Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers (along with Desert Mothers) were early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The Apophthegmata Patrum is a collection of the wisdom of some of the early desert monks and nuns, in print as Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The most well known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in AD 270–271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. By the time Anthony died in AD 356, thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following Anthony's example—his biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote that "the desert had become a city."[1] The Desert Fathers had a major influence on the development of Christianity.

The desert monastic communities that grew out of the informal gathering of hermit monks became the model for Christian monasticism. The eastern monastic tradition at Mount Athos and the western Rule of Saint Benedict both were strongly influenced by the traditions that began in the desert. All of the monastic revivals of the Middle Ages looked to the desert for inspiration and guidance. Much of Eastern Christian spirituality, including the Hesychast movement, had its roots in the practices of the Desert Fathers. Even religious renewals such as the German evangelicals and Pietists in Pennsylvania, the Devotio Moderna movement, and the Methodist Revival in England are seen by modern scholars as being influenced by the Desert Fathers.[2]

Early history

St Macarius the Great with Cherub
"Saint Macarius and a Cherub" from Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt

Paul of Thebes is often credited with being the first hermit monk to go to the desert, but it was Anthony the Great who launched the movement that became the Desert Fathers.[3] Sometime around AD 270, Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one's possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor, and following Christ (Matt. 19:21). He followed the advice and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude.[1]

Anthony lived in a time of transition for Christianity—the Diocletianic Persecution in AD 303 was the last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Only ten years later, Christianity was made legal in Egypt by Diocletian's successor Constantine I. Those who left for the desert formed an alternate Christian society, at a time when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifice of the desert was seen by Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice.[4] Anthony quickly gained followers eager to live their lives in accordance with this solidarity and separation from material goods. From these prohibitions it is recorded by Athanasius that Anthony received special privileges from God, such as the ability to heal the sick, inspire others to have faith in healing through God, and even converse with God on occasion.[5] Around this time, desert monasticism appeared nearly simultaneously in several areas, including Egypt and Syria.[1]

Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest, and anything that made them comfortable.[6] They instead focused their energies on praying, singing psalms, fasting, giving alms to the needy, and preserving love and harmony with one another while keeping their thoughts and desires for God alone.[5] Thousands joined them in the desert, mostly men but also a handful of women. Religious seekers also began going to the desert seeking advice and counsel from the early Desert Fathers. By the time of Anthony's death, there were so many men and women living in the desert that it was described as "a city" by Anthony's biographer.[1]

The Desert Fathers advocated three main approaches to monasticism. One was the austere life of the hermit, as practiced by Anthony and his followers in lower Egypt. Another was the cenobitic life, communities of monks and nuns in upper Egypt formed by Pachomius. The third was a semi-hermitic lifestyle seen mostly in Nitria, Kellia and Scetis, west of the Nile, begun by Saint Amun. The latter were small groups (two to six) of monks and nuns with a common spiritual elder—these separate groups would join together in larger gatherings to worship on Saturdays and Sundays. This third form of monasticism was responsible for most of the sayings that were compiled as the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers).[1]

Development of monastic communities

Icon of Pachomius

The small communities founded by the Desert Fathers were the beginning of Christian monasticism. Initially Anthony and others lived as hermits, sometimes forming groups of two or three. Small informal communities began developing, until the monk Pachomius, seeing the need for a more formal structure, established a monastery with rules and organization. His regulations included discipline, obedience, manual labour, silence, fasting, and long periods of prayer—some historians view the rules as being inspired by Pachomius' experiences as a Roman soldier.[6]

The first fully organized monastery under Pachomius included men and women living in separate quarters, up to three in a room. They supported themselves by weaving cloth and baskets, along with other tasks. Each new monk or nun had a three-year probationary period, concluding with admittance in full standing to the monastery. All property was held communally, meals were eaten together and in silence, twice a week they fasted, and they wore simple peasant clothing with a hood. Several times a day they came together for prayer and readings, and each person was expected to spend time alone meditating on the scriptures. Programs were created for educating those who came to the monastery unable to read.[7]

