The Ancient Fathers of the Desert

A valuable resource on the Desert Fathers is available on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: “The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Introduction and Commentary” translated by the Very Rev. Dr. Chrysostomos:

As Eastern Orthodoxy grows among English-speaking peoples, Western Christians are becoming increasingly familiar with Christianity’s oldest tradition, with the Church which claims to bring to modernity the very spirit and essence of the Apostolic Church. Yet this familiarity, as flattering as it might be to a venerable faith which has seen the ancient witness of millions upon millions of its children fade into social and historical obscurity in the West, is fraught with danger. For, paradoxically, the growth of Eastern Orthodoxy is occurring at a time when Orthodox spirituality is at a particular low. A vast majority of the Church struggles in Eastern Europe under the yoke of political persecution. In many places the simple discussion of Orthodoxy is perilous. Monasticism, often characterized by Eastern Fathers as the barometer by which Orthodox spiritual health is measured, is engaged in what appears to be a losing battle with contemporary social ideals and morality. Some of the most popular Orthodox theologians are tainted in their teachings by Western thought and by a non-Orthodox mentality. And with overwhelming sadness, we have seen, in the last several decades, the passing of many of the spiritual giants (Elder Philotheos Zervakos of Greece and Archimandrite Justin Popovich of Serbia, among others) who have been our living links to Orthodoxy’s healthier spiritual past…
If the living Fathers of the Church are disappearing and their availability to some Orthodox is ever so slight, they have none the less left us, as one spiritual man has assured me, “elders bound in leather and gold.” They have left to us their words and their written instructions. We can add, therefore, to the bare essentials of Orthodoxy present in the West, the thunderingly silent printed patristic witness. We can begin slowly to see the essence and substance of the unique truth that Orthodoxy is, not in catechisms or statements of belief, but in actual practice. For, ultimately Orthodoxy is not expressed only in correct beliefs, doctrines, or dogmas. It is lived and felt and experienced. Beliefs, doctrines, and dogmas reflect a “theology of facts,” as one great Church Father expressed it, and the locus of these facts is personal spiritual experience and practice. Until we know what we believe as it is expressed in lives lived and transformed by real individuals, rather than from logical dicta rising out of rigorous philosophical systems, we cannot adequately express to the Westerner the truth of the Orthodox Faith. And to know these real individuals, these incarnate pillars of philosophical truth, we must turn to the largely unknown spiritual treasures of Orthodoxy, the ascetic parables and writings of those who struggled with the passions for perfection in Christ.
There are two outstanding and indispensable compilations of the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church which are most important for Orthodox in the West: the Philokalia and the Evergetinos.
The Philokalia, a collection of writings by Fathers living approximately between 300 and 1400 A.D., contains exalted theological writings by some thirty Fathers. These writings are essentially instructions to monks and spiritual aspirants in methods by which, to quote the full title of the collection, “the mind is purified, illumined, and made perfect through practical and contemplative moral philosophy.” It contains very advanced teachings ranging from advice on the proper control of the breath during prayerful contemplation to detailed instructions for the attainment of freedom from the passions. Though it has appeared in part in English, it is relatively unknown in its entirety to many Orthodox. Even in its Greek, Slavonic, and Russian editions, it is not widely read in modern times. The transition from an Orthodoxy lacking spiritual maturity and beset by formidable external foes to the perfection of the theoretical philosophy of the Philokalia is not an easy one and, even in translation, this collection is not a first solution to the spiritual naivete of contemporary Orthodox.
The Evergetinos is probably the beginning point for Orthodox in the West who wish to capture something of the essence of their faith. If the Philokalia teaches pure prayer and the path to deification and union with God, the Evergetinos provides us with anecdotal evidence that the practice of Christian virtues, such as humility, chastity, love for our neighbor, and submission to the will of God, can bring us to the brink of the ultimate encounter with the divine by which we are elevated to the philosophical and higher struggle for perfection. If from the Philokalia we are instructed in the philosophical way to perfection, in the Evergetinos we are guided to the pragmatic life of humility and self-control (composure), the indispensable requisites for the more advanced endeavor of the former. In the Evergetinos we see the virtuous lives of the desert monks who, during the first few centuries of Christianity, fled to the barren deserts around the Mediterranean and lived the most extreme and awe-inspiring lives of asceticism in a search for God.”
“”My brother, if your soul were pure and upright before the Lord, you would be able to profit from all things of this life. If you were to see a wandering peddler, you would say to yourself: ‘my soul, from the desire to earn fleeting, earthly goods, the peddler toils a great deal and endures much, concentrating on things which will not ultimately remain under his domain. Why, then, do you not look after those things which are eternal and incorruptible?’ Once again, if you were to see those who dispute in court over financial matters, you would say: ‘My soul, these people, often having not a single need, show such ardor and quarrel with such shouting between themselves. You, who owe to God a myriad of talents, why do you not implore God, bowing down as one should, to obtain cancellation of that debt?’
“If you were to see a builder making houses, you would again say: ‘my soul, these same, even if they build houses from mud, show such great zeal to finish the work they have laid out. You, why are you indifferent to eternal structures and why do you not struggle to erect the abode of God within the soul, forming and joining the virtues by the will?’
“Now, in order not to be prolix in citing various circumstances one by one, let us say that we must take care to transform our worldly thoughts and observations, which are born of our material perspective on things of the present life, to spiritual ones. Thereby, we shall profit from all things with the help and assistance of Divine Grace” (Saint Ephraim).”


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