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The Desert Fathers were the first Christian monks, living in solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. In contrast to the formalised and official theology of the "founding fathers" of the church, the Desert Fathers were ordinary Christians who chose to renounce the world and live lives of celibacy, fasting, vigil, prayer and poverty in direct and simple The Desert Fathers were the first Christian monks, living in solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. In contrast to the formalised and official theology of the "founding fathers" of the church, the Desert Fathers were ordinary Christians who chose to renounce the world and live lives of celibacy, fasting, vigil, prayer and poverty in direct and simple response to the gospel. Their sayings were first recorded in the 4th century and consist of spiritual advice, anecdotes and parables. The Desert Fathers' teachings and lives have inspired poetry, opera and art, as well as providing spiritual nourishment and a template for monastic life.


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The Desert Fathers were the first Christian monks, living in solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. In contrast to the formalised and official theology of the "founding fathers" of the church, the Desert Fathers were ordinary Christians who chose to renounce the world and live lives of celibacy, fasting, vigil, prayer and poverty in direct and simple The Desert Fathers were the first Christian monks, living in solitude in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. In contrast to the formalised and official theology of the "founding fathers" of the church, the Desert Fathers were ordinary Christians who chose to renounce the world and live lives of celibacy, fasting, vigil, prayer and poverty in direct and simple response to the gospel. Their sayings were first recorded in the 4th century and consist of spiritual advice, anecdotes and parables. The Desert Fathers' teachings and lives have inspired poetry, opera and art, as well as providing spiritual nourishment and a template for monastic life.

30 review for The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

  1. 4 out of 5

    kaelan

    I don't come from a religious background, and I stumbled upon this book rather by accident; but I found parts of it sagacious and insightful. As a collection of aphorisms from many different authors, it is often repetitive or contradictory. Yet I can't help but think that if contemporary Christians acted—in any small degree—like the desert fathers (and mothers), the world would be changed for the better. In our present times, there is a baffling overlap between Christianity and capitalism. Maybe I don't come from a religious background, and I stumbled upon this book rather by accident; but I found parts of it sagacious and insightful. As a collection of aphorisms from many different authors, it is often repetitive or contradictory. Yet I can't help but think that if contemporary Christians acted—in any small degree—like the desert fathers (and mothers), the world would be changed for the better. In our present times, there is a baffling overlap between Christianity and capitalism. Maybe all the covetous Catholics and the pleonectic Protestants should take the words of the hermit Syncletica to heart: Merchants toil in search of riches and are in danger of their lives from shipwreck; the more wealth they win, the more they want; and they think what they have already is of no worth but bend their whole mind to what they have not yet got. But we have nothing, not even that which we ought to seek; we do not even want to possess what we need, because we fear God. This passage is representative of the book as a whole: while not particularly original (I've read something similar in a book of Sufi proverbs), you can't ignore the fact that precepts such as this one formed the basis for an actual way of life. The desert fathers and the desert mothers were real people, isloated from the rest of society, for whom religion was no weekend trip—it was hard, gritty, dirty and socially peripheralized. That's something you don't need to be a Christian to respect. A brief word on my rating: I would rate the "sagacious and insightful" parts higher, but these comprise only a fraction of the entire work.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Pontus Presents

    A fascinating view on early Christian asceticism, containing much wisdom and some humour (due to our modern perspective on things). " Theodore . . . had three good books. He went to Macarius, and said, 'I have three good books, and I am helped by reading them. Other monks also want to read them, and they are helped by them. Tell me what to do.' Macarius replied, 'Reading books is good, but possessing nothing is more than anything.' When he heard this, he went and sold the books, and gave the A fascinating view on early Christian asceticism, containing much wisdom and some humour (due to our modern perspective on things). " Theodore . . . had three good books. He went to Macarius, and said, 'I have three good books, and I am helped by reading them. Other monks also want to read them, and they are helped by them. Tell me what to do.' Macarius replied, 'Reading books is good, but possessing nothing is more than anything.' When he heard this, he went and sold the books, and gave the money to the poor. " " 'The prophets wrote books. Our predecessors came after them, and worked hard at them, and then their successors memorized them. But this generation copies them onto papyrus and parchment and leaves them unused on the window-ledge.' " " 'He should always be singing psalms in his heart.' " " They said of one hermit that he sometimes longed to eat a cucumber . . . He was not overcome by his longing, and did not eat it, but tamed himself, and repented that he had wanted it at all.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance

    Who knew there were Christian mystics way-back-when? I don't think this is widely shared today, and that is sad. I recently went on a silent Christian retreat and I couldn't think of a better book to take along than this one. The book is composed of hundreds of tiny little stories about the sayings and actions of the very early Christian monks who lived off-life, often in mostly silent retreat, in caves or small huts, mostly in the desert. Here they confront demons and heretics and nay-sayers Who knew there were Christian mystics way-back-when? I don't think this is widely shared today, and that is sad. I recently went on a silent Christian retreat and I couldn't think of a better book to take along than this one. The book is composed of hundreds of tiny little stories about the sayings and actions of the very early Christian monks who lived off-life, often in mostly silent retreat, in caves or small huts, mostly in the desert. Here they confront demons and heretics and nay-sayers and followers with odd reactions and Zen-like wisdom. The stories are organized by category, and just the categories are revealing: quiet, compunction, possessing nothing, fortitude, nothing done for show, non-judgment, discretion, sober living, unceasing prayer, hospitality, obedience, humility, patience, charity. It's the kind of book that one could spend her entire life reading and rereading, although don't expect contradiction between the sayings, but it is there, of course, as all true wisdom is paradoxical, and don't be surprised to read some wackiness here and there.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Quirkyreader

    This was book Number 3 in “25 Books Every Christian Should Read”. I gave this a 4 instead of a 5 because some of the sayings are repeated verbatim in multiple sections. I can see how it applies to different topics, still another saying could have been used instead of repeating the same one over. I am bookending this with “Early Christian Lives” edited by Carolinne White. That will lead me into book Number 4 which is by St. Benedict

  5. 5 out of 5

    David Withun

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  6. 5 out of 5

    Mitch

    This is a book of collected sayings from monks and nuns living communally or hermits living separately, mostly in Egypt, during the early days of Christianity. I read it, looking for wisdom. What I found was mostly...not that, really. These people removed themselves from the distractions and/or corruption of human society and pretty much regarded social interaction as evil. They were after God, through isolation, fasting and prayer, in a way Jesus never did. He didn't fast or retreat from the This is a book of collected sayings from monks and nuns living communally or hermits living separately, mostly in Egypt, during the early days of Christianity. I read it, looking for wisdom. What I found was mostly...not that, really. These people removed themselves from the distractions and/or corruption of human society and pretty much regarded social interaction as evil. They were after God, through isolation, fasting and prayer, in a way Jesus never did. He didn't fast or retreat from the world for the lengths of time these people did. It changed the way they regarded life. Since I haven't done anything approaching their extremes, I doubt I am able to fully understand their thinking. Still, it seemed they were introspective to a psychologically unhealthy degree. Some of their sayings seem spiritual and positive from a Christian standpoint. Some seems so 'spiritual' that it goes off the deep end... To illustrate: A brother was asked if he wanted to see Christ and he said no. He wanted to see Christ in the next life, not this one. Okay- what?? It kind of sounds spiritual, but just seems off. Wouldn't seeing Christ in both be better? His view doesn't seem to allow for that. Additionally, there are contradictions when you look at the sayings of one sage, then read those of another. Then again, some of the accounts are just strange. One story has a guy using a corpse as a pillow. It's just too weird. This is perhaps what an extreme lifestyle/fanaticism will do to a person. The scholar that put this together explained that the sayings were very influential in the Middle Ages. I think their appeal has diminished since then.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Volkert

    "The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks," translated and with an introduction by Benedicta Ward, not only provides insight into the life and thought of early Christian monasticism, but is a source of inspiriation for anyone who wishes to take seriously the disciplines of the Christian faith today. As I read through most of these thought-provoking quotes and anecdotes, I was amazed at how much the spiritual struggles of these holy men and women are similar to my own. Granted, "The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks," translated and with an introduction by Benedicta Ward, not only provides insight into the life and thought of early Christian monasticism, but is a source of inspiriation for anyone who wishes to take seriously the disciplines of the Christian faith today. As I read through most of these thought-provoking quotes and anecdotes, I was amazed at how much the spiritual struggles of these holy men and women are similar to my own. Granted, these were written about and for the monastic setting in the desert over 1,500 years ago, but it doesn't take much to translate the principles provided here into our secular contemporary lives. This priceless volume served as my bedtime reading for many months, and it will be in the rotation so that I can return to it again and again. There are so many treasures here. Below are a few samples: "Chastity is born of tranquility, and silence, and inner prayer." "If you are not tempted, you have no hope; if you are not tempted, it is because you are sinning." "The passions work in four stages: first in the heart, then in the face, third in words, fourth in deeds -- and it is in deeds that it is essential not to render evil for evil. If you purify your heart, passion will not show in your expression, but if it does, take care not to speak about it; if you do speak, cut the conversation short in case you render evil for evil." Highly recommended reading for anyone seeking spiritual discipline. (July 11, 2006.)

  8. 5 out of 5

    ♥ Ibrahim ♥

    Benedicta Ward is the nun scholar who wrote all kinds of medieval studies that often point to Jesus our Lord as the exalted King of Heaven. This book of hers is a real classic that you would want to read over and over again, and you might end up memorizing some of the sayings in it. This book shows you how there are people who sought the Lord's face for His own sake and enjoyed him enternally, regardless of what might come out of that. I think this book should be read at least once a year. I Benedicta Ward is the nun scholar who wrote all kinds of medieval studies that often point to Jesus our Lord as the exalted King of Heaven. This book of hers is a real classic that you would want to read over and over again, and you might end up memorizing some of the sayings in it. This book shows you how there are people who sought the Lord's face for His own sake and enjoyed him enternally, regardless of what might come out of that. I think this book should be read at least once a year. I have a set of tapes by Henri Nouwen that I would be glad to share and he meditates also on these sayings. Please take a moment to meditate on these sayings here until you get your own copy of the book: http://www.balamandmonastery.org.lb/f... And I would check out of the library any book written by Benedicta Ward. What a great lady!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tim Tuttle

    Really liked it... but not as good as the Philokalia

  10. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Pokorny

    Excellent glossary of wisdom from the Desert Fathers!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sammy

    I was both impressed and horrified by the lives reflected in this Penguin Classics compilation. Never much of a christian, I read this following on from a book on the ancient Greek Cynic philosophers. Indeed one cynic seemed to have spent time with some middle eastern christian monastics, 'cynically' seeking renown thereby, before throwing himself into a bonfire stoically (or perhaps ironically) after being disgraced. The lives of the Early Christian Monks were appalling, yet there is something I was both impressed and horrified by the lives reflected in this Penguin Classics compilation. Never much of a christian, I read this following on from a book on the ancient Greek Cynic philosophers. Indeed one cynic seemed to have spent time with some middle eastern christian monastics, 'cynically' seeking renown thereby, before throwing himself into a bonfire stoically (or perhaps ironically) after being disgraced. The lives of the Early Christian Monks were appalling, yet there is something astounding in their disciple and devotion. They would crush their 'self will' and lead simple lives weaving baskets and helping farmers harvest crops, for food, so they could remain mostly in isolation. Some, the Hermits, led lives of extreme remoteness and austerity. By reading this, one might believe there is some kind of magic, or deduce the Christian philosophy underlying it is a genius humanism tapping in to deep human needs for kindness, yet in their self hypnosis by faith, they treated themselves with a severity intended to 'mortify the flesh' to subdue the temptation of sin endemic in the mortal life, banking on the promise of the hereafter.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Antonio De la Torre

