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Center for Action and Contemplation

Turning Back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers 

Remembering Early Christian Contemplative Communities in January’s We Conspire Series
January 30th, 2024
Turning Back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers 

What if you embraced faith as a lifestyle rather than a belief system? In this month’s We Conspire series, we reflect on the legacy of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, early Christian monastic communities that formed in the 3rd century CE in the Egyptian desert. Join us in experiencing echos of their legacy in our contemplative communities of today. 

Imagine you live in a small community on the edge of the desert. You hear warm winds whip across dry rocks and sand—day and night. Far away from screens, the sound of highways, and even the voices of children playing in a nearby park, you spend your days journeying within. When you speak, it is to share your experience with your companions; others who have chosen to walk a similar spiritual path.  

This way of life is the Desert Tradition of contemplative Christianity. Often seen as the origin of Christian contemplative thought, the Desert Tradition of Christian emerged in the 3rd century CE desert of Egypt. Communities of like-minded seekers grew from spontaneous meetings of those who wanted to discuss and live by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Often, members would sell their possessions to follow Jesus’ example of poverty and pursue what they believed was complete and undistracted union with God. 

Illustration of a light red cup on a darker red background

“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.” —Richard Rohr

Contemporary Christian mystics have continued to be inspired by the example of the Desert Tradition. Thomas Merton described the Desert Fathers and Mothers as those who sought their “true self, in Christ;” to do so, they had to reject “the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion ‘in the world.’” 

Echoes of these early contemplative communities can still be heard in our contemporary world. Our contributors this month share their experiences and reflections on nurturing contemplative communities today. 

Learn more about the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the Daily Meditations from Laura Swan and Fr. Richard Rohr

Reflect with Us 

Where do you see glimpses of the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers? How does their example inspire you? Share your reflection with us. 

Thank you to CAC’s Librarians, Lee Staman and Seth Wilmor, for offering deep research on the origins and teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. 

We Conspire is a series from the Center for Action and Contemplation featuring wisdom and stories from the growing Christian contemplative movement. Sign up for the monthly email series and receive a free invitation to practice each month. 

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