Praying with the Desert Fathers and Mothers


Egyptian monks, although later moved to Palestine. Flourished between 250-407. By 300, there were 10000 monks and 20000 nuns in Oxyrhynchus.

Story begins with Anthony (251-356AD) or possibly Paul of Thebes (who fled to desert [Gk: eremos = hermit] in persecution). [When they met, they had a saintly stand off to decide who would bless the bread! In the end they did it together.]

For Anthony it began with his response to command in Matthew 19.21: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’.
(This call was also heard by people like St Augustine, St Francis, CT Studd)
Three groups:
Hermits – those who lived on their own out in the desert (Anthony)
Monasteries (Pachomius)
Semi-hermetical (Ammon). [People living as solitaries, but coming together for ‘love-feasts’ on Saturday and Sunday]
Monk – mono. Single. They lived alone. They were single minded.
They lived for Him, for holiness, humility and for heaven

Known for extreme feats of asceticism: eg. Simon Stylites (388-459), Aleppo (Syria). But generally the ascetic works included fasting, keeping silence, living on reduced sleep, standing for long periods or obedience. 

Note that when they speak of 'being saved', they are speaking of growing in perfection in Christ.  

Worked (weaving baskets). Prayed. Visited each other! ‘Work and Pray’


1. The command to become perfect (Matthew 5:48)
Somebody asked Antony, ‘What shall I do in order to please God?’ He replied, ‘Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines you will be saved.’ (cf 1 Timothy 2.15) (TDF 1.1)

A hermit said, ‘This is the life of a monk: work, obedience, meditation, not to judge others, not to speak evil, not to murmur. For it is written, “You who love God, hate the thing that is evil” (Ps 97.10). This is the monastic life: not to live with the wicked, not to see evil, not to be inquisitive, not to be curious, not to listen to gossip, not to use the hands for taking, but for giving; not to be proud in heart or bad in thought, not to fill the belly, in everything to judge wisely. That is the life of the monk’ (TDF 1.11)

‘When he was dying, Bessarion said, 'A monk ought to be like the Cherubim and Seraphim, all eye.'’ (TDF11.7)

The themes they speak of include:
Quiet, Compunction, Self-control, Lust, Possessing nothing, Fortitude, Nothing done for show, Non-judgement, Discretion, Sober living, Unceasing prayer, Hospitality, Obedience, Humility, Patience, Charity, Visions

2. The command to sell everything and give to the poor
‘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 demons and torn in pieces’. (TDF 6.1)

‘A brother asked a hermit, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ He took off his clothes, and put a girdle about his loins and stretched out his hands and said, ‘Thus ought the monk to be: stripped naked of everything, and crucified by temptation and combat with the world’ (TDF 6.16)

Jerome (347-420) writes, 'if you will be perfect, go out with Abraham from your country and from your kindred, and go whither you know not. If you have substance, sell it and give to the poor. If you have none, then are you free from a great burden. Being yourself naked, follow a naked Christ. The task is a hard one, it is great and difficult; but the reward is also great.' [Letter 125]

A positive calling:
-       freedom from concern
One night thieves went to a certain hermit.
"We came to take your things," they said to him viciously.
Without losing composure, he said to them, "Come in and take whatever you like."
They emptied his poor hut of every last thing and left hurriedly. They forgot, however, to take a small flask that was hanging from a beam of the roof. The hermit took it down and, running behind the robbers, shouted for them to listen and to stop.
"Come back, brothers, to take this too." And he showed them from afar the small flask.
They were amazed by his forgiving nature and returned, not to take the flask, but to offer repentance and to return all of his things.
"This is, indeed, a man of God," they said among themselves. (TDF 16.13)

-       giving to the poor
A brother said to Serapion, ‘Give me a word.’ But he replied, ‘What can I say to you? You have taken what belongs to widows and orphans and put it on your window-ledge.’ He saw that the window-ledge was full of books.

