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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

What Can Contemporary Christians Learn from the Desert Fathers and Mothers?

September 14th, 2022 | 11 min read

By Andrew Arndt

I am a working pastor. That means that I have joined the company of those for whom the care of souls is the sum and substance of the job description. It is our life’s preoccupation, our central work.

Such care lives on the razor’s edge of concern; and these days, I am concerned. Many are, of course—including but not limited to pastoral types like myself—and I have loud voices in my ears telling me what I should be most concerned (and vocal) about: the rising tide of secularism; the new sexual morality; corruption at all levels of our federal and state governments. And so on and so forth.

As a pastor, I share those concerns. But they are not the bullseye for me. What I find most troubling amid all the chaos and confusion of our time is my growing sense that we are losing our way as God’s people. We’re getting swallowed up by the madness. We’re losing our souls.

About five years ago, amid a chaotic and confusing time in my own life, I began reading the sayings and stories of the desert fathers and mothers—that fanatical group of men and women who, during the early centuries of the church, retreated both from the comfortable confines of institutional religion and from the seductions of an increasingly decadent and violent Roman culture to seek God and rediscover the radical way of Jesus in the barren wastes of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Their words and the example of their lives helped me reclaim a kind of spiritual “true north.” They became cartographers of the Holy for me, teaching me anew what it means to live for the love of God and others; instructing me again in the subtle beauty of a life lived in ongoing and familiar friendship with God; helping me find my way amid deep disorientation.

As meaningful as my encounter with them was personally, I soon began to see that their wisdom held great promise for helping an adrift church recover its way and reclaim its calling—which, as it turns out, is exactly the impact that the desert movement had on the regnant church of its time. As David Bentley Hart explains:

It was from them that another current opened up within Christian culture: a renunciation of power even as power was at last granted to the church, an embrace of poverty as rebellion against plenty, a defiant refusal to forget that the Kingdom of God is not of this world. The sayings of the desert fathers have been copiously preserved, and they are fascinating testaments to the birth of a new spiritual polity in the very midst of the Christianized empire, a community whose sole concern was to discover what it really meant to live for the love for God and one’s neighbor, to banish envy, hate, and resentment from the soul, and to seek the beauty of Christ in others.
(Atheist Delusions, 240.)

He likewise added that the desert movement represented Christianity’s “rebellion against its own success,” a rebellion that, to put it one way, re-evangelized Christianity as men and women from across the Roman Empire journeyed into the desert to seek out the wisdom of these abbas and ammas (241).

Over the last five years, I’ve devoted a great deal of thought to what these desert folk have to teach us (much of which I’ve written about in my recently released Streams in the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers and Mothers), and here I would like to offer three simple reflections on what contemporary Christians can learn from the them—indeed, what we must learn if we are to stand any chance of reclaiming our own humanity and finding our way again amid the chaos and confusion of our age.

1. They teach us that love is the way of the Kingdom.

When John Cassian and his friend Germanus went into the desert around the turn of the 4th century to sit at the feet of the desert fathers and mothers, they quickly found themselves in the presence of Abba Moses, one of the most luminous figures of the Egyptian desert. “Every art,” said Moses, “and every discipline has a particular objective, that is to say, a target and an end peculiarly its own.” And what is the target of the spiritual life? Moses explains:

The aim of our profession is the kingdom of God . . . but our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target. . . . Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart. This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness. For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture, together with all the other virtuous activities, and we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.
(John Cassian, Conferences, 39, 41)

What defaces our humanity, as Christianity has long taught, is passion, desire—love—run amuck. Paul said it well when he wrote to Titus that “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures” with the result that “we lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another”—as good a description of our society as I can think of (Titus 3:3, niv, emphasis mine). The advent of the Spirit into our lives, Paul claims, frees us from all of this: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us . . . through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (3:4-5).

By the Spirit, so teaches the New Testament, our loves are put to death and made alive again so that we might live ever-increasing fulfillment of the command of Jesus to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—and our neighbors as ourselves. The person whose sanctification is complete is the person who loves completely: “No one has ever seen God,” writes John, “but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” for “God is love” and “whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:12, 16).

We know this. Or do we? Among the many lessons that the political and social turmoil of the last several years taught us is that Christians are as prone as any other group to abandon the high call of love in the name of the urgency du jour. We excuse ourselves because the issues are just so important. I’ll get back to love, we think to ourselves, when those people who are ruining the world are back in their place. Meanwhile, a little outrage bender ought to do the trick . . .

So the ends, we reason, justify the means. But the fathers and mothers of the desert won’t let us go there. The call to love is uncompromising, total. Said abba Agathon, “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God” (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, 23). Strong words. Or Abba Moses: “Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. . . . Do not have hostile feelings toward anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour” (Sayings, 142–143; emphasis mine). Oof. Not only are we not to hate; we are not to hate the haters. You know, like God—who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; who was and is kind to us when we were (and are) the ungrateful and the wicked. And thereby, we are saved.

But how will we become such people? Where will we learn to do this? That leads to the second thing:

2. They teach us that love takes shape in Christian community.

One of the things that astonished me when I first began to read the desert fathers and mothers is how downright communal they are. Before I took the deep dive into their witness, my impression was that they were a bunch of socially awkward borderline misanthropes who shunned society less for noble religious reasons and more because, well, they just couldn’t stand people—and if religion provides a ready-made excuse to serially dodge relationships, all the better.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. While a select few embraced the “hermitical” lifestyle, even those that did remained tethered to community for the excellent reason that, as Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick observes,

withdrawal into total solitude was found to lead to moral collapse, mental eccentricity, even to madness. The hermit was one of a company of hermits, who lived under a common discipline with a superior; who said their allotted psalms, each in his cell, at common times each day; who met on Sundays at least, sometimes on Saturdays as well, for common worship and a common meal and a discussion of the spiritual life.(Conferences, 5)

Life in the community of faith was seen as the indispensable context for the growth of love—which, again, for the desert fathers and mothers, was the very point of the spiritual life. As that greatest of all desert figures, Abba Anthony the Great, put it: “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ” (Sayings, 3).

