The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, October 28, 2012


In this issue, we are going to look at an early Desert Father who is most widely revered in the Western Churches, but who is nevertheless a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, too. Although his "desert" was a mountain in Italy, Abba Benedict lived a life of great asceticism and formulated a monastic rule that is widely followed in the Roman Catholic Church. We will be looking at various aspects of St. Benedict's life and rule over the next several issues.

Abba Benedict was born in Nursia, Italy, in 480, the son of rich parents. He came to the conclusion early in his school years that formal education might interfere with his salvation; he left school to join a monastery as an "understanding ignoramus." Abba Benedict soon withdrew to a remote, craggy mountain where he lived for more than three years in asceticism and spiritual struggle. As an example of his asceticism, he once stripped off all his clothing and rolled around among thorns and nettles to combat thoughts of lust which were assaulting him. He had the gifts of insight, healing, driving out evil spirits, raising the dead, and appearing to others in dreams and visions. Abba Benedict founded twelve monasteries, each with twelve monks at first, although they grew to be much larger in time. He left this world for a better one in 550 after predicting his death and preparing the brotherhoods for his leaving. St. Benedict is commemorated on March 14. The "Benedictine Rule" which he left for his disciples is a marvelous collection of teachings on the spiritual life which guide all aspects of both the communal and the private lives of those living the monastic way.


QUESTION: What is the "holy art" that the Abbot must teach his disciples in the monastery?

ANSWER: This is the holy art: first to believe in, to confess and to fear God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God in Trinity, and three in one, three in the one divine nature and one in the threefold power of his majesty. Therefore, to love him with all one's heart and all one's soul. Then, in second place to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Then not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to covet, not to give false testimony, to honor father and mother, and not to do to another what one would not want done to oneself.

To deny oneself in order to follow Christ. To chastise the body for the sake of the soul, to flee pleasures, to love fasting. To relieve the poor, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to help the afflicted, to console the sorrowing, to make loans, to give to the needy.

To make oneself a stranger to worldly activities, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ. Not to give effect to anger, not to await an opportunity for wrath. Not to shelter deceit in one's heart, not to make a consciously feigned peace, to keep faith with a confrere, not to love detraction, to do what has been promised and not to deceive, not to forsake charity. Not to love taking oaths, for fear of perjury. To speak the truth in heart and mouth.

Not to return evil for evil, to do no wrongs but to bear patiently those done to oneself, to love enemies more than friends. Not only to refrain from cursing those by whom one has been cursed but instead to bless them. To bear persecution for the sake of justice.

Not to be proud, not given to wine, not a great eater, not a lover of sleep, not lazy, not a murmurer.

To place one's hope in God. When one sees anything good in oneself, to be aware that it is the work of God and not of oneself; to regard evil as one's own doing and to ascribe it to oneself and to the devil. To want one's desires be fulfilled by God. To hope for one's sustenance not from the work of one's hands alone, but rather from God.

To fear the day of judgment, to dread hell, to desire eternal life and the holy Jerusalem, ever to keep death before one's eyes. To be watchful over the activities of one's life, to be convinced that one is everywhere seen by God. Immediately to shatter on Christ the evil thoughts which come into one's heart, to keep one's mouth from evil and depraved speech, not to love much talking, entirely to avoid vain words or such as cause laughter, not to love excessive or guffawing laughter.

To listen willingly to holy reading, to give oneself to frequent prayer, in daily prayer with tears and sighs to confess to God one's sins of the past, furthermore to correct these failings.

Not to yield to the desires of the flesh, to hate self-will, to be obedient to the admonitions of the abbot.

Not to wish to be called holy before one is so, but first to be holy so that one may and ought to be truly so called. To fulfill God's precepts daily by one's deeds, to love chastity, to hate no one, not to be jealous, not to do anything out of envy, not to love strife. To be reconciled to an enemy before the setting of the sun, to obey all good persons with all one's heart.

And never to despair of God.

Behold, this is the holy art which we must exercise with spiritual instruments.

QUESTION: What are the spiritual instruments which we can use to practice the Divine Art?

ANSWER: What are they? Faith, hope, charity; peace, joy mildness; humility, obedience, silence; above all, chastity of the body; a sincere conscience; abstinence, purity, simplicity; kindness, goodness, compassion; above all piety; temperance, vigilance, sobriety; justice, equity, truth; love, measure, moderation, and perseverance. END

from "The Rule of the Master," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), pp. 115 - 118