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The Desert Fathers.




Moses the Ethiopian, a famous Desert Father


Apart from St. Anthony the Great himself, the Desert Fathers are perhaps the most famous of the Christian ascetics of the fourth and fifth centuries. They fled to the desert in their thousands - an extraordinary phenomenon which soon caught the attention of the world at large. They lived in monasteries, in individual cells or completely solitary. Some had no fixed home and wandered around from place to place. They were simple, uneducated people for the most part, and, of those who became famous, we know that Macarius the Great had been a camel driver and trader in nitre, Macarius of Alexandria was a former sweet seller, P,atermuthius was a tomb robber, and Moses the Ethiopian was a former slave who had then become the head of a gang of brigands.


Their lack of learning was not a barrier to being accepted as monks – far from it.

Anthony had refused to continue his education beyond the basics, and Athanasius’

Life tells us that he could not write, though there are indications that he could read.

In two passages of the Life where Anthony holds discussions with pagan philosophers, we are told that he impressed them with his wisdom in spite of his lack of education, and he is quoted as saying that if a man has a sound mind, he has no need of learning. The Desert Fathers believed this wholeheartedly: many, as we know, were peasants, either illiterate or with little formal education. and they made it clear to their disciples that study in any form was unnecessary for a monk. Those who were educated rejected learning and admired the ascetics who had none. Arsenius, for instance, had been tutor to the two sons of the emperor Theodosius, but after retiring to the desert, he gave up all intellectual activity, and was unwilling to reply to any question about the Scriptures, or even to write a letter. Pambo, one of the most famous of the early Desert Fathers, who was originally illiterate, was taught to read and became a priest. But he discouraged others from the pursuit of learning. When asked to give an explanation of a piece of Scripture, he would at first not reply, but then said he did not know the passage. If pressed, he refused to say any more.


Thus, we have a body of monks whose fame rests essentially on two things: one is their extreme asceticism and the other is their simplicity and lack of education. St. Basil of Caesarea, who visited them, was impressed more by their asceticism than their other qualities, and said in a letter that he was amazed at their ability to suffer the extremes of hardship, to mortify their flesh, to ignore their bodies for the good of their souls. He considered them blessed and longed to emulate them. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, says he felt ashamed that uneducated monks could do better than him.


The Desert Fathers left no record of either their thought or their practices. We can only learn about them from contemporary descriptions by visitors to the desert and the collections of their sayings which were made much later.


We have two early accounts of their ascetic way of life, both from people who visited them at the end of the fourth century. These are the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, an account of a journey down the Nile by an anonymous monk from Jerusalem, and the Lausiac History by Palladius, bishop of Helenopolis in Bithynia. It would appear that the author of the Historia Monachorum met many of the Desert Fathers, but, as he includes all sorts of information which he gathered by hearsay, much of it is not only inaccurate, but owes a considerable amount to the monks’ love of a good story. A Latin version of the Historia by Rufinus of Aquileia (who died in 410) which also drew on his own experiences in Egypt, indicates that people in the West were eager to know about the Desert Fathers.


Palladius retired to the desert in 388 in order to practise asceticism and he records meeting some of the most famous of the Desert Fathers. He spent three years in Egypt, and thus visited the monks at about the same time as the author of the Historia Monachorum. Not surprisingly, many names which appear in this work also appear in the Lausiac History, but Palladius, too, relies on hearsay information and tells a certain number of improbable stories. The most valuable part of the Lausiac History is where he describes his own time in the desert and his problems with trying to learn how to lead an ascetic life similar to that of the Egyptian monks. His personal perspective is enlightening and entertaining.


Both accounts abound in stories of the monks’ endurance and steadfastness in maintaining a life of extreme physical deprivation, often in solitary conditions, far from other people. There is plenty of information about food and fasting, including the type of food eaten by various ascetics; for instance some only ate uncooked food, most ate bread but some only ate vegetables, one is mentioned as eating pickled vegetables, another ate only endive, and some ate fruit. Night vigils are mentioned, where the monks either sat or stood all night without sleep.


Although these works concentrate on the external aspect of asceticism of the Desert Fathers, belief in their wisdom was established early. The Apophthegmata Patrum, the collections of their sayings, record the advice which the ‘Old Men’ as they were called gave to their disciples, together with anecdotes demonstrating their holy way of life. The sayings appear to have been gathered at random, with no regard to time or place. Thus, the Alphabetical Collection, probably the most comprehensive of them, which was made at the end of the sixth century, contains the words of some of the earliest Desert Fathers, mixed with many of a later date, and includes the sayings of ascetics who had nothing to do with Egypt or the desert.


However, there is no doubt of the popularity of the Apophthegmata. Latin versions, known as the Verba Seniorum, were disseminated throughout the West, and we find translations into French as late as the beginning of the thirteenth century in the work of Wauchier de Denain and the anonymous Vitas Patrum dedicated to the templar Henry d’Arci.


The sayings are full of information about the daily life of the monks including how they should behave in their cell and to one another, their manual work, their diet, even their daily timetable, but, although they are told to pray, there is no advice given on prayer itself, or the spiritual side of life. The Fathers do not, on the whole, elaborate on what it is that they are striving towards. It is enough for the disciple to say, ‘Give me a word that I may be saved’, and the answer which occurs most frequently, is ‘Sit in your cell’, very often accompanied by ‘Weep for your sins’.


Macarius the Great advised a monk, Isaiah, to flee from men, and when asked what it meant, he said that he should sit in his cell and weep for his sins. Moses the Ethiopian advised a brother who came to visit him to sit in his cell and his cell would teach him everything.


Much of the advice is severely practical, and it can be seen from the large number of examples concerning food that enormous emphasis is placed on the value of fasting.


A monk asked one of the Old Men, Abba Ares, what he should do to be saved and the reply was that he should eat only bread and salt in the evening for the whole year, and then come back for more advice.


Another of the Fathers, Abba Megethius, said that he ate one loaf every other day, but was advised by another holy man to eat half a loaf every day. He found this much more satisfactory.

The diet of Dioscorus the Naschite was barley bread and lentils. He made a resolution each year to restrain himself by not doing something, such as not meeting anyone, not speaking, not eating cooked food or not eating fruit or vegetables. This is a good example of the methods the Desert Fathers found to control their passions and subdue the flesh.


The simplicity and down to earth nature of the sayings reveal the qualities which people admired in the Desert Fathers, and their incredible feats of endurance in pursuit of an asceticism which they believed would bring them nearer to God, made them holy in the eyes of the many who saw them or read about them.


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