Introduction to the Desert Fathers

"The whole life of a man is but one single day for those who are working hard with longing."
--Abba Gregory the Theologian

"It is a great thing to pray without distraction but to chant psalms without distraction is even greater."
--Abba Evagrius

"To live without speaking is better than to speak without living. For the former who lives rightly does good even by his silence but the latter does no good even when he speaks. When words and life correspond to one another they are together the whole of philosophy."
--Abba Isidore of Pelusia

General Characteristics and Concerns
  1. The Abba--the spiritual father was considered the source of wisdom and life by his or her followers. An abba (or amma) did not function as an instructor but as an example. Therefore, the sayings of the abba were tied to certain circumstances; they were not lectures. Their manner of life was to be studied and imitated in close proximity, if only on certain occasions.

  2. Simplicity of life--The desert monastics stressed living in a humble, uncomplicated manner, owning little or nothing. They chose simple work, such as rope making, to support themselves, ate poor food, lived in stone and mud huts, and wore rough single garments.

  3. Economy of words--The desert monastics stressed using few, if any, words, finding in much speech spiritual danger. 

  4. Spiritual warfare--The desert life was a place to go and confront one's own moral failings, especially patterns and habits of sin. Accounts of demonic encounters were considered a normal part of the monastic life.

  5. Solitude--A life spent alone with God in prayer and contemplation was the ideal for the desert life. The eremetic (hermit) life was more common in Lower Egypt, while the cenobitic practice of a gathered communty was more common in Upper Egypt. At Nitria and Scetis, they gathered together in skete (larva) cells living near each other. "Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything."

  6. Austerity--The monastic life was to be one of going with as little as possible--as little food, as little sleep, as little wealth, and so on. Not all desert monks practiced the same infamous extremes of the Syrian stylites--going about naked, living on columns, refusing to remove vermin from their persons.

  7. Fasting--One meal per day was considered sufficient. Fasting was considered a way of breaking the control of one's bodily appetites. 

  8. Charity--The practice of charity included simple acts of hospitality, going without if others were in need, and a continual practice of forgiving and seeking forgiveness.

  9. Prayer--Contemplative prayer and the chanting of the psalms were at the center of their manner of life. Some used bags with stones to count out their prayers.

  10. Distrust of curiosity--The desert monastics divided visitors into two types--those "from Jerusalem" and those "from Babylon." The later were those who came out of curiosity, while the former were those who came out of need and devotion.

  11. Accidie--a form of despair, even nihilism in the face of failure and/or spiritual bankruptcy.  Sometimes called “the demon of noontide,” it denoted spiritual dryness.

  12. Athletae Dei--The desert monks were considered "athletes of God," and their stories were published as examples of spiritual and ethical heroism. Athanasius' Life of Antony is one of the first and most famous.

Encounter Questions

  1. Are some lives more significant than others? Why or why not?
  2. What makes a behavior extreme or fanatical? Is extreme behavior ever acceptable? Under what circumstances?
  3. When can wealth, food, words, or gifts be dangerous to our souls?
  4. Why are simplicity, solitude, and charity valuable?
  5. Can one learn from physical and/or mental suffering? Why or why not?
  6. Can suffering of any kind lead to holiness or to moral improvement?
  7. Can one be morally or spiritually perfect in this life?

Content Questions

  1. How does Abba Antony view temptation?
  2. How does Abba Arsenius view sleep?
  3. How does Amma Theodora understand self-discipline and prayer?
  4. What does Abba Joseph mean by being changed into fire?
  5. How does Abba Moses deal with pride?

Application Questions

  1. What aspect of the desert fathers most confuses you and what would it mean to clear up that confusion?
  2. What do they have to teach you, if anything?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding