Asceticism In Christian Living*

Asceticism In Christian Living*

Traditional Christian spirituality put great emphasis on asceticism and ascetical practices. People were constantly reminded of the need for penance and mortification; their importance was stressed, their practice was recommended and laws were enacted by church authorities making certain penitential exercises obligatory. The severe and to us sometimes rather bizarre forms of penance undertaken by some of the Desert Fathers and some early Irish Christians illustrate this point quite well. In later times and down to quite recently, though the forms of penance adopted were more moderate, the importance attached to ascetical practices remained more or less the same. To such an extent was this the case in fact that the impression was at times given that the Christian life was basically an ascetical or penitential one and for many what was intended to be good news and a life of joy and peace appeared to be and was in danger of becoming an endurance test and a joyless journey to the kingdom of a strict and demanding God. 

Today all this is changing in the lives of Christians, in the thought of theologians and in the teaching of the church. It is generally felt today that the understanding and role of asceticism in the Christian life had got somewhat out of focus. In the light of this we want to examine that understanding and that role a little more closely in the hope of arriving at a better appreciation of the ascetical or penitential dimension of our Christian lives. 


There are many words in the vocabulary of Christian spirituality that describe the reality we are considering here, e.g., mortification, renunciation, penance, self-denial, asceticism, etc. Though each of them has its own particular shade of meaning, they all have the same basic meaning and hence are generally used interchangeably. I think, however, that the best word to describe the reality in question here is asceticism. This word, fundamentally, means training or exercise in preparation for some task or endeavour, for example, a sports contest. It was introduced into Christianity by St Paul, who transferred it from an athletic context to that of the Christian life, in order to emphasise the self-sacrifice, discipline and self-control involved in living as a dedicated and singleminded Christian (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:7-16; also Hebrews 12:1 ff.) The same basic idea is to be found in Jesus’ reference to the necessity of taking up one’s cross and losing one’s life in order to save it (cf. Mark 8:34 f.).

In this article we will, first of all, discuss asceticism in this broad or extended sense which is to be found in the New Testament. Later, we will consider it in its narrower sense of ascetical exercises or practices. To set the whole discussion in its proper context, however, it is necessary to begin with a brief reflection on the essence of the Christian life. 


To describe the essence of the Christian life, it suffices to point to the words of Jesus that one should love God and one’s neighbour as fully as one is able. In other words, the Christian life is one of love, so that to be a true follower of Christ, one is called to love others and God with all one’s heart. Now, since living as a Christian is to live a life of love, it is and ought to be a joyful way of life, bringing fulfilment, happiness and peace to the one who lives it here on earth, and, ultimately, eternal life with God in the fulness of love, joy and peace. To be called to live such a life and to share such a destiny is truly ‘good news’ and ‘tidings of great joy for all the people’. 

Clearly, it would not be adequate or accurate to characterise this as simply an ascetical or penitential way of life. It is much more and much fuller than that. Yet experience, the New Testament and Christian tradition all tell us that asceticism has its place in Christian living. The question then is, what is that place? Where does asceticism come into our Christian lives? We will now move on to discuss this. 


The basic thesis being put forward here may be stated briefly as follows: The Christian life is not simply or primarily an ascetical one; rather it is a life of love that of necessity involves and implies an asceticism (using the word in its broad sense), which I call the asceticism of daily living. What follows in this section is an effort to explain this fundamental contention.

Experience tells us that if we are to live the Christian life well by loving God and our neighbours as wholeheartedly as we are able, then inevitably and necessarily we will be involved in a great deal of struggle, self-sacrifice and renunciation. Loving others always contains important elements of self-denial, effort and discipline, though of course it is much more than just these. It will be helpful to spell this out a little more here. To respond wholeheartedly to the many demands of our relationships, our work and our spiritual life will require us to forego not merely evil and selfish pursuits but also many good and wholesome things which we might otherwise be able to have or engage in. It will demand too a great deal of effort, dedication, self-sacrifice and self-control to do well and consistently all we are called to do. In addition, we will have to face difficulties and obstacles from others, from our circumstances, from our limitations and selfish tendencies and from the nature and structure of the human condition itself, as we try to live as Christians should. In other words, there is an asceticism or an ascetical dimension built into the very heart of the Christian life which cannot be avoided as one endeavours to live it. Hence, while the Christian life is more than asceticism, it is still true that asceticism is intrinsic and essential to it. One could perhaps say that the ascetical dimension of life is the reverse side of the coin of Christian love. 

Specific examples may help us to understand this better. A married woman with a husband and family, for example, is called to live a life that is basically one of love, joy and peace. But she soon finds that doing so makes many demands on her, e.g., in time and energy, in care and attention; it places many limitations on her and involves her in many sacrifices like staying at home to attend the family’s needs, giving up her job perhaps, using the money available for family purposes rather than personal enjoyment or attractive luxuries, etc. To take a second example, a priest, as he lives his life of love of his neighbours and of God, has the same basic experience of demands, sacrifices and limitations, even if they are often quite different from those of the married person. Similarly with the single person and the man or woman in religious life. 

We may further illustrate our basic point by taking a brief look at some of the activities that Christians are called upon to do. Prayer, for example, is not an ascetical or penitential exercise. It is, or at least ought to be, a joyful conversation with one’s loving Father, which, however, is a basic necessity for the Christian and demands effort, self-discipline and perseverance. Loving one’s marriage partner is another activity that is not ascetical. On the contrary, it is, ideally at least, a freely chosen and joyful commitment, made in love, joy and peace. But once again, it too inevitably involves detachment, renunciation and self-control and hence has an ascetical aspect. To take a final example, helping a troubled person is a work of love and usually a very gratifying and enriching experience, but it also requires one to practise the disciplines of concentration, listening, understanding and patience as well as the sacrifice of one’s time and convenience. 

More light may be thrown on this whole matter if we turn briefly from considering the Christian way of life to look at the Christian person living that life. A Christian person ought to be, above all else, a loving person, doing his best to care for, share with and bear the burdens of those people who enter his life. This is how he imitates Christ most perfectly. Now, if he is to do this and to keep on doing it, he will of necessity have to make a significant effort, sacrifice his own convenience, wishes and time, deny himself many legitimate and potentially enriching activities and experiences, as he concentrates his whole being on the good of others, his own moral and religious growth and the glory of God. In other words, he will inevitably have to practise a demanding asceticism every day, not one taken on now and again at will but one built into the very heart of his daily existence and hence much more demanding, if at times less attended to and less appreciated. 

There can be no doubt, then, that the Christian must be an ascetical or penitential person, but, more importantly and more basically, he must be a loving person. If he is, then it follows that he is practising the asceticism of daily living that is necessarily involved in living a life of love. 

Perhaps one could put the main point we have been making in another way and say that being a Christian in any state of life is both a gift and a task, or, more accurately, a gift involving a task. It is a gift or opportunity offered to one by the church and by God to be accepted, appreciated and lived joyfully in love and peace; it is a task or challenge to be undertaken and carried through with single-mindedness, courage and readiness to give of oneself without counting the cost. In biblical terms we might say that the following of Christ is a call to live a life of love, but this by its very nature, requires one to take up his cross daily. 

One sometimes hears it said approvingly that X is a very ascetical person, meaning usually that he is very detached from material things and rather sparing in his use of them in his own life. No one would wish to detract from the merit of such a person but, in the light of what has been said earlier, one might wonder whether such a Christian had really got his priorities and emphases fully right and whether it would not be a better and a more Christian thing if he were to try to focus on being a more loving, i.e. a more understanding, concerned, compassionate and wholehearted, person. Such lovingness necessarily involves the asceticism of daily living already discussed and is more fully in line with what Jesus was and what we as his followers should be. Of course being loving and being ascetical are by no means opposed; on the contrary as we have made clear, being loving implies being ascetical. At the same time, however, they are not identical and Christianity clearly gives priority to love. 

What we have been describing is the primary and indispensable form of asceticism for the Christian and it is rightly called the asceticism of daily living. However, to speak of a primary form of asceticism implies that there is another form and in what follows we will turn our attention to that. 


Here we are using the word asceticism in its narrow sense and hence are referring to ascetical practices or exercises which people engage in from time to time, particularly in Lent, e.g. fasting, giving up cigarettes, alcohol, sweets, etc., or taking on something difficult like getting up earlier, saying more prayers, doing more work, etc. These are voluntary mortifications or penances and are a quite familiar element in our Christian lives. 