Pachomius also formalized the establishment of an abba (father) or amma (mother) in charge of the spiritual welfare of their monks and nuns, with the implication that those joining the monastery were also joining a new family. Members also formed smaller groups, with different tasks in the community and the responsibility of looking after each other's welfare. The new approach grew to the point that there were tens of thousands of monks and nuns in these organized communities within decades of Pachomius' death.[7] One of the early pilgrims to the desert was Basil of Caesarea, who took the Rule of Pachomius into the eastern church. Basil expanded the idea of community by integrating the monks and nuns into the wider public community, with the monks and nuns under the authority of a bishop and serving the poor and needy.[7]

As more pilgrims began visiting the monks in the desert, influence from the monastic communities began spreading. Latin versions of the original Greek stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers, along with the earliest monastic rules coming out of the desert, guided the early monastic development in the Byzantine world and eventually in the western Christian world.[8] John Cassian played an important role in mediating the influence of the Desert Fathers to the West.[9] This can be seen, for example, in the Rule of Saint Benedict, where Benedict of Nursia urged his monks to read the writings of John Cassian on the Desert Fathers. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers was also widely read in the early Benedictine monasteries.[10]

Notable Desert Fathers and Mothers

Arsenius the Great
Icon of Arsenius the Great, notable Desert Father

Many of the monks and nuns developed a reputation for holiness and wisdom, with the small communities following a particularly holy or wise elder, who was their spiritual father (abba) or mother (amma). The individual Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers are mostly known through The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which included 1,202 sayings attributed to twenty-seven abbas and three ammas.[11] The greatest number of sayings are attributed to Abba "Poemen", Greek for "shepherd". Because of the wide disparity of dates for the sayings attributed to Abba Poemen, some scholars believe that "Poemen" was a generic name for a combination of different unnamed Abbas.[12] Others conclude that the sayings attributed to Abba Poemen are accurate, based on a notable and historical Abba Poemen.[13] Among the notable Desert Fathers and Mothers with sayings in the book, in addition to Anthony the Great, were Arsenius the Great, Poemen, Macarius of Egypt, Moses the Black, and Syncletica of Alexandria.[14]

Other notable Desert Fathers include Pachomius and Shenouda the Archimandrite, and many individuals who spent part of their lives in the Egyptian desert, including Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Evagrius Ponticus, Hilarion and John Cassian. Cassian's works brought the wisdom of the Desert Fathers into a wider arena.


Withdrawal from society

The legalization of Christianity by the Roman Empire in 313 gave Anthony a greater resolve to go out into the desert. Nostalgic for the tradition of martyrdom, he saw withdrawal and asceticism as an alternative. He insisted on selling all his material possessions—he left his younger sister a small amount of money to live her life in a convent, and donated the rest to the poor.[5] When members of the church began finding ways to work with the Roman state, the Desert Fathers saw that as a compromise between "the things of God and the things of Caesar." The monastic communities were essentially an alternate Christian society.[4] 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.[15]


Hesychasm (from the Greek for "stillness, rest, quiet, silence")[16] is a mystical tradition and movement that originated with the Desert Fathers and was central to their practice of prayer.[17] Hesychasm for the Desert Fathers was primarily the practice of "interior silence and continual prayer." It did not become a formal movement of specific practices until the fourteenth century Byzantine meditative prayer techniques, when it was more closely identified with the Prayer of the Heart, or "Jesus Prayer".[18] That prayer's origin is also traced back to the Desert Fathers—the Prayer of the Heart was found inscribed in the ruins of a cell from that period in the Egyptian desert.[19] The earliest written reference to the practice of the Prayer of the Heart may be in a discourse collected in the Philokalia on Abba Philimon, a Desert Father.[20] Hesychast prayer was a meditative practice that was traditionally done in silence and with eyes closed—"empty of mental pictures" and visual concepts, but with the intense consciousness of God's presence.[21]

The words hesychast and hesychia were frequently used in 4th and 5th century writings of Desert Fathers such as Macarius of Egypt, Evagrius Ponticus, and Gregory of Nyssa.[22] The title hesychast was used in early times synonymously with hermit, as compared to a cenobite who lived in community.[23] Hesychasm can refer to inner or outer stillness, though in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers it referred to inner tranquility.[24]

