The desert fathers, in their radical commitment to simplicity and asceticism, present a direct challenge to comfortable Christianity. It is this very challenge that makes The Sayings of the Desert Fathers such important reading for spiritual formation. Their radical commitment to Christ led them to practice ascetic disciplines, something very foreign to most of us. Are we called to incorporate in our lives more of the bodily denial of the desert fathers and mothers? And despite their great commitment and discipline, we find in them deep humility. There is no competition here, no race to be more committed to Christ than the desert father down the street. We can learn from their striking reluctance to judge others. If the desert fathers, who have grown so close to Christ, can be free of judgment, what right do the rest of us have to judge each other? It is so much easier to think and talk about someone else's sins rather than our own, but if we focus on our own sinfulness we can be freed of this unhealthy judgmentalism. As Abba Moses said, "When someone is occupied with his own faults, he does not see those of his neighbour." Further, we can rejoice in someone else's holiness and intimacy with God.

The desert fathers and mothers provide great examples and insight for the practice of the disciplines of simplicity, secrecy, and solitude. We can learn the most by paying close attention to those very ideas that strike us as the most countercultural. How can we recover their sense of the great value of words and thus the importance of using them sparingly and with great thought? How can we broadcast our sinfulness and hide our righteousness and obedience? What in our lives represents our cell, and how can we better meet God there?

How to Read The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is arranged in Greek alphabetical order by the name of the father or mother to which each anecdote refers, but a reader can read them in any order. Each saying stands alone. In fact, some of them seem to directly contradict each other. For example, some of the fathers speak of the usefulness of Christian books, but others regard such books with caution or say that it is best to have no possessions. It is important to remember that each one was spoken in a particular situation to a particular person or group and was not necessarily meant to be universally true. Not every saying will speak to every reader. The desert fathers understood that each individual who comes to Christ is on a unique journey. It is also important to remember that it is a book of wisdom sayings, like the book of Proverbs, and thus not a book to sit down and read cover to cover. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is a particularly important book with which to practice reflection. Try reading just a small amount at a time, allowing some time to ruminate over the particular sayings that strike you.

The world of the desert fathers may feel very different from our own, but the fathers have much to teach us. As is written in Anthony of Sourozh's preface to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, "If we wish to understand the sayings of the Fathers, let us approach them with veneration, silencing our judgments and our own thoughts in order to meet them on their own ground and perhaps to partake ultimately—if we prove able to emulate their earnestness in the search, their ruthless determination, their infinite compassion—in their own silent communion with God."