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Teachings and Practices of the Desert Fathers

"[Christian] Monasticism began in the Eastern empire in the fourth century. In the early stages it was not linked with the church. It was Athanasius who took the first steps that finally brought the monastic movement under Church domination. The excessive austerities practiced by the Eastern monks were not to Benedict's liking. Their traditions had taken a very literal notice of the Christian view that the flesh was sinful. Accordingly they vied with each other who could achieve the rankest state of bodily neglect. To these unwholesome eccentricities the Benedictine rule put a determined stop. Authority and power was placed in the hands of the abbot who was appointed for life."...Early Christianity in Wisdom of the West...by Bertrand Russell
The Hermit Way of Life

"So who were the Desert Fathers? A majority were native Egyptians, mostly from the poorer classes, but others, from all parts of the Roman world, included men of high rank and high intelligence. Arsenius, for example, had been tutor to the sons of Emperor Theodosius; Evagrius was a subtle theologian; John Cassian, a well-travelled Rumanian, carried the desert traditions to southern France. One at least was black; Moses, first a slave, then leader of a gang of bandits, finally one of the holiest men in Scetis.

"Differences of rank or profession ceased to exist in the desert. There were, however, two levels, based on experience: Brother, a neophyte who needed to spend a few years as a disciple of some more seasoned hermit, and Father, or Old Man – not necessarily old in years – a hermit grown wise and virtuous enough to live alone and give guidance to others.

"A hermit's day typically began before dawn; sleep, though necessary, was an enemy stealing time from devotions. A father would meet with his disciples to recite psalms; all would then return to their individual cells and spend most of the day in solitary work and prayer ("Your cell will teach you everything," Moses said.) Work consisted mostly of weaving reeds or palm-fronds into ropes, mats and baskets which would subsequently be sold in the Delta villages; most hermits prided themselves on their independence and scorned charity. Sometimes hermits would hire out as laborers at harvest time, but this was frowned on, since it involved too much contact with the secular world.