Charity and forgiveness

The Desert Fathers gave a great deal of emphasis to living and practicing the teachings of Christ, much more than theoretical knowledge. Their efforts to live the commandments were not seen as being easy—many of the stories from that time recount the struggle to overcome negative emotions such as anger and judgment of others. Helping a brother monk who was ill or struggling was seen as taking priority over any other consideration. Hermits were frequently seen to break a long fast when hosting visitors, as hospitality and kindness were more important than keeping the ascetic practices that were so dominant in the Desert Fathers' lives.[25]

Recitation of scripture

The lives of the Desert Fathers that were organized into communities included frequent recitation of the scriptures—during the week they chanted psalms while performing manual labour and during the weekends they held liturgies and group services. The monk's experience in the cell occurred in a variety of ways, including meditation on scripture.[26] Group practices were more prominent in the organized communities formed by Pachomius.[7] 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.[24]

Excerpts from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

  • "A hermit said, 'Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the attacks of the demons."
  • Abba Moses, "Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all."
  • "Somebody asked Anthony, 'What shall I do in order to please God?' He replied, 'Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines, you will be saved.'"
  • "He (Evagrius) also said, 'A monk was told that his father had died. He said to the messenger, 'Do not blaspheme. My Father cannot die.'"
  • Abbot Pastor, "If someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may drive out his malice."
  • An Elder, "A man who keeps death before his eyes will at all times overcome his cowardliness."
  • Blessed Macarius said, "This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die."
  • "It happened that as Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, 'O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.'"
  • When one desert father told another of his plans to “ shut himself into his cell and refuse the face of men, that he might perfect himself,” the second monk replied, “ Unless thou first amend thy life going to and fro amongst men, thou shall not avail to amend it dwelling alone.”
  • "Abba Anthony said, 'Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an axe. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labour in vain.'
  • He also said, 'Obedience with abstinence gives men power over wild beasts.'"[27]
  • It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, 'I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.' So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it 'Who are you?' He said, 'I am John, your brother.' But he replied, 'John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.' Then the other begged him saying, 'It is I.' However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, 'You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.' Then John made a prostration before him, saying, 'Forgive me.'"[28]

Essential texts

There are many different collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers. The earliest writings were simply ordered by the initial letter of the Abba's name in the order of the Greek alphabet. So the editors started with Anthony the Great, Arsenius and Agathon and concluded with Cheremon, Psenthaisius and Or. It was those first editors who used the word apophthegms (meaning: saying, maxim or aphorism)—this is why this collection is now known as[Apophthegmata Patrum Alphabetica (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetic Collection). This collection contains about a thousand items.

The same editors knew there were also a lot of anonymous sayings and tales of the Desert Fathers and Mothers circulating. This material was gathered into a collection now known as [Anonymous Patrum Apophthegmata (Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers). These sayings were placed in order of more or less similar subjects (for instance: humility, charity etc.). This collection contains about eight hundred items.

The collection now known as the Systematic Collection began to emerge a century later (AD 500). It has sayings from the Alphabetic Collection and the Anonymous Sayings, combined and systematically ordered under twenty-one chapters. This collection contains about 1200 items and therefore does not completely combine the two older collections.[29]

  • The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum)
  • The Lives of the Desert Fathers (Historia Monachorum in Aegypte)
  • Ethiopic Collectio Monastica, includes many sayings of the Desert Fathers not included in the Apophthegmata Patrum
  • The Lausiac History by Palladius of Galatia
  • The Life of Saint Antony by St. Athanasius
  • The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Anonymous Apophthegmata)
  • The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Systematic Collection
  • Philokalia collection of texts
  • The Conferences and The Institutes by John Cassian
  • The Evergetinos
  • Paradise of the Desert Fathers, also known as Bustan al-Rohbaan

