Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Desert Fathers

The desert Fathers and Mothers were the first Christian monks, originally fleeing the persecution of Rome and later the world it self. They inhabited the wilderness living in asceticism and solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. This was an non ecclesiastical grass roots movement and these were ordinary Christians who chose to renounce the world and live lives of celibacy, fasting, vigil, prayer, and poverty in simple response to the gospel.

Paul of Thebes is often credited with being the first hermit monk to go to the desert to establish the ascetic tradition that gave birth to Christian  monastic  contemplative practice.

Small informal communities began developing, until the monk Pachomius of Thebaid seeing the need for a more formal structure, established a monastery with rules and organization. His regulations included discipline, obedience, manual labor, silence, fasting, and long periods of prayer — some historians view the rules as being inspired by Pachomius' experiences as a Roman soldier. 

How-ever  it was Anthony of Egypt also known as Anthony the great who became the arch-typical model of the desert Fathers and mothers overseeing colonies of hermits.

 Three main types of monasticism developed in Egypt around the Desert Fathers. One was the austere life of the hermit, as practiced by Anthony and his followers. The second was the  cenobitic life, or formal communities of monks and nuns formed by Pachomius. The third was a semi-hermetic lifestyle seen mostly in  west of the Nile, begun by Saint Ammun. These were small groups (two to six) of monks and nuns with a common spiritual elder — these separate groups would join together in larger gatherings to worship on Saturdays and Sundays. It is this third form of monasticism that was responsible for most of the sayings that were compiled as the  Apophthegmata Patrum  better known as the  Sayings of the Desert Fathers

The early  monastics drew a sizable followings to their way of life through  their simple austere commitment and to knowing God and a reputation for holiness and wisdom,  These spiritual father (abba) or mother (amma) were often appealed to for spiritual guidance and counsel by both their disciples and those out side these communities.This model became part of the foundation for the Celtic concept of Anam cara or soul Friend.

 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,  included 1,202 sayings attributed to twenty-seven abbas and three ammas. The greatest number of sayings are attributed to Abba "Poemen," Greek for "shepherd." Because of the wide disparity of dates for the sayings attributed to Abba Poemen, some scholars believe that "Poemen" was a generic name for a combination of different unnamed Abbas

First recorded in the 4th century the  Sayings—consist of spiritual advice, anecdotes, parables, and reflections on life— which latter influenced the rule of St. Benedict, set the pattern for Western monasticism, and have inspired centuries of poetry, opera, and art.

Photo: The beautiful Wadi Qelt in the Jordan Valley

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