About fifteen years ago I started reading the fourth-century monastics who fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. Before I read the desert mothers and fathers, I thought of them as Christian superheroes. After I read them,
I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Especially formative has been my reading of the Philokalia, considered by some Eastern Orthodox believers to be second in importance only to the Bible. I also recommend The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Lives of the Desert Fathers, and The Lausiac History. Believe it or not, these primary resources are eminently readable by non-specialists.
More recently I have enjoyed two general overviews of these eccentric saints: Where God Happens (2005) by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and then In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (2003) by John Chryssavgis.
I love the early monastics for several reasons. Jesus fled to Egypt as a baby (Matthew 2:12–23), and in Luke’s Gospel our first glimpse of him as an adult was when the Holy Spirit drove him into the desert to be tempted by Satan (Luke 4:1). Second, these desert dwellers were practitioners of healing, not abstract theoreticians. They sought personal transformation, not theological information.
Third, although the desert monastics strike us as anachronistic oddballs today, and certainly no one would accuse them of being well-adjusted to society, we misunderstand them if we construe their asceticism as a spirituality of superficial techniques. What they modeled, and what we should emulate, is a transformation of the interior geography of the heart as mediated through the physical body.
I honor the desert mothers and fathers because I want to place myself in the mix of saints who have gone before me. Tradition, said Chesterton, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”
I love the desert monastics most of all for their profound humanity. These saints modeled what Chryssavgis calls a “spirituality of imperfection” in which one is not ashamed or embarrassed to acknowledge and even embrace one’s brokenness, wounds, darkness, and inner demons. They comfortably acknowledged intense struggle as a necessary virtue.
If society’s holy grail of perfection—moral, spiritual, financial, physical, psychological, familial, vocational, whatever—is ultimately the “voice of the oppressor” (Anne Lamott), and I believe that it is, then these desert eccentrics pointed me to the liberating practice of embracing brokenness without shame or embarrassment—my own, others’, and even the world’s. They told stories that explained me to myself.
With a mixture of remarkable candor, brutal realism, unqualified empathy, and wry humor, they describe how they experienced in the vast nothingness of the Egyptian desert a cacophony of voices in the interior geography of the heart. They sought wholeness, but discovered brokenness. In the famous words of Saint Anthony the Great (251–356), the father of monasticism, they concluded that we should “expect trials until [our] last breath.” Their reports from the front lines of spiritual battle reveal a disarming transparency about our human failure and frailty.
As I review what I underlined in John Cassian’s (360-435) Institutes and Conferences, for example, here is a sampling of their self-diagnosis—lethargy, sleeplessness, unsettling dreams, impulsive urges, self-justification, seething emotions, sexual fantasies, pious pretense that masked as virtue, self-deception, clerical ambition and the desire to dominate, crushing despair, confusion, wild mood swings, flattery, and the dreaded “noonday demon” of acedia (“a wearied or anxious heart” that suggests close parallels to clinical depression).
And if all that were not sufficiently unnerving, Cassian further admits that “there are [also] many things that lie hidden in my conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to me.” So, it’s even worse than you can know.
Cassian gives many of the most practical examples. He wondered why a monk who joyfully renounced great wealth later succumbed to intense possessiveness or irascibility over a tiny pen knife, needle, book, or pen. He observed monks giving each other the “silent treatment.” What provoked a brother’s anger at a dull stylus?
Or consider his description of a church service that included “spitting, coughing or clearing our throat or laughing or yawning or falling asleep.” Or why is it, Cassian’s friend Germanus asked his elder, “that superfluous thoughts insinuate themselves into us so subtly and hiddenly when we do not even want them, and indeed do not even know of them, that it is very difficult not only to cast them out but even to understand them and to catch hold of them?” Where, in other words, was the off-switch for a psyche in overdrive? Why all the involuntary internal garbage?
After reading the monastics, I once joked to my wife that for the desert dwellers it was all about “the big three”—food, sex, and sleep. This is an overstatement, of course, but it hints at a crucial insight on the part of the monks: that our spiritual life is mediated exclusively through our physical bodies. We don’t have a body, we are a body. Our life in the Spirit comes only through a battle with the body.
Plato dismissed the body as the prison house of the soul. The Gnostics denigrated the body. And I have to admit that it’s easy to find negative statements about the body in the desert mothers and fathers.
Is the body bad? Should we hate our bodies? I think that Chryssavgis is right when he says that the goal of the monastics was not to destroy their physical appetites, but rather to transform them through various ascetic disciplines. Do my physical impulses control me, or do I, through the indwelling grace of God, control them? Recall the words of Paul to present your body as a living and holy sacrifice for transformation and renewal (Romans 12:1–2).
In fact, there’s a wonderfully positive description of the physical appearance of Saint Anthony by his biographer, Athanasius (The Life of Saint Anthony). After twenty years of desert solitude, “not venturing out and only occasionally being seen by anyone,” his friends were shocked. “They were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but was just as they had known him prior to his withdrawal. . . . He maintained utter equilibrium.”
When Anthony died at the age of 105, Athanasius describes what he calls Anthony’s “life in the body.” “He never succumbed, due to old age, to extravagance in food, nor did he change his mode of dress because of frailty of the body, nor even bathe his feet with water, and yet in every way he remained free of injury. For he possessed eyes undimmed and sound, and he saw clearly. He lost none of his teeth, they simply had been worn to the gums because of the old man’s great age. He also retained health in his feet and hands, and generally he seemed brighter and of more energetic strength than those who make use of baths and a variety of foods and clothing.”
Despite their unrelenting realism about human foibles, the desert mothers and fathers didn’t live like helpless or hopeless victims. They exuded confidence in God’s unconditional love, exhibited tenderness and patience toward one another and to their own bodily selves, steadfastly avoided the faintest hint of judgmentalism, rejected every manifestation of extremist zeal, and chose not to compare themselves with others or even to be overly anxious about their progress.
These desert dwellers believed that we can make genuine progress through vigilance and trust in God’s grace, even though, paradoxically, the more you mature, the wiser you become regarding your own fault lines. “We are,” said Cassian, not angels but “only human beings.” And so I keep praying with Serapion of Thmuis (fourth century), “Lord! We entreat you; make us truly alive!”
Daniel B. Clendenin founded “Journey with Jesus” (JWJ) in 2004 as a weekly webzine for the global church (www.journey-withjesus.net). Every week JWJ publishes an essay based upon the Revised common lectionary, book, film, and music reviews, and poetry. JWJ is all free all the time, and free of all advertisements. Since 2004, JWJ has served 2.4 million readers in 230 countries and territories. Dan earned his PhD in theological and Religious studies from drew university (1985), then taught at William Tyndale college in Michigan (1985–1991), and at Moscow State university (1991–1995) in the former department of scientific atheism. Dan joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Stanford University in the summer of 1995, and worked with faculty and graduate students until 2003. His eight books include Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective (Baker).