Because of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Because of the Desert Fathers and Mothers January 10, 2010

I wrote earlier of my thanks for practical instruction on living the Christian life from a lecture I came across in the Liturgy of the Hours written by St. Augustine. I have always been enamored of “how-to” books that cut through the gloss and get straight to the point. For example, the theory on how internal combustion engines work is interesting, but the hands-on stuff you learn from actually tearing apart a motor (and putting it back together again) is invaluable. As I realized from my encounters with Blaise Pascal, and with Thomas à Kempis, and by reflecting on my own life as well, I needed help in this department. Especially regarding my prayer life.

So somewhere along my path to the Catholic Church, I discovered the Desert Fathers. I learned that about the time the Romans stopped killing Christians, some people up and sold all they had and headed for the desert in Upper Egypt to live as hermits for Christ. Some had fled persecution from the Romans too, but after Constantine the Great converted in 313 AD, persecution was no longer the reason to flee.

Leave the world they did. According to the Wikipedia citation, “These individuals believed that the desert life (modeled on the lifestyle of John the Baptist and Our Lord’s forty days in the desert) would teach them to eschew the things of this world and allow them to follow God’s call in a more deliberate and individual way.”

Pictured here is the cover of a delightful book of sayings from some of these hermits, translated and illustrated by by Yushi Nomura. At the time I found it in my local public library, I didn’t know Henri Nouwen from Adam, but he wrote a pretty good introduction explaining the history of this phenomenon and how the roots of Christian monasticism formed in the deserts of Egypt. Find it and enjoy it if you can. My daughter really loves reading it and looking at the illustrations.

Note: I keep writing Christian instead of Catholic because, by this time in my research, I understood that all Christians were Catholic until the Protestant Reformation. Christians who were not Catholic were heretics and, boy howdy, there is a rogues gallery of those! Heck, I’m still learning about them too: Arianism, Albegensianism, Docetism, Manichaeism, and more.

The sayings of the Desert Fathers are very practical and not heretical. And man, they can knock you right off your high horse in a way that makes you say “Thank you sir! May I have another?” Like this:

A monk once posed this question to an elder: There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.

Did I mention they had a sense of humor? Like here:

In the desert of Skete, a brother went to see Abba Moses for a word. And the old man said, Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.

I’m not sure that is what the brother had in mind. Or this one:

If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and pull him back down to earth, because what he’s doing is no good for him.

Amen to that! Replace monk with relative, co-worker, friend, or that fellow in the mirror, and who hasn’t seen that person before?!

The Desert Fathers and Mothers include the following saints: St. Anthony the Great, St. Macarius the Great, St. Arsenius, St. Paul the Hermit, St. John the Dwarf, St. Mary of Egypt, and many others.

Ever been told that you are working too hard at being a good Catholic Christian? See these words and think again:

The reason why we don’t get anywhere is because we don’t know our limits and we’re not patient in carrying on the work we’ve begun. We want to arrive at virtue without any labor at all.

I’ll wrap this post up by letting St. Anthony the Great have the floor,

Once the famous St. Anthony was conversing with some brethren when a hunter who was after game in the wilderness happened by. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves and clucked his tongue in disapproval. Abbot Anthony told him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” He did so. “Now shoot another,” said the abbot. “And another . . . and another.” The hunter complained, “If I bend my bow all the time, it will break.” Abbot Anthony smiled gently as his point stuck home. “It’s that way, too, with the work of God. If we keep pushing ourselves too hard, the brothers will soon collapse.”

This is a marathon, people, not a sprint!


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  • There's nothing like the sayings of the Desert Fathers.I always enjoy the stories of Brother John the Dwarf.If you enjoy them you should enjoy this:'He who wishes to purify his faults purifies them with tears and he who wishes to acquire virtues, acquires them with tears.'

  • De Liliis, I do like that one. And I like the link too. Thanks! It reminds me of this one from one of the Desert Mothers:“Amma Syncletica said: In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it is smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.

  • I think I've been down the pike long enough, now to understand Amma Syncletica's quotation from personal experience. I discovered Saint Antony of Egypt 11 years ago when I studied early Church history. He is truly GREAT.

  • Actually it is a daily walk of several miles. May I suggest two of my favorites. Advent of the Heart by Alfred Delp, priest and martyr and Venerable Louis of Granada ( any thing,check World Cat or One day St. Anthony and a prospective hermit went to town. As they passed through a beautiful lady passed them in the opposite direction. St. Anthony asked the young man after the lady had passed " …did that young lady have any eyes…" The young monk answered " …oh yes indeed, she certainly had two eyes…" St Anthony replied, "…I think you must go back to the monastery, you are not yet ready to be a hermit…" And he led the young man back to the monastery. The moral was, the young man had not yet acquired the habit of custody of the eyes. If this sound strange to anyone, you have not yet entered upon the spiritual life with conviction.

  • Ruth Ann:I like this one from Amma Syncletica too: "There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts."Nice!

  • Linus: Good one! And reminds me of another,One day a monk on a journey saw a group of holy women approaching from the other direction. With the typical fear of temptation from sexual thoughts he left the road and gave them a wide berth. But the amma said to him as they passed, "If you were a perfect monk, you would not have looked close enough to see that we were women."Touché, amma, touché

  • i disagree with the quote from the desert father who thinks God prefers the monk who tends to the sick. we all know many who tend the sick, the hungry, the lonely but how many do we know who pray, fast and do penance? i believe that we must convert by prayer and fasting and only then will we know what work God has for us to do. then that work is further purified by prayer and fasting. it is not faith (or work) alone but faith and works together that save.

  • jeanne:Thanks for your comment. Keep in mind that all of them had left the world. All prayed and fasted and did penance etc. Most lived silent and solitary lives only coming together once a week for Mass usually. Check this one out:Some of the elders came to visit Abba Poemen and asked him: “When we see brothers who are falling asleep during the services, should we arouse them so that they will be watchful?” Poemen said to them in response: “For my part, when I see a brother falling asleep, I place his head on my knees and let him rest.”

  • Our parish began the ACTS retreat several years ago. No religious are involved on the team other than deacons who serve as spiritual directors. We started a desert team that prays around the clock for the success of the retreat and for those who request prayers. Talking is not allowed and many fast. I have been the spiritual director on several and must say that this is a truly desert experience, one that changes many lives, as well as heals both physically and spiritually.Deacon Bill SchroederSts Peter & PaulNew Braunfels, TX

  • Deacon Bill: Thanks for your comment and for pointing out a new discovery for us. I found this link, which I also will put in the comments for Websters laity post as well.ACTS Retreats