The Desert Fathers
Our story begins, not in the wild and woolly landscape of early Northumbria, but the remote desert regions of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and at the beginning of the fourth century A.D.
It is here that we encounter Christian men and women who had chosen to live outside of the normal structure of social and political life, and had withdrawn from everyday concerns to pursue their Christian vocation. They came from every type of social background. There were the educated and the illiterate; professionals and peasants, those who had been rich and those who had always been poor, and yes, there were priests and even the occasional bishop.
Some chose to live a solitary life, living in caves or building simple houses, which they called cells, meeting occasionally with the other desert dwellers to share in the Eucharist, and to discuss how they were growing spiritually. Most sought the advice and counsel of those who had spent longer in the desert and who could help them with the problems they faced.
Others chose to live in simple communities, ordering their lives so all could concentrate on a life of prayer, and meditating on the scriptures, supporting one another to grow in the Lord.
Having given away their money, property, and given up their jobs and social positions, they had to find a way to be self supporting. Some made baskets from palm leaves, which they sold or traded food for. Others grew vegetables, not to live the ‘good life’ but to nourish their bodies as they sought to live their ‘spiritual lives’. others became proficient at tending the land, so much so that the desert itself began to blossom, and they were able to provide not only for their own needs but for the needs of others; so that in one particular period or famine, when the crops sown in the fertile regions failed, people came to the desert seeking bread.
Some, if they were near enough, helped the local farmers when they were needed or did odd jobs for local traders. And there were those, in special instances who had been called to do no work, and had to depend on the Lord to provide for their needs. All were keen to offer hospitality to those who were genuinely seeking to know more about the Lord, or were in need of real help. They would not however suffer those who were just curious, ‘the tourists of the desert ‘, whom they were quick to send on their way.
Common to them all was a shared commitment to find a ‘different way of being a Christian in the ‘world’ to that which they had experienced in the towns and cities.
These were the pioneers of the monastic spirit and generations of Christians who have felt compelled to travel the same road have drawn inspiration and guidance from these ordinary men and women, whom we now call The Desert Fathers and Mothers
But why choose to emigrate from one’s town or city to settle in a desert region? Why leave behind the comfort and succour of family and friends, work and social position, ambition and even the opportunity for mission, and put oneself into a place of vulnerability? Into what could be described as a ‘useless situation?’
Why did the movement to the desert, which began with a slow trickle of individuals, gather such momentum that in the space of half a century it was reported by eyewitnesses that the population of the desert equalled that of the towns, that whole villages were turning to a living faith in God because of the example of these desert émigrés, and pilgrims, princes and statesmen travelled great distances just to listen and learn about the spiritual life from these rather reluctant spiritual directors?
(One of the stories of the Desert Fathers tells of a judge who heard about the reputation of one Abba Moses and set off to meet him. Someone told the Abba about the visit, and he set off for the marshes, only to march right into the visitors. The judge enquired or the old man where he could find the cell of the Abba Moses. “What do you want with him?” he replied, “He is only an old fool” Undeterred, the judge found his way to Abba Moses’ cell, and asked the brothers nearby if he could see the Abba, as he had heard so much about him. He also told them about the old man he had met on the way, and his derogatory comments. The brothers were upset by this, and asked for a description of the gossip only to find out it was Abba Moses himself. When they revealed this to the judge, it was said he went away ‘edified in his soul’ at such an example of humility.)
But to return to our question, what motivated these Christians to emigrate to the desert?
From the very earliest times, the desert was a place of retreat, a safe haven for those led to escape persecution and social rejection.
But the mass exodus to the desert- did not begin during the great persecutions. At this time the majority of Christian preferred to ‘stay put’ even if being a witness to the Lord, meant death, which it inevitably did. There were those who welcomed martyrdom, for they saw it as the way home’.
Early in the 3C, after the Emperor Constantine had embraced Christianity, elevating it to the state religion, Christians began to find themselves in favour, rather than persecuted. It was at this point, when Christians began to find themselves at home in the world, that the response to the ‘call of the desert’ began to gain momentum, as we have said, beginning at first with a few, and then a multitude.
