Bread in the Desert

Last night was a bit sad for me because it was the last session of my Desert Fathers course for Davenant Hall — “Streams in the Desert: The Christian Wisdom of the Desert Fathers.” We closed with Sts Barsanuphius and John, a pair of monastic fathers in sixth-century Gaza who left behind a corpus of 850 letters of spiritual instruction. Letter 170:

Question from the same brother to the Other Old Man [John rather than B.]. If a fantasy occurs to me by night and, on the next day, there is Holy Communion, what should I do?

Response by John

Let us approach with all our wounds and not with any contempt, as people who are needful of a doctor, and he who healed the woman with the issue of blood (Mt 9.22) will also heal us. Let us love much, that he may also say to us: “Your many sins are forgiven; for you have loved much” (Lk 7.47). When you are about to take Communion, say: “Master, do not allow these holy things to be unto my condemnation but unto purification of soul and body and spirit.” Then, you may approach with fear, and our Master, who is loving-kind, will work his mercy with us. Amen.

Trans. John Chryssavgis, Letters from the Desert (SVS Press 2003), p. 93.

There’s a lot that could be unpacked from this letter from the Other Old Man, about grace and trusting in God and loving God and so forth. What I want to point out is the Holy Communion. As I said on the first episode of my and my brother Jonathan’s podcast, the Holy Communion is paradigmatic for the entire devotional life. And so in Ep. 170 of Barsanuphius and John it is likewise: It is about approaching, doing what you are able, and trusting in God to be merciful even when we are weak.

It is about the coming of grace.

Holy Communion is not often talked about in relation to the Desert Fathers. Usually, and understandably, we talk about their teachings on topics such as interior prayer, fasting, Psalmody, watchfulness, apatheia, hesychia, etc. In the selection of letters in this volume of Chryssavgis’ (who has also translated them all in two volumes for The Fathers of the Church series), Holy Communion comes up in five letters, to both communicants and celebrants. Ep. 241 is a beauty; I’ll quote only a bit:

The deacon serves like the Cherubim, and ought to be all eye, all intellect, with his intellect and thought looking upward, with fear, trembling, and doxology. For he bears the Body and Blood of the immortal King. He even assumes the face of the Seraphim in proclaiming the doxology and in fanning the hidden mysteries as with their holy wings, recalling through these wings their levitation from this earth and from things material, crying out ceaselessly with his intellect in the temple of the inner man (cf. Rom 7.22) the victory hymn of the magnificent glory (cf. 2 Pet 1.17) of our God: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of your glory” (Is 6.3).

Trans. Chryssavgis, p. 107

The angelic allegory continues — this is what is recommended to someone serving at the altar in the role of deacon during the Divine Liturgy is meant to meditate upon. The liturgy is not just something we are doing here on earth — we join the host of heaven as we offer up the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven are worshipping with us. It is a deeply spiritual, powerful, mystical event, and God is present there to us and with us through the Holy Communion.

The desert tradition of spirituality is not, then, divorced from the common worship of the church in all ages. Now, it’s true that St Mary of Egypt went 40 years in complete solitude and thus didn’t received communion. And many of the hermits only received occasionally. But it’s also true that, say, St Simeon the Stylite went for an extended period living on nothing but Holy Communion! When the semi-eremetic communities emerged at Nitria, Kellia, and Sketis, the abbas of the desert all lived within walking distance of a common chapel. Even if they were hermits six days a week, the Desert Fathers, for the most part, got together for the assembly of the saints, the synaxis, and this was a service of Holy Communion.

They received communion at least weekly, and they believed in the Real Presence of Christ, as we see in the Sayings as well as in the discourses of St Shenoute of Atripe. The Sayings include a miracle story wherein one simple monk who doubted the veracity of the body and blood under the species of bread and wine had a vision of the priest offering him bloody flesh at Communion, and so came to believe in the Real Presence. And Shenoute is insistent about the reality of the bread as Christ’s body, sounding in many ways like St Cyril of Alexandria, with whom St Shenoute had contact.

