PATRISTICS/ Desert Fathers Collections
The Desert Fathers were Hermits, Ascetics and Monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt, beginning around the third century. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude. These original desert hermits were Christians fleeing the chaos and persecution of the Roman Empire's Crisis of the Third Century. They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state. Christians were often scapegoated during these times of unrest, and near the end of the century, the Diocletianic Persecution was more severe and systematic. In Egypt, refugee communities formed at the edges of population centers, far enough away to be safe from Imperial scrutiny.
In 313, when Christianity was made legal in Egypt by Diocletian's successor Constantine I, a trickle of individuals, many of them young men, continued to live in these marginal areas. The solitude of these places attracted them because the privations of the desert were a means of learning stoic self-discipline. Such self-discipline was modelled after the examples of Jesus' fasting in the desert and of his cousin John the Baptist (himself a desert hermit). These individuals believed that desert life would teach them to eschew the things of this world and allow them to follow God's call in a more deliberate and individual way.
Thus, during the fourth century, the empty areas around Egyptian cities continued to attract others from the world over, wishing to live in solitude. As the lifestyle developed, these men and women developed a reputation for holiness and wisdom. In its early form, each hermit followed more or less an individual spiritual program, perhaps learning some basic practices from other monks, but developing them into their own unique (and sometimes highly idiosyncratic) practice. Later monks, notably Anthony the Great, Pachomius and Shenouda the Archimandrite, developed a more regularized approach to desert life, and introduced some aspects of community living (especially common prayer and meals) that would eventually develop into cenobitic monasticism. Many individuals who spent part of their lives in the Egyptian desert went on to become important figures in the Church and society of the fourth and fifth century, among them Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and John Cassian. Through the work of the John Cassian and Augustine of Hippo the spirituality of the desert fathers, emphasizing an ascent to God through periods of purgation and illumination that led to unity with the Divine, deeply affected the spirituality of the Western Church and the Eastern Church. For this reason, the writings and spirituality of the desert fathers are still of interest to many people today.
Image: Coptic icon of St. Anthony the Great and Paul of Thebes (19th c.)