desert. Wherever I saw hollow valleys, craggy mountains, steep cliffs, there I made my oratory, there the house of correction for my unhappy flesh. There, also – the Lord Himself is my witness— when I had shed copious tears and had strained my eyes towards heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts, and for joy and gladness sang: your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out… Draw me after you, let us make haste (Song of Solomon 1:3-4)

Letter XXII “To Eustochium” §7.

The emergence of Saint Anthony “The Father of Monks

The desert father Saint Anthony the Great —Ⲁⲃⲃⲁ Ⲁⲛⲧⲱⲛⲓ— († 17 January 356) is often referred to as the “Venerable and God-bearing Father of Monasticism, Father of All Monks” (Feast day January 17). But limiting the beginnings of Christian monasticism to the emergence of Saint Anthony is greatly over simplified. The emergence of eremitic monasticism was undoubtedly a movement that began with several Christians and emerged progressively. Above all, however, because Athanasius I —the Great— († 2 May 373), Patriarch of Alexandria, created an image of the Father’s of the Desert lives with his “Vita Antonii —Life of Anthony—”, he became known far beyond the borders of Egypt. In this hagiographic script, Saint Anthony was depicted as a model of ascetic piety and therefore gained great historical significance as a role model in renouncing the world and fighting demons.

From around the year 285 onwards, Antony was the spiritual father of a first generation of hermits and an outstanding example of devotion to God and following the teachings of Jesus. According to Jesus’ word, he distributed his possessions among the poor and retired to an abandoned castle in the desert. Antony spent the whole day in prayer and meditation, in work and occasional conversations with other desert fathers. Numerous hermits soon lived around Antonius, who kept coming back to hear his sermons and receive spiritual guidance from him. Antony’s behaviour had an exemplary effect on subsequent generations. It became customary for hermits to choose a spiritual father to be their lawgiver and example. His students also received a word from him adapted to their respective situation. Many of these sayings of the desert fathers are collected in the so-called “Apophthegmata Patrum (lit. Sayings of the Fathers)”. The Apophthegmata were originally written in either Coptic or Greek. They were continuously edited, supplemented and translated into other languages. That is why there are also other versions and further sayings from the same desert fathers in the translations. Due to their uniformity and perfect form, it cannot be assumed that the written sentences literally correspond to what the desert fathers actually said at the time.

In addition to this form of eremitic monastic life, another form of monasticism soon began to developed: It began with the figure of Pachomius († 9 May 348), who initially lived as a hermit after his conversion around 315. Around 325 he first built a monastery in Upper Egypt as an amalgamation of anchorite cells and brought the ascetics, who cultivated a hermitic way of life, together in a communal life. Pachomius had recognised the dangers of eremitism and tried to impede them by establishing a community. This new form of monasticism is called Cenobitic monasticism. The term comes From Koine Greek κοινόβῐον (koinóbion, “life in community”, “monastery”), from κοινός (koinós, “common, shared”) and βίος (bíos, “life”).

The cornerstones of the cenobitic way of life was a communal place of residence, communal work and communal worship. While the anchorites had to master life in solitude on their own, cenobitic monasticism shaped a certain uniformity of life. The monks had to submit to a common rule, they merged into singular communities and had to adhere to a rhythmic daily routine. Numerous monasteries sprang up all over Egypt that lived according to the ideas of Pachomius and thus made coenobium the predominant form of monasticism.

Form of Life

The monks lived for life in a close community and in closed and screened living rooms. According to the rules of Pachomius, every monk had to forego owning property of any kind. The living rooms were in a complex that was surrounded by a wall —which today we call a monastery—. A uniform way of life was prescribed, all religious wore the same habits, received the same food, and regulated their daily lives. Everyday life was guided by services and work that were repeated at regular intervals. In Orthodox monasteries, the leadership was taken over by an archimandrite and later in the Roman-oriented monasteries by an abbot. Corporal punishment was part of discipline and upbringing. The monastic community owned the property collectively and ensured the living environment, including food, shelter and clothing. The monastery’s possessions included land, forest areas and workshops, as well as buildings, works of art and extensive libraries.

A strong connection to the origin

Early Christian monasticism arose in the desert and was initially understood to be a life of solitude and asceticism. It was only later that a community-oriented way of life developed, which basically reflects what we understand today by the term “monasticism”. The magnificent monastery buildings also developed in this phase of cenobium. The Mar Saba monastery near Bethlehem is an outstanding example of this to this day. The fact that over the centuries individual groups have repeatedly tried to enforce the originally ascetic life in their own religious community shows how strong the connections to the origins of Christian monasticism were.

The Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas (ܕܝܪܐ ܕܡܪܝ ܣܒܐ) known in Syriac as Mar Sabar overlooking the Kidron Valley