The “Desert Fathers” in Egypt

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… men (and some women) who sought solitude and prayer …

Early Monasticsm:

The “Desert Fathers” is the title given to the early Christian hermits, ascetics and monks who began living a life of simplicity and prayer in the deserts in Egypt, at the beginning of the 3rd century. It is to these men (and some women) that the whole concept of “monasticism” is attributed.

Let’s consider 2:

2 of the churches / monasteries in the Eastern Desert in Egypt are called “St Anthony” and “St Paul”. They are separated by 25 km of walking (across arid and hilly terrain) or 85 km by road and are both Egypt’s and Christianity’s oldest monasteries. These 2 churches remind us of 2 key “Desert Fathers”.

St Paul:

Paul was born into a wealthy family in Alexandria (228 AD and died when he was 113 years old).

Known as St Paul ..

  • the Anchorite
  • the Hermit
  • of Thebes

He fled to the desert to escape the Roman persecution of Christians when he was 16 years old and lived in a cave in the desert for 90 years. He is considered the earliest “Christian Hermit” by many. During his time in the cave, it appears that he was sustained by a small nearby spring and a date palm tree, the leaves of which he is said to have plaited and worn as a tunic.

It is said that St Anthony went on a journey to meet his other “holy man” in his cave, and this is now referred to as:

“The Meeting of the First Hermit and the Father of Monasticism.”

I wonder if they realized at the time the “Grand-ness” of the occasion?

St Anthony:

Anthony, who is considered the “Father of Monasticism” , was born in AD 251 near Beni Suef (Egypt) and was orphaned at the age of 18. He appears to have heard a sermon (AD 270) highlighting how spiritual perfection can be reached by selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor. He did exactly this, giving his inheritance away, and after some studies with a local “holy” man, he headed to the Eastern desert.

WHY?

Renounce possessions to learn detachment.

Renounce activity to learn prayer.

He wanted to seek complete solitude and spiritual salvation by living an ascetic existence, by getting away from people and “normal” life. However, as word spread about him, people followed him into the desert, and his followers formed a loose community at the base of the mountain where he lived in his cave. This community formed the first monastery-type living, forming an alternative christian society.

As numbers increased, the monastic fervor spread to Italy and France, the central tenet being: solitude, austerity and sacrifice (separation from material goods)

Anthony died when he was 105 years old, and in death, his solitude has been respected as the location of his grave is still a closely guarded secret!

One can still visit the current Church of St Anthony, the cave of St Anthony being located 300 meters above the monastery. 120 monks still live there, and are dedicated to seeking God in the stillness and isolation of the desert, with their lives built around times of prayer.