By “Desert Fathers” we mean the earliest Christian monks: Egyptian men (and some women) who chose to exchange life as it was lived in towns and villages for an austere existence in the desert, largely inspired by the example of Abba Antony of Egypt, ca 250-356. Shortly after Anthony died, Athanasius the Great wrote a Life of Antony, one of our main sources of information about those early monks. But by the end of the fourth century, a corpus of aural lore was being developed in the monastic retreats of Lower Egypt. This oral corpus continued to grow and was still growing when around AD 500, it was committed to writing (in Greek). This was the work of some monks who had taken refuge in Palestine from the attacks of barbarians in the area.
Once they were safe in Palestine, the monks sought to preserve in writing the aural tradition they had brought with them. They called their work, Apophthegmata Patrum, “Sayings of the [Desert] Fathers”. The title is inadequate, for, in addition to many sayings of various fathers, there are also tales. These included both anecdotes from “lives of the Fathers” (as the tales were sometimes rather grandly known) and anonymous tales of a more general nature. But regardless of genre, every tale has a moral – much like the narratives in the Gospel According to Luke.
The reason such tales were retained and recorded together with the Fathers’ sayingswas that they were considered to be spiritually beneficial. This gives a clue to what the whole corpus was about: apart from the Scriptures, it was all they possessed by way of guidance in how to live the life of a monk. On closer examination, it can be seen that the sayings and the tales indicate, respectively, the theory and the practice of Christian monastic life as it was first conceived. Over the following millennium, monasticism would achieve massive importance and leave a profound imprint on the evolution of the Church, one which we ignore at our own peril.
If the statistics from the tales and sayings can be trusted (one can never be sure), so many folk withdrew from “the world” — which more or less meant the valley and estuary of the Nile — that Athanasius could say, “The desert became a city”. Apart from those who entered the large and well-organised institutions in the Thebaid associated with Pachomius, most would-be monks started out as apprentices to some experienced Father in a small community. Some would stay there all their lives, and a few would become Fathers of their own communities, while a very few would withdraw into the fastnesses of the desert to live (and maybe to die) as hermits.
Wherever they were living, all monks sought, above all, to obey the Pauline injunction to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Th 5:17) To this end, they would learn the Psalms and large portions of the Scriptures by heart. These, they would constantly repeated aloud, both when they assembled for worship and while they worked with their hands: this they called meditation. They constructed baskets, ropes, mats — anything that could be made from the rushes and palm-leaves that were readily at hand. We get a glimpse of it here:
Once when the holy Abba Antony was residing in the desert, overcome by accidieand a great darkening of logismoi he was saying to God: “Lord, I want to be saved, and my logismoi donot leave me alone. What am I to do in my affliction? How am I to be saved?” Going outside [his cell] a little way, Antony saw somebody like himself, sitting working — then standing up from his work and praying; sitting down again, working at rope-braiding, then standing to pray once more. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct Antony and to assure him. And he heard the angel saying: “Act like this and you shall be saved.” He experienced much joy and courage on hearing this and, acting in that way, he went on being saved. [Antony 1, APsys 7.1]
Monks worked, not only to support themselves, but to have something with which to relieve the poor and to entertain visitors who came their way. This they did in the belief that in serving the poor and the stranger they were ministering to Christ himself. But for themselves, they had little mercy. Fasting, which was held to be a most salutary practice, was carried to inordinate lengths. Of sleep they often had too little, and there were many other ways in which they tortured themselves to beat down “the old man.” It was only gradually that wiser fathers began to realise that there had to be moderation in all things. The word discretion or discernment[diakrisis] became increasingly common — to the point that this was eventually regarded as one of the most important monastic virtues, without which no good thing could be accomplished.
“Abba Anthony said: ‘There are those who wore their bodies away with spiritual discipline [askesis],but became far from God, because they did not have discretion.’” [Anthony 8, APSys 10.1] When an unnamed elder was asked: “What is the monk’s task?” he replied, “Discretion.” [N.93 APSys 21.9] There were many other tasks to be sure: obedience, indifference to physical conditions, purity; there were about twenty ideals for which the monk was to strive, but the one that is most often mentioned and which appears to have been considered the key to all the others is humility. Abba Antony said: “I have seen all the snares of the devil spread out on earth, and I said with a sigh: ‘Who can pass these by?’ and I heard a voice saying to me: “Humility.” [Antony 7, APSys 15.3]
John Wortley is a retired priest and scholar of the Desert Fathers.