Spiritual Disciplines and the Desert

Or maybe, “spiritual disciplines in the Desert.”

Registration is almost closed for my course on the Desert Fathers! I do hope you sign up or encourage someone you know who would profit from this course of study. One of my multiple points of entry into the world of the Desert Fathers and the Great Tradition of the church catholic was the Quaker Richard Foster, first his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home and then Celebration of Discipline followed by a number of other works of his.

He and Dallas Willard are perhaps the two most recogniseable names in the spiritual disciplines movement. If you are into the spiritual disciplines, or if you want to go deeper, then the Desert Fathers are foundational for any such pursuit of practical wisdom. And if you study the Desert Fathers (with me, I hope), you will encounter these disciplines:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Study
  • Simplicity
  • Solitude
  • Submission
  • Service
  • Confession
  • Worship
  • Guidance
  • Celebration

Each of these has its own manifestation in the wilderness of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Palestinian/Judaean deserts. We are not monks in the technical sense (but see Greg Peters, The Monkhood of All Believers about how we can all seek interior monasticism), so how the disciplines play out in our lives will different. For example, we’ll eat more than meal per day, most likely, and we’ll have to leave our houses on necessary business frequently.

And none of us will live atop a pillar, I suspect.

Here are some brief sayings on these 12 topics:


It was said of the same Abba John that when he returned from the harvest or when he had been with some of the old men, he gave himself to prayer, meditation and psalmody until his thoughts were re-established in their previous order.


When I was younger and remained in my cell I set no limit to prayer; the night was for me as much the time of prayer as the day. -Abba Isidore the Priest


Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away. -Amma Syncletica


The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.

Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.

It is a great treachery to salvation to know nothing of the divine law.

Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.

-Epiphanius of Salamis (not a Desert Father, but included in their sayings)


A monk’s treasure is volulntary poverty. Lay up treasure in heaven, brother, for there are the ages of quiet and bliss without end. -Abba Hyperechius


He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and this is with fornication. -Abba Antony


As long as we are in the monastery, obedience is preferable to asceticism. The one teaches pride, the other humility. -Amma Syncletica


It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.


A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest; Abba Bessarion got up and went with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”


It was said of Abba Poemen that every time he prepared to go to the synaxis (worship service), he sat alone and examined his thoughts for about an hour and then he set off.


At the moment, no great, simple statements about guidance come to me from the sayings. Yet the entire collection is about precisely this. “Abba, give me a word…”


Even if we are entirely despised in the eyes of men, let us rejoice that we are honoured in the sight of men. -Abba John the Dwarf

Meditating on each of these sayings will help us go deeper into our own practice of the disciplines and our own pursuit of God, the pursuit of endless perfection (epektasis) and theosis, union with Christ.


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