In Egypt in the late third century, a great movement to the desert ‘began’; many fled to the desert for socio-political and economic reasons. But when St. Antony the Great left behind his ascetic masters in the city for a life of solitude in the tombs and caves of the desert, it became spiritual. Withdrawal to the desert is called anachoresis in Greek — from this we get the word anchorite, such as Lady Julian of Norwich.
This movement to the Desert had its roots in the urban monasticism of the preceding years as well as the strongly ascetic bent of the Syriac-speaking Church, which had a special group of celibates set apart from the rest of the Church for prayer and service who were called the Sons and Daughters of the Covenant — a tradition reaching back to the second century. Part of the initiation to become a Son or Daughter of the Covenant was a period of anachoresis in the Desert.
Over the years, many moved to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, birthing the monastic movement, with monks living in solitude, in different levels of community, naked with no roof over their heads, or on pillars.
Purpose of Anachoresis
Their aim was purity of heart through prayer and discipline away from distractions. Benedicta Ward writes, “prayer was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day, it was a life continually turned toward God.” (Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, xii) In the desert, they prayed and fasted. They memorised the Scriptures and recited the psalms together. They wrestled with demons and prayed for the souls of the world, of the lost in the cities, of the bishops who led the faithful.
The Desert Fathers influenced Basil’s, Jerome’s, and John Cassian’s monasteries. Cassian and Basil influenced Benedict and his Rule, which towers over mediaeval spirituality. Many of the spiritual theologians show their influenced — Evagrius Ponticus, St. Athanasius, the Cappadocians, John Cassian, and the whole Middle Ages. I. Hausherr says, “If you study the history of spirituality or the spiritual life of the Church, you will find that each time that there is a spiritual renewal in the Church, the desert fathers are present.”
Where to Go?
The best place to start an investigation of the Desert Fathers is a collection of their sayings. These are bite-sized morsels of desert wisdom and little stories that teach about their lifestyles and the path of grace. There are three main sources, all available in translations by Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG:
The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. London: Penguin, 2003. This is a translation of the Latin collection, known as The Systematic Collection, wherein the sayings are arranged according to theme. I own this one and recommend it highly.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. London: Mowbray, 1975. This is a Greek collection known as the Alphabetical Collection, wherein the sayings are arranged alphabetically by speaker. I’ve perused it, and it’s nice for seeking out specific stories or sayings by specific people.
The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. Oxford: SLG Press, 1986. The advantage here is size: small. The Anonymous Collection, also arranged systematically.
A Few Other Primary Sources
The Lives of the Desert Fathers, The Historia Monachorum in Aegypto. Trans. Norman Russell. London: Mowbray, 1980. A travelogue of visitors to the Egyptian monks.
Athanasius. The Life of Antony. In Early Christian Lives. Trans. Carolinne White. London: Penguin, 1998.
Cassian, John. Selected Writings of St. John Cassian the Roman. Stafford, AZ: St. Paisius Women’s Orthodox Monastery, 2000. Although Cassian inevitably filters the sayings and practices of the monks (in the Institutes & Conferences, each much longer than this anthology) and adapts them for the situation of his monasteries in Gaul, these are still highly valuable texts.
Evagrius Ponticus. The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer. Trans. John Eudes Bamberger. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1972. According to the cover, “Evagrius united the mystical theology of Origen and the rigorous asceticism of the desert monks in a tradition which still lives today.”
NB: All the primary sources above come with useful introductions.
Brown, Peter. “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity.
Burton-Christie, Douglas. The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. I used this book for my paper on the DF in undergrad and found it very insightful and thought-provoking.
Christian History Issue 64. I have read the print copy and highly recommend it as an introduction. Most of it is here.
Cowan, James. Journey to the Inner Mountain: In the Desert with Saint Antony. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002. Cowan investigated the DF and visited an anchorite at Antony’s monastery, seeking how to live by their wisdom in the modern world; not all his thoughts are strictly “Christian,” almost as though he was trying to make the book more appealing to a post-Christian audience.
I have written about John Cassian & the Desert Fathers on this blog several times:
As well, St. Basil the Great spent some time with the Desert Fathers, demonstrating the interconnectedness of the Early Christian world.
Other Online Resources
Loving the Desert at Apologia and the Occident
The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Introduction and Commentary at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
Anthony of Egypt: The Basics of His Spirituality at monachos.net