Wisdom from the Desert for Today: The Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Desert
The earliest of the desert fathers and mothers go back in time beyond what’s recorded, but around the third century AD we have records of their lives. St. Anthony the great (also know as St. Anthony of the Desert), for whom St. Anthony of Padua is named, is thought of as the father of monasticism. We know more about him because of St. Athanasius’s writings about him. But, when St. Anthony left Egypt for the desert, he found others already there — he wasn’t the first.
They often lived far away from everything, intentionally. A day’s walk to get water. A full Saturday’s walk to get to Mass, where their tradition was to stay up all night, observing the vigil. Many of the sacraments, like frequent confession and Eucharist (or an obligation to receive these with a particular regularity) hadn’t developed yet — and these men and women often went without receiving them for extended periods of time. Although you don’t hear about scripture and sacraments in their writings or in the writings about their lives, that doesn’t mean those things were absent.
They were hermits, but they attached themselves to others. If you heard of a great Abba, you would go and attach to them and live not too far from where they lived. Ordinary people also went into the desert for shorter periods of time, for retreat and to seek these Abbas and Ammas out. Most of what we know is their written sayings; in many cases, we know very little else about them or their lives.
Begin meditation with your mind, but let it proceed to your heart, which is the seat of wisdom. The desert fathers and mothers took care to listen to the longings of the heart, and to protect the heart.
Abba Moses the Ethiopian: “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you all things.” We are often uncomfortable in silence because of the everyday distractions. But if we stay there and listen, the heart will make its needs known. The heart is the center of the life of Christians.
Amma Syncletica of Alexandria: “Let us live soberly. For though the senses of the body, thieves do enter our soul. How can a house with its windows open not be filled with smoke if there is smoke nearby?”
Just like a blind person pays more attention to his hearing, by shutting down the senses the spirit is made more aware. “I am asleep, but my soul is awake.” (Song of Songs 5:2) The sleep of the senses is like a quiet that lets us hear a soft knocking at the door. Being undisturbed by the senses lets/makes the internal battle within the heard proceed without distraction.
Jesus speaks of the demons being driven out into the desert. By leaving the safety of the city and living out in the desert, these men and women saw themselves as warriors against those demons.
If one is diligent, he can begin every day, or in fact every hour, to live a good life. Too often, sin begets habit of sin. Rather, in humility, recognize that God’s mercy penetrates the barrier of sin, and live as if you had already been to confession and received absolution.
St. Anthony came from a family of means, and both of his parents died when he was relatively young, leaving him in charge of the estates and responsible for his younger sister. One day, the reading at Mass was Jesus speaking to the rich young man, telling him “If you wish to be perfect, sell all you have, and come follow me”. To St. Anthony, it was as if these words were directed at him personally — he returned home and sold everything from the estate, keeping back a small portion to pay for his sister’s welfare. Later, the reading at Mass said “Do not worry about the troubles of tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” and again he felt the words directly aimed at him. He went off and sold the portion of the estates that he had held back, instead arranging for his sister to join a group of religious women. (In those days, formal religious communities and convents and so on hadn’t been established yet. This was a community of women living together, a predecessor to what would later be formalized.) He himself went off into the desert to live as a hermit.
St. Mary of Egypt
She is very well known in the East, but less well known in the West. She lived during the fifth century, and ran away from home at age 12 for reasons that aren’t recorded. In those days, the choices for supporting herself were limited — leaning towards textile work and prostitution. She lived this life for a many years. One day, she saw a group of men readying a boat to travel to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Cross. She joined them and convinced them to let her pay her way as a prostitute to the men on the boat. When they arrived, she decided she may as well go and see what they travelled to. But something prevented her from entering the church. At first, she thought it was just in her head, but eventually she decided that God didn’t want her in the church.
She felt drawn to the side of the church, where she found an icon of the Blessed Mother. Praying there, she received comfort, and was then able to enter the church. She confessed her sins, received the Eucharist, and participated in the all-night vigil. Leaving the church the next morning, praying again in thanksgiving, she heard that she should go into the desert, and there she would find peace.
Later, a monk traveling to the desert for Lent came upon her. It was dark, so he could hardly see her, but she wouldn’t let him come near because her clothes had worn out, leaving her nearly naked. He gave her his cloak to wear, and he asked her for he story. What she told him is almost everything we know about her. Before he left, she asked him whether he was coming back this way again the next year. He was. She asked him to bring her the Eucharist when he did — she hadn’t received it since the vigil.
The next year, he came back that way, bringing her the Eucharist. He found her, but she was on the far side of the Jordan. She made the sign of the cross over the river and was miraculously able to walk across it, to come to him and receive it. She again asked him to bring her communion when he came this way next year, and he agreed.
The third year, when he came back with the Eucharist for her, he couldn’t find her. He searched for her, remembering that he never knew her name. Eventually, he found her body. She had written in the dust next to herself “My name is Mary” and the date she died — the day last year that she had received the Eucharist.