Desert Fathers and the Eastern Church

“The desert Christians emphasized lifestyle practice, an alternative to empires and their economies, psychologically astute methods of prayer, and a very simple (some would say naïve) spirituality of transformation into Christ. The desert communities grew out of informal gatherings of monastic monks, and functioned much like families. This tradition preceded the emergence of systematic theology and the later Councils of the Church. In many areas of early Christianity, like Alexandria, one was required to be a monk first, before becoming a bishop.

Since the desert monks were often formally uneducated, they told stories, much as Jesus did, to teach about ego, love, virtue, surrender, peace, divine union, and inner freedom.

Both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen recognized the importance of this early, desert form of Christianity. It is a unique window into how Jesus was first understood, before the church became an imperial, highly organized, competitive religion.

The second important aspect of early Christianity were the Greek-speaking theologians. Their names might be known in Western seminaries and recognized on some church calendars, but they would be unfamiliar to most lay Catholics and Protestants: Origen, Athanasius, Basil, the two Gregorys of Nazianzen and Nyssa, Evagrius Ponticus, John Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysius, the two Cyrils (of Alexandria and Jerusalem), and others.

Their writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology—some of which we’ve retained and, unfortunately, many of which we’ve forgotten or labeled heretical.

“God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or anyone else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.” John Chrysostom


The most important things I’ve learned from the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the Eastern Fathers of the Church, one building upon the other, are:

  • Lifestyle practice trumps doctrinal/verbal purity;
  • A dynamic (interactive) notion of the human and divine natures of Christ (especially from the Alexandrian school);
  • A truly Trinitarian mysticism (especially from Cappadocia);
  • The doctrine of theosis (human divinization as an objective reality) which directly follows from the interactive understanding of our human and divine natures; and
  • A much more practical and sustained teaching of how to pray and keep the mind and heart at rest (as passed on especially in The Philokalia).

Early Christianity set the foundation and ground for what we would now call contemplation. The term hesychasm (resting) describes this primary concern in the Eastern Church. Eastern Christians are the “Buddhists” of Christianity, as it were; the Western Church has always

been more missionary-oriented, practical, and focused on academic learning. Our two approaches are quite different and obviously there are strengths and weaknesses to both.

Our biggest loss has been that the East and West have not balanced one another out.

Among many of the early Fathers of the Church, there was a common belief in apokatastasis (universal restoration) that has totally escaped the Western Church. Most Catholics and Protestants would be shocked by the belief that salvation is cosmic and universal—the exact meaning of Christ’s victory. While this early belief is validated by Scripture and the very nature of God, it is precisely the parts of spirituality that the Western Church has neglected.

So, in a very brief way, and by jumping over many hidden luminaries, you can see why these are essential, yet almost lost, pieces of the Perennial Tradition which are foundational to retrieving an alternative orthodoxy. The early Church was already an alternative to what was later called orthodoxy!

Eastern and Western Christianity, with their different focuses, are both important; we exclude or neglect one to our own detriment. By reclaiming the divergent roots of our faith tradition, we come closer to experiencing the wholeness and union that God desires for us.

“As it is impossible to verbally describe the sweetness of honey to one who has never tasted honey, so the goodness of God cannot be clearly communicated by way of teaching if we ourselves are not able to penetrate into the goodness of the Lord by our own experience.” Basil the Great”


From: Richard Rohr “Desert Christianity and the Eastern Fathers of the Church” The Mendicant Centre for Action and Contemplation April 2015 vol. 5 no. 2. Full text available on-line at:



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