If we ask the precise purpose of these ascetical practices, we may answer as follows. In the first place, they can help a person in some degree to gain self-control and to be truly disciplined. This result does not follow automatically from their use but depends on the proper approach to and use of the penitential exercise in question. Secondly, these exercises can remind one of the need for moderation in the pursuit and use of material things and can help one to achieve that moderation. In other words, they can be a help in inculcating temperance. Thirdly, they can serve as a warning against over-valuing material realities, impressing on the person the relative unimportance of these things e.g. money, property, food and drink, success, power, etc., and that they are only of value in so far as they serve and promote the welfare of human persons. Finally ascetical practices can serve the more positive purpose of promoting growth in virtue by increasing one’s commitment to important Christian values e.g. prayer, work, service of others. The value of these ascetical practices is, then, significant but it must be remembered that, since the purposes they can achieve can be attained by other means, that value is relative, less than essential and dependent on the preferences, needs and circumstances of the individual person. 

If we inquire about the place and importance of these ascetical practices in Christian living, it must be answered, firstly, that they are very secondary in comparison to the asceticism of daily living and can in no way be a substitute for it. Rather, their only value is to supplement and promote that more basic asceticism and only in so far as they do that are they to be practised and made use of. Secondly, they are voluntary and undertaken by the free choice of the individual person. Hence it must be said that no single one of them or no combination of them can be classed as necessary or essential for true Christian living in ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, however, they can be helpful to a particular person as he tries to live his Christian life. How helpful they will be will vary from person to person, and to be valuable they will need to be suited to the individual’s temperament, needs and situation in life. Otherwise, they may do more harm than good. In the light of this it is clear that one should choose his ascetical or penitential practices carefully and that the idea of imposing some of the them by general law is open to question. If it is done, it should only be by way of exception and in special cases. 

It is important in this context to remember that an ascetical practice is not necessarily good or better than another one just because it is difficult or more uncongenial. What is in view in undertaking these practices is not the passing of an endurance test but the deepening of one’s ability to love through growth in self-control and the proper attitudes to material things. The ascetical practice that assists one most in this task is the one that is best for the person concerned. 


Asceticism is an important and necessary element in our Christian living. In its primary and broader sense it is an inevitable accompaniment of following the Christian way of life, what we have called the reverse side of the coin of loving one’s neighbour and God. A subsidiary, optional but sometimes helpful form of asceticism is that of freely chosen penitential practices. These can be of assistance in one’s efforts to grow in Christian love and become a more loving and Christian person. 


Daly, G, ‘Prayer & Asceticism’. The Furrow Vol. 29, No. 4 (Apr., 1978), pp. 219-224

 Macquarrie, J., (Ed.) A Dictionary of Christian Ethics, p. 20 f. Palazzini, P. (Ed.) ‘Asceticism’, Dictionary of Moral Theology, p. 94 f.

Rahner, K., Theological Investigations, 3, ch. 5; 7, p. 19 ff. Tanquerey, A., The Spiritual Life, Part 2, Bk 1, ch. 3. Wulf, F., ‘Asceticism’, Sacramentum Mundi, 1, p. 110 ff. 

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Christianity and Early Irish Society

Christianity and Early Irish Society

n spite of the economic decline of the third century, Egypt and Syria still boasted splendid cities, fine palaces and luxurious villas, gymnasia and baths, all in sharp contrast to the hill cities and small enclosures of the Celtic peoples. Imperial trade was repressively controlled by the reforms of Diocletian, but industries were still carried on (though now the factories often executed orders for the state), and trade routes remained open. It would hardly be possible to imagine a sharper contrast to the insular society of the Celtic world Continue reading Christianity and Early Irish Society

Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Prayer, contemplation and spiritual progress in the works of John Cassian

Human nature is to be transformed into what wine symbolises — 

namely, the Spirit. Notice that the miracle does not annihilate but 

transforms the water… we come to the wedding as guests and we 

leave as brides.

Thomas Keating, “The Kingdom of God is Like …,” p. 22.


St. John Cassian

In his two works, the Cenobitic Institutions and the Conferences of the Fathers, John Cassian described in great detail the path of spiritual progress for those who seek perfection or, one could say, that happiness that consists in the contemplation of divine things. Although written as two distinct works, the Institutions and Conferences have been conceived as a single project and form a whole that expresses two stages of the spiritual life. In the preface to the Conferences Cassian explains the link between the first part, the Institutions, and the second part, the Conferences, in this way: 

“From the external and visible aspect of monastic life — which I have dealt with in other books — I will now pass to deal with the interior and invisible life. From the prayer of the canonical hours, I now come to deal with that continuous prayer of which St. Paul. Thus the one who in reading the previous work earned the name of Jacob according to the spirit (after having eradicated the carnal vices), now, through the study of the teachings of the Fathers of the desert, will be able to reach the contemplation of divine purity, he will be encouraged to call himself Israel, he will learn what duties are to be observed on the very summit of perfection.” [1]

Here we find a summary of Cassian’s entire doctrine and his key ideas: the spiritual life understood as a passage from the exterior to the interior; the final purpose of “continuous prayer” which is at the same time the contemplation of divine things, the invisible things; the active (or current) life, the first step necessary to make further progress, symbolised by the figure of Jacob, and the end of the contemplative life, represented by the name Israel. It must be added that the place where this development takes place is “the inner man”, a terminology clearly inspired by himself. Paul. [2] This is the vision of possible spiritual progress that is precisely developed in the twenty-four conferences that follow. Here I will only address a few main points.

I. Jacob / Israel 


The use of the names Jacob/Israel to designate two phases of the spiritual life puts us in contact with a rich tradition. This etymological/allegorical interpretation dates back at least to Philo of Alexandria who explains that “he who loves knowledge believes that one must leave the land of sensation, which has the name (חָרָן) Ḥārān”. Later he says that Jacob left Ḥārān at the age of seventy-five and, after explaining the meaning of the number, he continues: 

“In this issue we find the ascetic, still intent on gymnastic training and who has not yet been able to achieve a definitive victory. Indeed, it is said that “the souls born of Jacob were seventy-five in all” (Ex 1,5). [200] Souls, and not children of bodies, belong, therefore, to those who fight and do not succumb in the truly holy struggle for the conquest of virtue, even if they have not yet broken the bridges with the irrational and still pull the mass behind them of sensation. Jacob, in effect, is the name of the one who paws and prepares himself for the fight and the clash, but who has not yet won. [201] But when it became clear that he was able to see God, then his name was changed to that of Israel.” [3]

The allegorical/etymological interpretation of the two names Jacob/Israel, which is also found in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and in Anthony’s letters, [4] documents the widespread diffusion of the concept of the possibility of spiritual progress in early monasticism. Cassian himself returns to terminology in his twelfth lecture where he expands the interpretation with a chain of other allegorical interpretations. Referring to the text of Genesis 32:28, he says: 

“Whoever has passed the degree of chastity depicted in the” suppliant “Jacob, will not only paralyse the nerve in the side, but from the struggles for continence and from the work to substitute virtue for vices, will rise to the glorious title of Israel, and the his heart will no longer deviate from the right direction.” [5]

Cassian states that David also distinguished these two moments in the life of the spirit. He quotes the first part of the first verse of Psalm 75:2 “God made himself known in Judea,” explaining that the verse means “in the soul that has yet to confess his sins because Judea means confession”. Then he explains that “in Israel, which means” he who sees God “or — as another etymology wants — in man perfectly upright before God, the Lord is not only known, but “great is his name”, that is, the second part of the verse of the psalm. He then moves on to the second verse of the psalm: “His abode is established in peace” and comments: “In other words, the abode of God is not where the struggle against vice takes place, but in the peace of chastity and in the perpetual tranquility of heart.” [6] 

II. The goal of contemplation 

To better explain the difference between these two moments in the life of the spirit represented by Jacob and Israel, Cassian introduces the distinction between the end and purpose of the spiritual life.

Based on the saying found in Luke’s Gospel, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), and following an already established interpretation, he identifies this interior kingdom with contemplation. This is the goal of the spiritual journey: to see God, to become Israel “he who sees God”.