As Thomas Merton has pointed out:
“It should seem to us much stranger than it does, this paradoxical flight from the world that attained its greatest dimensions (I almost said frenzy) happened when the ‘world’ officially became Christian.”
Here was an opportunity to be openly Christian. Now an attempt could be made to ‘Christianise’ the whole of society, to put the Christian faith into practice in a collective way, and bring the whole of life under the Lordship of Christ, without the constant threat of persecution. It is not surprising that, many Christians, weary at the long years of persecution and social isolation, and filled with the excitement of attempting to ‘Christianise’ society, seized the opportunity with both hands.
Was, then, the Christian withdrawal into the desert purely a negative move? Was it an attempt to retreat from all the complications and compromise in attempting to Christianise society? Was it a judgmental act, motivated to shame those Christians who had decided to stay and work out their salvation in the city? Which Christians made the right response to this new and favourable situation, those who stayed in the ‘city’ or those who withdrew to the desert? In the mystery of God the answer has to be, BOTH.
One of my favourite stories, which I think will illustrate this point, comes from Elizabeth Gouges’ book on the life of St Francis of Assisi. There is a moment when St Francis meets with Cardinal John, and the two embrace. You can imagine the scene, Francis in his robes of poverty and the cardinal dressed elegantly. Yet as they embrace they realise they share the same heart and devotion for the Lord. Yet, one is called to the temptations of poverty, and the other to the temptations of riches or, to put it another way, one is called to the temptations of the desert, and the other to the temptations of the city.
However, in making this point, I don’t want to blunt the contribution made by the Desert Fathers in what I believe was a radical and prophetic movement essential to the survival of the church. For, after all, it was the ‘little man’ from Assisi who was the primary motivating factor in bringing renewal to the church, not Cardinal John!
In his book, ‘Ways of Imperfection’, Simon Tugwell points out:
“lf we are to understand the characteristic emphases of the Desert Fathers, it is important to put them back into their context and see that they are not founding something entirely new; to a considerable extent they are reacting to a situation which had taken shape before them, with roots in very primitive developments in the church … “
From the earliest beginnings of the church the theme of being ‘homeless in the world’ was one that was written deeply into the Christian consciousness. The Lord Himself had left his family and the security of his home and work to pursue the vocation his Father had set before Him. He had given up the right to a ‘normal life’ for the sake of the kingdom, and called upon His disciples to follow His example if their vocation in the kingdom demanded it. Whatever vocation the Father would call His children to, all were promised times of persecution and social isolation, because of their commitment to the kingdom, with it the promise of fruits of the kingdom, with love, joy and peace coming close to the top of the list. It is no surprise, then, that the earliest Christians described themselves as resident aliens in the world: ‘parakoi’ in Greek, and ‘peregrine’ in Latin. They identify themselves with the great heroes of faith in the O.T. who acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth’(Heb 11:13). They were ‘those who desire a better country’. A C2 Christian apologist describes the presence of Christians in the world in this way;
‘Though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour there is more like aliens’, they take full part as citizens, but they also submit to everything as if they were foreigners. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.’
The earliest Christians would have understood perfectly the term ‘Internal Émigrés’ for that is indeed is what they were. (Did we understand it?)
The high ethical standards of the early church, were an unconscious criticism of the society in which they lived, motivated not by a question for ‘the good’ but as a result of their personal devotion to Jesus.
They lived in the ‘world’ in an attitude of repentance, not regarding themselves as superior to their neighbours, but, rather, acknowledging with their lives their personal dependence on the Lord. Their personal behaviour which would have been regarded as ascetic in comparison to their ‘neighbours’ left them open to the charge or being a ‘little strange’, yet those who got to know the early Christians found them to be warm and loving, contented and humorous despite their vulnerable situation. They were seeking to live out, in a very real and ordinary way the Lord’s command to ‘be in the world, but not of the world’. It is this emphasis that the Desert Fathers sought to understand and to maintain in the very social context they were called to live in.
