The Desert Fathers

From the mid 3rd Century, monasticism began to blossom in Egypt. From the outset it was a teaching rather than a preaching ministry and it was practical rather than theoretical. During his brief reign, the Emperor Decius (201-251 r249-51) persecuted Egyptian Christians and its monastic communities were driven into the desert.

The collected sayings call upon us in a radical way but they are not misanthropic; they call for renunciation not rejection; there is a passion for the absolute but the tone is neither intolerant nor fundamentalist; and, above all, the approach is humble and not self righteousness; time and again pride is identified as the greatest pitfall.

As the reputation of the monks grew, they went deeper into the desert to escape celebrity; but by the end of the 4th Century there was grumbling that there were too many monks; pilgrims, seekers and tourists flocked to the monasteries. Among the visitors was the Romanian John Cassian who introduced what he saw into France where the sayings of the Fathers were read in Benedictine monasteries every day.

The Fathers' legendary pioneer was St. Anthony who died at the age of 105 in 356. It was his sayings which formed the core of the first written collection c400. The publication coincided with a period of intense theological controversy in Egypt; but it provided welcome relief from controversy, being used as a guide to prayer and asceticism.


KC iv/09