I recently made a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video saying that you shouldn’t study the Desert Fathers (not my best video, but here it is) — look at me, after all! I went from being a happy-go-lucky evangelical-charismatic who wanted to study Virgil for his PhD to … whatever it is I am now. Let’s consider this journey briefly…
It all began, as I’ve said before, with Athanasius’ Life of Antony (in Carolinne M White’s volume, Early Christian Lives), alongside the Penguin Classics The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward of blessed memory, which had just come out in 2003 when I found it hanging out at the university bookstore. I already had something of an interest in monkish things — in John of the Cross’ poem of The Dark Night of the Soul and in St Francis of Assisi and Brother Cadfael and had read the Rule of St Benedict in history class.
With these texts in hand, it only made sense to take up my friend’s idea while taking a course Pagans and Christians in the Later Roman Empire: “Why not do those crazy guys who moved into the desert for your essay topic?”
So I wrote an essay about the Desert Fathers in third-year undergrad, looking at the “why” of anachoresis, of monastic retreat into the desert, adding the Life of St Simeon the Stylite to my small bundle of primary sources and relying heavily on Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” and Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert.
I loved it. (Today, I would revisit the sociological reasons given in that paper and lean even more heavily on what I now call the literal-mimetic tradition of scriptural interpretation.)
And so I took the sayings of the Desert Fathers with me to Cyprus when I worked for InterVarsity there. I picked up the Philokalia, too, and visited Byzantine churches and witnessed the divine liturgy of St John Chrysostom and got to know Orthodox priests. All of this made me desire to become more like the Desert Fathers as well as to study them academically some day.
And so, after returning to Canada, when I got around to my MA in Classics, I studied John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus. And when I did my MTh, I studied monks’ lives by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus.
But the Desert Fathers were just my gateway drug. I studied a lot more Late Antiquity and I’ve taught both secular/political history and Christian history now. My PhD was not on a monastic topic (I thought I’d be more likely to get a job that way. Ha!) but on Leo the Great. But the monks have always been there both for personal devotion and academic study.
And now when I look at St Maximus the Confessor, a little bit of whose work I taught as part of my ecumenical councils course, I see the way the Desert tradition as well as the Athanasian-Cyrilline tradition is flowing through him. And when I teach St Athanasius (just finished a whole course on him a couple of weeks ago!), I see the ways in which his thought is part of the same thought-world as the Desert Fathers, even if he is more clothed in the garb of “Greek/philosophical” learning.
These are a few musings. The desert monks have helped me fight against anger, taught me how to pray, challenged my attitude towards food, brought me face-to-face with my failure to live the Scriptures, and reminded me how the entire devotional life of the Christian is undergirded by grace.
I hope they can help you, too.