The Desert Fathers is a collection of ancient Christian wisdom compiled by monks. It’s primarily used to help other monastics, but it can aid the lay Christian as well. Below is a selection of my favorite passages.
How should we live?
As far as I can tell, abba, I think anyone who controls himself and makes himself content with just what he needs and no more, is indeed a monk.
Poemen said, ‘Suppose there are three men living together. One lives a good life in stillness, the second is ill but gives thanks to God, the third serves the needs of others with sincerity. These three men are alike, it is as if they were all doing the same work.’
The Golden Rule
Some of the hermits used to say, ‘Whatever you hate for yourself, do not do it to someone else. If you hate being spoken evil of, do not speak evil of another. If you hate being slandered, do not slander another. If you hate him who tries to make you despised, or wrongs you, or takes away what is yours, or anything like that, do not do such things to others. To keep this is enough for salvation.’
Arguing with others
If anyone speaks to you on a controversial matter, do not argue with him. If he speaks well, say, “Yes.” If he speaks ill, say, “I don’t know anything about that.” Don’t argue with what he has said, and then your mind will be at peace.’
Macarius said also, ‘If you are stirred to anger when you want to reprove someone, you are gratifying your own passions. Do not lose yourself in order to save another.’
A brother who was hurt by another brother went to the Theban Sisois and said, ‘I want to get back at a brother who has hurt me.’ The hermit begged him, ‘Don’t do that, my son, leave vengeance in the hands of God.’ But he said, ‘I can’t rest till I get my own back.’ The hermit said, ‘My brother, let us pray.’ He stood and said, ‘O God, we have no further need of you, for we can take vengeance by ourselves.’ The brother heard it and fell at the hermit’s feet, saying, ‘I won’t quarrel with my brother any longer; I beg you to forgive me.’
Abraham [said to Sisois], ‘If in the meeting after church on Saturday and Sunday, a brother drinks three cups of wine, is it a lot?’ The hermit said, ‘If there were no Satan, it would not be much.’
Hyperichius said, ‘Fasting is the monk’s control over sin. The man who stops fasting is like a stallion who lusts the moment he sees a mare.’
Speech that creates immediate pleasure
Once when I was talking to some brothers for the good of their souls they became so drowsy that they could not even keep their eyelids open. I wanted to show them that this was the devil’s work, so I started gossiping: and at once they sat up and began to enjoy what I was saying. But I said sadly, ‘We were talking of heaven just now, and your eyes were closing in slumber: but the moment the talk became frivolous, you all began to listen eagerly. I beg you then, dear brothers, since you know that this is the work of the devil, be watchful and beware of falling asleep when you are hearing about spiritual things.’
Faith in money
A brother was leaving the world, and though he gave his goods to the poor he kept some for his own use. He went to Antony, and when Antony knew what he had done, he said, ‘If you want to be a monk, go to the village over there, buy some meat, hang it on your naked body and come back here.’ The brother went, and dogs and birds tore at his body. He came back to Antony, who asked him if he had done what he was told. He showed him his torn body. Then Antony said, ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep their money are attacked in that way by the demons and torn in pieces.’
They said there was a working gardener who gave away all his profit in alms, and kept for himself only enough to live on. Later on Satan tempted him and said, ‘Store up a little money, as a provision to spend when you are old and infirm.’ So he made a store of coins in a big pot. It happened that he fell ill, and his foot became gangrenous, and he spent all his coins on doctors, but grew no better. An experienced doctor told him, ‘Unless we amputate your foot, the gangrene will spread through your whole body.’ So they decided to amputate it. But the night before the operation, the gardener came to his senses and was sorry for what he had done, and groaned and wept saying, ‘Lord, remember my earlier good works when I worked in the garden and served the poor.’ Then an angel of the Lord stood before him and said, ‘Where is your store of coins? Where has your trust in them gone to?’ Then he understood, and said, ‘I have sinned, Lord, forgive me, I will not do it again.’ Then the angel touched his food, and it was healed at once. He got up at dawn, and went out to the fields to work. At the appointed time the surgeon came with his instruments to amputate the foot. The people told him, ‘He went out at dawn to work in the fields. The doctor was astonished and went out to the field where he was working, and he saw him digging, and glorified God who had restored his health.
The benefit of illness
A great deal is gained spiritually by bearing illness quietly and giving thanks to God. If we go blind, let us not be upset. We have lost one means to excellence, yet we can contemplate the glory of God with the inward eyes of the soul. If we go deaf let us remember that we shall no longer hear a lot of silly talk. If suffering has weakened the strength of your hands, you still have inner strength against the enemy’s attacks. If the whole body is afflicted by disease, your spiritual health is still increasing.’
