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The Desert Fathers and Mothers

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Early Christian Church

The Desert Fathers and Mothers
Thursday, April 30, 2015

The men and women who fled to the desert emphasized lifestyle practice, an alternative to empire and its economy, psychologically astute methods of prayer, and a very simple (some would say naïve) spirituality of transformation into Christ. The desert communities grew out of informal gatherings of monastic monks, functioning much like families. A good number also became hermits to mine the deep mystery of their inner experience. This movement paralleled the monastic pattern in Hinduism and Buddhism.

The desert tradition preceded the emergence of systematic theology and the formalization of doctrine. Faith was first a lifestyle before it was a belief system. In some areas, like Alexandria in Egypt, you had to be a long-standing monk before you could be a bishop, which entirely changed the character of bishops. These early monks and bishops were probably the link from the desert period to what became the “Eastern Church” with its unique insights. Since these desert monks were often formally uneducated, they told stories instead of using formal theology, much like Jesus did, to teach about essential issues of ego, love, virtue, surrender, peace, divine union, and inner freedom. But later, they also became much more formalized and argumentative, just like the Church in the West.

Thomas Merton brilliantly recognized the importance of this early, desert form of Christianity. He describes those who fled to the wilderness as people “who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state,” who didn’t wish to be ruled or to rule. He continues, saying that they primarily sought their “true self, in Christ”; to do so, they had to reject “the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion ‘in the world.’ They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand” (The Wisdom of the Desert, pp. 5-6). Can you see why we might need to learn from them? Next week we’ll look more closely at the non-dual wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

Gateway to Silence:
Teach me Your way.

Adapted from the Mendicant, Vol. 5, No. 2

Image credit: 6th c. mosaic (detail), Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, Israel.
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