The gospel demand to live in loving, hospitable, mutually transformative relationships was so fundamental that it took precedence over everything—even over one’s “rule” of life. On one occasion, a hermit suspended his rule of fasting to receive John Cassian and several companions. Surprised at how easily he did so, Cassian asked, “Why do you break your rule?” The man replied, “Fasting is always possible, but I cannot keep you here forever. . . . God’s law demands from us perfect love. I receive Christ when I receive you, so I must do all I can to show you love. When I have said goodbye to you, I can take up my rule of fasting again” (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, 134–135).

It is easy, quite frankly, to delude ourselves into believing that we are people of love, great love, humanitarians even, even though we systematically avoid deep, committed relationships. But the desert fathers and mothers, quite in keeping with the biblical witness, won’t let us off the hook. Our loving God saves us into community: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body,” and the love that saves us is realized in us only as we learn to love one another in community, which is why John can say that “whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 Corinthians 12:13; 1 John 4:20). It is in the push and pull, the tug and tension of community, that we learn to respond in love to the infinite love with which God has loved us.

According to the gospel and the witness of the desert fathers and mothers, there is no other way.

Now this already is a sharp rebuke to those of us who, for whatever reason, take relationships lightly. We may attend church more or less regularly, enjoying the presence of God and feasting on the sacrament and the preached Word, but as far as pressing into that dangerous territory of knowing and being known . . . well, thanks, but no thanks. We’ll take God and keep people at arms’ length.

The desert tradition reminds us that this is a delusion. And it gets worse, for one of the things that they were keenly aware of is that the long-term work of the Spirit is often thwarted in us because of our propensity to flit from place to place—whether because of wanderlust or offense or simply boredom. As one of the ammas of the desert, Syncletica, said, “If you find yourself in a monastery do not go to another place, for that will harm you a great deal. Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies, when they go from one place to another” (Sayings, 231). Or as Anthony put it, “In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it” (Sayings, 2).

If we’re going to grow to full term in the spiritual life, we’re going to have to stay put—as far as it depends on us—with the people God has given us. Our marriages. Our children. Our friends. Our churches. And this is especially crucial given the culture we currently inhabit, where we are more prone than ever before to pull the rip cord on relationships at the least sign of disturbance, bouncing from community to community and from relationship to relationship, sequestering ourselves in ever-smaller circles of personal preference or ideology—quite to the diminishment of our humanity, which according to the New Testament is enriched and filled out by the presence of others: Jew and Gentile, male and female, “barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,” for “Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).

For the life of God to be realized in us, we need one other over the long run; and this, in turn, is a powerful witness to a fragmented world of how things shall be when the Kingdom comes in full.

But we are still “circling the runway,” as it were. One more move puts us on the landing strip of their witness.

3. They teach us that love must be willing to lose.

Outside of the lifestyle of solitude and prayer that is their hallmark, perhaps the most obvious characteristic of the desert fathers and mothers is their commitment to radical renunciation. “A monk’s treasure,” said Abba Hyperechius, “is voluntary poverty” (Sayings, 238). Similarly, Abba Theodore of Pherme said that “best of all is to possess nothing” (Sayings, 73).

The importance of this feature of their spirituality for life in community and in society simply cannot be overstated. A story that illustrates the point:

Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, “Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as other men do.” The other answered, “I don’t know how a quarrel happens.” The first said, “Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, ‘That’s mine!’ Then you say, ‘No, it’s mine!’ That is how you begin a quarrel.”

So they put a brick between them and one of them said, “That’s mine!” The other said, “No, it’s mine!” The first answered, “Yes, it is yours. Take it away.” So they were unable to argue with each other
(Desert Fathers, xv)

Here is the lesson to be grasped, and it is a critical one: When the object of antagonism is surrendered, the way is paved then and there for the restoration of shalom. The desert fathers and mothers help us see how “things”—it really can be anything from bricks to church budgets—so quickly become an object of competition that pit people against each other, sundering the life of rich relationship that is at the heart of the divine intention for our lives. James, the half-brother of Jesus, made precisely the same point when he asked, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight” (James 4:1-2).

And what, therefore, is the solution? The abbas and ammas are united in their answer: Let it go. Lay it down. Give it up. Be willing, in other words, to lose—and see what happens.

And now, back to where we started. As a pastor, it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that a great deal of the madness constantly threatening to swallow up God’s people in our nation at this moment in history is the growing sense that something is being taken away from us. “Those people out there” (whoever they may be) are either standing between “us” (whoever we may be) and the life we have known and the future we have dreamed of or are actively plundering us. Ergo, they have become—at a minimum—competitors; at a maximum—existential threats. In a word, enemies.

But the Good News of Jesus Christ has ended all of that. By the Cross, enemies have been made friends; by the Cross, the demonic powers that animate the antagonisms of our day have been unmasked; and by the Cross, we, God’s people, have died to the world so that our inheritance is the life of the age to come, in the unshakeable hope of the promise of God, with the result that, so far as it depends on us, we can “live at peace” with all people—as Paul says (Romans 12:18).

Which is what the desert fathers and mothers were trying to teach us. We’d do well to heed them.