The Desert Fathers & Early Christian Asceticism

They left their homes for the desert, seeking silence above all else. They searched for this silence everywhere – some in caves, others atop pillars, others within the hermetic walls of abandoned monastic cells. They searched for silence because it was within that silence they spoke with the Lord. He lived within the silent realm, deep in the soul.

But the soul had to become wise and open to understanding his language, for not everyone could decipher his lyrics. We read of many monks going mad in their caves, hearing not the sounds of God but of the inner demons that eat away at the soul, and bring the suffering body to the verge of death.

There was a fearlessness to them that is difficult to understand today. Most ordinary people would seek away from such fear, such solitude, but they embraced it. They wanted to understand this fear, the unbearable rage and lonesomeness. But the hunger for penance and peace was far greater then fear or rage or loneliness, it was far greater than physical hunger itself.

We look back at these men with a strange glory, intimidated by their strength and patience. Perhaps because some of us know that we cannot comprehend silence – not so much because we desire noise, but more so because we fear of what we will hear within ourselves.

The desert was the perfect place for silence. The wilderness was extreme and brutal, and there was nowhere else like it on the Earth. The land was parched and filled with caves, and perhaps the only other beings would be the falcons and the serpents, and they came out rarely from their gloom. But they relished it, each brutal day was a step closer towards God. At the height of their bliss, after not eating for days, they would begin to experience visions. Some saw angels, and spoke with them. Other saw demons, dragons, and Satan himself. The wilderness was wild, and the demons of the soul and the mind would unleash themselves upon its landscape.

It is difficult for us to understand these men and their convictions. But the times they lived in where heated and passionate, and the passion for the new religion was perhaps at its most purest and mystical. There was a sense that Christ was walking among men. There was a sense of a basic rule to the universe – to do good deeds, to pray, to pay the price for sins, and to go home to the Lord. The religion was still a group of mystics meeting in newly designed synagogues, and the liturgies were vague, and the beatitudes and the gospels themselves were different from region to region. But the basics were simple and understood by all – the goal was compassion and repentance.

The body of all was their greatest demon. It was the only thing that stood between them and the heavenly realm. Its lusts and hungers kept the soul in constant temptation, and so it was punished accordingly, brutally.

As a youth at a monastery Simeon Stylites wound a rope around his entire body so tightly that it imbedded into the skin, so much so that the rope could not be seen at all. It went under the flesh and infected it. His penance was strange and new for his era

Reading the lives of the Stylites one is amazed at how real and vivid they appear. And the more one understands their land and their time, the clearer they become. Their faces come out of the darkness and look back upon us with a strange disapproval, and we look back towards them with a longing towards the past.

There is a longing perhaps because of the times they lived in. The new religion was nothing as it is today. It was free of the ceremonial splendor of what the Church would later become. Many of the beatitudes were still fresh, for Christ had lived not some four hundred years ago. The spirit of Christ was still in the air; Christ’s relatives, the Desposyni, were still alive and working in the Church. Men lived not by the abstract notions of life or death – they were grounded in a compelling belief of their place in the afterlife, and of the sacrifices needed to attain their seat. In many ways they lived by a fear of God we cannot comprehend today.

But they were tormented perhaps because the world they lived in was just as tormented, if not worse. The fourth century was a time of turmoil. The lands were being split apart by a collapsing Roman Empire. Poverty, battles, slaughter, and hunger permeated the air, as much as the new religion.

They went off into the deserts seeking silence and communion with God. They went by the hundreds, and perhaps even by the thousands. Renouncing all worldly things, they sought to find peace and joy through penance and prayer. Some of them were land-owners, others were poor sheepherders. Some had abandoned everything in the world for a life of seeming misery and self-mortification.

At times it would seem that their penance was nothing but a morbid masochism, and at others a selfless devotion to a God they tried so hard to comprehend. Their prayers were meditative, and they would be lost in prayer for many days on end, standing in bizarre positions, bending below the waist until their foreheads touched the ground, and until their bodies could no longer physically pray. There was mysticism to them, the kind that has long left the Church.

Their prayers might seem more like translucent meditations that seem nothing like the prayers of the Christians today. These desert monks and ascetics appear in the footnotes of history, in the murky shadows, with strange attributions to bizarre feats of will and perhaps brief mentions on holy days within the Christian world. But it was these monks, these “fathers” as they would later be called, that changed the course of the Christian world. Their strange outlook upon discipline, their mystical approach to prayer and fasting, and their legendary selflessness would stirred a time in Syria like no other.

In the silence of caves, atop pillars, and within small cells, at times never seeing the light of day, they went away into the realms of the soul and spoke a language which seems completely foreign to us today. They were the desert monks, and today it is impossible for us to understand their world, their mind, and their souls – and even though they seem distant, there is a longing for spirituality in the modern age, perhaps the same longing that drove them from their homes into the cruel and alien realm of the desert, where they gave their souls to fate.


~ by alexmalina on February 4, 2009.

3 Responses to “The Desert Fathers & Early Christian Asceticism”

  1. “These desert monks and ascetics appear in the footnotes of history, in the murky shadows, with strange attributions to bizarre feats of will and perhaps brief mentions on holy days within the Christian world”

    This is not true! In the Eastern Orthodox Church we have many icons and many stories of these saints and speak of them quite frequently! Not to mention the fact that our monks are in the same lineage of these Deserts fathers, they just have a different desert. For instance, the Russian Orthodox monks found there desert in the forests of the Northen Theibad, where they isolated themselves in the same manner as the Desert Fathers. And then there’s the Holy Mountain, the autonomous monastic state of Mt. Athos where monks have continually dwelled for more than a thousand years, some in cenobitic monestaries, others in smaller sketes, and then others who live as hermits on the sides of cliffs.

    • Dear Dulous,

      Of course these monks and ascetics are alive and well within the religious community. Everyone who is a devout Christian is well aware of the stylites, the Russian monks, the Startsy, and others.

      But in terms of History, they are hardly found. Reading an academic book on Syrian History, one will find perhaps two sentences about Simeon Stylites. Even reading a book on Russian History, very little will be devoted to such practices of asceticism, isolation, and monastacism.

      In general there is no real study of eremitism. There are a few academic books here in there, mostly written by theologions who are in fact members of some sort of Church. Most of the books available today on ascetic practices, especially the Desert Fathers are merely translations of ancient texts, and no historical research is being conducted this day to see them as real human beings beyond the legends that have been built about them.

      I do not mean to say that they are forgotten from history. But to the majority of people on this Earth they are simply footnotes, and it is a sad fact, because they seem extremely interesting and fascinating.

      Kind Regards,

  2. Ah yes, I see what you are saying. It is sad, that so many are unaware of the remarkable individuals. Even from a secular viewpoint their dedication and trust far surpasses that of most.

    Anyways, thanks for the post. I always love it when these holy men and women and mentioned somewhere for the world to see!

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