30 June 2008

Religious Beliefs: The Desert Fathers

Bonnie VanakBy Bonnie Vanak

It was said about John the Little that one day he said to his older brother: I want to be free from care and not to work but to worship God without interruption. And he took his robe off, and went into the desert. After staying there one week, he returned to his brother. And when he knocked at the door, his brother asked without opening it: 'Who is it?' He replied: 'It's John, your brother.' The brother said: 'John has become an angel and is not among people anymore.' Then he begged and said: 'It's me!' But his brother did not open the door and left him there in distress until the next morning. And he finally opened the door and said: 'If you are a human being, you have to work again in order to live.' Then John repented, saying: 'Forgive me, brother, for I was wrong.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers
It appears like a barren wasteland, shimmering with heat and seemingly devoid of life. Egypt's Eastern Desert is a narrow strip of land between the Nile and the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, an area that covers about one-quarter of the entire country. Rugged, majestic mountains flank the land and both vegetation and rain are sparse. In summer, temperatures can climb to 115 F.

In the northern desert, close to the Red Sea, lived St. Anthony the Great. The religious icon became known as a founder of Christian monasticism, a leader of a group of devout monks known as the Desert Fathers. They were religious refugees who fled to the desert to embrace a pious life. They turned away from the cares of the world and chose to live a life of solitude to grow closer to God. The movement flourished after Christianity became a legal religion in Egypt in 313 A.D.

Life for these devout hermits was harsh as the environment they called home. The Desert Fathers were celibate ascetics who embraced the simple desert life as a means of learning discipline and separating themselves from worldly cares. They fasted often, never drank spirits and spent hours in prayer. They did work, weaving ropes and mats, and embraced the virtue of charity. Such a life was believed to produce spiritual clarity and wisdom and the starkness of the desert provided the perfect arena for contemplating God.

Eventually they initiated a routine lifestyle for ascetic life in the desert, forming communities that became the first Christian monasteries. They were spiritual mystics whose words were eventually collected by St. Anthony in a collection known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Anthony, considered to be the first Christian monk, was born in Egypt. When he embraced the monastic life, he shut himself away for long periods of solitude. He lived on bread and water and often would not eat before sunset. After settling into a cave in the Eastern Desert, he became a mystical icon and many disciples sought him out for his spiritual wisdom.

He died at the age of 105, and was buried by two disciples in a secret grave so his body would not be venerated. A monastery was founded after his death and built close to the site where he lived. You can visit St. Anthony's monastery (Deir Mar Antonios) today in northern Egypt. You can even journey to the cave where he lived, which is above the monastery.

For more information on the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, click here.