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e Chryssavgis 2008, p. 15.
  2. ^ Burton-Christie 1993, pp. 7–9.
  3. ^ Waddell 1957, p. 30.
  4. ^ a b Chryssavgis 2008, p. 16.
  5. ^ a b c Athanasius 1892.
  6. ^ a b Riddle 2008, p. 43.
  7. ^ a b c d Irvin & Sundquist 2001, pp. 210–212.
  8. ^ Wilfong 1998, p. 193.
  9. ^ Gregory & Kazhdan 1991, pp. 387–388.
  10. ^ Burton-Christie 1993, p. 6.
  11. ^ Chryssavgis 2008, p. 4.
  12. ^ Chryssavgis 2008, p. 6.
  13. ^ Harmless 2000.
  14. ^ Chryssavgis 2008, pp. 19–29.
  15. ^ Merton 1960, p. 4.
  16. ^ Parry et al. 1999, p. 91.
  17. ^ Binns 2006, p. 588; Meyendorff 1974, p. 1; Ward 1984, p. 250.
  18. ^ Nes 2007, p. 97; Rock 2006, p. 262.
  19. ^ Guillaumont 1979.
  20. ^ McGinn 2006, p. 125.
  21. ^ Ware 2000, p. 101.
  22. ^ Peterson 2008, p. 304.
  23. ^ Nes 2007, p. 97.
  24. ^ a b Egan 1996, p. 71.
  25. ^ Burton-Christie 1993, pp. 161–163.
  26. ^ Harmless 2004, p. 244; Keller 2005, p. 55.
  27. ^ Ward 1984, p. 8.
  28. ^ Ward 1984, p. 86.
  29. ^ Wortley 2012, pp. xvi–xviii.


Athanasius of Alexandria (1892). "Life of St. Anthony" . In Schaff, Philip; Wace, Henry (eds.). A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. 4. Buffalo, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Company.
Binns, John (2006). "Modern Spirituality and the Orthodox Church". In Angold, Michael (ed.). The Cambridge History of Christianity. Volume 5: Eastern Christianity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 580–599. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521811132.025. ISBN 978-0-521-81113-2.
Burton-Christie, Douglas (1993). The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-508333-0.
Chryssavgis, John (2008). In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (rev. ed.). Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom. ISBN 978-1-933316-56-7.
Egan, Harvey D. (1996). An Anthology of Christian Mysticism (2nd ed.). Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-8146-6012-6.
Gregory, Timothy E.; Kazhdan, Alexander P. (1991). "Cassian, John". In Kazhdan, Alexander P. (ed.). The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 1. New York: Oxford University Press (published 2005). ISBN 978-0-19-518792-2.
Guillaumont, Antoine (1979). "Une inscription copte sur la prière de Jesus". Aux origines du monachisme chrétien: Pour une phénoménologie du monachisme. Spiritualité orientale et vie monastique (in French). 30. Bégrolles-en-Mauges, France: Abbaye de Bellefontaine. pp. 168–183.
Harmless, William (2000). "Remembering Poemen Remembering: The Desert Fathers and the Spirituality of Memory". Church History. 69 (3): 483–518. doi:10.2307/3169395. ISSN 1755-2613. JSTOR 3169395.
 ———  (2004). Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/0195162234.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-516222-6.
Irvin, Dale T.; Sundquist, Scott W. (2001). History of the World Christian Movement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. ISBN 978-0-567-08866-6.
Keller, David G. R. (2005). Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-8146-3034-1.
McGinn, Bernard, ed. (2006). The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. New York: Modern Library. ISBN 978-0-8129-7421-8.
Merton, Thomas (1960). Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directions (published 1970). ISBN 978-0-8112-0102-5.
Meyendorff, John (1974). St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. Translated by Fiske, Adele. Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-913836-11-8.
Nes, Solrunn (2007). The Uncreated Light: An Iconographical Study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church. Translated by Moi, Arlyne. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-1764-8.
Parry, Ken; Melling, David J.; Brady, Dimitri; Griffith, Sidney H.; Healy, John F., eds. (1999). The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-0-631-23203-2.
Peterson, Michael D. (2008). "Hesychasm". In Benedetto, Robert (ed.). The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Volume 1: The Early, Medieval, and Reformation Eras. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 304–305. ISBN 978-0-664-22416-5.
Riddle, John M. (2008). A History of the Middle Ages, 300–1500. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-5409-2.
Rock, Stella (2006). "Russian Piety and Orthodox Culture, 1380–1589". In Angold, Michael (ed.). The Cambridge History of Christianity. Volume 5: Eastern Christianity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 253–275. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521811132.012. ISBN 978-0-521-81113-2.
Waddell, Helen (1957) [1936]. The Desert Fathers. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-06008-5.
Ward, Benedicta, ed. (1984). The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (PDF) (rev. ed.). Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications. ISBN 978-0-87907-959-8. Retrieved 24 June 2018.
Ware, Kallistos (2000). The Inner Kingdom. Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-88141-209-3.
Wilfong, Terry G. (1998). "The Non-Muslim Communities: Christian Communities". In Petry, Carl F. (ed.). The Cambridge History of Egypt. Volume 1: Islamic Egypt, 640–1517. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (published 2006). pp. 175–197. ISBN 978-0-521-47137-4. Retrieved 24 June 2018.
Wortley, John, ed. (2012). The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Translated by Wortley, John. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-87907-201-8.
Apophthegmata Patrum

