July 24, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: The Desert Fathers and Mothers

John F. Fink(Sixteenth in a series of columns)

A series of columns about the early Church wouldn’t be complete without saying something about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These were men and women who moved into the deserts of Egypt and other places in the Middle East in the third and fourth centuries, living as hermits or anchorites, denying themselves the pleasures of the senses, and spending their time in manual labor, prayer and contemplation.

St. Anthony was the most famous of the Desert Fathers. Despite his austerities, he lived to be 105. We know about him mainly from the biography about him written by St. Athanasius, who himself was a hermit in an Egyptian desert for six years during one of his five exiles from the local Church in Alexandria.

St. Anthony became a hermit at age 20 after hearing a sermon on the text, “If you want to be perfect, sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, and then come follow me” (Mt 19:21). He lived in a tomb near his village for 15 years, then on a mountain for 20 years. Then he lived with other hermits for a while, regulating communal worship and work. Finally, he went into the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, where he founded a monastery on Mount Kalzim.

He emerged in 311 when he went to Alexandria to comfort those suffering from the persecution of Emperor Diocletian that were taking place, and again years later to stand beside Athanasius to argue against Arianism. He was known for his wisdom, and thousands of people sought his guidance and followed his example. According to St. Athanasius, by the time of Anthony’s death there were so many men and women living in the desert that it seemed like a city.

The austere life of the hermit was practiced mainly in northern Egypt. Some of those who went into the desert, though, especially in southern Egypt, lived in communities.

Thus, Christian monasticism began with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, thanks mainly to St. Pachomius. He established monasteries with rules about manual labor, prayer, the reading of Scripture, silence and fasting. He put abbas and ammas in charge of the members’ spiritual development. He established nine monasteries and two convents, with 3,000 monks and nuns, before his death in 346.

St. Basil, who traveled to Egypt, took the rules of St. Pachomius with him when he established monasticism in the Eastern Church, and the Rule of St. Benedict, in the sixth century, was influenced by the Desert Fathers. St. Benedict encouraged his monks to read the writings of John Cassian, who had been a monk in Egypt at the end of the fourth century and who wrote Conferences on the Egyptian Monks.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers was also a popular book. It included 1,202 sayings attributed to 27 abbas and three ammas. Of course, St. Anthony’s sayings are included, but the greatest number were attributed to Abba Poemen, which means “shepherd” in Greek. Scholars aren’t sure whether they all came from an abba by that name or whether it’s a combination of several abbas. †

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