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:
Saint of the Week: Saint Antony the Great
Ancient Demonology: The Temptations of St. Antony
It is Corpus Christi, after all
(St.) John Cassian: Pt 1, Life; Pt 2, Controversy; Pt 3, Legacy; Pt 4, Cassian & You
Things that Go Over Heads: Grace & Freewill
John Cassian & the Desert Fathers
The Maleficent Spirit: An Example of Patristic Interconnectedness
Saint of the Week: Simeon the Stylite
Fighting the Demons 1: St. Antony the Great
Fighting the Demons 2: St. Savvas
Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography
Second and Third Generation Desert Fathers
The Desert Fathers and the Wider Church
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
15 thoughts on “The Desert Fathers”
[…] and spent time in Syria and Egypt, the home of the monastic movement (read about the Desert Fathers here). Thence he settled as an anchorite near Neo-Caesarea (c. 358). He left the life of solitude […]
I am a christian who follows the bible , I don`t go to church because they don`t preach what the bible really say . I would like to have someone contact me so we can share some of our experiences.
Hello, Ernie Gallant.
I saw your message on the Classically Christian webpage. (thepocketscroll). I live in San Diego, California, USA, and I would like to share some of our experiences. You may ask me any questions you like.
Sincerely, John Place
[…] The Desert Fathers […]
[…] occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of […]
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The published work:
“John Cassian” by Owen Chadwick, 1968
Indeed, Chadwick’s book is great! I started my research into Cassian with that and found that the book was fairly balanced and gave me directions to head off in pursuit of more!
[…] I highly recommend my “kindred spirit’s” work on the desert fathers and the like found at the Pocket Scroll. Read and learn! Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]
[…] The Desert Fathers. A band of ascetics living in Egypt-Syria-Palestine in the fourth through sixth centuries. Most famously quoted in the compendiums of sayings: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. B. Ward. There is also a short collection at OrthodoxWiki. My page about them here. […]
[…] For more on the Desert Fathers, see my page here. […]
[…] about St Antony and his Life published (if not composed) by St Athanasius before, as visible on the Desert Fathers page of this site. When we come in front a text such as the Life of St Antony, the questions that tend […]
[…] very much in the world of the Fathers. And since Thursday, I’ve returned a few times to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were my entry point into the patristic landscape of theology and […]
[…] posts in this blog. After time in a monastery in Bethlehem, and then ten years amongst the ‘Desert Fathers‘ of Egypt, Cassian went to Constantinople, then Rome, and finally settled in Marseille where […]
[…] The Desert Fathers […]