Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 25, 2016

Desert Wisdom


51pu38SmbvL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_One of components of my major research paper this term is an assessment of the desert fathers approach to spiritual formation.  Beginning in the third century, numerous Christ followers left urban centers and moved to the desert to pursue a very a rigorous life of spiritual formation and prayer.  This was partly in response to the legalization of Christianity after the conversion of Constantine.  During the first two centuries of Christianity, discipleship was very costly and counter-cultural.  When it became an acceptable part of culture, however, discipleship started to become nominal and watered down.

What I thought I would do this week is include a collection of stories and sayings from the desert that have impacted me during this course of study.   Perhaps some of these stories may encourage you in your journey of faith.

“When Macarius was living in Egypt, one day he came across a man who had brought a donkey to his cell and was stealing his possessions. As though he was a passer-by who did not live there, he went up to the thief and helped him to load the beast and sent him peaceably on his way, saying to himself, ‘We brought nothing into this world (1 Tim. 6:7) but the Lord gave; as he willed, so it is done: blessed be the Lord in all things.”

“Men speak to perfection but they do precious little about it.”Abba Poemen

“Passions work in four stages – first in the heart; secondly, in the face; thirdly in words; fourthly, it is essential not to render evil for evil in deeds. If you can purify your heart, passion will not come into your expression; but if it comes into your face, take care not to speak; but if you do speak, cut the conversation short in case you render evil for evil.” Abba Poemen

“It was said of Anthony that one day he was relaxing with the brothers outside the cell when a hunter came by and rebuked him.  Anthony said, ‘Bend your bow and shoot an arrow’, and he did so.  ‘Bend it again and shoot another’, and he did – and again and again.  The hunter said, ‘Father, if I keep my bow always stretched it will break.’ ‘So it is with the monk’, replied Anthony; ‘if we push ourselves beyond measure we will break; it is right for us from time to time to relax our efforts.” Anthony the Great

“The desire for possessions is dangerous and terrible, knowing no satiety; it drives the soul which it controls to the heights of evil. Therefore let us drive it away vigorously from the beginning.” Isidore of Pelusia

“It is dangerous for one to teach who has not been trained in the practical life. It is like someone who has an unsound house and receives guests; he will cause harm by the collapse of the dwelling. In the same way, those who have not first built themselves up destroy those who come to them. For they may summon them to salvation by their words, but by their evil conduct they injure even more those who follow them.”Amma Syncletica

This story illustrates the slow process of spiritual formation and the measured use of words: “A monk once came to Basil of Caesarea and said, ‘Speak a word, Father’; and Basil replied, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’; and the monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back, and said, ‘Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me’: and he said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’; and the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also.”

Just for fun – the award for the weirdest advice I came across in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers goes to Abba Poemen who says: “How can we acquire the fear of God when our belly is full of cheese and preserved foods?”




  1. Feasting on the Words of the Gospel of John is a Bow.How you live your life after the Feast is the Arrow.

    • Thanks Henry – that is an insightful metaphor!

  2. I think I get the last little story, How can we really trust God when all the ‘things’ in our life have been earned by our own striving? Of course ‘earned’ is a huge assupption.

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