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Reading these books has changed my life. My prayer has been shaped by the insights of The Philokalia. Dante has helped me understand spiritual formation more fully through the pages of The Divine Comedy. Hopkins has helped me see the world more clearly and fully. As you begin to journey deeply into the classical tradition of Christian spiritual writing, may you, too, find yourself opened to the surprising grace of God and so made entirely new.
President, Renovaré USA
Season of Pentecost 2011
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Someone questioned Abba Biare in these words, "What shall I do to be saved?" He replied, "Go, reduce your appetite and your manual work, dwell without care in your cell and you will be saved."
A collection of sayings and stories from the third-, fourth-, and fifth-century hermits and monks who renounced the world for a life of humility, charity, and extreme discipline.
In the fourth century a remarkable number of Christians, men and a few women, too, fled to the desert—in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and other places—to live lives marked by asceticism and single-minded focus on God. Their extreme commitment to Christ earned these desert fathers and mothers a great deal of respect, and they were often consulted on religious and even political matters. Their sayings and anecdotes were passed along orally and later written down so all could learn from them, now comprising the collection we know as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
The desert fathers and mothers withdrew in order to be closer to God. In the desert, they lived both alone and in various groups, some organized and some not. But each had his or her cell, usually a simple hut, into which each could escape from all the distractions of the outside world and meet God. As Anthony the Great said, "Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness." For the monks did not see the desert as a place to avoid temptation. Far from it, just as Jesus did, they expected to meet temptation and demons in the desert and to strengthen their souls from the resulting inner warfare. The desert was a place of particular spiritual power, a place not only of temptation, but also of miracles. Abba Bessarion, for example, is said to have crossed a river on foot and kept the sun from setting until he reached his destination. Other fathers performed healing and saw visions of angels.
The desert fathers are perhaps most well known for their extreme ascetic practices—fasting, saying very little, going without sleep, wearing the simplest and roughest of clothing, and forsaking possessions. Many of their sayings offer specific advice for these matters. They believed that punishing or denying the needs of the body allowed them to focus more on the soul, and so their ascetic practices were regarded as a means to relinquish the hold sin had on their bodies in order to achieve a more intimate life with God. No father practiced asceticism simply to practice it or to be better at it than his fellow monk. Their discipline was moderated with common sense, as in the case of Abba Arsenius who told a monk who refused to eat until he had followed Arsenius's instructions to cut all his palm leaves, "Break your fast at once so as to celebrate the synaxis untroubled, and drink some water, otherwise your body will soon suffer." We also see this commonsense approach in Abba Zeno, who noticed that some of his visitors were upset when he did not accept their gifts and others were hurt when they received no token from him, so he began accepting all gifts and giving them to those who asked for something.