They practised Holy Communion. They believed as did other Christians of the era both that it was truly the body and blood of our Lord and that it was a means of grace.

So, hopefully, this Sunday you will be able to engage in another aspect of Desert spirituality at your local parish church. And, like St Barsanuphius’ companion, remember that the angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, thrones, dominions, and powers are there, too, worshipping God with us.

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Catholic Anglican thoughts (again)

13th-c mosaic on loggia, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

I think that perhaps one of the great problems with our society is that too many of us spend time thinking about our identities. For me, I spend time thinking about my religious identity. In particular, I often find myself feeling somewhat alone as a catholic Anglican — and not an Anglo-Catholic.

Like the majority tradition of Anglicanism, I embrace the teachings of the Fathers, the 39 Articles, the BCP, and what I’ve read of the Books of Homilies so far. I agree with Richard Hooker so much I wrote an essay recommending him for a real publication (as opposed to just another blog post). Moreover, I cherish the poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Guite, as well as the hymns of Charles Wesley and JM Neale. I recently called Lancelot Andrewes a saint, so there’s that in the mix, too!

Most of this doesn’t really make me much of “catholic”, though, does it? I mean, it mostly makes me an Anglican. I reckon John Wesley liked those things, too, except for the ones from after he died.

But what if I told you, despite spending 8 years as a Presbyterian, the only other church that seemed truly enticing was the Eastern Orthodox Church? That an Orthodox priest (now bishop!) once said that I am Orthodox in all but name? Although this actually isn’t true (I don’t seek saints to intercede for me [filed under: 39 Articles] or believe in tollhouses [filed under: umm…], to grab two really quick examples), I do have enormous respect for the Eastern Church and think that we can learn a lot from them in the West after a few centuries of Enlightenment and Romanticism under our belts.

So, yeah, I read St Sophrony, St Porphyrios, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Father Andrew Louth, The Way of a Pilgrim, and others in my devotional time. I love the Greek Fathers, and sometimes I think I’m a Palamite. Byzantine chant and Byzantine icons, yes, please. I love the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom. Once when I was in a foul mood, I read the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints Basil the Great just to cheer me up. And it’s beautiful and rich and makes anything from the West post-Vatican II (BAS and Common Worship, I’m looking at you) look like wading in shallow water when God has given us the skills requisite and necessary for surfing (or something like that).

I embrace the ancient and medieval heritage of the church — as interpreted through the 39 Articles and the BCP. Give me St Augustine. Give St Maximus the Confessor. Give me St Anselm and St John of Damascus and the Venerable Bede and St Benedict of Nursia and St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory of Nyssa and The Cloud of Unknowing and St John of the Ladder and St John of the Cross and St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Basil of Caesarea and Origen of Alexander and St Athanasius of Alexandria and St Irenaeus of Lyons and Pope St Leo the Great and Pope St Gregory the Great and St Cyprian of Carthage and St Francis of Assisi and St Bonaventure and Stephen Langton and Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton and Aelfric of Eynsham and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl and The Dream of the Rood.

Give me the Ruthwell Cross. Give me Mt Athos. Give the Benediktinerstift Sankt Paul im Lavanttal. Give me St Paul’s in London. Give me Durham Cathedral. Give me the Durham Gospels.

Give me these things, clothe them in the music of Tallis or Purcell or Gibbons. I’ll kiss your icons. I once kissed the alleged crozier of St Gregory. Give me the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Give me a little incense.

Give me these things, for when I encounter these things, I find Jesus in them.

Most of all, then: give me Jesus.

And I find that Jesus is found in this catholic Anglicanism. I find him there better than elsewhere — whether because of my own temperament or something in the nature of the catholic tradition itself. But Jesus comes to me in the poetry of John Donne and the teachings of the Orthodox monks. He comes when I read Pearl and I am drawn up to him through the architecture of a place like York Minster.

