Who Were the Desert Fathers and Why Now Is a Good Time to Remember Them?
An invaluable testimony of the purest and most honorable moment that Christianity has ever lived.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., the deserts of Egypt and Syria were populated by a race of men who sought an unexplored path towards God. One that had not been inherited from others and which they could find on their own through austerity and direct and solitary communication.
The first of them, referred to as Desert Fathers, wanted to flee from the decadence of the Roman Empire and the excesses of the world. They were Christian monks, hermits or anchorites that yearned what in Greek is called hésykia, an “inner peace” to enable the mystical union with God. Hésykia was seen as an alternative to martyrdom, considered by many Christians to be the highest form of sacrifice.
The best known anchorite was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in 270-271. Saint Anthony was certainly a healer, but not of physical maladies, but of the soul and body, of flesh in the sense of the human being as the incarnated spirit.
With time, this model attracted many disciples, who chose a life of extreme asceticism. They all renounced all the pleasures of the senses, abundant food, rest and anything that might make them feel comfortable. They focused their energy on praying, singing psalms, fasting, charity and in the so-called meleté, which translates from Latin as “meditation”, in order to reach hésykia.
What we know of the Desert abbas (fathers) and ammas (mothers) comes from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which included 1,202 sayings. The following are some fragments from this wise anthology. An invaluable testimony of the purest and most honorable moment that Christianity has lived; sustained by meditation, kindness and inner peace —and far from the political or economic entanglements that today has degenerated into. All together, the abbas and ammas made a spiritual city of the dessert.
Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”
He also said, “Obedience with abstinence gives men power over wild beasts.”
Abba Moses, “Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all.”
An elder, “A man who keeps death before his eyes will at all times overcome his cowardliness.”
Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him “Do not trust in your own righteousness do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”
An elder said, “This is the life of the monk: work, obedience, meditation, not judging, not backbiting, not grumbling; for it is written, ‘Oh, you that love the Lord, hate the things that are evil’ [Ps 91:10]. The life of a monk is to have nothing to do with that which is unjust, not to see evil with one’s eyes, not to be a busybody, not to listen to other folks’ affairs, to give rather than to take away with one’s hands, not to have pride in one’s heart nor wicked thoughts in one’s mind, not to fill one’s belly, but rather to act with discretion in all things. In these the life of the monk consists.”
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