The Apophthegmata Patrum (lit. Sayings of the Fathers) (Latin: Apophthegmata Patrum Aegyptiorum Greek: ἀποφθέγματα τῶν ἁγίων γερόντων, ἀποφθέγματα τῶν πατέρων, τὸ γεροντικόν) is the name given to various collections popularly known as of Sayings of the Desert Fathers, consisting of stories and sayings attributed to the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers from approximately the 5th century AD.The collections consist of wisdom stories describing the spiritual practices and experiences of early Christian hermits living in the desert of Egypt. They are typically in the form of a conversation between a younger monk and his spiritual father, or as advice given to visitors. Beginning as an oral tradition in the Coptic language, they were only later written down as Greek text. The stories were extremely popular among early Christian monks, and appeared in various forms and collections.The original sayings were passed down from monk to monk, though in their current version most simply describe the stories in the form of "Abba X said...." The early Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers also received many visitors seeking counseling, typically by asking "Give me a word, abba" or "Speak a word, amma, how can I be saved?" Some of the sayings are responses to those seeking guidance.Many notable Desert Fathers are mentioned in the collections, including Anthony the Great, Abba Arsenius, Abba Poemen, Abba Macarius of Egypt, and Abba Moses the Black. The sayings also include those of three different ammas, or Desert Mothers, most notably Syncletica of Alexandria. Sayings of the Desert Fathers influenced many notable theologians, including Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine.

Arsenius the Great

Saint Arsenius the Deacon, sometimes known as Arsenius of Scetis and Turah, Arsenius the Roman or Arsenius the Great, was a Roman imperial tutor who became an anchorite in Egypt, one of the most highly regarded of the Desert Fathers, whose teachings were greatly influential on the development of asceticism and the contemplative life.

His contemporaries so admired him as to surname him "the Great". His feast day is celebrated on May 8 in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox church, and on 13 Pashons in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Benedicta Ward

Benedicta Ward (born Florence Margaret Ward, 1933) is a theologian and historian of early Christian spirituality at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford. She is particularly known for her research on the Desert Fathers, popularizing the collection known as the Apophthegmata Patrum. She has also written extensively on Anselm of Canterbury and Bede.


Celibacy (from Latin, cælibatus") is the state of voluntarily being unmarried, sexually abstinent, or both, usually for religious reasons. It is often in association with the role of a religious official or devotee. In its narrow sense, the term celibacy is applied only to those for whom the unmarried state is the result of a sacred vow, act of renunciation, or religious conviction. In a wider sense, it is commonly understood to only mean abstinence from sexual activity.Celibacy has existed in one form or another throughout history, in virtually all the major religions of the world, and views on it have varied. Similarly, the Romans viewed it as an aberration and legislated fiscal penalties against it, with the sole exception granted to the Vestal Virgins. The Islamic attitudes toward celibacy have been complex as well. Some Hadiths claim that Muhammad denounced celibacy, but some Sufi orders embrace it.

Classical Hindu culture encouraged asceticism and celibacy in the later stages of life, after one has met his societal obligations. Jainism, on the other hand, preached complete celibacy even for young monks and considered celibacy to be an essential behavior to attain moksha. Buddhism is similar to Jainism in this respect. There were, however, significant cultural differences in the various areas where Buddhism spread, which affected the local attitudes toward celibacy. It was not well received in China, for example, where other religions movements such as Daoism were opposed to it. A somewhat similar situation existed in Japan, where the Shinto tradition also opposed celibacy. In most native African and American Indian religious traditions, celibacy has been viewed negatively as well, although there were exceptions like periodic celibacy practiced by some Mesoamerican warriors.