-       freedom to trust God
Syncletica also said, ‘When the devil does not use the goad of poverty to tempt us, he uses wealth for the same purpose ..’ (TDF 7.16)

‘A brother asked a hermit, ‘Would you like me to keep two shillings for myself, in case I fall ill?’ The hermit, seeing that in his heart he wanted to keep them, said, ‘yes’. The brother went into his cell, but he was worried, asking himself, ‘Did he tell me the truth or not?’ He got up and went back to the hermit, bowed down and asked him, ‘For the Lord’s sake tell me the truth, for I am worrying about those two shillings.’ The hermit said to him, ‘I told you to keep them because I saw you intended to do so anyway. But it is not good to have more than the body needs. If you keep two shillings, you put your hope in them. If by chance they are lost, then God will no longer be interested in your needs. Let us cast all our care upon the Lord, for He cares for us.’ (TDF 6.22)
3. Recognition of their own sinfulness
(Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector  Luke 18.9-14)

Judging oneself
John the Dwarf: ‘We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification’ (SHC p46)
A hermit saw someone laughing and said to him, ‘We have to render an account of our whole life before heaven and earth, and you can laugh?’ (TDF 3.23)

Gentleness with others who sin:
‘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’. (TDF 9.4)

Moses writes to Peomen, ‘If you have sin enough in your own life and your own home, you have no need to go searching for it elsewhere.’ And, more graphically, from Moses again, ‘If you have a corpse laid out in your own front room, you won’t have leisure to go to a neighbour’s funeral’ (Quoted Williams ch1)

C19 Anglican monastic reformer, RM Benson: Believed he should have ‘a heart of stone towards myself, a heart of flesh towards others, a heart of flame towards God’
Not self-loathing but a merciless honesty

Stories of monks caught in adultery or fornication, and another identifies with them and shares the shame. Or of the monk who gave too strict advice to a younger monk struggling with sin.

“Their suggestion is not so much: “I’m OK and you’re OK.” On a much deeper level, it is their awareness and admission that: “I’m not OK; and you’re not OK.” Yet, this recognition is also their reassurance; for, they know that: “That’s OK!”” (IHD, p106)

4. The rejection of pride
A brother came to visit Abba Macarius the Egyptian and said to him: “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said: “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there and abused them, throwing stones at them. He returned and told the old man about it. The elder said: “Did they not speak to you?” He replied: “No.” The old man then said: “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went there and praised them, calling them apostles, saints and righteous. He returned to the old man and said: “I went and praised them.” The old man replied: “Did they not respond?” The brother said: “No.” The old man finally said: “See how you insulted them and they did not reply; and how you praised Top of Form
them and still they did not speak. If you wish to be saved, you must do the same and become like a dead person. Like them, take no account of either scorn or praise, and you will be saved.” (IHD p155)

It once passed through the mind of Anthony to wonder what measure of holiness he had attained. God, however, who wished to humble his mind, showed him in a dream one night that a certain cobbler, who had a shop on one of the out-of-the-way streets of Alexandria, was better than he.
As soon as day broke, the Saint took his staff and set out for the city. He wanted to meet this renowned cobbler himself and to see his virtues. With great difficulty, he found his shop, went inside, sat down beside him on his bench, and began to ask about his life.
The simple man, who could not figure out who this old monk who came so suddenly to interrogate him was, answered him ever so slowly and calmly, without taking his eyes from the shoe that he was mending.
"I do not know, Abba, if I have ever done any good. Every morning I get up and do my prayers and then I begin my work. However, I first say to myself that all the people in this city, from the very least to the very greatest, will be saved, and only I will be condemned for my many sins. And in the evening when I lie down, again I think about the same thing."
The Saint stood up in wonderment, embraced the cobbler, kissed him, and said to him with emotion: "You, my brother, like a good merchant, have easily gained the precious pearl. I have grown old in the desert, toiling and sweating, but I have not attained to your humility." (AFD Section 6)

Ways to grow in humility: placing yourself under obedience to another; acceptance of false accusations or of insults (When Abba Moses was falsely accused of being father of a child, or when he was racially abused, he did not fight back or try to justify himself); acceptance of suffering or illness

5. Living in the light of the eternal.
‘Evagrius said, ‘While you sit in your cell, recall your attention, and remember the day of your death and you will see that you body is decaying  .. shrink from the vanity of the world outside. .. Remember the souls in hell. Meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief .. Remember too the day of resurrection, imagine God’s terrible and awful judgement. .. Bring before your eyes the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ his Son .. ’ (TDF 3.3)