Already during the first conference, however, Cassian was trying to give his reader at least a fleeting appearance of the happiness that awaits those who make progress in contemplation. He explains that “divine contemplation is to be understood in several ways” and offers a long list of possibilities, or possible starting points for developing contemplation. God is known not only through his incomprehensible essence, but through all creation. The grains of sand and raindrops also offer a starting point for contemplating his providence. The whole history of salvation, long-suffering, mercy, the grace of God, offer opportunities for contemplation. First of all it is the Incarnation of his Son that gives us material for the knowledge of God. Cassian concludes: 

“On all these occasions we rise to divine contemplation. Considerations on the type of those enumerated so far can be had in almost infinite quantities: they are born in our intimate in direct relation to the perfection of our life and to the purity of our heart”. [7]

III. The purpose of purity of heart 

To reach this end, this happy condition of continuous prayer in which everything leads us to divine contemplation, we must acquire “purity of heart”. This is the “purpose” of the spiritual life. With “purity of heart” vision of God or contemplation becomes possible. To explain what the distinction between the end and the purpose means, Cassian introduces the example of the archer who, to obtain the prize (the end), must aim at the target (the scopos). Then he quotes Paul: «the holy Apostle, speaking elsewhere of our goal, says: “Forgetting what is behind me, and throwing myself at the things ahead, I go after the sign (Latin: bravium), to reach the reward of God’s supreme vocation”». Cassian insists that the Greek text is clearer and also mentions it: kata skopon dioko. Then he adds a paraphrase: “It is as if the Apostle said: “In aiming at the target, I forget what lies behind me — that is, the vices of the carnal man — and I try to reach my goal which is the heavenly reward.”” It must be added, however, to avoid misunderstandings, that, according to Cassian, this celestial prize can already be obtained in this world. The kingdom of God is within us.

Whoever does not keep his gaze fixed on the target (purpose), which is purity of heart, is in great danger. “It is inevitable — says Cassiano — that a soul, which no longer has a point to refer to and anchor itself to, changes at every hour and every moment, according to the thoughts that occur and under the solicitation of external events: that is, it changes the I mean by changing impressions.”  [8] This target is called purity of heart because it refers to the elimination of vices and passions. [9] The practice of the other virtues is to make our heart pure and keep it «unassailable to all perverse passions. Thus we will climb – as on a ladder (istis gradibus) — towards the perfection of charity”. [10] From a positive point of view, the target is charity, charity that cannot coexist with vices, with anger, with pride, with the contempt of a brother.

In the tradition prior to Cassian (Philo, Clement, Origen, Evagrius Pontus) this purpose was called apatheia. The phrase “purity of heart” comes from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) and offers certain advantages. The reward promised to the “pure in heart” is that they will see God. Thus we see the connection with the end, that is, contemplation. At the same time, with the use of this terminology Cassian avoids the now disputed terminology of apatheia, at least in the West with the anti-Stoic and anti-Evagrian controversy of Jerome. [11] The problem for Cassian is not the theoretical one, whether it is possible to eliminate all passions, but rather the impossibility of coexistence of vices with charity or with the vision of God. Cassian underlines and reiterates this impossibility in various ways. In the fourteenth lecture on spiritual science he explains: 

«If one wants to reach contemplative science, he must first commit all his study and all energy to acquire practical science, because it is true that practical science can be obtained without the theory, but theoretical cannot be obtained without practice. The two sciences are like two distinct but ordered steps, through which our weakness can ascend to heights. If the two steps follow one another in the order described, you can reach the peaks of the spiritual life, but if the first step is removed, it will no longer be possible to fly to the top. It is useless to think of reaching the contemplation of God who first does not avoid the contagion of vices. [“The spirit of God flees deception and does not dwell in a body that is enslaved by sin” (Wisdom 1:45)]”. [12]

In other words, it is impossible to progress in the life of prayer and contemplation without making progress in the moral life. According to Cassian, the essence of the spiritual life lies in the depths of the soul (animae recessu). “In our depths there can only be one situation: either the knowledge of the truth or its ignorance; either the love of vice or the love of virtue”. 

Then he quotes Paul: “The kingdom of God is not food or drink, but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” And he concludes: 

“If the kingdom of God is within us and consists of justice, peace, joy, whoever lives in these virtues certainly lives in the kingdom of God. On the contrary: whoever lives in injustice, in discord, in the sadness that generates death , is a citizen of the kingdom of the devil, hell and death. In fact, from these signs the kingdom of God and that of the devil are distinguished”. [13]

These generic considerations become more concrete in the course of the analysis of the different passions and vices. The person, for example, under the domination of the vice of gastrimargia (“gluttony”), is unable to withstand the struggles of the inner man. [14] 

She is too busy with the desires / pleasures of the throat. The incompatibility of vice with prayer/contemplation applies to all eight vices / thoughts. However, Cassian particularly emphasises the destructive potential of the passion of anger. Contemplation means seeing God, but the vision of a God of love is incompatible with the hatred and anger that destroy the inner and spiritual vision. Cassian says: “The impulses of anger, from whatever cause they are provoked, blind the eyes of the soul, and therefore, throwing into the sharpness of the gaze” the deadly beam “of a worse evil, they prevent us from contemplating the sun of justice”. [15] Towards the end of the conferences he returns to the topic in the context of an explanation of the need not to react to offences: 

“If one considers these and other similar damages well, not only will he bear all the offences, but also the insults and punishments of all kinds, even the most cruel, that can come to him from men. And the reason is that the thoughtful man will see how nothing is more harmful than anger, nothing is more precious than the tranquility of the soul and purity of the heart. For such a pearl, not only carnal goods deserve to be despised, but also those that seem spiritual: assuming that they cannot be acquired and preserved without endangering the tranquility of the heart”. [16]

IV. The small method 

The possibility and quality of contemplation depends on the extent to which the heart becomes purified, emptied of vices, of the motions of passion that blind the inner eyes. Without moral and spiritual progress, the contemplation of divine goodness will not come badly. The angry person is unable to experience the joy of human existence; he is not capable of making good use of opportunities, not even of giving thanks to God for all that he has received. The same thing goes for the proud man or greedy for money, and so on. All vices hinder that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle. 

However, if continuous prayer is not possible while the vices and motions of passion remain in the heart, prayer itself always remains a possibility in every moment of the spiritual life, indeed a principal instrument in the search for purity of heart. Towards the end of the second conference dedicated to the subject of prayer, after having spoken of the different types of prayer, Abbot Isaac reveals a small method, “a secret that has been revealed to us by those few Fathers belonging to the good old days “. The secret consists in continually repeating the verse of the psalm: “O God, turn to my help, Lord, hurry to help me” (Psalm 69:2). Isaac explains that this verse is suitable for expressing “all the sentiments of which human nature is capable; it is perfectly suited to all states and all sorts of temptations ». It expresses humility, vigilance, the recognition of our weakness, the confidence to be heard, the ardor of charity, the awareness of the dangers. This verse, incessantly invoked, becomes “an impregnable wall, an impenetrable armour, a very strong shield”. The abbot concludes: “In short: that verse is useful to everyone and in all circumstances. Asking to be helped always and in all things is equivalent to clearly recognising that we need God’s help when everything is favourable to us and smiles at us, as when trials and adversities assail us”. [17] 

He then offers a long list, in satirical form, of the occasions when this verse must be repeated. Some examples will make us the most concrete method:

«Does the passion of the throat haunt me?” Do I go in search of foods that the desert does not know? In my squalid solitude do I breathe the scent of the foods that are on the table of kings? Do I feel attracted to wanting them, even against my will? Here I will have to say: “God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me». 

The list of occasions follows the order of the defects already analysed in the Institutions and also in the Conferences. The verse can be invoked against sleep or when sleep escapes us, and against the temptations of the flesh. 

«I want to immerse myself in spiritual reading, in order to fix my thought in God; but here is the headache prevents me. Or: it is still early morning and my head falls drowsy on the pages of the sacred book and I feel obliged to increase the hours that the rule assigns to rest, or to anticipate the rest of this day. Sometimes, precisely during our meetings, sleep prevents me from continuing to recite the Psalms. In these situations, there is nothing to do but invoke: “Lord, come to my help, God, hurry to my help”».

«I’m still in the stage where it is necessary to wage war against vices: the flesh suddenly tempts me, tries to wrest my consent while I take my night’s rest. Lest an adverse fire burn the fragrant flowers of my chastity, I will cry out, “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

We must also invoke him against anger, greed, sadness, vainglory, pride. However, even if the heart were purified from all these vices, the temptation of spiritual pride would remain. Therefore we must continue the invocation of this prayer. But this form of prayer is not only useful in the fight of the active life against vices and temptations; it also serves in every moment of the contemplative life. For example, Abbot Isaac says: 

«I feel I have rediscovered, by gift of the Holy Spirit, the direction of the soul, the stability of thoughts, the joyful readiness of the heart. I feel that, due to a sudden illumination of the Lord, a source rich in spiritual thoughts is produced in me, abundant revelations come to me on the holiest mysteries, which until now had remained completely hidden from me. To deserve to remain in this luminous state for a long time, I will say repeatedly and fervently: “O God, come to my aid; Lord, hurry to help me”». 

