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More important than any bodily practice was the guarding of the heart. The interior was where the most intense warfare took place, and its state was not always apparent from the outside. For example, "Abba Gerontius of Petra said that many, tempted by the pleasures of the body, commit fornication, not in their body but in their spirit, and while preserving their bodily virginity, commit prostitution in their soul. 'Thus it is good, my well-beloved, to do that which is written, and for each one to guard his own heart with all possible care.' (Prov 4:23)."
Humility was also paramount. The desert fathers never displayed pride in their ascetic achievements, and any visitor displaying such pride was likely to be subtly but effectively corrected. In contrast, the fathers practiced their ascetic acts in secret and spoke often of their own sinfulness. They also demonstrated a remarkable lack of judgment of others. When a bishop brought a young pregnant girl (presumably unmarried) to Abba Ammonas so he could give her a penance, Abba Ammonas instead made the sign of the cross over her and commanded that she be given six pairs of fine linen sheets in case she or the baby should die in childbirth and not have anything for the burial. "But her accusers resumed, 'Why did you do that? Give her a punishment.' But he said to them, 'Look, brothers, she is near to death; what am I to do?' Then he sent her away and no old man dared accuse anyone any more." And as is told of Abba Bessarion: "A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest; Abba Bessarion got up and went with him, saying, 'I, too, am a sinner.' "
Another virtue the monks refer to often is charity. Since most of the desert fathers lived together as monks, it was of the utmost importance that they cultivate charity, a sense of loving and caring for one another, of putting others' needs before their own. As Abba Anthony said, "Our life and death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brothers, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ."
Abba Achilles, for example, did not make fishing nets for the first two men who asked him but consented to make one for the third, since he was of bad reputation and would have considered a refusal as a reflection on his own sin. With characteristic humility, Abba Matoes described the difficulty of achieving perfect charity: "A brother went to Abba Matoes and said to him, 'How is it that the monks of Scetis did more than the Scriptures required in loving their enemies more than themselves?' Abba Matoes said to him, 'As for me I have not yet managed to love those who love me as I love myself.' "
Why The Sayings of the Desert Fathers Is Essential
The wisdom contained in these sayings and stories has been invaluable to Christians east and west for fifteen hundred years. Truly the wisdom contained here has stood the test of time. It would be easy to write off The Sayings of the Desert Fathers as only meant for the monastic life, but as demonstrated by the people from all walks of life who consulted the desert fathers and mothers on all manner of things, their wholehearted commitment to Christ makes them sources of wisdom for all Christians.
Perhaps no other book on our list strikes such a contrast to modern life. As Chris Webb, Renovaré president and editorial board member, says, "The wisdom the desert fathers have is hard to get anyplace else nowadays. It's a lived experience of the gospel that is so profound, and if you're willing to sit with them and listen and reflect on what they have to say through these stories there's so much to learn. And particularly, in a church that is so keen to learn about grace the desert fathers have a lot to teach us about how you can be utterly radically committed to Jesus Christ, throwing yourself behind his cause yet becoming more committed to people, more gracious, more loving."