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)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Visiting the Desert Fathers of Ethiopia

This special blog entry is written in Lalibela, Ethiopia. I have been spending the past week here, visiting monasteries and churches, as well as meeting with monks and observing their daily lives to get a firsthand view of the monastic life as practiced in this ancient land. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the "Occidental Orthodox" churches, also known as the non-Chalcedonian churches as they accept only the first three of the seven Ecumenical Councils. They are joined in this by their Coptic brethren in Egypt, the Armenian Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church.  The so-called "Church of the East," which includes the Malabar Church in India, the Assyrians in Iraq, and some other small groups, is not considered part of this group, although they share many teachings and practices in common.

 Having lived in Ethiopia for two years from 2007 to 2009, I had the opportunity to return this time for a short visit, so I decided to use it to get a much deeper and closer look at the monastic life as practiced by these modern-day desert fathers.  In Egypt, as the writings of the Desert Fathers have shown, as well as in much of the Eastern Orthodox world today (especially on Mount Athos), most monks live in cenobitic monasteries, a type of monastic life pioneered by the Egyptians in Upper Egypt. In Ethiopia, however, the eremitic style has prevailed to the extent that virtually all - if not all - Ethiopian Orthodox monastic communities still practice the eremitic lifestyle as practiced by the early Desert Fathers of Egypt. In this manner, the monks live separately, typically in little houses set some distance from one another, and come together for meals, prayer, and perhaps work.

Let's begin with the monks and monasteries of Lake Tana. This pristine lake in the north or Ethiopia is the largest lake in the country and is the source of the Blue Nile, one of the two rivers that join at Khartoum to form the Nile, which then flows into Egypt. Lake Tana is 3000 to 5000 square kilometers in surface area, depending on the time of year (rainy season vs. dry season) and has some 37 islands on it, again depending on the time of year. Of these islands, nineteen are permanently inhabited with churches and monasteries on them, the communities ranging in size from individual hermits to large communities of 130 or more.  I have now visited about ten of these monasteries, but the one where I spent most of my time was Dega Istifanos, which is located on the eastern edge of Dek Island, the largest of Lake Tana's islands.  This monastery is the largest, with about 130 fathers, many of whom have lived there for decades.

After a two-hour boat ride from the city of Bahar Dar, we landed at Dega Istifanos on a Saturday afternoon, where we were met by a couple of young monks.  When I say "we," I am referring to myself and my good friend and fellow pilgrim from Addis Ababa, Yohannes Birhanu, who accompanied me to the monasteries to act as my interpreter. Yohannes is also a faithful Orthodox Christian, so he was able to tell me a great deal about the Ethiopian Church and its teachings and practices throughout the journey.  I will always be indebted to him for making this trip such an incredible blessing to me.

The young monks escorted us up a long hill to the church where we were shown the relics, treasures, and other interesting sites of the monastery that most tourists come to see.  After the tour, we explained that we were Orthodox Christians seeking to learn more about the monastic life and if we might speak to the abbot.  We were taken to meet the abbot, Fr. Gabriel, who was pleased to learn of our interest in the monastic life and their community and gladly sat down with us to answer our questions and show us throughout the monastery.  It became quickly apparent that we would need much more than the two-hour visit we originally planned, so we asked if we might return on a weekday, when everyone would be working, and spend the day with the monks. He readily agreed, and we returned on Monday to spend the better part of the day observing the daily life of the monks.