Syncletica said, ‘He inflicts severe sicknesses on people whom he wants to tempt and so makes them weak, and thereby shakes the love they feel towards God. But although the body is shattered and running a high temperature and thirsting unbearably, yet you, who endure all this, are a sinner; you should therefore remember the punishments of the next world, the everlasting fire, the torments of judgement.’ (TDF 7.16)

‘A brother asked a hermit, ‘I hear the hermits weeping, and my soul longs for tears, but they do not come, and I am worried about it.’ He replied, ‘The children of Israel entered the promised land after forty years in the wilderness. Tears are the Promised Land. When you reach them you will no longer be afraid of the conflict. For it is the will of God that we should be afflicted, so we may always be longing to enter that country.’ (TDF 3.27)


1. The goal of prayer: to become a flame of fire toward God
‘Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him: ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and again as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then, the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him: ‘If you really want, you can become all flame.’ (TDF 12.8)

Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot: ‘You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire’. (IHD ch17)

A brother came to the cell of Abba Arsenius at Scetis. Waiting outside the door, he saw the old man entirely like a flame. (The brother was clearly worthy of this sight.) When he knocked, the old man came out and saw the brother marvelling. He asked him: ‘Have you been knocking long? Did you see anything here?” The other answered: ‘No’. So then they talked, and he sent the brother away’. (IHD ch17)

2. Taking away the distractions (detachment)
He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water, they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognises his own faults.’ (TDF 2.16)

One of the hermits said, ‘No one can see his face reflected in muddy water; so the soul cannot pray to God with contemplation unless it is first cleansed of harmful thoughts. (TDF 12.13)

a) The cell:
In Scetis a brother went to Moses to ask for advice, He said to him, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ (TDF 2.9)

A hermit said, ‘The monk’s cell is the furnace in Babylon in which the three children found the Son of God. It is the pillar of cloud out of which God spoke to Moses’ (TDF 7.38)

A monk found a great deal of temptation in the place where he first began to struggle. Once he lost his patience and decided to go far away to find his peace. Just as he stooped to tie his sandals, he saw someone in front of him tying his sandals, too.
"Who are you?" he asked him.
"The one who is pushing you out of here. And I am making ready to precede you to where you plan to take refuge."
It was the devil who had tried to push him out; but he did not succeed at it, because the brother stayed in his cell after that and struggled with patience, until he conquered his temptations. (AFD Section 2)

For nine years a brother was assailed by the temptation to leave his community. Every day he got ready to go and picked up the cloak in which he used to wrap himself at night. At evening he would say, ‘I will go away tomorrow.’ At dawn he would think, ‘I ought to stay here and bear this temptation just today for the Lord’s sake.’ He did this very day for nine years, until the Lord took the temptation away.’ (TDF 7.39)

b) Silence:
Silence is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening to what is going on within and around us.

Antony said, ‘He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.’ (TDF 2.1)

Sisois said, ‘Our form of pilgrimage is keeping the mouth closed’ (TDF 4.44)

“This is not about any kind of despairing silence, being silent because there is nothing to say or know or because you’re always going to be misunderstood. It is more of an expectant quiet, the quiet before the dawn, when we don’t want to say anything too quickly for fear of spoiling what’s uncovered for us as the light comes.” Williams (SHC ch3, p70)

The times when we can be absolutely sure that we are wasting words are when we are reinforcing our reputation, or defending our position at someone else’s expense

c) Others:
Allois said, ‘Until you can say in your heart, “Only I and God are in the world,” you will not be at peace.’ (TDF 11.5)

And see what Abba Moses says of prayer: "Take care to maintain deep in your heart cognizance of your sinful state, that your prayer might be acceptable. When you occupy your mind with your own sins, you will not have time to keep track of the faults of others." (AFD section 1)

3. The practice of prayer

Prayer as first and last resort
The brothers came to Abba Antony and said to him: ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them: ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said: ‘Yes, but we want to hear from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them: ‘The Gospel says: ‘If any strike you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.’ (Matt 5.39)’ They said: ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said: ‘Well, if you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ They replied: ‘We cannot do that either,’ So he said: ‘If you are not able to do that, then do not return evil for evil.’ They said: ‘We cannot do that either.’ The old man said to his disciple: ‘Prepare a little soup of corn for these people, for they are totally incapable of doing anything. If you cannot do this and cannot do that, then what can I do for you anyway? What you need is prayers.’ (IHD p99)
Keeping it simple
A brother said to Abba Antony: ‘Pray for me,’ The old man said to him: ‘I will have no mercy on you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make any effort and if you do not pray to God.’ (IHD p100)