Centering prayer

Centering Prayer is a method of meditation used by Christians placing a strong emphasis on interior silence.

The modern Centering Prayer movement in Christianity can be traced to several books published by three Trappist monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts in the 1970s: Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating. The name was taken from Thomas Merton's description of contemplative prayer (a much older and more traditional practice) as prayer that is "centered entirely on the presence of God". In his book Contemplative Prayer, Merton writes "“Monastic prayer begins not so much with “considerations” as with a “return to the heart,” finding one's deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being”.

The creators of the Centering Prayer movement claim to trace their roots to the contemplative prayer of the Desert Fathers of early Christian monasticism, to the Lectio Divina tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and to works like The Cloud of Unknowing and the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Advocates of Centering Prayer say it does not replace other prayer but encourages silence and deeper connection to God. Also advocates of Centering Prayer say it helps people be more present and open to God. Father Thomas Keating has promoted both Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer.However, some people consider Centering Prayer controversial. Some authors argue that Centering Prayer contradicts the teachings of the Carmelite saints. Others also argue that Centering Prayer is a distortion of the teachings of the Desert Fathers and The Cloud of Unknowing, and is in contradiction to Lectio Divina. Some consider it to fall afoul of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's caution against similar prayer forms in their Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.

Christian mysticism in ancient Africa

Christian mysticism in ancient Africa took form in the desert, as part of a long-reaching Judeo-Christian mystical tradition. In the Judeo-Christian mystical tradition, the desert is known to induce religious experiences and altered states of consciousness.The first signs of Christian mysticism in Africa followed the teachings of Montanus in the late 2nd century. Followers of Montanus, called Montanists, induced ecstatic experiences out of which they would prophesy. Usually the prophecies were spoken in an unknown language.

In the mid- to late 3rd century, the deserts of northern Africa became home to a deeply devout group known as the Desert Fathers or Desert People. These individuals were highly influenced by the intellectual components of Coptic Christianity. They led quiet lives and communicated the Gospel with those whom they traded with. Their movement became the template of Western eremitism and monasticism. The architect of the template was Saint Anthony, the foundational Desert Father.

Church Fathers

The Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers, Christian Fathers, or Fathers of the Church were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers. There is no definitive list. The era of these scholars who set the theological and scholarly foundations of Christianity largely ended by AD 700 (John of Damascus died in 749 AD, Byzantine Iconoclasm began in 726 AD).In the past, the Church Fathers were regarded as authoritative and more restrictive definitions were used which sought to limit the list to authors treated as such. However, the definition has widened as scholars of patristics, the study of the Church Fathers, have expanded their scope.

Desert Mothers

The Desert Mothers were female Christian ascetics living in the desert of Egypt, Israel, and Syria in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. They typically lived in the monastic communities that began forming during that time, though sometimes they lived as hermits. Other women from that era who influenced the early ascetic or monastic tradition while living outside the desert are also described as Desert Mothers.The Desert Fathers are much more well known because most of the early lives of the saints "were written by men for a male monastic audience"—the occasional stories about the Desert Mothers come from the early Desert Fathers and their biographers. Many desert women had leadership roles within the Christian community. The Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, includes forty-seven sayings that are actually attributed to the Desert Mothers. There are several chapters dedicated to the Desert Mothers in the Lausiac History by Palladius, who mentions 2,975 women living in the desert. Other sources include the various stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that era, traditionally called vitae ("life"). The lives of twelve female desert saints are described in Book I of Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers).

Ethiopic Collectio Monastica

The Ethiopic Collectio Monastica is a book that includes some original sayings of the Desert Fathers, and which is textually independent of the more well known Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). It was first published by Victor Arras in 1963, based on two separate manuscripts that were likely based on Greek or Coptic sources.The collection consists of sixty-eight chapter of widely different lengths. Included in the book are collections of Desert Father sayings, most of which have no parallel in the Apophthegmata Patrum. The original work appears to have been written by a 5th-century monk who either lived with the Desert Fathers at Scetis, or knew the monks who lived there. He also appears to have known Abba Poemen, because of several unique stories and sayings attributed to him.