IRL, one finds oneself with almost no Anglicans round about, and few digging deep into this.

But Jesus comes amidst them, anyway — of course.

This is part of the secret of the catholic tradition, that God is always right there waiting for you. If you can cultivate hesychia and find, by grace, some level of purity of heart, you will find Jesus wherever you are, and not just listening to Byzantine chant on Spotify or with fellow catholics on Twitter, but at your own local parish.

Watch out for him. He’s there. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Memorise a poem or two by John Donne. Like St Pachomius, see God wherever He is, especially in your brother in Christ. He’ll be there — he has promised he will.

Endless distraction vs monastic simplicity

As you may see in the sidebar of this blog, I am on Twitter. I initially joined under my own name in 2017 as a means to have and control a public professional persona. This purpose remains, but, after starting to teach for Davenant Hall, this public persona has expanded to include some of my own personal religious views, including this blog. And, to be honest, this self-promotion is also aimed to hopefully gain a few students.

Twitter — and even a private Discord server such as we have for The Davenant Institute — can be a great way to meet people. I have expanded my army of friends, and I am happy for that. Twitter and other social media — Facebook, Instagram, etc. — can also be a great way to distract yourself. And be endlessly distracted.

Sometimes, it’s okay. I’m willing to concede that we need a bit of distraction sometimes. It’s part of relaxation and restoration, I think. Take your mind off the pressures of daily life by following, say, @red_loeb to see images from medieval manuscripts, to name just one example. There are some interesting, amusing, informative, entertaining Twitter accounts to add to your feed.

Sometimes, it’s less okay. Like, say, the vast eruptions that happened after the USA’s Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Or when you see some less-than-pleasant characters falsely characterising your own religious beliefs. Or when you watch, say, a video of a news presenter taking down a flummoxed pastor over hot-button cultural issues. You get this fire burning in you, sometimes. Or you can’t direct your energy where it should be (*glances at The Life of Saint Pachomius*), continually thinking about the assault you have levelled against your nous.

I once Tweeted that Twitter is like having your nous assaulted by all 8 Evagrian thoughts at once.

The monks of the Desert would not have appreciated something like Twitter. Tonight in my Desert Fathers course for Davenant Hall, I am teaching about Pachomius, the reputedly first abbot of a coenobium, of a monastery designed for communal living. The monks were meant to live undistracted lives. This meant that if any of them had to leave the monastery on business, they weren’t allowed to tell the brothers what they had seen or heard. If someone came to the monastery, the porter was the only person they were allowed to interact with. Tabennisi, the village where the first Pachomian monastery was founded, was an abandoned village. Even walks in the abandoned village were not allowed.

Elsewhere, of course, in the anchoritic literature, we hear of monks refusing to listen to news of the outside world. Or they ignore people from outside sometimes. They avoid talking, even if news isn’t the subject. Curiosity, even about ones family that was left behind, is considered dangerous.

The point of all this is to help cultivate a heart that is undistracted and undivided. The monk is someone who is single-minded. Monks are monomaniacs for God. They aren’t interested in the emperor’s doings. They aren’t interested in visits from the priests of the outside world. They aren’t even that interested in the inner world of their souls, except inasmuch as it can help or hinder in the raising up of the monk to God.

Now, Twitter is actually part of my livelihood, since tuition pays my salary. So I’ll stay there. But we all need to know when to logoff and unplug and sit, undistracted, pursuing God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The simplicity of the monks and their spiritual practices, I believe, can help us there.

For me, as you no doubt know, a major monastic practice has been the Jesus Prayer — listen to my and my brother’s podcast to hear some more!

The Desert Fathers and Anglican Devotion

Launcelot Andrews (1555-1626)

It’s pretty easy to make an argument for any Protestant to read the Church Fathers at large. Do you believe in the Trinity? Recite the Nicene Creed? Well, then, read St Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, St Augustine. Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man? Well, then, read Sts Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, and Maximus the Confessor. Grappling with the question of religious images? Read St John of Damascus. Are you pondering why God became man? Well, then, read St Irenaeus of Lyons. Want to read the Bible better? Read St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana.