Those who had regarded themselves as strangers and aliens in a foreign land, and had been treated as such, now found themselves welcome and ‘at home’ in the world. For many this sudden change of status was too much. They had been schooled in the ethics of ‘exile’ which were rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, and they were reluctant to begin to renegotiate the terms of their presence in society in the new situation.
They were being thrust into a situation which they felt that neither the church nor the state were prepared for, and perhaps they could hear the echo that would dominate the Christian world ‘what has the emperor to do with the church?’ or, more recently ‘what has the church to do with the state?’ and the continual conflict and compromise that would result.
For the Desert Fathers the price of ‘freedom’ was too much to pay. They saw the dangers of the identification of the church and the state; and the fact that the symbol of the cross was now becoming identified with the ‘temporal power’ of the Empire only strengthened this conviction.
The former soldiers of Christ found themselves conscripted into the army of the Christian empire, an action that was not easily rationalised away for those who were only 350 years away from the Sermon on the Mount, and whose brethren had once been the victims of this army.
They were afraid that they would lose their Christian identity if they made their home in a world in which money, power, fame, success, influence and good connections were the ways to self-esteem, in a world which says, ‘You are what you have.’ They could see that to embrace this false identity would mean the loss of the security and safety that they had experienced in their devotion to another kingdom, for a false security, where the permanent desire ‘for more’: more power, more money, more Influence, more friends, more success, would lead in some mysterious way to a place of complete safety.
And so it is my opinion that the primary motivating factor that caused countless Christians to respond to the call of the desert was not the negative: ‘I DON’T WANT TO LIVE HERE,’ but rather; ‘I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LIVE HERE.’ This was a cry of the heart; and the retreat to the desert was an attempt to answer the question: ‘HOW THEN SHALL WE LIVE?’
To quote Thomas Merton again:
“ the flight of these men (and-women) to the desert was neither purely negative, nor purely individualistic. They were not rebels against society. True, they were in a certain sense ‘Anarchists’ and it will do no harm to think of them in that light. These were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values. But they did not intend to place themselves above society. They did not reject society with proud contempt, as they were superior to other men. On the contrary, one of the reasons that they fled from the world was that in the world men were divided into those who were successful, and imposed their will on others, and those who had to give in and be imposed upon. The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over others themselves. Nor did they fly from human fellowship. The society they sought was one where all men were truly equal, where the only authority under God was the charismatic authority of wisdom, experience and love.”
‘How then shall we live?’
To a certain extent, we have looked at the way in which the desert fathers lived. We have considered and observed their outward conduct by looking at the way they settled in the desert. What we are concerned to learn now is the inner meaning of monastic life. We shall try to listen to the ‘heart of the desert fathers’.
To do this we will use as our source Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers did not offer theories on the spiritual life, nor did they give lectures or write essays. The words we have from them are responses to their fellows in the desert, and to their occasional visitors. They were not intended to be general truths, but were practical, ordinary and down-to-earth answers to questions put to them by those who were searching for God, those who were in despair, those who needed consolation, and those in need of correction.
One of the things that strikes me most in the Sayings of the Fathers is the humour that runs through many of the stories.
(I must give another example.’ A brother came to visit Abba Sylvanus at Mount Sinai. When he saw the brothers working hard, he said to the old man, “Do not work for food that perishes, for Mary has chosen the good part.” Then the old man called his disciple; “Zachary, give this brother a book and put him in an empty cell.” Now when it was three o’clock the brother kept looking out of the door to see someone would call him for the meal. But nobody called him. He got up, went to see the old man, and asked: “Abba, didn’t the brothers eat today?” The old man said, “Of course we did.” “Then why didn’t you call me?” he said. The old man replied, “You are a spiritual person, and do not need that kind of food, but since we are earthly, we want to eat and that’s why we work. Indeed you have chosen the good part, reading all day long, and not wanting to eat earthly food.” When the brother heard this he repented and said, “Forgive me, Abba.” Then the old man said to him: “Mary certainly needed Martha ,and is really by Martha’s help that Mary is praised”’)
Apart from the humour, what were the themes that were emphasised in the hearts of the Desert Fathers? Let us look at The 3 R’s of the desert;
Without doubt, the Desert Fathers were men who recognised that they were broken and incomplete. They were men who were serious about sin and recognised their need of God. The movement to the desert was essentially a movement of repentance.
