Alternate Title: The Desert Fathers Never Left the Church, and Here’s Why
Alternate Title 2: The Historical Impossibility of the Desert Fathers Leaving the Church
Some days I am unhealthily obsessed with my stats. Today I observed that a search term that has brought people to this blog is, ‘why the desert fathers left the church.’ This is a tantalising query, and I can see why one may ask it.
For example, the Desert Fathers do leave behind the settled life of the city, moving to remote regions of Egypt or the Judean desert or the wild areas of Syria. In doing so, they are separated from the life of the rest of the Church in the city. This looks a lot like leaving the church.
Or we see the Desert Fathers, as the Holy Men described by Peter Brown in ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’* with some tempering of the thesis in Authority and the Sacred, taking some level of inherent spiritual authority formerly vested in the local bishop.
We see Desert Fathers/Holy Men such as Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here) or the more famous Simeon the Stylite (saint of the week here) challenging the local authorities, be they bishops or secular rulers.
When people such as the many ascetics discussed by Theodoret of Cyrrhus in his Historia Religiosa (trans. for Cistercian as The History of the Monks of Syria) retreated into the wilderness, they were in many ways cut off from the regular religious life of the Christian community — the Eucharist, the acts of charity, the preaching, and so forth.
However, we must acknowledge that these noble men and women of the early history of Christian asceticism were not schismatics. The Desert Fathers of Egypt hid St Athanasius when he was on the run. Shenoute of Atripe was present at the First Council of Ephesus in 431. Monks went to Alexandria under Theophilus to help destroy pagan temples. Jacob of Nisibis was recruited from his naked life in the wilds of Syria to become a local bishop. Savvas went on embassies to Constantinople to persuade the emperor to fight against heresy and protect his monks from roaming bandits. Barsanuphius and John of Gaza encouraged local clergy in their pastoral task.
On the other hand, it is perhaps important to see the Desert Fathers as a sort of protest movement within the church. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea spends some time discussing the luxury and corruption of the late third-century church. While it is likely that this is possibly part of theodicy — why did God allow the last persecution — there may be the ring of truth to it. Furthermore, after the Triumph of the Church under Constantine, I have no doubt that in many ways the urban church began to become a bit more worldly.
The Desert Fathers, in their retreat from the ordinary ways of being a Christian, but by maintaining communion and contact with the official hierarchy and the urban Christian communities, were a way of protesting a perceived wordliness, if not compromise, in the church. They were a way of becoming living examples of holiness, cut off from the burdens of urban society and its networks of relationships. As men and women devoted to nothing but prayer, they could remind their local bishops with silver and gilt vessels that what matters most is a heart devoted to God.
And so, I believe, they did. The western luminaries Ambrose of Milan (saint of the week here) and Augustine of Hippo were certainly influenced by the Desert tradition. Ambrose melted down the Milanese silver plate to help ransom poor, enslaved Christians. Augustine turned to the ascetic life himself because of the example of St Antony (saint of the week here).
So, no the Desert Fathers did not leave the Church. But they stood at a distance from its official structures, providing a prophetic critique of the day and shining as examples of what they believed true Christianity was. This is the cause of their retreat, anachoresis, into the desert.
For more on the Desert Fathers, see my page here.
*In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity and The Journal of Roman Studies …..