The Desert Experiment

“In the fourth century, an intensive experiment in Christian living began to flourish in Egypt, Syria and Palestine. It was something new in Christian experience, uniting the ancient forms of monastic life with the Gospel. In Egypt the movement was soon so popular that both the civil authorities and the monks themselves became anxious: the officials of the Empire because so many were following a way of life that excluded both military service and the payment of taxes, and the monks because the number of interested tourists threatened their solitude.
desert hermits
The first Christian monks tried every kind of experiment with the way they lived and prayed, but there were three main forms of monastic life: in Lower Egypt there were hermits who lived alone; in Upper Egypt there were monks and nuns living in communities; and in Nitria and Scetis there were those who lived solitary lives but in groups of three or four, often as disciples of a master. For the most part they were simple men, peasants from the villages by the Nile, though a few, like Arsenius and Evagrius, were well educated. Visitors who were impressed and moved by the life of the monks imitated their way of life as far as they could, and also provided a literature that explained and analyzed this way of life for those outside it. However, the primary written accounts of the monks of Egypt are not these, but records of their words and actions by their close disciples.

Often, the first thing that struck those who heard about the Desert Fathers was the negative aspect of their lives. They were people who did without: not much sleep, no baths, poor food, little company, ragged clothes, hard work, no leisure, absolutely no sex, and even, in some places, no church either – a dramatic contrast of immediate interest to those who lived out the Gospel differently.
But to read their own writings is to form a rather different opinion. The literature produced among the monks themselves is not very sophisticated; it comes from the desert, from the place where the amenities of civilization were at their lowest point anyway, where there was nothing to mark a contrast in lifestyles; and the emphasis is less on what was lacking and more on what was present. The outsider saw the negations; disciples who encountered the monks through their own words and actions found indeed great austerity and poverty, but it was neither unbelievable nor complicated. These were simple, practical men, not given either to mysticism or to theology, living by the Word of God, the love of the brethren and of all creation, waiting for the coming of the Kingdom with eager expectation, using each moment as a step in their pilgrimage of the heart towards Christ.
sayings of
It was because of this positive desire for the Kingdom of heaven which came to dominate their whole lives that they went without things: they kept silence, for instance, not because of a proud and austere preference for aloneness but because they were learning to listen to something more interesting than the talk of men, that is, the Word of God. These men were rebels, the ones who broke the rules of the world which say that property and goods are essential for life, that the one who accepts the direction of another is not free, that no one can be fully human without sex and domesticity. Their name itself, anchorite, means rule-breaker, the one who does not fulfill his public duties. In the solitude of the desert they found themselves able to live in a way that was hard but simple, as children of God.
lives of the desert fathers
The literature they have left behind is full of a good, perceptive wisdom, from a clear, unassuming angle. They did not write much; most of them remained illiterate; but they asked each other for a “word”, that is, to say something in which they would recognize the Word of God, which gives life to the soul. It is not a literature of words that analyze and sort out personal worries or solve theological problems; nor is it a mystical literature concerned to present prayers and praise to God in a direct line of vision; rather, it is oblique, unformed, occasional, like sunlight glancing off a rare oasis in the sands.
paradise 3
These life-giving “words” were collected and eventually written down by disciples of the first monks, and grouped together in various ways, sometimes under the names of the monks with whom they were connected sometimes under headings which were themes of special interest, such as “solitude and stability”, “obedience”, or “warfare that lust arouses in us”. Mixed in with these sayings were short stories about the actions of the monks, since what they did was often as revealing as what they said. These collections of “apophthegmata” were not meant as a dead archaism, full of nostalgia for a lost past, but as a direct transmission of practical wisdom and experience for the use of the reader. Thus it is as part of tradition that this small selection has been made from some of the famous collections of desert material, most of which have been translated and published in full elsewhere. They are placed in pairs, so that a “word” faces a story and illustrates its central, though not its only meaning. Each saying-and-story pair has been given a heading; these are arranged in two series, the first part relating to the commandment to love one’s neighbour, the second to the commandment to love God.
paradise lasaic
This material first appeared among uneducated laymen; it is not “churchy” or specifically religious. It has its roots in that life in Christ which is common to all the baptized, some of whom lived this out as monks, others who did not. There is common a universal appeal in these sayings, in spite of much which is at first strange. I have not tried to eliminate all the strangeness of the material, but to present a very small part of it as it is, in the belief that the words and deeds of these men can still make the fountain of life spring up in the arid deserts of lives in the twentieth century as they did in the fourth. “Fear not this goodness”, said abba Antony, “as a thing impossible, nor the pursuit of it as something alien, set a great way off; it hangs on our own choice. For the sake of Greek learning, men go overseas. But the City of God has its foundations in every seat of human habitation. The kingdom of God is within. The goodness that is in us asks only the human mind.””
From Benedicta Ward’s Introduction to “Paradise of the Desert Fathers”, known in the Coptic Church as “bustan al-rohbaan” (The Monks’ Garden):


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: