Streams in the Desert: The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Streams in the Desert: The Christian Wisdom of the Church Fathers”, running in the Fall Term 2022 (September to December), and convened by Dr. Matthew Hoskin.

If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.

One of my besetting sins is anger. Several years ago, I unexpectedly unleashed an angry outburst upon someone. I realised that I had a problem with anger, and I needed help from our Lord Jesus Christ. I reminded myself of the necessary Scriptures, such as James 1:19-20, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (NIV) At this point in my life, I had also been studying the earliest Christian monks, known as the Desert Fathers, for close to ten years, both academically and for my own devotional life. It was a natural next step to consult these ancient monks from Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.

Some of my findings from that day were:

Abba Agathon (19): “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.”

Abba Ammonas (3): “I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.”

Abba Isaiah (8): “When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.”

Abba Nilus (1): “Everything you do in revenge against a brother who has harmed you will come back to your mind at the time of prayer.”

Abba Nilus (2): “Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.”

Abba Nilus (6): “If you want to pray properly, do not let yourself be upset or you will run in vain.”

All of these sayings come from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection–a collection of sayings attributed to the Desert Fathers arranged alphabetically by father, translated by Benedicta Ward for Cistercian Publications in 1975. These tightly-bound sayings are at the heart of the literature of the Desert Fathers.

I also found wisdom in the teachings of the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus, such as:

The most fierce passion is anger. In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, stirs up alarming experiences by night.

(Praktikos 11)

Later on in the same text, Evagrius says, “Turbid anger is calmed by the singing of Psalms, by patience and almsgiving.” (Praktikos 15)

Besides meditating on Scripture and these pieces of “desert literature” (as I call it), I also sought out wisdom from an Anglican priest and a Greek Orthodox priest, and sought the grace of God through prayer. The Orthodox priest reminded me that the Desert Fathers teach that anger can be very useful if we turn it against our own sins and against the demons. In the tradition of desert wisdom, he also told me to be watchful of my thoughts—when I am angry and why, and assigned me a simple prayer exercise to help.

Born in the fifth century in the spirituality of the Eastern Mediterranean’s desert, that simple prayer exercise was the repetition, with full meaning of the words, of a single phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Through repeating this prayer for at least ten minutes a day, and no more than twenty, I sought the face of the God of grace who purifies us from our sins and conforms us to the image of His Son. And my anger dissipated and grew less.

This entire experience of mine reflects the spirituality of the Desert Fathers: I identified a sin. I sought the Scriptures; I read the wisdom of the tradition; I sought assistance from a spiritual father; I prayed. The world of the Desert Fathers, the monks whose spirituality and lives I’ll be teaching at Davenant Hall this Autumn, is a world devoted to the single-minded pursuit of God, seeking to become pure prayer. “If you will,” said Abba Lot, “you can become all flame.” (Sayings, Lot 7) Similarly, Abba Bessarion said, “The monk ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim: all eye.” (Bessarion 11)

Perhaps anger is not a problem for you. But I can assure you, the Desert Fathers can help us with any of our vices, or strengthen us in any aspect of our Christian life of prayer and the pursuit of God. This has been so for many hundreds of years, and will continue to be the case so long as we read their wisdom with an eye to the grace of God that can reform and transform us. And part of that transformation is what both the Desert tradition and Herman Bavinck call the union of the head and the heart.

To the end of helping modern Christians grasp and incorporate the spiritual teachings and practices of the Desert Fathers into their own spiritual lives and theology, I am offering a course through Davenant Hall this Autumn called Streams in the Desert: The Christian Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. In this course, we will engage directly with the teachings of the Desert Fathers and accounts of their lives (and lifestyles!) beginning with the so-called “first monk”, St Antony in the 300s, and moving through the highlights up to the age of Justinian with Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in the mid-500s.

We will cover a variety of texts including: The Life of Antony by St Athanasius, The Letters of St Antony, sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Rule of Pachomius, the Lausiac History by Palladius (a set of short biographies of Desert Fathers), the Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius of Pontus, The Life of Symeon the Stylite, and the Letters of Barsanuphius and John

Through these texts we will explore topics including prayer in general, contemplative prayer (theoria), asceticism, solitude, silence, living out the teaching of Scripture, and crocodile riding (yes, crocodile riding).

This “Christian History” course will be taught by Dr. Matthew Hoskin This course will run from September 26th through December 12th. The syllabus is available here. Register here.

Dr. Matthew Hoskin is a lecturer at both Davenant Hall where he teaches ancient and medieval Christianity, and the Ancient Language Institute where he teaches Ancient Greek and Latin. He has a PhD in the history of Christianity from the University of Edinburgh with expertise in ancient Christianity.


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