Let’s listen to some of their own comments:
“It was my vices that led me here, not my virtue”
“If you want to have rest in this life say,
“Who am I?” And judge no one.”
‘I am a man and a sinner, and I came out here to weep for my sins and to adore Jesus the Son of the living God”
“Our God is a consuming fire; hence we ought to kindle the divine fire in ourselves with labour and tears”
For the desert fathers repentance was not a one off event. For them, the life of faith was to be lived in a permanent state of repentance, of continually receiving forgiveness from God. Although they had left the world for the desert, they realised that the attitudes of the world lay deep within themselves. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” was a favourite prayer of the Desert. For salvation from sin, it was to Jesus the Desert Fathers turned.
Repentance was a very practical matter. Many of the sayings of the Desert Fathers to those who enquired about how they could really get to Know God, remind me of the advice Jesus gave to the rich young ruler. In that instance, Jesus got straight to the heart of the matter: “It’s money that is keeping you from a true knowledge of God”. Here, Jesus was giving a specific word to a specific person, revealing what was his problem getting to know God. Jesus’ advice was simple: Get rid of your money! Come, follow Me.
In the Sayings we see the same spirit at work; they give specific answers to specific people regarding the question, How can I really get to know God?
“Learn to control your tongue”
“Learn to control your belly”
“If any one asks you for anything give it to him. Don’t be stingy.”
“Stop thinking evil about your brother”
For the Fathers repentance was not an intellectual, or purely emotional, response to the forgiveness God has given us in Jesus.
Repentance meant continual change, a continual choosing to let God have anything that was a hindrance in getting to know Him better. It is within the context of repentance the that Desert Fathers emphasised the importance of ‘self-knowledge’, and the importance of ‘paying attention to oneself ‘. Their concern, for themselves and for others, was not that they should behave correctly according to the rules, but rather, that they should be able to ‘discern’ the truth about their inward condition.
I am reminded of a verse from Psalm 51 which makes this point:
“surely You require truth in the inward parts:
You teach me wisdom in the inmost places
What they were looking for was purity of heart, purity of inner desires and motives, and this could not, be reached without facing the base motives, and inordinate desires that we all share in because of the nature of sin.
The context for such self knowledge was the Cell. The Cell is absolutely central to the spirituality of the Desert Fathers.
One of the most famous desert savings involves a brother new to the desert. At first he was very excited, and anxious to make progress in ‘getting to know God’. But not very long after getting into his cell, he found himself rather bored and listless, unable to settle at anything. ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ he thought. So off he went to see his Abba, who politely asked him to stay in his cell, and his cell would teach him everything. So off he went back to the cell. He was soon bored and listless again, and he began to think to himself:
What on earth am I doing here! I could be doing great things for God, rather than just sitting around here. I could have been a great preacher. And he imagined himself in the pulpit surrounded by people anxious to hear what HE would have to say. This is no good! So off he went to see the abbot again. The abbot was very polite.. “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
So off he went. But this time he began to think about other things, things he wouldn’t really like to talk about, things he thought he would stop thinking about when he was a fully fledged desert father. He was overwhelmed by these thoughts and ran out the cell, to see the abbot. The Abba was very polite, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” This time he returned to the cell exhausted. He collapsed onto the floor in a heap, overcome by depression. Picking up some of the reeds on the floor, he began to weave them into a basket. Then he paused and had a meal. By this time he felt a little better, so he said his prayers and read the scriptures. Then he went back to making his baskets. He soon had a rhythm going, and he found himself able to face and to look at himself, to be alone in the presence of God.
‘The cell,’ to quote another Abba,
‘is that furnace of Babylon in which the three children found the Son of God, but it is also the pillar of cloud out of which God spoke to Moses.’
The cell was certainly not a place to hide from the world; it was the place where the world was faced in all its fury.
But if the Desert Fathers were serious about ‘facing themselves’ they were most reluctant in sorting other people out. As we have said, they were reluctant spiritual directors. Such was their attitude about not making judgements about others, that they could have and have been accused of being rather casual about morality.