Isaac concludes the list of possible occasions with a passage that brings to mind another passage from the Scriptures where the Israelite is recommended to repeat the shema prayer. The prayer of this verse must be meditated continuously in our heart.

«In any work, in any duty, even while traveling, the monk must always sing that verse. In eating, in sleeping, in every other need of nature, he must meditate on those words. This continuous thought will become a formula of salvation that will not only protect from the assaults of the demons, but will also purify from every vice and from every earthly stain; it will raise to the contemplation of celestial and invisible things; it will lead to an ineffable ardor of prayer, which only a few know from experience».

This verse is for the monk his schema and, paraphrasing Deuteronomy, Cassian adds: 

«You will write those words on your lips, you will carve them on the walls of your home, in the depths of your hearts, so that they are a recurring theme for you when you pray, may they also be your continuous prayer”. The use of this prayer will lead to that continuous prayer recommended by the apostle and remembered as the goal of monastic life already in the Preface of the conferences. But it is capable and useful in bringing us to union with God that words are no longer able to describe. This prayer, explains Isaac, “is not fixed on some image, indeed it is not expressed even through words: it is born of a leap, from a fiery mind, from an unspeakable rapture, from an insatiable alacrity of spirit. The soul, transported out of the senses and visible things, offers itself to God amid unspeakable sighs and groans.» 

Here is the path of the spiritual life from the point of view of prayer and contemplation. This small method, this simple form of prayer should accompany the monk along the entire path of spiritual progress, from the beginning with external prayer to the peak of contemplation. He is able to lead him even to prayer so internalised that words are no longer needed. 

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The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek word monos which means ‘alone,’ solitary.’[1] These words indicated the idea of solitude, of isolation. As we shall see, the term ‘monk’ has come to be applied to men living the same life in common —a life in which they are indeed separated from the world, but not from one another. Strictly speaking the term, ‘monasticism’, should be reserved for the form of religious life led by those who, having separated themselves entirely from the world, live in solitude — as, in fact, the etymology of the words ‘monk’, ‘monastery’, etc., clearly indicates.[2] 

Monasticism is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one’s life to spiritual work.[3] Monasticism (Greek word monos means ‘single’) usually refers to the way of life, communitarian or solitary, adopted by those individuals, male or female, who have elected to pursue an ideal of perfection or a higher level of religious experience through leaving the world. Monastic orders historically have been organised around a rule or a teacher, the activities of the members being closely regulated in accordance with the rule adopted.[4] Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called ‘monks’ or ‘brothers’ (male), and ‘nuns’ or ‘sisters’ (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called ‘monastics’.[5] 

Technically, monasticism embraces both the life of the hermit, characterised by varying degrees of extreme solitude, and the life of the cenobite, that is, the monk living in a community offering a limited amount of solitude. Monasticism always entails asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. This asceticism may include fasting, silence, a prohibition against personal ownership, and an acceptance of bodily discomfort. Almost always it includes poverty, celibacy, and obedience to a spiritual leader.[6] The goal of such practices is usually a more intense relationship with God, some type of personal enlightenment, or the service of God through prayer, meditation, or good works such as teaching or nursing. It can be found in some form among most developed religions: Hinduism,[7] Buddhism,[8] Jainism,[9] Taoism, the Sufi branch of Islam[10] and Christianity.[11] 

There were only two Jewish groups —the Essenes and Therapeutae— engaged in any form of organised asceticism. The Essenes may be regarded as one of the most striking examples of monastic life outside of Christianity. They inhabited the monastery at Qumran near the Dead Sea and appear to have lived in ascetic style, practicing chastity, poverty and obedience. The Essenes (circa. 150 BC) offer all the principal characteristics of the cenobitic life — community of goods, practice of poverty and mortification, prayer and work, meals and religious exercise in common, silence, celibacy, etc.[12] The Qumran monastery was destroyed during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD, and the fate of the Essenes thereafter is uncertain. It is unlikely that they had any impact upon Christian monasticism, which began only in the late III century.[13] Although there is no direct relationship between them, it is nevertheless true that both Essenian and Christian asceticism derived much of their practice from the same source, viz. the Jewish religion.[14] 

The Therapeutae were contemporary with the Essenes. They abandoned families and possessions in order to live in ascetic seclusion far from the noise and commotion of cities.[15] Philo of Alexandria is our sole witness to their existence. He describes them as cenobites, leading a life almost identical with that of the Christian cenobites.[16] Nevertheless they do not seem to have exercised any direct influence on Christian monasticism. 

Christian asceticism is known to have begun in Egypt about the III or the IV century AD, and is associated with St. Antony. It is believed that about the end of the III century Antony’s life as a solitary ascetic was brought to an end by a number of disciples gathering round him. So he becomes the father of Christian monasticism. It was this type of monastic life that prevailed in Egypt up to the middle of the V century AD. All later Christian asceticism and monasticism is traceable to it. 

The origins of early Christian monasticism are not clearly known and are, therefore, subject to controversy. Some scholars believe that the monastic movement was prompted by Late Jewish communal and ascetic ideals, such as those of the Essenes. Still others speculate that Manichaean and similar forms of dualism inspired extremes of asceticism within the Christian family. However, the first Christian commentators on monasticism believed that the movement had truly gospel origins. 

Christian monastics drew their spiritual strength from Christ’s emphasis on poverty and on the “narrow way” to salvation. Early monastics believed that Paul preferred celibacy to marriage. Indeed, the first nuns seem to have been widows of the late Roman period who decided not to remarry. From one point of view, the decision of some Christians to live separate from the community, both physically and spiritually, was regrettable. From another, the commitment and service of the monastics made them the most valued people in early medieval society. 

Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian church, modelled upon scriptural examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution by the scriptures. While most people think of Christian or Catholic monks or nuns as “Something to do with living in a monastery,” from the Church’s point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity. Rather, the focus is on an ideal called the religious life, also called the state of perfection. This idea is expressed in the notion that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or run is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are “be ye perfect like your heavenly father is perfect”.[17]

Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle ages. 

The first Christian hermits seem to have stablished themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, where in pre-Christian times the Therapeutae, an order of Jewish ascetics, had been established. Not long afterword the desert regions of Upper Egypt became a retreat for those who fled from the persecutions of the Christians so frequent in the Roman Empire during the III century, and for those who found the vices of the world intolerable. The earliest form of Christian monasticism was, probably, that of the anchorites or hermits; a later development is found in the pillar saints, called Stylites, who spent most of their time on the tops of pillars in order to separate themselves from the world and to mortify the flesh. After a time, however, the necessities of the religious life itself led to modifications. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common exercise of religious duties, the early hermits had an aggregation of separate called lavra or laura, to which they could retire after their communal duties had been discharged. From the union of the common life with personal solitude is derived the name cenobite (Greek Koinos bios, “Common life”) by which a certain class of monks is distinguished.[18] 

Saint Antony the Great was connected with the first Egyptian hermits; Saint Pachomius (d.46), with the first communities of cenobites in Egypt. Saint Basil the Great (f1.379), bishop of Caesarea, placed monasticism in an urban context by introducing charitable service as a work discipline.[19] 

St. Antony, who embraced solitude, established himself at Alexandria, and the fame of his sanctity, as well as his gentleness and learning, drew many disciples to him. Most of his followers accompanied him when he retired to the desert. One of his disciples, St. Pachomius who established a great monastery on an island in the Nile River, is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic manner of living. Pachomius drew up for his subjects a monastic rule, the first regulations of the kind on record. Many thousands of disciples flocked to him, and he founded several other monasteries for men and one for women under the direction of his sister. All of these houses recognized the authority of a single superior, an about or archimandrite. They constitute the original type of the religious order. The cenobitic form of monasticism was first introduced into the west at Rome and in Northern Italy by St. Athanasius, in Central North Africa by St. Augustine, and in Gaul by St. Martin of Tours. The religious revival effected by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the VI century gave Western monasticism its permanent form.[20]

Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisbis in Mesopotamia (350), and from his monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China. St. Sabbas the Sanctified organised the monks of the Judaean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.[21] 

The first monks of whom we have a good record represent an extreme phase in the evolution of monasticism. These are the so-called desert fathers, hermits, living in the eremitical style in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Enraged by sin and fearful of damnation, they left the towns for a solitary struggle against temptation. Some, like Simeon Stylites lived very exotic lives and became pilgrim attractions. More typical, however, was Antony of Egypt (c.250-356), whose commitment to salvation led him back to the community to evangelise unbelievers. His extreme asceticism deeply touched the sensibilities of the age. 

