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.
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
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?”