Several of my favourite stories make this point:
‘One of the brothers had sinned, and -.he priest told him to leave the community. So then Abbot Bessarian got up and walked out with him saying, “I am a sinner, too.”
‘A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them,. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent him a message saying, Come, the community of the brethren is waiting for you. So he arose, and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet him and said, “What is this father?” the elder replied, “My sins are running out behind me, and I don’t even see them, and I have not have come to judge he sins of another”
There was a fornicating monk, who kept a woman in his cell,
so that word began to get around about it.
Some monks living nearby decided to do something about it, and the asked Abba Ammonas who was visiting the region go with them.
The monk seeing them coming hid the woman in a large water Jar. Abba Ammonas saw this is a vision.
When they all went into the cell, the Abba sat on the jar, while the others searched the room. They could find nothing, and went away ashamed. When they had gone, the Abba got up and took the brother by both hands and simply said to him:, “Brother, I think it is time for you to pay attention to yourself.”
If the Desert Fathers were serious about sin, they were also serious about the love of God, which they knew well. This is what they communicated to others; repentance was the way home to a loving father.
‘An Elder was asked by a certain soldier if God would forgive a sinner. And he said to him, “Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is worn, will you throw it away?” The soldier replied and said, “No, I will mend it and put it back on.” The Elder said to him, “If you take care of your own cloak, will God not be merciful to his own image?”’
Self denial played an important role in the life of the Fathers, which they regarded as the road to ‘inner transformation’ or becoming more Christ Like. The theological term we use for this is sanctification. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation on God’s Word, and manual work were regarded as essential to the spiritual life, but they were just regarded as ‘tools’ to help one break through to a deeper understanding of God, and oneself.
These were the outward signs of an inner willingness to surrender the whole of one’s life to God.
But anybody who has tried to deepen their relationship with God suddenly discovers there is an enemy inside the camp, the self!
The Fathers were very specific about the characteristics of the problems of ‘the self’ which they described them in detail and gave them a name: Logosmoi.
Logosmoi are thoughts that invade a person’s heart and mind and divide it in its single minded quest for God and to follow their vocation. A person’s becomes so preoccupied with these thoughts, and images, that they can no longer concentrate on their vocation. The Logosmoi gradually lead them away from what they are meant to be doing into a world of fantasy.
Logosmoi keep us preoccupied with our own need for security, our own personal welfare, our own needs, to the exclusion of others.
Abba Evagrius lists 8 of these Logosmoi, and in describing the content of these thoughts, provides a penetrating analysis of human nature.
Gluttony is not regarded simply as over eating, or the desire for fancy foods, which were regarded as harmful. The ‘thought’ of gluttony is the constant preoccupation with the way we eat, are we getting enough? Are we eating the right things? Gluttony is the preoccupation with food, and an over anxiety about one’s health.
For the Fathers, lust was simply a matter of allowing our sexual fantasies to run away with us. Lust “fills our mind with a desire for a variety of people, in a variety of places and in a variety of positions.”
Real relationships that go wrong do less damage than corrupted imaginary ones. Lust is the exact opposite of a real relationship between real people and as a result it creates problems in all our relationships.
Love of Money
The love of money leads to hoarding, putting away as much as you can, giving away as little as you can, in order to save for the future. We imagine ourselves being out of work, and worry about being too sick or old to work. We worry about our future if we will still be able to enjoy the ‘little luxuries of life’ or, even worse, no longer have any security. We see money as our security not faith in God.
Is seen to be preoccupation with the past, the good old days, better times when things were done well, done differently. When we had everything we needed to live a proper life. These thoughts lead us out of the present and leave us in the past. Often the memories we treasure are distorted, altered, and untrue.
Anger is the preoccupation with the way people have slighted us, overlooked us, spoke badly about us. This is the type of anger that consciously or unconsciously looks to pay back, to take revenge to make sure the other persons receives their just rewards.
For the Fathers, to continue in this state leads to ill health, nightmares and eventual- hallucinations.