As any student of the monastic life and the Desert Fathers knows, the monastic day is essentially divided between work, prayer, and study. Let's look first at the work of the monks and what they do to provide for their needs.  When a man first enters the monastery and expresses an interest in becoming a monk, the abbot gives him seven days to live with the monks as a guest. During that time, he is not given a work assignment nor is he expected to do anything other than observe their life, participate in worship, join in the common meals, ask questions of the abbot, but otherwise mind his own business and not interfere with any of the monks' lives.  At the end of seven days, the abbot sits down with the aspirant to determine if he is still interested in staying. If he is, the aspirant will then meet with the community and will answer questions posed by the monks. This is not a catechism test, but rather a determination of his motives and his seriousness about becoming a monk. If the monks agree that this man is serious, he is then given one year to live in the community. At this point, he is assigned a house to live in and given a work assignment. There is no negotiating - this is a test of his obedience. No matter the work assignment, he is expected to give it a shot, to try it, and do his best.  Naturally, any man is better at some jobs than others and in the monastery there are many jobs: cooking, weaving, farming, metalwork, carpentry, masonry, basket weaving, etc. But in the beginning, the aspirant is simply told what to do, he is expected to obey, but his work assignment may well change depending on his performance thereof.  He is then given a year to live in this manner, still as a layman. At the end of that year, he is again asked if he wants to become a monk. Assumedly, the answer will be "yes" or he would not have stayed this long. He is then generally given another three years as a novice, at the end of which he becomes a monk.  It was very heartening to see in every monastery, young men aspiring to become monks and working to prove themselves worthy of the monastic profession. Truly, Ethiopia will be blessed with monks for many years to come!

As we observed the many tasks being done in the monastery, it became apparent that work was almost always a communal activity. Take farming, for example. During our visit, corn was being harvested.  Incidentally, the farming methods used at this monastery were strictly organic, totally sustainable, and would surely be the envy of any organic farm in the West!  As Fr. Gabriel explained what they were doing with all of their crops and how they manage their land, it was clear that these monks were not simply using traditional methods, but that they took their responsibility as "stewards of the land" very seriously.  For them, farming was an act of grace and not simply an economic activity.

Harvesting the corn, like all the work activities, involved groups of monks sitting together as they worked, sometimes talking, sometimes singing, sometimes praying.  It was not idle chatter, however, but the communal approach made the work go more quickly and certainly took away any drudgery that might have otherwise been felt by the monks. By keeping the hands busy, as the Desert Fathers taught, the mind could focus on God and consider higher things than the task at hand.  This same approach applies during the coffee harvest, while working the simple forge where sickles were being made in preparation for the grain harvests, while cooking soup and bread in the kitchen,  weaving cloth that the monks would use to make garments, or doing any other work required.

Prayer, as taught by the Desert Fathers, is a constant, ongoing activity. This includes the time spent in the church, which for monks typically begins at 0200. Monks practice the Jesus Prayer, the "prayer of the heart" as taught by the Desert Fathers, as well as recite Psalms and do other readings of prayers, many of them committed to memory by the older monks after years of practice.  At a monastery near Lalibela, I witnessed a young monk at his hermitage standing on a ledge by his hut facing the sun, reading the Psalter.  It was explained to me that he read the Psalter through every day, out loud, and then read from the Gospels in the afternoon.  As I approached him, he continued reading without a break, but blessed me with his Psalter when he saw me make the sign of the cross. His gentle smile bespoke a monk who was truly at peace and who was not engaged in a rote, boring activity, but rather knew the Psalms as a living testament that spoke to his heart. Throughout the monasteries I visited on this trip, and that was approximately a dozen, it was very common to see monks sitting or standing alone, reading aloud or reading silently, their lips moving as they kept their focus, oblivious to all around them, even to photo-snapping tourists.

 At Dega Istifanos, Fr. Gabriel showed us a huge tree out in the forest that appeared to be a baobab tree. I am no tree expert, so I could be wrong, but it had several large trunks, each of which contained large cavities defined by the shape of the trunk. In each of these cavities, one could see a large flat stone or thick plank of wood to serve as a seat.  Fr. Gabriel explained that during Great Lent, monks would often come out to the tree to spend long hours in prayer and study, each one sitting in isolation within one of the trunks. There were spaces for at least four monks and other places nearby that could also be used in that manner. The setting of the tree was isolated, quiet, with only the sounds and smells of nature to touch the senses. Truly, it was a place conducive to prayer and meditation.