From the perspective of Anglican devotion, St Augustine’s theology of grace gives us good insights into the theology of the Prayer Book collects. Sts Hippolytus and John Chrysostom show us something about the history of our Eucharistic liturgy — as well as the “Prayer of St Chrysostom”. At the heart of the Anglican daily office lies the Psalter: Here, Sts Athanasius and Augustine are a great help.

Spending time with these Fathers will only help us do a better job of being Anglican, Protestant, whatever.

But what about the Desert Fathers? What do we gain from celibate men and women who cut themselves off from normal society, were consciously sleep deprived, ate only once a day, and were professional pray-ers? What can ancient monks do for the devotional lives of Anglicans? And lay Anglicans, at that?

This question is particularly strong for people of my generation who grew up in Anglican churches, at least in Canada, that had a strong Sunday liturgical tradition of Holy Communion and even hymns, but whose devotional world, Monday-Saturday, was the same as that of the Baptist down the road. A lot of room to be truly healthy and holy, but not a lot that was specifically Anglican. At a certain level, hey-ho, that’s fine! Holiness is the goal, not Anglicanness.

But if a standard, evangelical “quiet time”, maybe with some charismatic elements tossed in, is what your devotional life is used to, then the Desert Fathers can be quite foreign, I can assure you.

They can also be quite reassuring and challenging in a good way, though. When I was an undergrad, like a lot of young people, I briefly flirted with the idea of not being purposely and consciously Anglican. And yet whenever I came up against something with which I disagreed, whether from Roman Catholics or evangelicals, I found myself simply Anglican. So I read the 39 Articles again and decided that, regardless of what it meant for other Christians to be Pentecostals, Ukrainian Orthodox, Baptists, or Free Methodists, I was, quite honestly, Anglican. It was silly to pretend otherwise.

Thus, one Lent I chose for my devotional exercise the praying of one office from the BCP (1962) every day. This ended up being Compline, and this time also ended up being my time of “conversion” (if you will) to the Prayer Book. Anyway, that was the same year I met the Desert Fathers and fell in love with their wacky monomaniacal devotion to the Triune God.

This compline-desert confluence is where the Desert Fathers help out the Anglican. The daily office, especially Morning and Evening Prayer, is fairly central to the Anglican devotional tradition. At the heart of the office, alongside the set canticles common to each day, are a monthly rotation through the Book of Psalms and a yearly cycle through the Bible.

Reading the Desert Fathers and learning about their rule of prayer is actually, at base, a simply encouragement for an evangelical Anglican who wants to discover the divine office, for here you will meet the antiquity of your own devotional practices. Not in a “Ha ha, Alliance Church!” sort of way, but in a reassuring way, that this is part of our own heritage and bigger than any single Christian tradition.

At the heart of the devotional life and prayer of the Desert and the tradition that flows from it, whether Benedictines and Cistercians in the West or Mount Athos and St Catherine’s, Sinai, in the East, is the Psalter, coupled with trying to live the words of Scripture. I’ll share some of the Desert Fathers’ wisdom on psalmody later, but their approach to the Psalms can really help transform the impact Psalmody has on the praying of the divine office.

I confess to not having read all of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, but it strikes me that one central aspect of his book is intentionality in what we do, as well as not attempting to seem holier than we really are. A large quantity of desert literature deals in this question of intention, using the term “watchfulness” (check most of Philokalia, Vol. 1). Watch your thoughts, watch the reasons you choose to do things, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts, watch your actions, watch your feelings, watch your thoughts. Seek purity of heart. Clear the mind of all but Christ.

And if you do decide to get down with the Anglican divines, you’ll discover that ascetic practices (fasting, regulating sleep, etc) are there in William Law and Jeremy Taylor, and the spiritual sense of Scripture peaks through Lancelot Andrewes. The Desert is not so far, after all.

