The desert fathers were radicals. They sold their possessions and left society behind to spend all of their time in prayer and meditation. The further away they were from each other and especially from society, the better. They lived alone in their huts living on crusts of bread and water as they wove mats from reeds to sell at the market for sustenance. They devoted their silent lives to prayer and meditation.
There’s something inspiring about these figures. They’re portrayed as heroes, and in once sense, that’s true. These were the fundamentalists of the third and fourth centuries who gave their lives in drastic fashion on what they believed was the path to godliness.
The insight they developed into human nature is rich. Many of their writings cut to the core of what it means to be a human wrestling with sin. Consider this sentence on fleeing temptation:
The Fathers used to say, “if temptation befall thee in the place thou dost inhabit, desert not the place in the time of temptation: for if thou dost, wherever thou goest, thou shalt find what thou fliest before thee” (94).
The ascetics realized that the temptations they fled society to escape from resided in their heart no matter where they went. Solitude gave them the focus to wrestle with that temptation.
Despite the legendary godliness of these saints, I struggle with their decision to leave society and mortify their bodies for a couple reasons.
- Jesus spent his life rubbing shoulders with the people the Desert Fathers fled from. Although many of the stories concern people who tracked the saints down, the Fathers spent their life trying to avoid the very contact Jesus sought.
- In mortifying their flesh, they were disdaining the body the good Creator gave them. This betrays an eschatology rooted in Platonism, far from the robust earthy spirituality of our Jewish heritage.
In the end, I can’t get past Paul’s advice:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism … If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:18, 20-23 ESV)
While I respect the wholehearted passion of these men and value their insight, I can’t help but think of them as stunted savants—excelling in prayer, solitude, and humility, while all the while missing out on the fullness of eternal life.
—Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers: Translations from the Latin (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).