This is a condition where we cannot settle to anything: we wander around aimlessly, waiting for time to pass us by, or wondering what will come next. We spend our time daydreaming about being somewhere else, doing something else, anything else. At the heart of this Logosmoi is the temptation for us to abandon our course – and if we do run away, we will take all our problems with us.
These thoughts get us to see ourselves in good situations, the complete centre of attention. One of the Fathers describes a recurring daydream about his own importance. Hundreds of people come to seek his spiritual advice. He sees himself as a great preacher, admired by the crowds for his wisdom and insight. He longs to leave the cell for the limelight.
Is the ultimate failing, it consists of thoughts that we can achieve anything we want without a mature dependence on God. In the desert that goal was
spiritual maturity. Pride leads to spiritual madness. In the desert it led to many strange practices, including putting oneself in chains and eating grass.
There is no way the Fathers were advocating the repression of
natural, healthy God-given appetites.
It is healthy to want to eat; it is natural to have a positive attitude towards sex,
It is great to have enough money to meet our needs, to be angry in the face of injustice, to cherish memories, to affirm our achievements.
The problem begins when these healthy appetites and desires become inordinate, out of control, or they control us, especially when we draw close to God.
But in no way were the Desert Fathers advocating that human effort could save a man from his sinful self. Many of their Sayings positively warn against this:
‘The old men used to say, if you see a brother trying to climb up to heaven by his own will, hold him by the foot and pull him down to the ground, for it’s just not good for him’
The Fathers knew the very real dangers of ‘will worship’ which is just another form or idolatry.
They knew well that if the temptation of the city was compromise, which led to spiritual death then:
THE TEMPTATION OF THE DESERT”-“ WAS PRIDE, WHICH LED TO MADNESS.
And indeed we find that madness in the desert, with people eating grass, binding themselves with chains, beating themselves, going without any sleep a, going without food, separating themselves from all human fellowship until they are finally overcome by the ‘desert madness.’
Church history has emphasised the dangers of ‘will worship’ where attempts were made to purge whole societies from these ‘seven deadly sins.’ Such paranoia is not part of the message of the gospel.
What the Fathers were advocating was the need to be honest with ourselves, to be real about our true condition. This was not to lead us to despair, or self depreciation, but to a ‘Loving Father,’ and a freedom of Spirit only he can give.
The spiritual disciplines were the ‘prodigal’s way home.’ Of themselves they cannot help us. Yet they were the necessary road to the one who can.
One of the images used to express the spirituality of the desert was that of ‘spiritual warfare.
The monk is a member of Christ’s Army, the Militia Christi. The Desert was not only a place of ‘spiritual revelation’ the place where God speaks, it was also the place of confrontation and conflict, where one did battle with the forces of evil.
The desert was thought to be the home of the demons, who after their work in the city encouraging wickedness, returned to the desert. Such thinking is regarded as being ‘ancient’ and not relevant to our modern minds.
But an examination of the Father’s explanation and experience of the reality of evil should cause us to re-evaluate our own position.
If Logosmoi were thoughts that cause a person to be preoccupied with themselves, and lock them up in a world of self interest., demons were spiritual entities that took advantage of this preoccupation, and who sought to ‘possess’ the situation and take over the person or the community.
To use modern language:
Logosmoi led a man to being ‘dehumanised’ his life becoming a
preoccupation with his own ‘illusion of security’. All who threaten that
security become ‘enemies’. To become ‘dehumanised’ leads to being
‘demonised’ where the enemies of our own security have to be destroyed
at all costs, for the sake of the Good.
Merton captures this thought in his notes; On Peace
He gives the illustration of a child, so tiny it had to be carried into
the gas chamber, confidently chatting with the guard carrying him, about
the ‘birdie’ on his cap.
‘We should not fear the ‘wicked them’ but rather the dehumanised and
demonised man, who did what he did for good and rational reasons, or
who (for personal security) simply obeyed orders.
One of the Desert Father’s stories continues this point;
Abba Anthony said, the time is coming when people will be insane, and
they see somebody who is not insane they will attack that person
saying; ‘You are insane because you are not like us.’
John T. Skinner
Internal Émigrés 1991