Ever since I was a novice, I have been fascinated by the Desert Fathers of the early Church. Only later did I learn there were Desert Mothers too. Between the second and fourth Centuries, these men and women left their cities and fled into the desert to live their Christian faith. Interestingly, some did this just as Christianity was becoming the the official religion of the Roman Empire. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests a reason for this: “They had no confidence in the volatile mix of religion and politics, being pretty sure which one would rise to the top.”
These men and women spread out into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Persia, and Arabia. Some lived as hermits in isolated caves. Others dwelled in caves too, but formed larger communities with one another. They all possessed the same desire: to commit themselves totally (body, soul, mind, and will) to Jesus. In the words of Christine Valters Paintner, they were seeking “a growing intentional awareness of God’s presence.” They focused their energies on prayer, singing the psalms, living with others in harmony, and working simply—such as weaving baskets. The money they made from their work, they gave to the poor. They hoped their harsh penances (fasting, spending long hours in prayer, practicing silence, vowing celibacy, engaging in study) would lead to greater humility and gentleness toward others.
The Desert Fathers and Mother were also known for their wise and pithy teachings. Eventually these teachings were gathered into a book, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. It contains 1,202 adages and stories attributed to 27 Abbas and 3 Ammas. I’ll share a few of these with you now.
It is better to eat meat and drink wine than to eat the flesh of one’s brethren through slander. Hyperechius
Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything. Moses (Some say that the outer cell is a metaphor for the inner cell, that deep place within ourselves where we encounter our true selves, that is, our deepest feelings, desires, pains, and joys. In doing this, we often encounter God.)
All of us humans are in the image of God. But to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by their great love have attached their freedom to God. St. Diadochos of Photiki
“Remember, he who said, “Do not commit adultery” also said, “Do not judge.” Anonymous
Restrain the belly, the tongue, and anger, and your feet will not stumble over a rock. Amma Theodora of Alexandria
A young monk went to an elder monk and asked, “How many years will it take for me to become holy?” The old monk replied, “Ten years.” The young monk asked, “But what if I work really, really hard?” Said the old monk, “Twenty years.”
One day a group of thieves broke into an old monk’s cell. “Whatever you have,” they said, “We’ve come to take it.” Said the monk, “Take whatever you see.” The thieves did and then went on their way. But they forgot a little bag that the monk had. He grabbed it and ran after the thieves saying, “You forgot this! Take it!” The thieves marveled at the old monk. They brought everything back to him, did penance, and left saying, “Truly this was a man of God.”
Two monks went on a long journey. One day they came to a stream they had to cross. A beautiful young woman was standing beside the stream hesitating to wade across. One monk offered to carry her across so she wouldn’t get her shoes and robe wet. She accepted his offer. He lifted her up in his arms and waded across the stream with her. Once on the other side, he put her down. She thanked him for his kindness, and the monks and the woman went their separate ways. A few hours later, the monk who didn’t carry the woman across the stream said to the other one, “You never should have even looked at that woman back there—let alone carry her in your arms.” Said the other monk, “My dear Brother, I left that woman by the stream hours ago but you have been carrying her even till now.“
The Desert Fathers and Mothers went into the desert to encounter God in order to be transformed into a person of love. In this regard they are not that different from all of us who are striving to be transformed into the person of Jesus. Their penances may seem extreme. But ours can be extreme at times too. None of these monks ever had to give birth to a child, change a baby’s diapers, or try to calm a wailing baby at 2 o’clock in the morning. None of these monks had to broker peace between squabbling siblings, drive in rush hour traffic twice a day, and work to keep a marriage alive and healthy. None of these monks ever had to teach a classroom full of antsy third graders, raise a teenager, face the challenges of modern technology, do rehab after a knee or hip replacement, or worry about a potential nuclear disaster. The truth is, we have countless penances woven into the fabric of ordinary modern life that (hopefully) can help transform us into people of love too.
We also have “desert experiences” that can hasten this process of transformation. We know we are in the desert when our ordinary life is being stripped down to the essentials. Perhaps we have lost our job or are beset by serious illness. Or our home has been destroyed by fire, flooding, or a tornado. Or we have undergone a major move in our life, experienced the ending of a cherished relationship, or lost a loved one through death. Or, as Paintner says, maybe we are being forced “to let go of all the securities we cling to, even our images of God.” When we find ourselves in such circumstances, we might want to turn to these remote ancestors of our faith and simply pray, “Dear Desert Abbas, Dear Desert Ammas, pray for us…”
Did anything in this reflection speak to you today? If so, what?
What kind of experiences have you had that “qualify” for a desert experience? How did you survive the desert?
Name some of the modern penances that you encounter in ordinary living.
Do you know any other stories or sayings from the Desert Fathers and Mothers? If so, please share them with us below.
Announcing: Free Prizes!!!!
In honor of the 10th anniversary of “Sunflower Seeds” on February 12, I will be giving away free prizes to some lucky readers. This week I will award three of my books (autographed copies) to three readers. You can choose the book you want from the books I have on hand. To enter, all you have to do is submit a comment below (even a few words would suffice) by Saturday noon, January 22. I will announce the winners Monday, January 24. (If you comment more than once, that’s fine–but your name will be entered only once in the drawing.) Then I’ll announce the next contest. I am trying to think up some ways to show my appreciation to you, my “Sunflower” readers. Stay tuned!
I chose five minutes of instrumental music today set against beautiful photos of deserts. Sometimes we dismiss deserts as “wastelands without life.” But if we look more closely, we can see the many forms of life that have adapted themselves to the desert: plants, insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals who call the desert “home.” I hope you enjoy the beauty of the desert.
I encourage you to comment below. The more, the merrier!