The reputed founder of Christian achoritism, Antonius, was first active in Egypt c.280-90 AD. But in 306 AD., one of his disciples visited western Syria, i.e., the intermediate region between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and reported that monasticism was as yet unknown there. 

Moreover, its origin in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia seem to date back to the end of the III century, leaving insufficient time for it to have spread from Egypt. Thus it appears that monasticism arose spontaneously and independently in Egypt and in Syria-Mesopotamia. 

The hermits (‘desert’) lived in solitude in the desert; St. John the Baptist, and later St. Paul the Hermit and St. Antony, were the first of these. Anchorites or anchorites (‘retreat’) title is synonymous with the hermits, and indicates those monks who practiced the solitary life. This form of monastic life is the most ancient; it spread, first of all, in Egypt, then in Palestine and Syria, through the whole of the eastern world, and, finally, in the West.[22]

Pachomius (c.290-346), an Egyptian monk, preferred the communal life. He wrote a rule of life for monks in which he emphasised organisation and the rule of elder monks over the newly professed. The rule became popular, and the movement toward communal life was ensured. To the idea of community Basil the Great (c.330-79) added another element. In his writings, and especially in his commentaries on the scriptures, this father of Eastern monasticism defined a theory of Christian humanism which he felt was binding on the monasteries. According to Basil, monastics should care for orphans, feed the poor, maintain hospitals, educate children, even provide work for the unemployed. 

Toward the end of the IV century the individualist asceticism of the anchorites gradually became rarer. Ascetic impulses came increasingly to be expressed through the communal life of monasteries, where monks were subject to rules and bishops supervised their activities. Small and crude monastic establishments grew in size, acquiring fields, orchards and gardens, inasmuch as an entire community of monks could not be supported solely on the charity of surrounding villages. Often the presence of monks near a town was considered lucky, and the towns-people helped to erect buildings for them. 

The original foundation of a monastery frequently came about when a widely know anchorite was joined in his solitude by a few disciples, and the anchorite failed to send them away. This happened with the monk Saba (d. 366/67 AD) of Edessa. According to his contemporary St. Ephraim, Juliana was known to the “whole world”. This outstanding anchorite inhabited a cave in the vicinity of Edessa, where the practiced severe mortification, including long vigils and severe fasts. Gradually a group of admirers gathered around his cave, and Juliana organised a rudimentary form of common life for them. The fame of Juliana Saba led other monks to follow his example. 

Ephraim compared his role in the organisation of monasteries to a huge censer that spread incense through the entire country around Edessa.[23] 

Christian monasticism grew and took institutional form in order to provide a supportive setting for those who wished to take vows of poverty and chastity, who valued the love of Christ which surpasses the love of women. As a later development, Christian monasticism is not explicitly regulated by scripture. It has taken a wide variety of forms, from solitary hermits and begging mendicants to orders dedicated to nursing, teaching, scholarship and other forms of service to the world.[24]

The Mothers of the Desert

The Mothers of the Desert

Desert Mothers

At the dawn of monastic life, in the Middle Eastern and African deserts, not only men sought the solitude and entered the desert, there were also women of extraordinary pre-eminence called the Mothers of the desert. John Chrysostom (344-407), a monk in his youth and later bishop of Constantinople, a great preacher, so tells the virgins whom he met in the Egyptian deserts:

The women here have no less philosophy and vigour than the men: vigour not to handle the shield or to ride, as the most severe Greek legislators and philosophers would like, but to participate in a much more bitter and harsher battles. With the men they battle a common enemy, a war against the devil and the powers of darkness. The fragility of their gender is in no way an impediment to these battles. These struggles do not require a strength of body, but the good will of the soul. Therefore, very often, in this kind of warfare, women have been seen to fight with greater courage and generosity than the men and therefore they win the most glorious of victories”

Among the Mothers of the desert we must remember the noblewoman Syncletica of Alexandria in Egypt, who renounced a wealth inheritance to live in a crypt with her blind sister, and Theodora, wife of a Prefect and the Roman Governor of Egypt, who in order to perform penance for a sin she committed, she disguised herself as a man and joined a monastery in Thebaid. Her true identity as a woman was not discovered until after her death.

Amma Syncletica

Of Syncletica we remember a thought that is often and willingly repeated in monasteries even today:“Obedience is preferable to asceticism, the one teaches pride the other humility”.

While for those who teach, we recall a thought by Theodora: “A teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him with flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible, he must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls” (from the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ Theodora 5).

Notable Examples

The Desert Mothers were known as ammas (“spiritual mothers”), comparable to the Desert Fathers (abbas), due to the respect they had earned as spiritual teachers and directors. One of the most famous Mothers of the Desert was Saint Syncletica, who had 27 sayings attributed among the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Two other ammas, Theodora of Alexandria and Sarah of the Desert, also had sayings in that book. The Desert Mothers described in The Lausiac History compiled by Palladius of Galatia include Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Olympia The Deaconess of Nicomedia, Paula of Rome and her daughter Eustochium Julia, and several other women whose names the author does not mention.

According to written sources, St. Syncletica may have been born around AD 270, as it is said that she came to be around eighty in AD 350, with wealthy parents in Alexandria and that she was well educated, including a study of the Father’s of the Desert in the writings of the Evagrius Pontus. After her parents died, she sold everything she had and gave the proceeds to the poor. After leaving the city with her blind sister, she lived as a hermit among the graves outside Alexandria. Gradually a community of ascetic women grew up around her, and she became their spiritual mother. Although she was an ascetic and a hermit, she Syncletica teaches moderation, and that asceticism is not an end in itself.

Theodora of Alexandria was the amma of a monastic community of women near Alexandria. Before that, she had escaped into the desert disguised as a man and joined a community of monks. She was in great demand by the Desert Fathers for her advice from her – even Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria sought her out for advice.

The sayings of Sarah of the Desert indicate that she was a hermit who lived near a river for sixty years. Her sharp responses to some old men who challenged her show her strong personality. According to one story, two anchorites visited her in the desert, with the intention of humiliating her. They told her “Be careful not to get a presumptuous thinking of yourself:” Look how the anchorites come to find me, who am only a woman. She replied “By nature I am a woman, but not by my thoughts.”

Melania the Elder, daughter of a Roman officer, became a widow at a young age and moved to Alexandria, and then to the Wadi El Natrun Desert. She met with several Desert Fathers, followed them on their travels and provided for them with her money. At one point she was thrown into prison for helping them, after several Fathers had been banished by Roman officers in Palestine. Later she founded a convent in Jerusalem with about fifty nuns. Her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, married at thirteen and had two children, both of whom died young. At the age of twenty, she and her husband Valerius Pinianus (Pinian) renounced the world.  In 417, the couple moved to Palestine founding convents and monasteries.

Women were quite prominent in the desert tradition, although early accounts left them unnamed. There is no distinction between the sayings of the male Abbas and those of Amma Sarah and Amma Syncletica. One text refers to Theodora, who had monks who listened to her advice and asked her questions. Some women turned their homes into religious structures where there were social-religious groups with men and women. Women could not be ordained deacons or priests.


Amma Sarah said “If I prayed to God for everyone to approve my conduct, I would find myself penitent at everyone’s door, but I’d rather pray that my heart will always remain pure.”

Amma Syncletica said “In the beginning there are many great battles and a fair amount of suffering for those who move towards God and then, ineffable joy. It is like those who hope to start a fire; at first they cough from the smoke and cry, and with that they get what they want … we must therefore kindle the divine fire within ourselves through tears and hard work.”

Amma Syncletica said “There are many people who live in the mountains and act as if they are in the city; they waste their time. It is possible to be lonely in the mind living in the crowd and it is possible for those who are lonely to live in the crowd of their thoughts.”

Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor wakefulness, nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do this. There was a hermit who was capable of casting out demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Fasting?” They replied: “We don’t eat or drink.” “Is it the wake?” They replied, “We don’t sleep.” “So what power takes you away?” They replied, “Nothing can overwhelm us, only humility.” Amma Theodora said: “Do you see how humility wins against demons?”

Image: Saint Syncletica of Alexandria depicted in the Menologion of Basil II.

Continue reading “The Mothers of the Desert”
Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?

Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?

Their influence is still present in the Church today and also in popular culture.

In the third century, thousands of Desert Fathers abandoned the cities on the Nile to seek out the paneremos – or inner desert.

At the end of the third century, a Christian named Paul the First Hermit (ca. 226 – ca. † 341), who lived in the city of Thebes, Egypt, was forced to flee into the desert (around AD 250) during the persecution of the Roman emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius (ca. 201 – † June 251) he was 24 years old. He remained and lived in a desert cave near a clear spring and a palm tree awaiting for an end to Decius’ persecution.

In the intervening period, Paul the First Hermit found that he actually enjoyed the solitude and freedom to fast and pray. He embraced this form of life in the desert and lived in that cave for many more decades as a hermit, dedicated to the worship of God.

Near the end of Saint Paul’s life, another man in Egypt, Antony (251 – † 356), received inspiration from the Gospel to renounce his possessions and serve God alone.

A radical change

His experience is recounted in the famous book Life of Antony, written by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

Anthony was born in Coma in Lower Egypt to wealthy landowner parents. When he was about 20 years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. During a Mass service the pastor had read Matthew 19:21 which ingrained itself in his mind. Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow Matthew’s gospel exhortation “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Anthony gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbours, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds to the poor.

Antony believed that the words were addressed directly to him, so immediately after Mass, he sold all of his possessions and tried to do God’s will.

Around this time, Antony heard about Paul the first hermit and went to visit him at his retreat in the mountains. Antony was deeply inspired by Paul’s way of life and was convinced that God was also calling him to become a hermit in the desert.

Antony dedicated the rest of his life to fasting and praying, to live a life of poverty for the glory of God.

His holiness became famous, and during Diocletian’s persecution, Christians were drawn to the desert as a way to escape the world and live a private Christian life.

“Contagious” lifestyle

Antony’s life and wisdom has inspired thousands of men and women for the last 50 generations to renounce their earthly ambitions and live in solitude, worshiping God alone.

Monasteries eventually developed over time and spread throughout Egypt. A pattern of life was established and other holy men and women heard the call to enter the desert.

Names that have impacted history

Among the first saints who developed this way of life and are considered part of the Desert Fathers are Saint Pachomius († 348), Saint Menas of Egypt († ca. 309), Saint Basil of Caesarea († 379), Saint Macarius of Egypt († 391) and Saint Moses the Ethiopian († 405).

Among those who were notably influenced by this early asceticism are Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, Saint John Chrysostom († 407), Saint Hilarion († 371), and Saint John Cassian († 435).

On AD 516, Saint Benedict of Nursia developed his own monastic rule based on the writings of these ancient Desert Fathers. As a result, modern religious orders can trace their spiritual ancestry all the way back to the first hermits in Egypt.

Saint John Cassian was one of those responsible for bringing the wisdom of the Desert Fathers to Europe and it was then that their influence reached the Celtic Christians in Ireland.

It was in the mid V century that an Irish version of desert asceticism began to develop, based essentially on the writings of Cassian and the example of Saint Antony the Great.

It was this same desert asceticism that influenced the VI century monks to sail to the remote Isle of Sceilg Mhichíl—Skellig Michael, establishing a monastery of ‘hive huts’ which came to life again in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

A timeless wisdom

Although most Christians may not be familiar with the writings of the Desert Fathers, their influence can be felt throughout the world. They call us to a radical way of living Christianity that includes fasting, penance and silence. (Download a free copy of the “anonymous sayings of the Desert Fathers” by John Wortley).

In a world full of worldly temptations and full of noise, the Desert Fathers are the guiding light which calls us to live differently.

Although our vocation is not to renounce all of our possessions and live in the desert, the Desert Fathers challenge us to make our own daily sacrifices, to live more simply, and to spend time each day in prayer and silence.

Pray for our fathers and our brethren who are traveling, or those who intend to travel anywhere, that God may straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, that Christ our God may bring them back to their own homes in peace, and forgive us our sins.

And those who intend to travel anywhere, straighten all their ways, whether by sea, rivers, lakes, roads, air, or those who are traveling by any other means, everyone anywhere. Lead them into a haven of calm, a haven of safety. Graciously accompany them in their departure and be their companion in their travel. Bring them back to their own, rejoicing with joy and safe in security. In work, be a partner with Your servants in every good deed. As for us, O Lord, keep our sojourn in this life without harm, without storm, and undisturbed to the end. Amen.

The Litany for the Travelers — أوشية المسافرين

5 sayings of the Desert Fathers to grow spiritually

Desert Fathers

These IV century monks can still teach us a lot today

Although the Desert Fathers lived in the IV century, their lives and writings remain an inspiration even to today’s world.

Many of his sayings (or apothegms or sentences) were compiled in a work entitled The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (The Apophthegmata Patrum), although the title may vary according to the edition. This work, from the V century, represents a small sample of the Desert Fathers and Mothers profound spiritual wisdom. It presents an immense treasure of small phrases with enormous spiritual power.

Here are five examples of these apothegms to help you maintain a good spirit.

Abba Poemen said: “A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.” (SDF Poemen 25)

Said abba Antony: “I saw all the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning ‘what can get through such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me ‘humility.’ (SDF Antony 7)

Abba Poemen said: “If someone shuts a snake and a scorpion up in a bottle, in time they will completely destroyed. So it is with evil thoughts: they are suggested by the demons; they disappear through patience.” (SDF Poemen 21)

Abba Amoún from Nitria visited abba Antony and said to him: “Since my rule is stricter than yours how is it that your name is better known amongst men than mine is?” Abba Antony answered: “it is because I love God more than you.” (SDF Amoun of Nitria 1)

Saint Epiphanius Bishop of Cyprus said: “The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” (SDF Epiphanius 8)

Continue reading “Who were the Desert Fathers, and why are they still important today?”
The Spiritual Meadow – By John Moschus

The Spiritual Meadow – By John Moschus

it seems good to call this present work a Meadow, for the delight, comfort and usefulness which those who read may take from it. It is not only right belief and meditation on divine truth which lead to a life and morals of integrity, but also the examples of other people, and written accounts of their virtuous lives. Therefore I have undertaken this task trusting in the Lord, beloved son, and hoping that it will commend itself to your charity… Continue reading The Spiritual Meadow – By John Moschus

The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition

The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition

The Spiritual Teaching Of The Monks Of Egypt — The Formation Of A Tradition [1]

Antoine Guillaumont [2]

This Pennsylvania fragment contains an apophthegm concerning Abba Arsenius the Great.

Few writings, with the exception of the Gospels, have had in the history of Christian spirituality, a diffusion and an influence comparable to those of the collections of the Apothegmas, or Sayings of the Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum, Verba Seniorum), which they transmitted to the Christian world the teaching of the monks of Egypt, invested, before numerous generations of monks, with a value in a certain way normative. There are testimonies of these collections not only in Greek, which was the language of the first great collections, and in Latin, but also, during the first millennium, in all the languages of the Christian East: Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Ethiopian; Its diffusion extends from what was then the extreme West, Spain, the homeland of one of the Latin recensions, to Central Asia, as fragments with fragments of the Gospels have been found, in the vestiges of a Christian literature written in Sogdian, an Iranian language.

