After his parents died, 18-year-old Anthony heard Matthew 19:21 read in church and felt called to take literally Christ’s command to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. After selling all of his property and inheritance, he fled to the Egyptian desert to do battle with the demons who presumably lived there. He became known as the “athlete of God” due to his excessive asceticism: fasting for extended periods of time, abstaining from speech and praying throughout the night.
Because Christianity was becoming more and more secularized in the early 4th century, the devout could no longer show their commitment to Christ through martyrdom. When they saw Anthony’s devotion in the desert, they followed him and learned to show their commitment to Christ through “white” martyrdom (abstinence in the desert) rather than through “red” martyrdom (shedding blood). Soon thousands joined Abba Anthony of Egypt and “the desert became a city” as communities of Desert Fathers and Mothers formed around him. These desert ascetics would pray the psalms while weaving baskets, which they sold in exchange for food and the most basic living needs. People often traveled long distances to hear their words of wisdom, which were sometimes humorous, sometimes enigmatic, sometimes simple common sense, but most of the time brilliant…
Abba Anthony said, “I no longer fear God, but I love Him. For love casts out fear.’ (John 4:18)
He also said, “Obedience with abstinence gives people power over wild beasts.”
Abba Poemen (called the Shepherd)
Abba Poemen said that a brother who lived with some other brothers asked Abba Bessario, “What ought I to do?” The old man said to him, “Keep silence and do not always be comparing yourself with others.”
He also said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.”
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “When we see brothers who are dozing at the synaxis (the liturgical office), shall we rouse them so that they will be watchful?” He said to them, “For my part, when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.”
Abba John, who had been exiled by the Emperor Marcian, said, “We went to Syria one day to see Abba Poemen and we wanted to ask him about purity of heart. But the old man did not know Greek and no interpreter could be found. So, seeing our embarrassment, the old man began to speak Greek, saying, “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the one who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.”
A brother whom another brother had wronged came to see Abba Sisoes and said to him, “My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.” The old man pleaded with him saying, “No, my child, leave vengeance to God.” He said to him, “I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.” The old man said, “Brother, let us pray.” Then the old man stood up and said, “God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.” Hearing these words, the brothers fell at the old man’s feet, saying, “I will no longer seek justice from my brother; forgive me, abba.”
A brother asked Abba Sisoes, “What shall I do, abba, for I have fallen?” The old man said to him, “Get up again.” The brother said, “I have got up again, but I have fallen again.” The old man said, “Get up again and again.”
Abba Sisoes said to a brother, “How are you getting on?” and he replied, “I am wasting my time, father.” The old man said, “If I happen to waste a day, I am grateful for it.”
Abba Paul the Barber
Abba Paul the Barber and his brother Timothy lived in Scetis. They often used to argue. So Abba Paul said, “How long shall we go on like this?” Abba Timothy said to him, “I suggest you take my side of the argument and in my turn I will take your side when you oppose me.” They spent the rest of their days in this practice.
Abba Paul the Great
Abba Paul said: “Keep close to Jesus.”
Abba Theophilus the Archbishop
Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to him, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”
Abba Joseph of Panephysis
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, “You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.”
Amma Syncletica said, “It is not good to get angry, but if this should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says, ‘Let not the sun go down.’ (Eph. 4:25) Will you wait till all your time is ended? Why hate the man who has grieved you? It is not he who has done wrong, but the devil. Hate sickness but not the sick person.”
Amma Sarah said, “If I prayed God that all men should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart be pure towards all.”
According to the collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Desert Spirituality offers access to the imago Dei through renunciation, detachment, solitude (“Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything”), limited food, limited sleep, limited possessions, discerning spirits, combating evil spirits, constant prayer, recitation of Psalms and ultimately, humility.
Relation to Jews: Apophthegmata Patrum and Pirkei Avot
As far as I know, the Desert Fathers and Mothers said nothing directly about the Jews. However, at around this time (late 3rd to late 4th century), the Jews were compiling an important Mishnaic text called Pirkei Avot, which means “Sayings of the Fathers.” Like Apophthegmata Patrum, Pirkei Avotcontains short sayings of spiritual leaders about how to connect with imago Dei; or, in other words, how to live according to Torah. An in-depth comparison of these two texts (The Sayings of Christian Fathers and the Sayings of Jewish Fathers) would certainly be worthwhile and conducive to interfaith learning between Judaism and Christianity. One major difference between Pirkei Avot and Apophthegmata Patrum these two texts is in their approach to study: the former stresses Torah study as absolutely essential to spiritual growth while the latter often sees study as a distraction from the important work of prayer and fasting. In one of the more convicting sayings, a Desert Father actually chastises someone for owning too many books, saying that the money spent on those books belongs to the poor. When I consider how much money I have spent on the books that crowd my room, I find this saying particularly challenging.
One major similarity between these two texts is in their concern for heavenly reward. According to both texts, receiving earthly reward (particularly in the form of praise from others) can seriously limit and impinge on one’s heavenly reward. Although there are important nuances that make the spirituality of reward and recompense unique to each tradition, the similarity is striking nonetheless.