Abba Macarius was asked: ‘How should one pray?’ The old man replied: ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses. It is enough to stretch out one’s hands and to say: ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and He shows us His mercy.’ (TDF 12.10)

The discipline of prayer
Hyperichius said, ‘Keep praising God with hymns, and meditating continually, and so lighten the burden of the temptations that attack you. A traveller carrying a heavy burden stops from time to time to take deep breaths, and so makes the journey easier and the burden light.’ (TDF 7.20)
The place of saying the Psalms

Prayer as a battle
‘The brothers asked Abba Agathon: ‘Among all good works, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?’ He answered: ‘Forgive me, but I think that there is no greater labour than that of prayer to God. For every time a person wants to pray, one’s enemies, the demons, want to prevent one from praying, for they know that it is only by turning one away from prayer that they can hinder one’s journey. Whatever good works a person undertakes, if one perseveres in them, one will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’ (IHD p97)

Praying for your enemies
"Do you wish God to hear your prayer immediately, brother?" asks Abba Zenon. "When you lift your hands up to heaven, pray first of all, with your heart, for your enemies and God will grant you speedily whatever else you request." (AFD Section 1)

The power of prayer and humility
Then there was a woman who was suffering from cancer and, having heard of the reputation of Abba Longinos, decided to find him that he might restore her health. While she was looking for him here and there in the desert, she encountered an elderly monk cutting wood. She approached him and asked him where Abba Longinos stayed.
"What do you want with him?" the monk asked. "I advise you not to go to him because he is not a good man ... But maybe something is troubling you?"
The unfortunate woman then showed him an open sore which gave off an unbearable odor. The monk made the sign of the cross over her and told her: "Return to your home and God will heal you. Longinos cannot help you in anything."
She left, receiving the words of the unknown monk with faith. By the time she reached her home, not a trace of her fearful illness remained. She later learned from the other brothers that the one who made her well in this strange way was Abba Longinos himself. (AFD Section 1)

Unceasing prayer
Bishop Epiphanius of Cyprus, of holy memory, was told this by the abbot of his monastery in Palestine. ‘By your prayers we have kept our rule; we carefully observe the offices of terce, sext, none and vespers,’ But Epiphanius rebuked him and said, ‘Then you are failing to pray at other times. The true monk ought to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5.17). He should always be singing psalms in his heart. (TDF 12.6)

The prayer of the heart
Evagrius said, ‘If your attention falters, pray. As it is written, pray in fear and trembling (cf Phil 2.12), earnestly and watchfully. We ought to pray like that, especially because our unseen and wicked enemies are trying to hinder us forcefully’
He also said, ‘When a distracting thought comes into your head, do not cast around here and there about it in your prayer, but simply repent and so you will sharpen your sword against your assailant.’ (TDF 12.4-5) 

And so for keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. “O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me,” for this verse .. embraces all the feelings which can be implanted in human nature, and can be fitly and satisfactorily adapted to every condition, and all assaults. Since it contains an invocation of God against every danger, it contains humble and pious confession, it contains the watchfulness of anxiety and continual fear, it contains the thought of one’s own weakness, confidence in the answer, and the assurance of a present and ever ready help. For one who is constantly calling on his protector, is certain that He is always at hand. It contains the glow of love and charity ..
We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Let the thought of this verse, I tell you, be conned over in your breast without ceasing. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are going, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed, or eating, and in the last necessities of nature, think on this. ..” (John Cassian, Conference 10. The second conference of Abbot Isaac, On Prayer. Chapter X: On the method of continual prayer)


1. Remember the cross
A hermit was asked how a watchful monk could prevent himself from being shocked if he saw others returning to the world. He replied, ‘A monk should remember hounds when they are hunting a hare. One of them glimpses the hare and gives chase, the others merely see a hound running, and run some way with him, then they get tired and go back to their tracks. Only the leading hound keeps up the chase until he catches the hare. He is not deterred by the others who give up, he thinks nothing of cliffs or thickets or brambles, he is often pricked and scratched by thorns, but he keeps on until he catches the hare. So the man who runs after the Lord Jesus aims unceasingly at the cross, and leaps over every obstacle in his way until he comes to the Crucified (TDF 7.35)

