Religion & Liberty Online

The Desert Fathers as Spiritual Explorers

Coptic icon of St. Anthony the Great and St. Paul of Thebes

Earlier today, Dwight Gibson, Acton’s Director of Program Outreach, gave a presentation for the Acton Lecture Series on “The New Explorers.” While in the nineteenth century being an explorer was a vocation, the twentieth century saw a certain stagnation; geographically, at least, most of the exploring was finished. Furthermore, the common mindset was changed from the hope of what could be discovered, on all frontiers, to the idea that now we know so much—to the point that today it can sometimes be politically incorrect to admit one’s ignorance about anything.

This is not to say that there was no exploration in the twentieth century or, furthermore, that there is none today. Rather, being an explorer—with a broader definition of that word—is still a valuable vocation. As distinct from a consultant, explorers are people who help others get from point A to point B when there is no known and established process for doing so. They are rare people and naturally gifted to take the risks necessary to blaze new trails for others to follow with ease. Listening to the lecture today, it occurred to me, as a student of Church history, that while this is a needed perspective for the future, it is also a helpful hermeneutic for the past.

Specifically, I thought of the desert fathers (and mothers). In the late third and early fourth century, there was a bizarre and fascinating movement in the Church where people would abandon all that they had and go to the most uninhabitable place on Earth (the desert) in order to dedicate their lives to what I would call spiritual exploration. (I doubt I’m the first to think of them in this way.)

As someone who loves early Christian literature, I often find (to my naive surprise) that not everyone else is as excited about reading ancient texts as I am. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are no exception. They can be disheartening if read from the wrong perspective. Many of the monks and nuns seem rather extreme (to put it lightly): sleeping only a few hours a night, fasting for days, acting like fools so as to attract the scorn of others and teach themselves humility, and so on. What is there about this that has any relevance for the average, twenty-first century Christian?

Answering that question, in my opinion, requires viewing the desert fathers in the same way Dwight Gibson characterizes explorers. For example, one might ask the question, “How can people who struggle with anger overcome it?” If point A is struggling with anger and point B is overcoming anger, the desert fathers basically conducted experiments to determine how to get from point A to point B when the path was often unknown at the time. It is not always the specifics of what is said or done that is the most important piece of wisdom to be gleaned. Indeed, St. John Cassian is known for observing that, while there was no constant of the fathers regarding what to fast from, when to fast, or how long to fast, the one consistent rule was to try to always leave a little bit of hunger after every meal. Is this a realistic rule for Christian fasting today? I think so. Through taking exploratory risks, the desert fathers were able to discover a very practical way to fast. Or, to put it another way, through setting out into the unknown, they blazed a trail that others can follow with comparative ease.

With this sort of mindset (the same, I might add, of St. John Cassian)—always looking to find the trail that was blazed, rather than idealizing every effort that went into blazing it—the Sayings of Desert Fathers become, in my opinion, a much less intimidating and more spiritually enriching reading experience.

Be on the lookout for video of Dwight Gibson’s Acton Lecture Series presentation and for ways in which the vocation of exploration has (and has had) a vital place in our world.

For an excellent introduction to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I highly recommend Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura (with an introduction by Henri Nouwen).

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.