    I had a lot of fun, this goes contrary to almost all of my ideologies: (drinking water with pus from a poor old man is worth of Gods grace?) So, it doesnt matter if you arent religious, (Im an agnostic, myself); you can enjoy this book, imagining how hard it must have been to those poor hermit peasants who just wanted to understand and follow the illogical and contradictory complexity of their god. I had a lot of fun, this goes contrary to almost all of my ideologies: (drinking water with pus from a poor old man is worth of God´s grace?) So, it doesnt matter if you arent religious, (I´m an agnostic, myself); you can enjoy this book, imagining how hard it must have been to those poor hermit peasants who just wanted to understand and follow the illogical and contradictory complexity of their god.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Owen Gagliardo

    "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."

  14. 5 out of 5

    Donald

    Incredible collection of early monastic stories. I can't speak to the translation but the little sayings are beautiful and insightful.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jesse Rice

    Some hard teachings, some simple teachings, all challenging. I am surprised how similar some of it is to Anabaptist theology.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Paul H. Rogers

    Wonderful A great selection of the desert fathers. Well chosen showing the great range of spirituality. A great book for meditation.

  17. 5 out of 5

    JennanneJ

    I’m a Christian who appreciates church history, but some of these sayings/parables are just plain weird.

  18. 4 out of 5

    John Defrog

    The “Desert Fathers” were a scattered collective of hermits, monks and ascetics living mainly in the deserts of Egypt around the start of the 3rd century. They were also pioneers of Christian asceticism and monastic life. Between reading Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island and seeing some quotes during Lent, I’ve been hearing a lot about them lately, so I decided to read this collection of various sayings, anecdotes and parables that have been passed down orally through the ages before someone The “Desert Fathers” were a scattered collective of hermits, monks and ascetics living mainly in the deserts of Egypt around the start of the 3rd century. They were also pioneers of Christian asceticism and monastic life. Between reading Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island and seeing some quotes during Lent, I’ve been hearing a lot about them lately, so I decided to read this collection of various sayings, anecdotes and parables that have been passed down orally through the ages before someone started writing them down in the 5th Century. They’re short and punchy, but they’re not easy – anyone looking for little nuggets of self-help wisdom or snappy quotes is going to be disappointed. Most everything here is rooted in serious Christian faith, so that’s probably a baseline requirement if you’re going to get anything out of it, or even understand the point of many of these – and even then it may depend on how much Biblical or theological study you have under yr belt. The most useful part for me is the historical introduction explaining just who were the Desert Fathers (and Mothers, for there were women ascetics as well) and why they were out in the desert to begin with. So it’s educational, if nothing else.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Derek Winterburn

    This book is an important witness to the life of (some) Christians in the third and fourth centuries - it is another world. Here are collections of anecdotes and sayings of hermits, largely living in the Egyptian desert. Their lifestyle was austere and very much in contrast to the lives of believers in towns and cities. They carried fasting to an extreme, they shunned company and, when not weaving palms, were praying. Inevitably there is a fair measure of repetition in the material. Indeed This book is an important witness to the life of (some) Christians in the third and fourth centuries - it is another world. Here are collections of anecdotes and sayings of hermits, largely living in the Egyptian desert. Their lifestyle was austere and very much in contrast to the lives of believers in towns and cities. They carried fasting to an extreme, they shunned company and, when not weaving palms, were praying. Inevitably there is a fair measure of repetition in the material. Indeed grouping the stories thematically intensifies the sense of familiarity. Nevertheless frequently a passage will take a surprising or shocking turn. The introduction sketches in some of the background, and there is a who's who at the end of the book; both are helpful to understanding this world. There are still numerous questions I have such as 'how could they learn all the Bible by heart, if they did not have manuscripts or meet with others?', 'can people really live on so little?' and 'what did they really do all day?' There are not many illustrations that can directly applied to today, but here is an episode to give a taste of the other-wordliness of the Fathers. "They told a story of a hermit who was dying in Scetis. The brothers stood round his bed, and clothed him, and began to weep. But he opened his eyes and began to laugh; this happened three times. So the brothers asked him, 'Abba, why are you laughing when we are weeping?' He told them, 'I laughed the first time because you fear death; I laughed the second time: because you are not ready for death; I laughed the third time because I am passing from labour to rest, and yet you weep'. As he said this, he closed his eyes and died."