2. Remember heaven and hell
A hermit was asked by a brother why, when he stayed in his cell, he suffered boredom. He answered, ‘You have not yet seen the resurrection for which we hope, nor the torment of fire. If you had seen these, then you would bear your cell without boredom even if it was filled with worms and you were standing in them up to your neck. (TDF 7.28)

Hyperichius said, ‘Let you mind be always on the kingdom of heaven, and you will soon inherit it.’ (TDF 11.35)

3. Meet with others who have passion
Poemen said that someone asked Paesius this question, ‘What am I to do about my soul? I have become incapable of feeling and I do not fear God.’ He said to him, ‘Go, and live with someone who does fear God: and by being there, you too will learn to fear God.’ (TDF 11.23)

4. Remember your death
The man who succeeds in having death continually before his eyes conquers faint-heartedness," an elder said to the younger brothers, who asked him for some beneficial advice. And another time, as he was spinning, he assured them: "I have brought death to mind as many times as this spindle has turned, up to the present." (AFD Section 6)

5. Read the bible
Macarius said, ‘Practise fasting till a little later .. Meditate on the Gospel and the other Scriptures; if a bad thought comes to you, don’t look at it but always look upwards, and the Lord will come at once to your help.’ (TDF 18.9)

Bottom of Form
 ‘The nature of water is soft, the nature of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above a stone letting water drip down, it wears away the stone. It is like that with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but if a man hears the word of God often, it will break open his heart to the fear of God.’ (TDF 18.16)

6. Remember who is on your side
It happened that Moses, who lived in Petra, was struggling with the temptation to fornication. Unable to stay any longer in the cell, he went and told Isidore about it. He advised him to return to his cell. But he refused, saying, ‘Abba, I cannot.’ Then Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace and said to him, ‘Look towards the west.’ He looked and saw hordes of demons standing about and making a noise before launching an attack. Then Isidore said to him, ‘Look towards the east.’ He turned and saw an innumerable multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Isidore said, ‘See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they are against us’ (cf. 2 Kgs. 6:16). So Moses gave thanks to God, plucked up courage and returned to his cell. (TDF 18.12)

7. Never become complacent
“Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he prayed to God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from. He went and told an old man about this: "I find myself in peace, without an enemy," he said. The old man said to him: "Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have. For, it is by warfare that the soul makes progress." So he besought God, and when the warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but he said: “Lord, give me strength for the fight." (IHD p60)

“It was related of Amma Sarah that for 13 years she waged warfare against the demon of fornication. She never prayed that the warfare should cease, but only said: "God, give me strength." (IHD p60)

 “Peter, the disciple of Lot, told this story. ‘I was once in the cell of Agatho, when a brother came to him and said, ‘I want to live with the monks; tell me how to do so.” Agatho said, “From the first day you join them, remember you’re a pilgrim all the days of your life, and do not be too confident.” Macarius said to him, “What does confidence do?” He replied, “It is like a fierce drought. When it is dry, everyone flees away from the land because it destroys even the fruit on the trees.” Macarius said, “Is it only false confidence that is like that?” Agatho said, “No passion is worse than confidence; it is the mother of all passion. It is best for the monk’s progress that he should not be confident at all, even when he is alone in his cell.” (TDF 10.8)

[Does confidence here mean self-complacency: The sin of the Pharisee in Luke 18. What Paul guards against in Phil 3 What then of assurance?]


1. Are they guilty of excessive individualism?

“... Each recluse did what seemed right in his own eyes. Each man was entirely devoted to the saving of his own soul, and apparently cared for nothing and no one else." p.xli   The Paradise of the Fathers, Ernest A. Wallis Budge 

But it does all start with us and God. Note for instance, how Syro-Phoenician woman cries out to Jesus, 'Have mercy on me. My daughter is sick' . She loves her daughter so much that she asks Jesus to have mercy on her by healing her daughter (Matthew 15.22). If I love others, then I will pray for God to have mercy on me by saving the other.
Antony the Great: ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause out brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ’. (TDF 17.2)

A brother asked a hermit, ‘Suppose there are two monks: one stays quietly in his cell, fasting for six days at a time, laying many hardships on himself: and the other ministers to the sick. Which of them is more pleasing to God?’ He replied, ‘Even if the brother who fasts six days hung himself up by his nose, he would’t be the equal of him who ministers to the sick.’ (TDF 17.18)

2. Are they guilty of seeking justification by works?

".. Each tried to lead a more austere life than that of his neighbour, believing that through the multitude of his fastings, vigils and prayers he could make himself acceptable to God.

