I first encountered the Desert Fathers and Mothers some 30 years ago whilst reading H. V. Morton’s book, Through Lands of the Bible. During his travels in Northern Syria in 1937, Morton visited Kala’ât Sim’ân, about 30 kilometres north-west of Aleppo, where St. Simeon Stylites spent much of his life sitting on top of a pillar.
Simeon Stylites (390-459) was the first of the so-called ‘Pillar Hermits’ — Christian ascetics who lived on top of pillars or columns, preaching, fasting, and praying. Simeon spent 37 years living on a small platform on top of a pillar, ranging in height from 3 metres to 15 metres above the ground. His nights and early mornings were given to meditation, prayer, and prostrations. In the afternoons Simeon would hold court and issue verdicts on the various theological, legal, and domestic problems that people brought to the foot of the pillar.
And therein lies the anomaly of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Rather than withdrawing into obscurity, Simeon attracted thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the country, wanting to hear the words of wisdom that he uttered and to witness the miracles of healing that he performed. Simeon even communicated with Emperor Theodosius II, and after him, Leo I, both of whom listened respectively to his counsel.
Simeon Stylites was a sign and a wonder to his generation. As Morton poignantly observes, “Probably for every man that scoffed at St. Simeon on his pillar, a hundred gazed up at him, and beyond him to the heavens.” Perhaps the lesson for 21st century Christians is this: If you’re not of the world, you’re more likely to make an impression on the world (see John 17.14-18).
The movement of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, however, began long before Simeon ascended his famous column in the wilderness. The most well known of the Desert Fathers was Anthony the Great, who moved to a mountain east of the Nile River called Pispir around 285, to seek complete solitude. Over the course of the next 20 years, more and more people followed Anthony into the desert, wanting to emulate his life of ascetism. Eventually, in around 305, Anthony yielded to the repeated requests of his would-be disciples, and emerged from his retreat to instruct and organise this fledgling monastic community.
The Fourth Century world was a world in revolt against materialism. As Morton noted, “The ascetic movement that was sweeping over the East drove a proportion of the population of Egypt into the desert to live in hair-shirts and on bread and water.” According to Anthony’s biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, by the time of Anthony’s death in 356, there were so many men and women living in the desert that it had become a ‘city’.
Sage advice from Abba Anthony
Some of the sayings and stories attributed to the Desert Fathers and Mothers were recorded in Greek at the end of the Fourth Century, and subsequently translated in whole or in part into Latin, Aramaic, Armenian, and English. In one such story, Abba Anthony says to his fellow monks:
“Just as fish die if they stay too long out of the water, so the monks who loiter outside their prayer chambers or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of their inner peace. So, like a fish going toward the sea, we must hurry to reach our prayer chamber. If we delay outside, we will lose our interior watchfulness.”
Tim Vivian translates it this way: “If they stay outside their cells too long, or spend too much time with those living in the world, they unstring the bow of contemplative quiet and thus the bow loses its tautness.” (The Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Cistercian Publications, 2021).
The Greek word hēsychía (peace or quiet) represents an important concept in monastic literature. It denotes outer and inner silence and peace; a quietness of the soul that allows one to contemplate the mysteries of God. Over time, hēsychía came to signify the highest level of ascetic practice — quiet contemplation or spiritual meditation, the goal of which is likeness to and union with God.
In this saying, Abba Anthony likens contemplative quiet to a bow which, if left unattended, loses its tautness and is rendered ineffective. The key to maintaining a state of quiet contemplation, says Abba Anthony, is “not to stay outside one’s prayer chamber too long” and “not to spend too much time with those living in the world”.
Abba Anthony’s advice bears a striking resemblance to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the gospel of Matthew, chapter six:
“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” - Matthew 6.5-6
Note the contrast between “street corners” (the world) and “the secret place” (one’s prayer chamber). In essence, Jesus is saying, “If you really want to be effective on the street corner — if you really want to make an impact on the world — you must first spend quality time with your Father in the secret place.”
The secret place is the place where one discovers the discipline of silence; the place where one learns to wait on the Lord; the place where one cultivates the art of quiet contemplation. The Psalmist David alluded to the secret place when he said, “Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4.4). He also expressed his desire to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life, to gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and to contemplate in His temple (Psalm 27.4).
For the Desert Fathers and Mothers, hēsychía (quiet contemplation or the practice of interior silence and continual prayer) was a path of spiritual ascent that culminated in a state of loving union with God — an ecstatic experience of overwhelming joy.
Climbing the ladder to heaven
In Genesis chapter 28, we read about the patriarch Jacob who dreamed a dream about a ladder that was set up on earth and reached all the way to heaven. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
According to the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), Jacob’s ladder is a metaphor for the experience of prayer — the process of leaving one’s earthbound existence and entering into higher states of spiritual awareness. Similarly, the 6th-7th century monk, John Climacus, of the Mt. Sinai monastery, used the analogy of Jacob’s ladder to describe the Christian’s ascent to God through the acquisition of ascetic values.
“The Ladder of Divine Ascent” (ca. 600) consists of 30 steps, divided into 3 sections: Steps 1-7, general virtues necessary for the ascetic life; Steps 8-26, instructions on overcoming vices and developing virtues; Steps 27-30, the higher virtues toward which the ascetic life is directed, culminating in faith, hope, and love.
Significantly, the final 4 steps deal with the acquisition of hēsychía — holy stillness of body and soul; holy and blessed prayer which John calls “the mother of virtues”; the attitude of mind and body in prayer; and Godlike dispassion and perfection, which John refers to as “Heaven on earth”.
As the writer to the Hebrews points, out, drawing near to God is a process (Heb 4.16; 10.22). Hēsychía — learning to be still, sit at His feet, and listen to His word — comprises an important part of this transcendent experience.
The songwriter, Helen Howarth Lemmel, put it best in the hymn “The Heavenly Vision”, which she published in 1922:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.