Isidore of Pelusium

Isidore of Pelusium (Greek: Ἰσίδωρος ὁ Πηλουσιώτης, d. c.450) was born in Egypt to a prominent Alexandrian family. He became an ascetic, and moved to a mountain near the city of Pelusium, in the tradition of the Desert Fathers.

Isidore is known to us for his letters, written to Cyril of Alexandria, Theodosius II, and a host of others. A collection of 2,000 letters was made in antiquity at the "Sleepless" monastery in Constantinople, and this has come down to us through a number of manuscripts, with each letter numbered and in order. The letters are mostly very short extracts, a sentence or two in length. Further unpublished letters exist in Syriac translation.Some of the letters are of considerable interest for the exegesis of the Greek bible. He is revered as a saint, whose feast day is February 4.

Lausiac History

The Lausiac History (Historia Lausiaca) is a seminal work archiving the

Desert Fathers (early Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian

desert) written in 419-420 by Palladius of Galatia, at the request of Lausus, chamberlain at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II.

Melania the Elder

Saint Melania the Elder, Latin Sancta Melania Maior (born in Spain, ca. 350–died in Jerusalem before 410 or in ca. 417) was a Desert Mother who was an influential figure in the Christian ascetic movement (the Desert Fathers and Mothers) that sprang up in the generation after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion of the Roman Empire. She was a contemporary of, and well known to, Abba Macarius and other Desert Fathers in Egypt, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Paulinus of Nola (her cousin or cousin-in-law; he gives a colorful description of her visit to Nola in his Letters), and Evagrius of Pontus, and she founded two religious communities on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. She stands out for the convent she founded for herself and the monastery she established in honour of Rufinus of Aquileia, which belong to the earliest Christian communities, and because she promoted the asceticism which she, as a follower of Origen, considered indispensable for salvation.

Napoléon Peyrat

Napoléon Peyrat (20 January 1809 – 4 April 1881) was a French author and historian from Les Bordes-sur-Arize (French: Les Bordes-sur-Arize).

Peyrat was the author of Histoire des pasteurs du Désert: depuis la révocation de l'édit de Nantes jusqu'à la Révolution française, 1685 - 1789 (History of the Desert Fathers: from the revolution of the Edict of Nantes to the French Revolution, 1685-1789). Published in 1842, English translation 1852. It is a notable history of the Revolt of the Camisards.

Peter Halldorf

Peter Halldorf (born 21 June 1958) is a Swedish Pentecostal pastor, self-taught theologian, and writer. He is known for exploring Patristics, particularly the Desert Fathers, within a Pentecostal context. His interest has led him to be dubbed "The Pentecostal Monk" and sometimes prays in Coptic monasteries. He is a third generation Pentecostal preacher who became interested in the Desert Fathers out of concerns Pentecostalism could fall into worldliness or shallowness. He also found an ultimate "gentleness" in much of the Desert Fathers stories. Peter Halldorf is additionally a two-time winner of the Emmausprisen for Christian writing.


Abba Poemen The Great (Greek: Ὁ Ἅγιος Ποιμήν; ποιμήν means "shepherd") (c. 340–450) was an Egyptian monk and early Desert Father who is the most quoted Abba (Father) in the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). Abba Poemen was quoted most often for his gift as a spiritual guide, reflected in the name "Poemen" ("Shepherd"), rather than for asceticism. He is considered a saint in Eastern Christianity. His feast day is August 27 in Julian calendar (September 9 in Gregorian calendar).

Syncletica of Alexandria

Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, a Christian saint and Desert Mother of the 4th century, was of a wealthy background and is reputed to have been very beautiful. From childhood, however, Syncletica was drawn to dedicate her life to God.

From the time she took responsibility for her family's affairs, after her parents' deaths, she gave to the poor all that had been left to her. With her younger sister, Syncletica abandoned the life of the city and instead resided in a crypt, thus adopting a hermitic lifestyle. Her holy life soon gained the attention of locals and, gradually, many women joined her to live as her disciples in Christ.