The Desert and my career

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.

PS: Today, September 14, is the last day to sign up for my course…

Evil is not part of God’s original creation – Evagrius

Christ on the Cross as the Tree of Life, San Clemente, Rome

I’m working through Robert E. Sinkewicz’s translation of Evagrius of Pontus’ ascetic works preserved in Greek — partly for my own growth, partly as a critique of the Enneagram, partly as preparation for teaching him alongside other Desert Fathers this fall (sign up here!). And today I found, left over from when I was revising a forthcoming article about Evagrius, this draft post here on WordPress, with the above title and these two passages:

5.14 I was almost in all evil in the midst of the congregation and assembly

62. There was [a time] when evil did not exist, and there will be [a time] when it no longer exists; but there was never [a time] when virtue did not exist and there will never be [a time] when it does not exist. For the seeds of virtue are indestructible. And I am convinced by the rich man – almost but not completely given over to every evil – who was condemned to hell because of his evil, and who felt compassion for his brothers (Luke 16:19-31). For to have pity is a very beautiful seed of virtue.

The first is Proverbs 5:14, and the second is an Evagrian scholion from Father Luke Dysinger’s excellent Evagrius website. I was working through these texts as part of a study of Evagrius’ and Cassian’s demonology, and so the origins of evil are part of the question of demons. It struck me because until I studied Cassian for the first time those many years ago, the question of evil’s origins had not fully imprinted itself upon me.

And one of things that I learned from Cassian is that nothing is by nature evil. God does not create evil. Therefore, everything is created good. Evil comes later. And what we see in Evagrius is that not only does evil come later — evil will cease.

There is a pastoral dimension to this, of course. Consider whatever evils one faces, whether it’s temptations to sin or the evils wrought by others against us. Virtue is stronger. Virtue will be there at the end of all things, for it is good and part of the good.

Evil is weak. Evil is a lack.

Good (virtue) is strong. The good is plenitude of being.

So take heart: Evil has not always existed. It will not always exist, either.

Protestants and the Desert Fathers

Earlier this summer, I was blessed to be raised to the rank of Professor of Christian History at Davenant Hall. During the interview, which was one of the best live (alas, not in-person) theological conversations I’ve had in a very long time, one of my colleagues remarked that he thinks it’s cool that we, a Protestant theological college, are offering a course on the Desert Fathers. (Sign up here!)

But, of course, the question is always: How do I sell this to my fellow Protestants?

Why study the Desert Fathers with me? Or at all?

For some people, the Desert Fathers and the entire monastic movement that flows from them represent something in Christianity that is unnecessary at best, Pelagian at worst. Isn’t asceticism an unholy hatred of the body? Don’t the Desert Fathers teach works righteousness?

If we want to answer these questions, we must quickly (if briefly for a blog post) go to the sources (ad fontes! in good Reformational fashion). What is asceticism? What do the Desert Fathers believe about grace? Can we today learn things from them?

Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which is the Greek word for “training”, like athletic training — askesis is the word St Athanasius uses to describe the lifestyle and path of St Antony the Great. It is, then, more like “spiritual training” than hatred of the body. However, the entire human life is lived in the body. Therefore, the training of most Christians in history has involved embodied aspects — and, when healthy, no hatred of the body. Fasting, for example, is simply, well, expected of us by our Lord. And simple eating, simple living, are themselves caught up in various Scriptural injunctions, not to mention St Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus.

Here is the lifestyle of St Antony as described by St Athanasius:

All his desire and all his energies he directed toward the great effort of ascetic discipline. So he worked with his hands, having heard ‘Let the lazy person not eat’. [2 Thes 3:10] He would spend part of what he earned on bread and part of it he would give to those who were begging. He prayed all the time, having learned that it is necessary to pray by oneself without ceasing. [See Mt 16:6 and 1 Thes 5:17] Indeed, he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books.

