The Desert Fathers tend to provoke a strong reaction. I recently read this in a book by Tony Hendra, who happened to go to the same school as me, albeit 10 years earlier
Dom Aelred sent me home that summer with the reading list for Mysticism 101... he also suggested that when I had time I should get into the Desert Fathers, the dour, unyielding pillars of the early church....Father Joe's favorite writers were those who inspired rather than systematized... of the Spanish mystical contortionists: 'Dear me know! I could never remember all those steps and exercises. Like learning to be a chartered accountant'. And of the august and adamantine Desert Fathers 'Stay away from them! Silly old devils!'
This can be put alongside these words by Barry MacDonald, who writes in the preface to In the Heart of the Desert by John Chryssavgis
The words of
spiritual counsel, which form the heart of this book, are as clear and timeless
as the desert stars on a winter night... the sayings of the Desert Fathers
possess the imprint of eternity
So what are we to make of the Desert Fathers are they 'silly old devils' or do they 'possess the imprint of eternity'. I was first introduced to the Desert Fathers by Thomas Merton in his book The Wisdom of the Desert
In the fourth
century A.D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by
a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation. They were the
first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in
solitude. Why did they do this?
Merton translates some of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and I believe that it is only by reading the Sayings that you can really get to understand what they have to offer, it is all too easy to get misled by lurid details of miracles and ascetic practices
Every book on the history of the church
mentions the Desert Fathers, particularly the iconic Anthony the Great who was
brought to prominence by the biography of him by Athanasius, that redoubtable
defender of Christian orthodoxy (with whom I feel a connection given I was born
on his feast day, May 2!). But each of these histories has their own version of
Stephen Tompkins in A Short History of Christianity sees Anthony as part of the transformation of Christianity from its Jewish roots into a flesh-hating religion infused with Platonic philosophy. This is rather strange given that the Egyptian Desert Fathers was a grassroots movement of the Coptic peasantry, very few of whom spoke Greek.
Jean Comby, professor in the Catholic faculty of the University of Lyons emphasizes their eccentricity and roots in pre-Christian and animist thinking "Their refusal to study often increased obsessions and landed them in dubious ventures into dogma". In his perspective they needed the authoritative control of a bishop such as Basil of Caesarea to bring them into the (Catholic) mainstream. I tend to think that the incorporation of the Desert Fathers tradition into Western monasticism, by putting monks under the rule-based authority of an abbot; a process initiated by the writings of John Cassian, meant that much got lost in translation. Much more interesting is the internal systems developed by the Desert Fathers themselves and exemplified in the teachings of one of my great heroes, Abba Poemen, which sought to temper the excesses of asceticism and spiritualism to which this new grassroots movement was susceptible.
Michael A. Smith in the Lion History of
Christianity gives a Protestant take on the Desert Fathers. He emphasizes
the role of the Bible for the hermits but is critical of the way they prayed
and tends to see their ascetic practices as unnatural. He particularly
emphasizes the role of Pachomius in developing monastic communities in the
Egyptian desert. Again Smith treats the Desert Fathers as a bit weird, but
fails to mention their pragmatism such as the way they developed economic
self-sufficiency by weaving baskets from palm leaves, which in turn became an
essential part of the rhythm of prayer. My experience is that superficial
acquaintance with the Desert Fathers makes them sound strange and weird but
when you immerse yourself in the Sayings you realize these loose knit
communities were successful because they were self-regulating and realistic,
gathered as they were around old men (and some women) of great moderation,
wisdom and love.
A better nonspecialist introduction to the Desert Fathers is the excellent History of the World Christian Movement Volume 1 by Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sundquist (sadly there has been no volume 2!). This sets the context for them well, and sees beyond the normal clichés of weirdness and extreme otherworldliness
Chief among the
virtues articulated by the Desert Fathers and mothers is that of service to
one's neighbors.... Among the sayings of the Desert Fathers and mothers are
stories of monks who even sold Scriptures in order to give money to the poor...
in Egypt the White Monastery of Shenoute of Atripe fed thousands of refugees
from the raids of hostile tribes further south.
Furthermore they focus on the Sayings
The sayings of
the Desert Fathers and mothers are mostly wisdom sayings and insights gathered
orally from these revered teachers. They touch upon the such elements as
self-discipline, prayer, love, community service, and dealing with demons. At
the center is the vision of life with God that combines simplicity and
There is more to say but this is a good introduction. In fact there has been an increase in interest in the Desert Fathers in the new millennium (and mothers, for the role of women in the movement is being increasingly recognized). See my annotated bibliography
But there are many who are still suspicious of the Desert Fathers
It only takes a little leaven to make the dough rise as Christ taught… meaning it only takes a little error to cancel out all the positive effects of truth. The Desert Fathers were Early Coptic who lived in the Egyptian Nitrate desert and had some deep insights, but they were immersed in some Eastern methodologies that troubles a great many past and current scholars.
There has been quite a lot of speculation about the influence of Buddhism on the Desert Fathers and on other contemporary movements such as Gnosticism although no clear links have been established. Nonetheless this speculation is used by conservative Protestants to distance themselves from the Desert Fathers by portraying them as some kind of proto-New Age mystics who are corrupting biblical Christianity with Eastern thought.
What is most troubling is that many of New Age groups embrace and love their teachings because it appeals to their system. It is always a bad sign when the world system speaks well of a religious group or leader, because they indeed love their own. The influence of these desert monks have come to influence the Church in terms of what is called the Emergent Church. A grave departure from the teachings of Christ, instead holding to Eastern thought and denial of absolute tenants of what Christ and the Scriptures taught.
Linking the Desert Fathers to Buddhism feels rather like an ancient conspiracy theory. Critics would probably be on stronger ground if they explored the link between the Desert Fathers and Pelagianism.