Holy Men in the Middle of Nowhere: The Desert Fathers

By Nihilsum | Hindsight | 26 Nov 2023


The beginnings of Christian monasticism are found in the deserts of the Middle East, particularly Egypt and the area around Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Palestine. Many of the desert fathers were not educated men; they were often little more than peasants seeking truth through varying levels of solitude. The spiritual tradition of the men and women who lived seeking God in the desert paved the way for the organized genesis of one of the most important institutions in the Christian religion: monasteries.

The group of men generally known as the desert fathers began with the Egyptian St. Antony, who left his home in Alexandria in the late third century. He was not the first Christian monk, but was credited by his biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, with the establishment of Christian communal monasticism, though this may not have been his intention. Antony certainly stands out from the other Desert Fathers in light of the fact that we have an entire text on his life, whereas what we know of many contemporary monks comes from fragmentary sources or collections of sayings. Various other monks followed suit, some in complete solitude, while others chose to live in communities of varying sizes. These monks often performed acts of devotion and self-purification. These included fasting, silence, abstaining from alcohol, keeping a very limited diet, avoidance of others, and manual labor. Some of the more notable monks classed as Desert Fathers include Arsenius, Macarius the Great, Poemen, Sisois, Pachomius, in addition to St. Antony. The monastic life grew in Egypt and the remainder of the Middle East, but the communities in Egypt were either destroyed or forced to move in the early fifth century by a Berber invasion of Egypt and were later disrupted by Islamic invasions. The monastic movement had spread north and west by this time however, and monks, nuns, and monasteries would have a profound effect on both the Eastern and Western world in the medieval period.

The monastic movement was, in large part, a rebellion against spiritual pretention by both new and older Christians since the lifting of persecution of Christians during the reign of Constantine and Christianity’s new status as a favored religion in the Empire. Additionally, it was a rebellion against not only the new stagnation, but against what the Empire symbolized to early Christians. Monasticism was a rebellion against self-gratification, hedonism, intemperance, and a variety of other forms of worldliness. The spiritual life as a monk or nun was a way for Christians to do away with their new status in the Empire, considering it of no use in their pursuit of eternal life.

It should be noted that sources for the lives and teachings of the desert fathers do not often come to us firsthand. They were originally written in Coptic, Greek, and Latin, and have been used in sermons and for teaching for nearly two millennia; some may at times have been embellished or misinterpreted. Some were written by scholars, others were written by men who could hardly be further from the title of scholar, and different texts must be read in their varying spiritual, political, and cultural contexts.

The third and fourth centuries were the beginnings of what would become organized monastic rule and figures like Pachomius, Antony, and Poemen paved the way for both the Eastern and Western monastic traditions. St. Benedict would write his rule based upon the example of the Desert Fathers and the traditions and stories spread to Europe, where they most notably took root. Monasticism would play an important role in coming events, such as the rise to power of the Catholic Church, the Crusades, and the day to day life of many in the Middle Ages.

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Nihilsum
Nihilsum

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