|Four tales on Anthony the Great |
by Vitale da Bologna 14TH Century).
The Desert Fathers, and indeed Desert Mothers, lived largely in the Scetes desert of Egypt in the 3rd Century. They were monks and nuns who were drawn there to live an essentially monastic life, together and yet separate. It's thought that the first of the monks to do this was Anthony the Great (others argue that it was Paul of Thebes who was the first Christian hermit) who, having heard a sermon on Matthew 19:21, "Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.", he did just that and went to live in the Egyptian desert. He and his followers attracted much attention and yet more followers, and there they lived in a state of extreme asceticism renouncing not only money and possessions but also basic human comforts, devoting their lives to prayer and oneness with God. Their sayings and teachings were recorded in the 5th Century in Apophthegmata Patrum (The Sayings of the Fathers) from the Collectio Monastica and the Asceticon by Abba Isaiah of Scetes, though there was also recorded sayings existing in the 4th Century.
My edition of Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (published by Penguin Classics in 2003) is divided into eighteen sections:
Progress in PerfectionHere are a few examples of the sayings:
Nothing Done for Show
"If someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may drive out his malice."
"A hermit said, 'Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the attacks of the demons."
"Let fear and humility, fasting, and weeping take root in you."
"Poemen said, 'If a monk hates two things, he can be free of this world.' A brother inquired, 'What are they?' He said, 'Bodily comfort and conceit.'
"Agatho said, 'I tried never to go to sleep while I kept a grievance against anyone. Nor did I let anyone go to sleep while he had a grievance against me.'"
"Ceaseless prayer soon heals the mind."Some of the sayings are very short, a line or two, others run over several pages. Some are very beautiful and striking, some inspiring, and some, as one would expect really, quite harsh. They are, I would say, characteristic of those who withdraw from society and practice meditation, silence, and prayer (known as Hesychasm), and these sayings and the monks themselves had a great influence on theology; the importance of charity and forgiveness, temperance, withdrawing from society, and with it the challenge of inhabiting the wilderness, often associated with temptation and demons. It's a fascinating work, strange and wonderful, inspiring at times, and as I've said, quite brutal at others. I do very much recommend it though it is not an easy work. It took about a month or so for me to read, and a month almost to digest before I wrote this post. Even then I certainly think it needs another few reads, and I look forward to doing so.