Catholic Classroom: Desert Fathers
The Desert Fathers were early Christians who began practicing a life of extreme asceticism in the desert as early as 242 A.D. Asceticism is the practice of living a life void of sensual pleasures. Often, that means abstaining from things like rich food, physical comfort, sexual acts, and material possessions. Fasting to the point of only eating bread and water in small amounts was common. The goal was to pursue a disciplined life that allowed for reflection on the Scriptures and one’s relationship with God, and to find joy in simple, everyday tasks such as gardening.
While Paul of Thebes is known as the first Christian hermit to withdraw into the desert and live such a life, Anthony of Egypt is regarded as the founder and father of desert monasticism. His example inspired many other men (and women, who are known as the Desert Mothers!) to follow the same lifestyle and eventually start small communities. St. Benedict, active in the 6th century, actually modeled his Rule after their example.
When Saint Anthony of Egypt began living his radical lifestyle in around 286 AD, it was no longer as risky to be a Christian. Though physical martyrdom was revered almost as a prized way for a Christian to die, the solitude, sacrifice, and rigidity of life as a desert father or mother was seen as a form of martyrdom in and of itself. Saint Anthony (also known as Saint Anthony of the Desert) is actually considered a “white martyr” according to tradition. White martyrdom indicates a death to self and worldly things and a complete surrender to God.
Some other saints who lived various forms of monasticism include:
- Saint Benedict of Nursia
- Saint Bernard of Clairvoux
- Saint Bruno
- Saint Sarah of the Desert
- Saint Syncletica
- Saint Theodora of Alexandria
- Saint Moses the Black
- Saint Peter Damian
- Saint Martin of Tours
- Saint Giles
Desert Father and Mothers, pray for us!