  20. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    This is a collection of, as the title suggestions, of sayings by early Christian monks, mostly from Egypt. This particular collection was transmitted in Latin and remained as part of the monastic toolbox in the West through the influence of figures like John Cassian. The sayings themselves are classic Desert Fathers: frequently cryptic, sometimes deeply insightful, but sometimes completely opaque or outrageous. Like any literature of 'wise' people, the insights are very culturally bound, so This is a collection of, as the title suggestions, of sayings by early Christian monks, mostly from Egypt. This particular collection was transmitted in Latin and remained as part of the monastic toolbox in the West through the influence of figures like John Cassian. The sayings themselves are classic Desert Fathers: frequently cryptic, sometimes deeply insightful, but sometimes completely opaque or outrageous. Like any literature of 'wise' people, the insights are very culturally bound, so there are times that there are severe cultural dissonances but, if one works patiently through them, these sayings can be deeply enriching. In particular, the most useful discussions for me have been around regulating one's thoughts and, thus, one's will. Those insights which warn about the tempation to take something good in God's creation and substitute it in the place of God are become important for me as I continue to try to develop spiritually. It might have been me or my general state of fatigue, but Benedicta Ward's introduction lost me. I eventually just skipped it and got on with the reading of the sayings, but perhaps I should go back to it and see if it makes better sense later.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas Whyte

    http://nhw.livejournal.com/892620.html[return][return]Simply gives the complete text of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers compiled by Pelagius in the early fourth century. There is an uneasy and sometimes consciously very funny tension running through the writings, between on the one hand being deeply devout and determined, and pulling up the other monks who are not trying hard enough; and on the other hand not showing off one's own piety. But at the same time you can't help but be impressed http://nhw.livejournal.com/892620.html[return][return]Simply gives the complete text of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers compiled by Pelagius in the early fourth century. There is an uneasy and sometimes consciously very funny tension running through the writings, between on the one hand being deeply devout and determined, and pulling up the other monks who are not trying hard enough; and on the other hand not showing off one's own piety. But at the same time you can't help but be impressed with the seriousness and dedication with which these people tried to develop their understanding of their creator and themselves by cutting themselves off from the world.[return][return]The Penguin edition is interesting for completeness, to see what Helen Waddell chose to leave out; but she got most of the good bits.

  22. 4 out of 5

    John

    In any collection of sayings like this, one will discover a great variety. Some of the sayings are strange, others extremely ascetic in their application, while still others beautifully incisive in their wisdom. It's that last group that makes this book such a treasure. What comes across most strongly to me is the patience and trust exhibited in the stories of these men. They were willing to allow themselves to be put upon by those with evil intentions, yet they did not complain. Instead, they In any collection of sayings like this, one will discover a great variety. Some of the sayings are strange, others extremely ascetic in their application, while still others beautifully incisive in their wisdom. It's that last group that makes this book such a treasure. What comes across most strongly to me is the patience and trust exhibited in the stories of these men. They were willing to allow themselves to be put upon by those with evil intentions, yet they did not complain. Instead, they endured with patience the trials placed before them, not acting as if they deserve better, but grateful that they have the blessings they do see in their own lives. I find this deeply instructive, though if I am honest, an unending challenge. There's a quietness of soul to these monks that allows them to take such an approach, one that is ultimately gracious toward others.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jocelyn