The place of origin of the apothegms is, on the contrary, well defined: the deserts of Lower Egypt, known by the names of Scetis (present-day Wadi El Natrun (“Valley of Natron” in Coptic: Ϣⲓϩⲏⲧ Šihēt, “measure of the hearts”); Nitria, about 37.2 miles to the north (the site is currently in the western Delta, about 31 miles southeast of Alexandria); the Kellia or Cells ( referred to as “the innermost desert”), is about 11.1 miles south of Nitria, at the entrance to the Libyan desert. Their time is that of the first three or four generations of monks from those deserts, from the founders, Macarius the Elder called the Egyptian in Scetis, Amun or Ammonius the Hermit in Nitria and in the Kellia, both disciples of Saint Anthony the Great; It is in fact a monasticism of the Anthonian style, different from the monasticism of Upper Egypt dominated by the figure of Saint Pachomius. In those deserts the way of life was semi-anacoretism: the monks lived as solitary, in cells quite distant from each other, and met, at the end of the week, for what was called the “synaxis”, a liturgy celebrated in common, accompanied by a meal, also taken in common. It was at the times of these weekly encounters that the apothegm could be born, but more often during the visits that could be made, during the week, to these loners who, with rare exceptions, were not inmates; it is also seen, quite often, a young monk living next to an elderly or sick monk, of whom he is both the servant and the disciple. The apothegm is the answer given by an old man, a “geronte” (gérôn, a quality that is not necessarily related to age!) To the question posed by a normally younger monk, and this question has an almost stereotypical form: “ Father, tell me a word (logos), a phrase (rèma), how can I save myself ”. The questioned elder is called “father” (pater), more often with the term of Aramaic origin “abba”. But he is not a hierarchical superior invested with some authority, nor a teacher or a doctor who has the function of teaching, much less, a skilled rhetorician in making speeches. He is asked for advice only because he knows that he is a man with experience, an “old man”, and above all a man of God, a spiritual person, gratified, as they said, with the “charisma of the word”, that is, whose The word is considered as inspired: he is a character considered charismatic, which is not necessarily typical of every old man, but can be – there are examples of this – a faculty of monks who are still young.

Those who are more so —and it may seem paradoxical that the apothegms were born in that monastic environment— are those monks who by their vocation consecrate themselves to silence: to Arsenius, while he was still a high official in the imperial palace before reaching Being a monk in Scete, a heavenly voice responded to his question: “How can I save myself?”: “Arsenius, flee from men, be silent and live in the hésychia” [3]. These monks are, indeed, “hesychasts” par excellence, and the hésychia by which their way of life is defined is simultaneously solitude and silence; it is also, as is often said, “to remain seated in the cell”, since the guarding of the cell is the fundamental precept. To a young monk who comes to ask for a word to save himself, the old man replies: “Remain seated in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything!” advice would have been taken literally  cum grano salis [4], because if that advice had been taken literally, we would not have apothegms! [5] But that expression says a lot, I daresay, about the way those monks tended to teach. It is said that one day the bishop of Alexandria, Teófilo, came to visit the monks of Scete; To an elderly monk famous for his silence, they made this recommendation: “Abba, give the pope a word, so that it may be of benefit to him!”, to which the old monk replied: “If he does not take advantage of my silence, how would I benefit from my word? ”[6]. These monks in effect aimed to teach more by example than by word. The disciple is invited to imitate the teacher, rather than listen to him. A brother asks Abba Sisoes: “Tell me a word!”, And Sisoes responds: “Why do you force me to speak vainly? Look and do what you see! ” [7].

The old man therefore does not respond willingly; and when he does, he is, as is often said, “with regret”, “with great regret”; he makes him wait for his answer, sometimes for a long time: it is said that a monk came one day to meet Ammoes to ask him for a word, and only after seven days did Ammoès respond! [8] And when the old man responds, he does so in a few words: the character that most attracts the attention of the apothegm is, in effect, its conciseness; he takes the form of a sentence, sometimes turning towards the parable. The apothegm also has a concrete character: the old man easily adds to the word, the gesture, a symbolic gesture. When asked by a brother “How can I save myself?”, An old man, without saying anything, leaves his clothes, girdles his kidneys, extends his hands and then says: “This is how the monk must be, stripped of the matter of this life and crucified ”[9].

The apothegm is reduced first of all to the answer to a question; the question itself may be missing and there is an apothegm introduced only by the formula: “The abba so and so said …”. But very soon the apothegm tends to develop, and this more and more and in various ways. Sometimes the question is preceded by the evocation of the circumstances that led a brother to ask it: the apothegm then tends to take the form of a small anecdote. The answer itself may be more or less developed. Sometimes the answer given to the question posed leads to a second question; There is then a double apothegm, for example: Abba Isaías questioned abba Macarius saying: “Tell me a word!” The old man tells him: “Flee from men!” Abba Isaías tells him: “What is it to flee from men?” The old man tells him: “It is to remain seated in your cell and cry for your sins” [10]. Developing in this way, the apothegm can give rise to a true dialogue, and this can sometimes be inserted into a short story. Another form of development, more interesting for what we study: it happens that the old man, when estimating that he cannot answer by himself, responds by referring to another word; This may be a word taken from Scripture; thus: A brother questioned abba Poimén saying: “What shall I do?”, to which Poimén responds: “It is written: I will proclaim my iniquity and I will remember my sin” (Ps 37,19, Sept.) [11]. Another way, frequently used by the elder to respond obliquely, without making himself seen, is to respond by referring to the word of another elder. We thus have an apothegm in two degrees: “abba so and so said that abba so and so said …”, sometimes even in three degrees: “abba so and so said that abba so and so said that abba so and so said …” [12]. We thus see a tradition being formed by the transmission of the word of an elder, by means of a chain of transmitters. Instead of a word from the elder, it may be his conduct, this or that action of him, which is referred to: the apothegms, in effect, refer not only to the words of the elders, but also their actions and gestures through which are also expressed his teachings.

Another remarkable feature: originally, the apothegm is nominative and bears the name of a great old man: Anthony, Macarius or some other charismatic character, inspiring of the tradition. But quite quickly, anonymous apothegms appear, forming a very long series: “An old man said …” Finally, the singular is sometimes replaced by the plural: “The old men said …” [13] The teaching transmitted is no longer that of a great elder, but is that of tradition, represented, in a global and anonymous way, by the elders. This tradition, this transmission of the words of the elders, was experienced as all the more necessary when one had – and it was had very early – the feeling of a kind of degeneration in the practices and of a weakening, even of a loss, of the charism of the word, having stopped putting into practice the word of the inspired Fathers. It happens with that charisma of the word as it happened, in the Jewish tradition, with the charisma of prophecy, which ceased after Zacharias and Malachi. The parallel is explicitly made in an anonymous apothegm: “An old man said: the prophets made books; then our Fathers came, who put them into practice; those who came after them learned them by heart; then came this generation that has copied them and put them in the cupboards, without doing anything else ”[14]. The charisma of the word disappeared, because the word of the elders was no longer heard or put into practice. Hence the need to ensure the transmission of the inspired word of the elders, and that is the task of the elders of the present time: they are no longer “pneumatophores”, carriers of the Spirit, as they say of Anthony or Macarius, but who are from now on, carriers, transmitters of the word [15]. This fact is what explains the great development of the apothegms, as I said, in two or three degrees. It is noteworthy that apothegms of this type are particularly numerous among those attributed to abba Poimén, a monk from Scete who is situated towards the end of what can be considered as the living period of the apothegms, which runs roughly from the middle of the IV century to the middle of the V century. This is a very important phenomenon, since this is how the transmission of apothegms is ensured from one generation to another and how the apothegmatic tradition has been constituted.

This tradition, first purely oral, experienced, for the same reasons, the need to be put in writing. We have received two large collections, which were constituted in the second half of the 5th century: one is of an alphabetic type, more exactly alphabetical-anonymous: in it the apothegms are arranged according to the alphabetical order of the initial letter of the monks’ names. , from Anthony to Or (the Greek text of this series edited in PG 65); it is followed (incompletely edited in ROC 1907-1913) by a long series of anonymous ones; The other collection (whose Greek text is still unpublished) is known from a Latin version made around the middle of the 6th century (Pelagius and John, PL 73): the apothegms here are systematically arranged, classified by subject, with a certain number of rubrics. This second collection seems to have been made on top of the preceding one, more precisely on a state of the latter, prior to the one that has come down to us: in effect it has indications of an alphabetical pattern. Before the alphabetical-anonymous collection, there were other, smaller collections, from which the latter was constituted, as the same author warns us in his prologue: “Many already, at various times, have arranged in the form of stories these words and good deeds (note words and deeds!) of the holy elders, in a simple and unadorned style, for they had only in view the [spiritual] benefit of a great number. But, as the story of most of it is done in a confused way and without order, that created some difficulties for the mind of the reader … ”, and then explains that, to put order in this matter, he arranged it according to the order alphabetical of the names of the monks, placing at the end the apothegms that were not nominally attributed [16]. 


