The Desert Fathers – An Introduction

written by Joshua Hoffert January 3, 2017
Abba Daniel of Sketis

So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.  Luke 5:16

I have been contemplating inviting you on a journey.  It would be a journey of discovery.  In part discovering God, but also in part discovering your own heart.  As Saint Augustine prayed, “Know God, know thyself.”  Intimate knowledge of God coincides with intimate knowledge of your own heart.  In the last few years my life has been incredibly impacted by the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  I would like to invite you to discover the wisdom of these men and women.  It has resonated deeply with me, and I hope that it would also with you.

The art of Christian spirituality has perhaps never been so explored in an age as it was in the period of church history known as the Desert Fathers.  Men and women from all walks of life left secular society in droves to seek the intimate presence of Jesus in the solitude of desert life.  The early beginnings of Christian monasticism was heralded forth by Saint Anthony, widely considered the father of the movement.  Rarely has a group of men and women been so influential to theology, spirituality, church leadership, and secular society as the men and women who sought God in the silence of the desert.

Many of these men and women were the framers of Christian theology, or influenced the framers of theology.  The desert fathers were experts on the spiritual life, teaching deep wisdom on prayer, humility, love, repentance, submission, and a wealth of other topics.  Their lives were marked by incredible dreams and visions, though they never made the seeking of them the focus.  The heart was the focus, the central player in communion with God.

As fathers and mothers they were referred to as Abbas and Ammas.  Anthony is affectionately called Abba Anthony, Synkletica, affectionately Amma Synkletica.  Their roles as mothers and fathers were seen in the titles given to them.

The 3rd, 4th, and 5th century had brought a changing landscape to the world.  The empires of the world were beginning their slow decline.  Persecution, wars, famine, and disease were common place.  The onslaught of the dark ages was coming.  Yet the light of the fathers and mothers of the desert was just beginning to burn brightly.

Egypt was the central hub of Christian monasticism in this time.  Other communities sprung up in Syria, Palestine, and Arabia.

According to the men and women of the desert the goal of the spiritual life was union with God.  The entire work of prayer was encountering the presence of Christ within the heart.  The monks fasted to hunger after spiritual things, they spoke less in order to listen to the Divine voice, they went without sleep in order to watch for the Lord.  The means of discipline were always towards that of encountering the Spirit of God and becoming like Christ.

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’

Movements of God have come and gone with varying degrees of impact.  The age known as the Desert Fathers produced some of the most radical Jesus lovers this world has ever seen.  Two passages about Abba Agathon demonstrate this clearly:

Abba Agathon said, ‘If I could meet a leper, give him my body and take his, I should be very happy.’ That indeed is perfect charity.

It was also said of him (Agathon) that, coming to the town one day to sell his wares, he encountered a sick traveler lying in the public place without anyone to look after him. The old man rented a cell and lived with him there, working with his hands to pay the rent and spending the rest of his money on the sick man’s needs. He stayed there four months till the sick man was restored to health. Then he returned in peace to his cell.

This is the heart of Jesus.  This is the evidence of the indwelt life of Christ, that of living for another.  These men and women practiced self-emptying love, as Christ did.  However, finding a common consensus among the fathers and mothers regarding exactly what the spiritual life is to look like is difficult.  Abba John once said, “Saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.”

This is evident as you spend time with each of the writings of the fathers and mothers.  Their practice may have not have been the same, but their goal was the same: to be united with God.

It is my hope that in spending time with the Desert Fathers and Mothers you will find the same depth I have.  My goal in the next 52 weeks is to share with you one of these desert dwellers a week, to share their life, their teachings, and their experiences.  The choice as to who to feature is partly arbitrary.  There are far more names than 52 weeks allows for, I am choosing some of my favorite.  Every four weeks I will post about one of the main figures in the movement.

When it comes to the exercise of spiritual gifts there is almost no other greater source of wisdom outside of the Bible.  May you be comforted.  May you be challenged.  May you grow in depth.  May your heart be forever broken by the experiences of the men and women of the desert.  Come with me on a year long journey and spend time with the wisdom that echoes from the history of Christian spirituality.

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