    The Desert Fathers, often called the Desert Fathers and Mothers (108 fathers and 3 mothers quoted in this book), started the first major Christian ascetic movement in 4th century Egypt. They lived in an inhospitable wilderness; they isolated themselves in monastic cells; they fasted; they prayed; they fought the demons of temptation. They essentially died both to human civilization and to their own bodily needs. Their monastic cells functioned as premature graves. I feel kind of guilty for not The Desert Fathers, often called the Desert Fathers and Mothers (108 fathers and 3 mothers quoted in this book), started the first major Christian ascetic movement in 4th century Egypt. They lived in an inhospitable wilderness; they isolated themselves in monastic cells; they fasted; they prayed; they fought the demons of temptation. They essentially died both to human civilization and to their own bodily needs. Their monastic cells functioned as premature graves. I feel kind of guilty for not thinking that the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers were absolutely amazing. The stumbling block for me is that I don't find the ascetic lifestyle very edifying. Perhaps that's a sign of my spiritual bankruptcy, but there it is. I did like the parables of Abba John the Dwarf.

  24. 4 out of 5

    8314

    The early Christian fathers are great philosophers and psychologists; throughout the book you can see all sorts of classical topics: taking care of oneself, knowing oneself, distinguishing the truths that are essential to life and redundant scholarly works, striving to be a subject that has access to truth, and the punch line, the interaction of self and others. Towards the end there was one Father said that no good words would ever come out of the monks inasmuch as they are degenerating, The early Christian fathers are great philosophers and psychologists; throughout the book you can see all sorts of classical topics: taking care of oneself, knowing oneself, distinguishing the truths that are essential to life and redundant scholarly works, striving to be a subject that has access to truth, and the punch line, the interaction of self and others. Towards the end there was one Father said that no good words would ever come out of the monks inasmuch as they are degenerating, failing the standards. I would say, they started too high: it's a wonder to witness so many great philosophers gathered under the credo of Jesus Christ. It's a miracle on human history.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Whitney

    The thing I loved best about this book is that all of the monks greatly affected the people around them just by being hard-working, patient, humble, and loving God. They never tried to push their own religion on anyone nor judge them. The people that witnessed their lifestyle were greatly affected and made changes in their own lives as a result. Very powerful to see this kind of faith in action and I wish I saw more of it in my own day. I only gave it three stars because it was a little hard to The thing I loved best about this book is that all of the monks greatly affected the people around them just by being hard-working, patient, humble, and loving God. They never tried to push their own religion on anyone nor judge them. The people that witnessed their lifestyle were greatly affected and made changes in their own lives as a result. Very powerful to see this kind of faith in action and I wish I saw more of it in my own day. I only gave it three stars because it was a little hard to get through.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    As you'd expect, there's a lot of contradictory advice in here, but plenty of it is good. I do wish Ward had included more notes and more about the monks in question. This is very much a popularisation; not much use for we, the more academically inclined. "The true labourer struggles that the work may not deteriorate."

  27. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Irby

    I like a lot of what the sayings in this book have to tell us. However, I don't like that it is organized by topic. I feel like the collection cherry picks quotes that are out of context to serve a purpose that they may not have originally meant. However, there is good diversity here and a lot of good information.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Dusty Rowland

    Nice. I actually felt enlightened after reading this. Some parts were a little strange, but I could see what they were saying. These guys really took the spiritual discipline side very seriously, and felt closer to God. God bless them for it, and I'm sure these men have advanced the Kingdom of God in their own way.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    I like Ward's topical organization rather than the simple alphabetical organization of most of the other collections. Both are extremely valuable, but reading the Desert Father this way does bring unique and worthwhile insight.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Thom Willis

    I'd recommend this book to anyone, Christian or non, Catholic/Orthodox or otherwise. It should be at the top of anyone's spiritual reading list.

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