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
"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
- 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.
- 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
- Economy of words--The desert monastics
stressed using few, if any, words, finding in much speech spiritual
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- Fasting--One meal per day was considered
sufficient. Fasting was considered a way of breaking the control of
one's bodily appetites.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
form of despair, even nihilism in the face of failure and/or spiritual
Sometimes called “the demon of noontide,” it denoted
- 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.
- Are some lives more significant than others? Why
or why not?
- What makes a behavior extreme or fanatical? Is
extreme behavior ever acceptable? Under what circumstances?
- When can wealth, food, words, or gifts be
dangerous to our souls?
- Why are simplicity, solitude, and charity
- Can one learn from
physical and/or mental suffering? Why or why not?
- Can suffering of
any kind lead to holiness or to moral improvement?
- Can one be morally
or spiritually perfect in this life?
- How does Abba Antony view temptation?
- How does Abba Arsenius view sleep?
- How does Amma Theodora understand self-discipline
- What does Abba Joseph mean by being changed into
- How does Abba Moses deal with pride?
aspect of the desert fathers most confuses you and what would it mean
to clear up that confusion?
do they have to teach you, if anything?