The Impact of the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have a powerful impact, stretching far beyond the deserts of Egypt.  While I was engaged in my research into John Cassian’s demonology, I wanted to organise my comparative demonologies into “Desert” and “Not-Desert”.  I was advised that, while this was a useful exercise for organisation, the boundaries of the Desert are not so easily defined.

For example, one of my “Not-Desert” sources was St. Augustine of Hippo.  As a source for demonology in relation to John Cassian, he shows us that, if Cassian did not draw ideas directly from the Bishop of Hippo Regius, their western locale informed both men’s writings.  However, to say, “St. Augustine of Hippo is not a Desert influence,” is to ignore the fact that St. Augustine had desert influences upon him, both in his Rule and from St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony.  St. Augustine, in fact, cites the Life of St. Antony as being instrumental in his road to conversion.  The Desert has impacted St. Augustine.

Another man impacted by the Desert whose ideas on spirits resonated with John Cassian’s is St. Gregory of Nyssa.  St. Gregory did not himself spend time in Egypt.  However, his elder brother Basil, who confirmed his ordination to the episcopate in 372, did.  Furthermore, when we think of the interconnectedness of the Eastern Church, we realise as well that both St. Gregory and Evagrius Ponticus were present at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that Evagrius maintained contact with people outside of Egypt after he retired to the monastery at Nitria (Kellia? I forget).  Who knows what words of Evagrius may have made their way to Nyssa?

By the late 300s, anybody who was anybody had some contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Jerome who had his own monastery in Bethlehem, where some of the Desert ascetics lived as well, and Rufinus who spent time living amongst the Fathers, and Egeria of the bestselling travelogue.

In the West, Athanasius’ biography of St. Antony was translated by the mid-fourth century and circulated widely (thus St. Augustine’s acquaintance with it).  As well, a collection the Apophthegmata Patrum, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, were made available in Latin by the 500s.  They had a wide circulation, not only with the Life of St. Antony but also with the Lausiac History and Rufinus’ translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto — all gathered together, these are called the Vitae Patrum.  Monks all over Western Europe would continue to read these works down to the Renaissance, seeking wisdom for how to live.

In wide circulation as well were John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences.  These two works had a lasting impact on western spirituality in mediating the Desert tradition as well as much of Evagrius Ponticus’ spiritual wisdom.  For more on the legacy and impact of John Cassian, read my post on the topic.

St. Benedict felt the impact of the Desert as he organised his monastery and Rule.  He recommended that his monks read John Cassian.  Thus did John Cassian’s mediation of the Desert pass into the round of monastic reading alongside the Vitae Patrum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Desert Fathers would make their impact visible in the Franciscans, in the Augustinians, even amongst the Brethren of the Common Life, being cited by Thomas a Kempis as worthy reading.

In the East, the monasticism of Egypt has continued in unbroken ascetic labour to this day.  Its sister monastic movements, inspired and sprung from the soil of Egyptian toil, exist to this day, living by the same desire for detachment and prayer in Mt. Athos and in the monasteries of Cyprus, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, Ukraine, the Americas.

They were enshrined to be required spiritual reading for all eternity in the Philokalia.

In the contemporary world, the Desert Fathers have impacted Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Benedicta Ward, Richard J. Foster, Christopher A. Hall, and me.

Will they impact you?

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