Amma Syncletica is regarded as a "Desert Mother" and her sayings are recorded with those of the Desert Fathers. She is believed to have died in her eightieth year, around 350 AD. She is commemorated on 5 January in the Orthodox Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church.

Thomas the Hermit

Saint Thomas the Hermit is a Saint of the Coptic Orthodox Church, he is also known as "Saint Thomas the Anchorite", "Saint Thomas of Shenshif" or simply as "Abba Thomas"[(Coptic word meaning Father) (Αw-ba)Sahidic (Αw-va)Bohairic]. Saint Thomas was born in Upper Egypt, in a small village known as "Shenshif". He is revered by the Coptic Orthodox Church, since he is one of the early Anchorites, or Desert Fathers. Little is commonly known about him.

Early Life

Although little is known about his early life we do know where he was born, and the broad region of inheritance for his early monastic life. Abba Thomas was born in a village called Shenshif (north Ekhmim – Upper Egypt) of two pious parents who raised him in the fear of God. They brought him up well in all godliness and raised him in the Christian tradition. He led a quiet, peaceable life renouncing the vanities of the world and its lusts. Since day one he wanted to follow in the foot steps of Saint Anthony, and Saint Paul the First Hermit ; two of the first Anchorites. He left his home and headed towards the wilderness, where he lived in a cave in the mount of Shenshif.

Stories Concerning Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas was granted the gift of prophecySaint Thomas is commonly believed to have predicted his own death.

Saint Thomas is said to have sat with ChristIt was recorded by Saint Shenouda that as he walked towards the cave Saint Thomas inhabited in order to bury his body, he saw Jesus Christ fly off with the Saint's Spirit.Monasteries and Churches

There are multiple Churches dedicated to the beloved Saint:

Saint Thomas the Hermit Monastery, Akhmem, Egypt

Saint Thomas the Hermit Coptic Orthodox Church, Temecula, CA


Threespheres is a record label from Brooklyn, New York formed in 2001.

The label has released albums by six bands, including The Forms, The Desert Fathers, By Symmetry and First Nature.

Vitae Patrum

The Vitae Patrum (literally Lives of the Fathers, also called Lives of the Desert Fathers) is an encyclopedia of hagiographical writings on the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers of early Christianity. The bulk of the original texts date from the third and fourth centuries. The Lives that were originally written in Greek were translated into Latin between the fourth and the seventh century. An Italian vernacular translation was made by Dominican friar Domenico Cavalca from Pisa at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

A printed edition, edited by the Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde, was printed by Balthazar Moret in 1615. The book is a significant part of the much broader work, Acta Sanctorum.The Vitae Patrum is based on extensive research by Rosweyde into all the available literature he could find on the early desert monastics. Hippolyte Delehaye described the work as "the epic of the origins of monasticism in Egypt and Syria, an epic unsurpassed in interest and grandeur." In the thirteenth century, a version of Vitae Patrum had been translated into Latin. It was such a popular book that numerous versions and editions were published, with extensive changes and variations in the stories. Rosweyde based his book on twenty-three different versions of those earlier books, studying, dating, and classifying all the different versions and changes.Rosweyde's Vitae Patrum consists of ten books. Book I has the lives of sixteen saints under the title Vitae virorum and eleven saints under the title Vitae mulierum, beginning with St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony of the Desert, and including women saints such as Saint Mary the Harlot. Books II, Historia monachorum, and III, Verba seniorum (Sayings of the Elders), are attributed to Rufinus, who was later found to be only their translator. Book IV is a compilation of writings by Sulpicius Severus and John Cassian. Book V is another collection of Verba seniorum from Latin and Greek by Pelagius.Book VI and Book VII are further collections of Verba seniorum (Sayings of the Elders) by unknown Greek authors translated by John the subdeacon, possibly Pope John III, and by Paschasius. Book VIII is a text that was previously known as The Paradise of Heraclides, but which Rosweyde attributed to its real author, Palladius, and titled the Lausiac History. Book IX is De Vitis Patrum by Theodoret. Book X is The Spiritual Meadow of Moschus. Rosweyde wrote an introduction to each book.

Virgin Mary
See also

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