The fundamental ideas which underlay the words repentance, conscience, faith, as understood by modern Christian peoples, seem to have been unknown to the ancient Egyptian, and it seems to me that they were only partially understood by the earliest of the Christian monks. The Christian and Egyptian monks trusted very largely to the efficacy of their own works for salvation. Hence their prolonged fasts, their multitudinous prayers, the constant vigils, the excessive manual labour, and the ceaseless battle against the cravings and desires of the body. The greatest monk was he who could fast the longest, rest and sleep the least, pray the greatest number of prayers, keep vigil the longest, work the hardest, endure best the blazing heat of the day and the bitter cold of the night, and who could reduce his body to the most complete state of impassibility.” p.xli   The Paradise of the Fathers, Ernest A. Wallis Budge 

This may be true of some, but not of all.  There must have been many who did try to win salvation by accomplishing ascetic feats, but many would have been ascetic because of their love for Christ, and for the sake of the reward.
3. Are they guilty of denying the physical realm?

They show little or no concern for issues of justice
[Anthony’s reluctance to respond to letter from Constantine. In the end he wrote to say he was praying for his salvation and for the peace of the Empire]

And yet they show a gentleness to the other when the other suffers physical weakness. ‘When Poemen was asked how he dealt with any brother who fell asleep during public prayer, he replied, ‘I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest’. (TDF, Introduction)

[One of the hermits asked the great Nesteros] ‘What good work shall I do?’ and he replied, ‘Surely all works please God equally? Scripture says, Abraham was hospitable and God was with him; Elijah loved quiet and God was with him; David was humble and God was with him.’ So whatever you find you are drawn to in following God’s will, do it and let your heart be at peace.’ (TDF 1.11)

Abba Poemen said: “If three men meet, the first of whom maintains inner peace, the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves other people with a pure heart, then these three are doing the same thing.He also said: “There is a voice that cries out to each person until his last breath: ‘Be converted today!’” (IHD pg157)


‘If we want to honestly discern the passions of our heart, we should consider what we actually like to do and even need to do, or what characterises our way of life. Some of these passion might include: the desire to gossip or be judgmental; the desire to control or manipulate; the desire for perfectionism; need for constant approval; the distrust of others or mistrust of ourselves; the fear of stillness or of silence; the tendency toward irritation or agitation; an attitude of impurity or darkness; a lack of self-control; and cravings or addictions of many kinds. In brief, that which makes us feel "high," where we do not have to face reality; that is where our passions often lurk. (IHD p59))

Dealing with the passions
“Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3.5)

Two views.
a)             Need to be crushed. Can lead to a hard asceticism. Apatheia. Salvation by works: Syncletica also said, ‘We need these tribulations [illness] to destroy the desires of our body; they serve the same purpose as fasting and austerity. If your senses a powerful medicine cures an illness, so illness itself is a medicine to cure passion. A great deal is gained spiritually by bearing illness quietly and giving thanks to God.’ (TDF 7.17)

b)            Need to be redirected. Desire or anger is not wrong in itself (Jesus was angry. Jesus had deep desires). What is wrong is the direction in which it is set.

Abba Isaiah of Scetis claims that all of the passions (including anger, jealousy, lust) are given to us by God with a particular and sacred purpose. Unfortunately, writes Isaiah, we have misdirected and misused them, so that they have now come to be regarded as evil. However, the original purpose of anger is for it to be used against injustice in the world; the proper reason for envy is so that we may seek to emulate the virtues of the saints; And the natural goal of desire is to thirst for God. However, we have bent these natural forces out of shape; and so now we are angry at our neighbour over petty reasons; we are jealous about material things; and we lust after earthly things." (IHD p157)

The Desert Fathers. Sayings of the Early ChristianMonks. (TDF) Translated by Benedicta Ward. Penguin books. © Benedicta Ward, 2003
Silence and Honey Cakes. The wisdom of the desert. (SHC) Rowan Williams. Lion books. © 2003 Medio Media


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