“This book is an account of the virtuous asceticism and admirable way of life and also of the words of the holy and blessed fathers.”
The Desert Fathers were a group of faithful monks and nuns who chose to settle mainly in Lower Egypt, mostly around the desert of Scetes. While some of them lived in groups and had at least some contact with the outside world, some were hermits who preferred to live in seclusion. Asceticism was also practiced by many to purify their souls. While Paul of Thebes was the first monk to retire to the desert, Saint Anthony the Great was the one to begin the exodus. These Desert Fathers served as the early model for Christian monasticism.
As expected, there are many sayings that deal with religion:
- He also said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.”
- Someone else asked him, “Is one righteous man enough to appease God?” He replied, “Yes, for he himself has written: ‘Find a man who lives according to righteousness, and I will pardon the whole people.’ (Jer. 5:11)
We also find sayings from fathers instructing their disciples:
- The same Abba Agathon was walking with his disciples. One of them, finding a small green pea on the road, said to the old man, “Father, may I take it?” The old man, looking at him with astonishment, said, “Was it you who put it there?” “No,” replied the brother. “How then,” continued the old man, “can you take up something which you did not put down?”
And fathers who seek harmony:
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.
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St. Anthony the Great
Abba Anthony the Great:
- He also said, “God does not allow the same warfare and temptations to this generation as he did formerly, for men are weaker now and cannot bear so much.”
- He also said, “Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it.”
And somewhat grumpy fathers:
- Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius. He questioned the old man to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him, “Will you put into practice what I say to you?” They promised him this. “If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.”
- Another time the archbishop, intending to come to see him, sent someone to see if the old man would receive him. Arsenius told him, “If you come, I shall receive you; but if I receive you, I receive everyone and therefore I shall no longer live here.” Hearing that, the archbishop said, “If I drive him away by going to him, I shall not go anymore.”
fresco at Mt. Athos, 14th century
And lastly, not only sayings from the Desert Fathers, but saying from the “Desert Sisters,” as well:
- She also said, “It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, the Apostle does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says: “Let no 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 the wrong, but the devil. Hate sickness but not the sick person.”
- She also said, “Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honour and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.”
I was expecting to have to slog through this book, but what a delightful surprise. While these Fathers obviously knew their Scriptures and spent time with God, their focus was on themselves: refining their souls and being a good example to those around them. The personalities of each of them shone through in their sayings and, in spite of many of the sayings being quite short and compact, they brought a window into their lives of asceticism, their values and struggles that was very compelling. An enlightening read that gives not only a fascinating window into this era of history, but also imparts values that are as relevant today as they were in the 3rd and 4th century.