Don’t show off your faith
A hermit was fasting and not eating bread, and he went to visit another hermit. By chance some other pilgrims came there and the hermit made them a little vegetable soup. When they sat down to eat, the fasting hermit took a single pea which he dipped in the soup and chewed it. When they got up from the table, the hermit took him to one side and said, ‘Brother, if you visit someone, don’t make a display there of your way of life. If you want to keep your own rules, stay in your cell and never go out.’ The brother accepted the advice, and thenceforth behaved like other people and ate what was put before him.
In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the presbyter sent again saying, ‘Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.’ Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went to meet him and said, ‘What does this mean, abba?’ He said, ‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.’ They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.
A brother said to Poemen, ‘If I see my brother sin is it really right not to tell anyone about it?’ He said, ‘When we cover our brother’s sin, God covers our sin. When we tell people about our brother’s guilt, God does the same with ours.’
A monk of the Thebaid received from God the grace of ministry, to serve the poor as they had need. In a village once he happened to be holding a love-feast. A woman dressed in rags came up to him to receive her share. When he saw the rags, he meant to take a great handful, so as to give her a big helping: but his hand was kept nearly shut, and he took only a little. Another, well-dressed, woman came up and, seeing her clothes, he meant to take a little handful for her but his hand was opened, and he took a big helping. So he asked about the women, and found that the well-dressed woman had been a lady who had sunk to poverty and still dressed well because she felt that she had a standard to maintain for her family. But the other had put on rags so that she would receive more.
Body vs soul
Daniel said, ‘if the body is strong, the soul weakens. If the body weakens, the soul is strong.’ He also said, ‘If the body is prosperous, the soul grows lean; if the body is lean, the soul grows prosperous.’
Love your enemies
Poemen said, ‘Evil cannot drive out evil. If anyone hurts you, do good to him and your good will destroy his evil.’
A brother came to Poemen and said to him, ‘Many thoughts come into my mind and put me in danger.’ He sent him out into the open air, and said, ‘Open your lungs and do not breathe.’ He replied, ‘I can’t do that.” Then he said to him: ‘Just as you can’t stop air coming into your lungs, so you can’t stop thoughts coming into your mind. Your part is to resist them.’
A hermit said to a brother, ‘When a proud or vain thought enters your mind, examine your conscience to see if you are keeping God’s commandments; ask yourself if you love your enemies; if you rejoice in your enemy’s triumph, and if you are sad at his downfall; do you know yourself to be an unprofitable servant and a sinner beyond all others? But not even then must you think that you have corrected all your faults; to entertain such a thought as that would undo all the other good you have done.’
Hyperichius said, ‘He who teaches others by his life and not his speech is truly wise.’
Once Theophilus of holy memory, the archbishop of Alexandria, came to Scetis. The brothers gathered together and said to Pambo, ‘Speak to the bishop, that he may be edified.’ Pambo replied, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, my speech certainly will not edify him.’
The brother went into his cell, and for three days and nights he lay prone upon the ground, in penitence before God. Then the thought came into his mind, ‘You are very good, you are a great man,’ but he took control of his thoughts, and in humility called his sins to mind, saying, ‘What about all the sins I have committed?’
Antony also said, ‘I saw the devil’s snares set all over the earth, and I groaned and said, “What can pass through them?” I heard a voice saying, “Humility”.’
A hermit was asked, ‘What is humility?’ He said, ‘It is if you forgive a brother who has wronged you before he is sorry.’
A hermit said, ‘In every trial do not blame other people but blame yourself, saying, “this has happened to me because of my sins.”‘
A brother asked a hermit, ‘What is humility?’ he answered, ‘To do good to them that do evil to you.’ The brother said, ‘Suppose a man cannot obtain that standard, what is he to do?’ The hermit answered, ‘he should run away, and choose silence.’
The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angle of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.
What is God’s plan?
Antony was confused as he mediated upon the depths of God’s judgements, and he asked God, ‘Lord, how is it that some die young and others grow old and sick? Why are there some poor and some rich? Why are there those who are bad and rich and oppress the good poor?’ He heard a voice saying to him, ‘Antony, worry about yourself; these other matters are up to God, and it will not do you any good to know them.’
The format of The Desert Fathers makes sense (unlike Zen koans, short sayings from the East that are supposed to enlighten the seeker but which make no sense at all). Being firmly rooted in the Church, The Desert Fathers not only makes sense, but also provides a wake-up call regarding deep-seated sins you may be tightly holding onto.
For those who want to deepen their faith beyond the parish level, The Desert Fathers is a great place to start, as long as you understand that you are not a monk who needs to duplicate the ascetic feats found in the text.
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