Study is the other activity that fills out the monastic day. Readings from the lives of the Saints, hearing a "word" from another father, or otherwise studying sacred texts provides the monks with the knowledge and ultimately wisdom they need as they seek to get closer to God through their daily lives and seek to be one with Him in spirit.  I visited several of the homes of monks on this trip, as well as on an earlier trip to Lake Zway, where I spent several hours with a hermit who had not left his small island in over thirty years.  In each of these hermitages, I never saw any secular reading material. No magazines, no newspapers, no novels or other secular books, but only religious books. The hermit at Lake Zway had only a Gospel and a prayer book. The hermits in the area around Lalibela had the same. A monk at Dega Istifanos had several ancient manuscripts, no doubt centuries old, of religious texts. In other words, they read ONLY spiritual texts. Their studies, their lives, are focused one hundred percent on the spiritual life. The only exception to this might be found with those monks who have to manage certain work activities or interact with traders, as for example, when selling farm produce or gathering information related to their work.

Of the monasteries we visited at Lake Tana, and this would normally be the case at other monasteries, there was one cell phone and it was kept in a little house away from the monks, only to be used by the abbot or with his permission for outgoing calls. No one was present to receive calls, so that the phone strictly served their purposes and they were not slaves to the technology. Their approach, I could see, was much like that of the Amish in America where the phone is located in a "phone booth" that requires travel to it, thereby preventing it from being an intrusion into their daily lives. Also, none of them had a television or apparently a radio. We visited Dega  Istifanos the day after the new Coptic Pope, Tawadros, was installed in Cairo, and they knew nothing of the event.

I have now visited four hermitages in Ethiopia.  Normally, monks would not allow lay people to visit their homes, but they are more willing to relent (but not always!) when they see that the visitor is sincerely interested in the monastic life.  In each of the hermitages, belongings were scant: a rough bed, sometimes a goat skin on the floor but at other times a simple construction; an icon and books, but very limited to both and by no means "collections" of either; one or two garments, the primary one being a blanket that is wrapped around the body as an outer garment with the monastic garment underneath and a hat denoting their status as a monk; and perhaps a small stool and a tea kettle. There is usually little else at hand. One hermitage I visited was a round hut, or "tukul" as they are called in Ethiopia, that was scarcely five feet in diameter. Once entering, you could either sit down or lay down, but nothing else. The largest one I saw was the one on Lake Tana and it was probably ten feet in diameter and contained only a goat skin, a blanket, a stool, a prayer book and gospel, a paper icon on the wall, and a tea kettle.

In Egypt today, the monasteries are all cenobitic, but most of them will have a few hermits living outside the monasteries in the fashion of the Desert Fathers. But hermits are not so common in Egypt as they once were. In Ethiopia, though, hermits are still very common and one even sees itinerant monks and nuns on the roads and byways of almost every region of the country.  These men and women have no home, but sleep in the open, in churches, or anywhere they are invited to lay their heads as they wander the country, blessing people and offering prayers, or simply living the monastic life as they know it. These monks will usually have a small blessing cross they carry in a leather pouch under their garments that is readily produced to give a blessing to the desiring Christian, as well as a Gospel they carry in a leather bag around the neck. Such monks have all but disappeared in the rest of the world, even though they were once common in all Christian lands.

After living in Ethiopia and experiencing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church firsthand, and then visiting many monasteries and meeting monks and talking with them about their lives and practices, it is clear to me that the lifestyle and teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers is alive and well in this ancient Christian land.  With the possible exception of Egypt, there is hardly anywhere else on earth where one can see the ancient Desert Fathers alive and well - in fact, thriving! - as one can in Ethiopia. A pilgrimage to this land is well worth the time and money it takes to do so. Even if one goes as a tourist, as part of a tour group, and only passes through the monasteries briefly without time to sit and talk with the Fathers, simply observing them and seeing firsthand how these monks live and act will be a profound experience. When you meet a barefoot father in an island monastery, his garments torn and dirty from work, poor in material things but rich in the spirit, you will surely see in his eyes and gentle smile that the words of the ancient Desert Fathers have come alive as never before. Truly, the Desert Fathers are alive among us even in the 21st century.