"Around the ninth hour (3pm our time), father and brothers would gather again for the day's only meal, usually consisting of bread (one loaf per person was a normal week's ration) and vegetables such as beans and lentils. After the meal, hermits would visit with one another or ask more experienced elders for 'a word' – some nugget of wisdom, specially designed to apply to the individual concerned, on which one could subsequently meditate. Then they would return to their cells, rigorously examine their conduct over the preceding day, recognise and seek to eradicate their shortcomings, and finally, by the feeble light of an oil-lamp, continue working and praying until sleep overwhelmed them."...History and Hermits - The Desert Fathers of Egypt
  • Struggling with logismoi
    We have learnt, after much observation, to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons...Evagrius Ponticus...Texts on Discrimination in respect of Passions and Thoughts
  • Primacy of Love For All Living Things
    What can we gain by sailing off to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous. Proof: the great travellers and colonizers of the Renaissance were, for the most part, men who perhaps were capable of the things they did precisely because they were alienated from themselves. In subjugating primitive worlds they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation....Thomas Merton...The Wisdom of the Desert
  • Asceticism
    "...the Roman Empire between the fourth and fifth centuries experienced the development of a new form of Christian piety--the rise of asceticism. Both the Provinces of Egypt and Syria were home to the ascetic discipline; yet, the outward expression of the askesis [discipline, exercise, training] differed between the two areas. The geographical constraints and harsh desert climate severely limited the Egyptian ascetics, confining them to cells, where they practiced the ascetic discipline of fasting, prayer and meditation. Their modes of life differed from the ascetics in Syria, a province with a wide-range of geographical terrain, such as deserts, steppe-lands and mountainous areas, as well as more favorable climatic conditions. This allowed the Syrian ascetics to develop a more rigorous expression of the askesis, emphasizing bodily mortification. Although Egyptian ascetics were occasionally found to self-inflict harm upon their bodies, it was nevertheless mild in contrast to the Syrians, and an exception rather than a rule. The Syrians also aspired to live life as angels in the flesh, emulating the bodiless creatures that live in heaven. Although there was a marked contrast between ascetics in Egypt and Syria, ascetics in both provinces served as spiritual martyrs, as an out-growth of martyrdom that had ceased to play a role in Christianity after the official Imperial adoption of the religion, putting an end to the once frequent and wide-spread persecutions that claimed so many Christians in first few centuries A.D. Asceticism was truly a higher life, and an extreme expression of Christian piety, attested to by the countless men in Egypt and Syria who suffered for Christ."...source: Egyptian and Syrian Asceticism in Late Antiquity: A Comparative Study of the Ascetic Idea in the Late Roman Empire during the Fourth and Fifth Centuries...by Jeffrey Conrad
  • Hesychasm and Nepsis
    Hesychasm is a mystical tradition of experiential prayer in the Orthodox Church. It is described in great detail in the Philokalia, a compilation of what various saints wrote about prayer and the spiritual life. In practice, the Hesychastic prayer bears some superficial resemblance to mystical prayer or meditation in Eastern religions (e.g., Buddhism and Hinduism, especially Yoga)...source: Wikipedia
  • Contemplative Prayer
    "The Desert Fathers...practiced a form of prayer which could be described as meditation. In Buddhist terms, this ancient Christian meditation practice included both mantra meditation and non conceptual meditation. They would take a word, sentence or phrase from the Bible and repeat it over and over again. St. John Cassian, the Roman was based at a monastery in Bethlehem. He made a great contribution to world literature by producing two sets or collections of writings. These were the Institutes which recounted the practices of the monks of Egypt and adapted them for use in the colder, Western regions. Then later, Conferences given by various great Fathers of the Desert."...source: Christian Meditation by Brian Ruhe
  • Recitation of scripture
    The lives of the desert fathers were filled with recitation of the scriptures—during the week they chanted psalms while performing manual labor and during the weekends they held liturgies and group services. The monk's experience in the cell occurred in a variety of ways, but the role of meditation on scripture was central. For them meditation was the oral recitation of scripture. The group practices were particularly prominent in the more organized communities formed by Pachomius. The purpose of these practices were explained by John Cassian, a Desert Father, who described the goal of psalmody (the outward recitation of scripture) and asceticism as the ascent to deep mystical prayer and mystical contemplation...source: Wikipedia
  • Withdrawal from society
    The legalization of Christianity by the Roman Empire in 313 actually gave Anthony a greater resolve to go out into the desert. Anthony, who was nostalgic for the tradition of martyrdom, saw withdrawal and asceticism as an alternative. When members of the Church began finding ways to work with the Roman state, the Desert Fathers also saw that as a compromise between "the things of God and the things of Caesar." The monastic communities were essentially an alternate Christian society. The hermits doubted that religion and politics could ever produce a truly Christian society. For them, the only Christian society was spiritual and not mundane...source: Wikipedia
  • Panentheism
    "A charming story recounts Anthony's relationship with the animals in an era when bearbaiting and torturing of animals was a widespread form of entertainment:

    At first wild animals in the desert coming for water often would damage the beds in his garden. But he caught one of the animals, held it gently, and said to them all: "Why do you harm me when I harm none of you? Go away, and in the Lord's name do not come near these things again." And ever afterwards, as though awed by his orders, they did not come near the place.

    Such tales of monks' encounters with animals were numerous: an aging monk fed a starving lion with dates, another shared his evening meal regularly with a she-wolf, still another taught an ibex, a desert antelope, which plants to eat and which to avoid."
    ...source: Dictionary of African Christian Biography
  • Controversy and Banishment in Paradise: Promuglating on the Nature of God and the Afterlife.
    "Scholars have seen two monastic camps: “Hellenic or Hellenized monks whose theology was more intellectual and more speculative than the na├»ve and literal beliefs of their Egyptian brethren."...source: COPTIC PALLADIANA I: THE LIFE OF PAMBO (LAUSIAC HISTORY 9-10)
  • Visions and Special Awareness
  • The Hermit Life and Mental Health
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