Of those small collections that were, it seems, quite numerous, two are known to us. The oldest is found in a book by Evagrius entitled Practical Treatise or The Monk, written in the Kellia towards the end of the 4th century: this treatise ends with a dozen apothegms, of which the first are nominative, attributed to Anthony, Macarius the Egyptian and Macarius the Alexandrian, and the others are anonymous; These apothegms are introduced by a formula that clearly indicates the objective of this small collection: “It is also necessary to question the paths of the monks who preceded us in good and order us according to them, since many beautiful things can be found said or done by them.” (“ Said or done ”, therefore words and actions!) [17]. This is the oldest testimony we have about the apothegms; there are other testimonies that are referred to in other works by the same author. They are also cited in some authors of the first half of the 5th century, Palladius, Cassian and the historian Socrates, proof that at that time the apothegms were already circulating, at least orally, in monastic circles. Another small collection is found in the writings of a monk Isaías who, originally from Egypt, lived in Palestine throughout the 5th century and who is the author of some thirty small treatises or logoi; the latter provides a series of apothegms introduced as follows: “Brothers, what I heard and saw among the elders, I refer to you without removing or adding anything” [18]; follow a fortnight of apothegms attributed to different Egyptian monks, which are found again in the alphabetical collection; but here they are related in the first person, as words spoken to Isaiah himself. It is difficult, at the moment, to pronounce on the exact date of this text, on the authenticity of these apothegms and on their relationship with those of the alphabetical collection; But, like those reported by Evagrius and the other authors I cited, they allow us to arrive, in the history of the formation of the apothegms, to a state prior to that of the great collections, by revealing a time in which tradition is still live.

We would like to be able to go back further, to the very origin of the apothegms, in other words, to be able to estimate their authenticity, appreciate their value as a testimony regarding the monks of whom they intend to relate the words and regarding the environment in which they lived. One thing at least is certain: that these apothegms, in so far as they are authentic, have been pronounced in Coptic, the only language that almost all of the monks whose words refer to the Apophthegmata Patrum had been able to speak; only some monks of foreign origin, like Arsenius or Evagrius, knew Greek; the others ignored it. This is explicitly said of Poimén, under whose name nearly fifty apothegms of the alphabetical series are placed [19]. Of Pambó, another great figure in the collection, Socrates tells us that he was “illiterate” (agrammatos), a term that Saint Athanasius also uses in relation to Anthony himself: this is why it must be understood that these monks were ignorant of Greek letters [20]. Cassian, who remained for many years, at the end of the fourth century, among the monks of Nitria and Scete, of whom he tries to relate the conversations he had with them, affirms that foreigners, like him and his companion Germán, cannot talk with these monks rather than through interpreters [21]. The original language of the apothegms could therefore be no more than Coptic. Now, we have precisely in Coptic a collection of apothegms: Would that be the primitive wording? Unfortunately it is not at all: that Coptic text, which preserves a large part of a collection related to the systematic collection, is a translation made on a Greek text, as shown by numerous errors that are indisputably from counter-senses made on a text Greek. The original text is therefore that of the great Greek collections, on which all versions have been made, directly or indirectly, including the Coptic version itself. Undoubtedly, this text contains several Copticisms, less numerous however than what has sometimes been claimed, but they are sufficiently explained by the oral substrata.

Furthermore, the first great Greek collections that we have are of works of a purely literary nature and could only have been written in a Greek cultural environment. Its very form indicates it, since the alphabetical collection, which is probably the first, is constituted according to the Greek alphabet, and not the Coptic one. These works, moreover, reveal themselves to be of a literary genre that is certainly very widely represented in the cultures of the Near East and in Judaism: I am thinking of the various books of wisdom, but more particularly of the famous treatise on the Mishna entitled Pirqê Abôth, “The chapters of the Fathers” where the teaching received by Moses is seen in parallel being transmitted from teacher to teacher, from rabbi to rabbi, with an always identical formula: “Rabbi such said (or said) …”, sometimes: “Rabbi tal says that, Rabbi tal said …”, which recalls what I have called the apothegm in two degrees; sometimes, as in the apothegms, there is a small representation, with the evocation of the circumstances in which the word has been pronounced. But the closest analogies are found in the Greek literary tradition, where collections of sentences proliferated; Let us think of the apothegms of the sages, in the Apophthegmata found in the moral works of Plutarch, “Apothegms of kings and generals”, more particularly the “Apothegms of the Lacedaemonians” (Apophthegmata lacónica) that they offer, regarding the form, the most impressive similarities with the Apophthegmata Patrum: as in the latter, in effect, the apothegms are divided into two series: a series of nominal apothegms, classified according to the alphabetical order of the names of the characters, then a series of apothegms anonymous. It seems clear that the alphabetical-anonymous collection of the Apophthegmata Patrum has been made on this model.

If we consider now, no longer the form of the collections, but the genre of the apothegms, we are led to the same conclusion. The “apothegm” reveals to be of a literary genre to which the sentence, the “chrie” and the maxim also belong; It is distinguished by its conciseness. The sophist Troilos de Side defines it as “a concise and forceful word”, logos suntomos kai eustochos, a formula that is found again almost as it is in an apothegm: the brothers ask an abba Juan about to die, to tell them logon tina suntomon kai sôtèrion, “a concise and salvific word” [22]; “Salvific” is the proper note of the Christian apothegm, which answers the question: “How can I be saved?”; but the apothegm itself is a short, concise, “laconica” word, like that of the Spartans referred to by Plutarch.

Finally, if we consider the very matter of apothegms, as it appears in the great collections (about which I cannot unfortunately elaborate), it is verified that these are tributaries, from that point of view too, of a rich literary tradition: one sees there taken up themes, comparisons, proverbs or apologues that were widely expanded at that time, especially among the Greek and Latin fabulists. Therefore, the great collections of apothegms were not constituted in the monastic environment, where the apothegms were born and where a certain anti-intellectualism prevailed, even a great distrust with respect to books (I refer them, among other texts, to the one who cited a moment ago, where those who, instead of putting their parents’ words into practice, put them in writing and ordered them in libraries are punished!). Certain indications lead to think that this happened in Palestine, more than in Egypt.

One can thus represent the history of the formation of collections of apothegms: at the origin there was a teaching, devoid of any didactic character, given in Coptic and which probably remained orally in that language, situated in a well-determined environment, evoking specifically Egyptian features (a certain Egyptian chauvinism is perceived in the oldest background of these collections), realistic and concrete observations in the representation of the monastic environment and of the places themselves. First transmitted orally, these words were consigned in small collections, later collected in large collections, where at the same time an abundant new material was introduced: apothegms of foreign origin, especially Palestinian; stories sometimes very extensively developed; extracts, artificially put in the form of apothegms, of literary works (for example, treatises of Isaiah, of Evagrius, with the name of him or with that of Saint Nilus, of Cassian translated into Greek, etc.). These great collections did not cease, subsequently, to be enriched and modified, since the matter of the apothegms was essentially malleable and always capable of growing, and this, not only in Greek, but also in the numerous versions that were made in different languages.

The history of the formation of the Apophthegmata Patrum seems to be analogous to that which New Testament criticism has been able to establish for the formation of the Gospels, starting from the logia or words of Jesus: in both cases, we find ourselves in the presence of texts in those who have been consigned a teaching delivered first in the form of “sayings”, in the vernacular, Aramaic logia or Coptic apothegms, transmitted orally over a more or less long period, at the end of which small collections of words have been constituted, such as those “logia of Jesus” that made known, very fragmentarily, at the beginning of that century, the Oxyrhynchos papyri and, more completely, in a Coptic version, the Gospel according to Thomas, discovered in 1945-1946, where each word de Jesus is simply introduced by the formula: “Jesus said …”. These collections were then used for the writing, in Greek as well as for the apothegms, of the texts that we know, where the words of Jesus are inserted in a story. But, unlike the gospels that quickly took the form of a closed “canon”, where the agrapha, that is, the words not inscribed in the canonical text, are always left out and any addition is excluded, the collections of the Apophthegmata Patrum they have always remained open, susceptible to receiving new apothegms from other media or from other times, as well as old apothegms that had first escaped them, but that were preserved in oral tradition or in independent writings. On the other hand, while the Gospels have preserved a ne varietur form, the matter of these collections has always remained fluid and malleable, taking the most diverse forms according to the regions and languages ​​in which they have expanded. But, although covered by these successive layers, the Egyptian background has remained, remaining as the essential element, and it is mainly thanks to them that the monasticism of the deserts of Lower Egypt was able to preserve an exemplary value alongside all subsequent monastic tradition. both in the West and in the East.

A IX century Arabic translation of the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” (“Apophthegmata Patrum”), this manuscript was found at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai 
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