Life of Antony, 3.5-7, trans. Vivian and Athanassakis

Somewhere, either Evagrius or the Life of Antony, the mean between abuse of the body and its indulgence is counselled in the wisdom of the Desert. The Desert Fathers do not hate the body.

Oh, and before addressing grace, look at where St Antony’s inspiration for askesis came from: Scripture. Indeed, he seems to have lived a life saturated with the Bible, doesn’t he? This is their ideal. In the first monasteries that shared a common life, besides a regular round of praying the Psalms and other Bible-reading, they had major Bible teaching twice a week.

What about grace? The Desert Fathers, after all, expend a lot of energy teaching about, well, expending a lot of energy. One of the famous sayings is that prayer is hard work until your last breath. Where, then, does grace fit in? Here’s what Evagrius says in his short work On the Eight Thoughts:

A great thing is the human being who is helped by God; he is abandoned and then he realizes the weakness of his nature. You have nothing good which you have not received from God (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). Why then do you glory in another’s good as if it were your own? Why do you pride yourself in the grace of God as if it were your own possession? Acknowledge the one who gave it and do not exalt yourself so much. You are a creature of God; do not reject the Creator. You receive help from God; do not deny your benefactor. (8.12)

In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, p. 88.

Evagrius goes on, but I think you get the point.

Finally, there’s a historical reason to study any of the pre-Reformational monastic texts. As Dallas Willard notes in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, the best books about the spiritual disciplines from Benedict onwards (if not from St Antony onwards…) were written by or about monks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them and apply their wisdom to our own situation.

Indeed, we learn Trinitarian theology, Christology, the doctrine of God, ethics, morality, theology of the human will, semiotics, political theology, demonology, diabology (is that the word?), angelology, and (depending on your tradition) church order, liturgy, and canon law from the Fathers.

Why not the spiritual disciplines?

And if so, why not the fathers who were devoted to nothing else in their undivided pursuit of God?

So, come, learn with me this Fall.

I’m teaching the Desert Fathers this Autumn!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love the Desert Fathers. They are my first love in patristics, beginning with Athanasius’ Life of St Antony and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Sister Benedicta Ward. As I say on the product page where you can sign up:

How do we reach up to God? How can we pray without ceasing? What even is prayer? Are we really meant to sell all our possessions and give to the poor? What is the place of fasting in the Christian life? Questions like these drove a great movement of men and women from the cities, towns, and villages of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, into the wilderness or desert, beginning in the fourth century—a movement so large it was said that these men and women made the desert into a city. These earliest monks of the Christian Church sought to live the Scriptures and fill their lives with prayer, seeking after God with a single-minded, wholehearted devotion. The monastic desert cities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria became the foundation of the spiritual disciplines as practiced through the long centuries to our own day. Their legacy is found not only in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, not only from Ireland to Iraq, but also in the spirituality of St Thomas à Kempis, whose Imitation of Christ has been read and beloved by Protestants of every generation, and in John Calvin, whose own spirituality bears the mark of St Bernard of Clairvaux.

In this course, we are going to dive into the sands of the desert, moving chronologically from the life and letters of St Antony of Egypt, the reputed “first Christian monk/hermit”, in the early 300s and whose life was recorded by St Athanasius, up to the letters of Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in the mid-500s. Along the way, we shall spend time with the famous sayings of the Desert Fathers—short, pithy quotations or anecdotes with a deep meaning similar to the Proverbs of Scripture—as well as the work of Pachomius who was the first abbot of a community of monks; the lives of various Desert Fathers recorded by Palladius of Aspuna; the ascetic and mystical work of Evagrius Ponticus; and the life of Symeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar in the Syrian desert. I promise that we’ll meet a lot of behaviors and some teachings that are weird to us. I also promise that we’ll be challenged to go deeper in our own devotion to God, our own study of the Scriptures, our own pursuit of pure prayer. To study the Desert Fathers well is not simply to study the history of Christianity but to open up yourself to the transformative power of the same God whom they met in huts and caves on the banks of the Nile, the Jordan, and the Orontes.

So sign up today!