Abba, tell me a word

The Desert Fathers and Mothers— and their culture of search

Abba Anthony was living his customary day of prayer and labor in the desert hermitage he called home when a band of seekers paid a visit. We are sometime in the fourth century of our era and in Scetis, the region of sand, stony towers, marshes, and salt lakes located southwest of the Nile Delta. In that remote place Christian monks and hermits, ultimately by the thousands, were settling into a hard, altogether interesting way of life. The visitors asked: “Tell us a word, Father, how can we be saved?” Anthony was circumspect in reply. “You have heard the Scripture, that is good enough for you.” But they insisted: “We want to hear from you too, Father.”

“We want to hear from you, too.” At once here we meet a key element in the forward motion of spiritual traditions. The seekers’ demand makes it clear in few words that scripture and foundational texts of every kind are not enough. The living exponents of those teachings, elders and so-called great elders such as Anthony, must also say a word. They may sigh, may feel that they cannot adequately do so, nonetheless they must. “I would rather be taught than teach,” said an elder. But teaching is the social role to which their long lives of effort, study, and realization have led. 

There are further key elements of note in this compact exchange and encounter. There is inquiry itself. Spiritual traditions full of life are full of questions—questions and answers. Best to imagine Scetis and its adjoining regions known as The Cells and Nitris as realms of silence and of voiced, insistent inquiry. True, the inquiry was sometimes unspoken. Another story of Anthony: “Three Fathers used to go and visit blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him, but the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything,’ and the other replied, ‘It is enough for me to see you, Father.’”Spoken or unspoken, inquiry and the expectation of sound teachings in response were central to the life of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the abbas and ammas (Aramaic words signifying spiritual father and mother, the trusted elders of their desert society).

The third key element implicit in this abbreviated exchange is hierarchy, natural and accepted, not rigid. Certain elders, especially those few like Anthony who were recognized as great elders, were the acknowledged guardians and teachers of the ascetic but rewarding way of life and prayer and self-searching of that time and place. Further, what the elders said and incidents involving them came to be valued as teaching tales, starry moments to remember and pass on. This recognition generated a nearly unique literature surviving to our day. One of the most compact, laconic literatures in spiritual tradition, it was originally recorded in Coptic, the language native to many members of this sandy congregation, and in Greek, the language of the metropolises to the north, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople. It records word and incident without elaboration, in short entries that must have been written down as memory aids soon after the fact. We are free to imagine scruffy, somewhat undernourished hermits in loosely structured communities around impressive elders, among them writers, avocational historians, social chroniclers who recognized the value of what they were hearing and living. It had to be set down for future generations. Editing and ordering into books would take several generations more, during what amounted to a diaspora: attacked by Berber tribesmen from the western desert in the later fourth and fifth centuries, many Christians of Scetis resettled in safer regions to the north, Syria and Palestine. In this later period books emerged and, soon translated into Latin and other languages, made their way across Europe to inspire not just the forms but the texture and spirit of monasticism.

Icon of Saint Jean le Nain (Jean Colobos), or John the Dwarf. Archibald Tuttle, 2019. Wikimedia Commons. Author: Archibald Tuttle.

Scetis was practice. Those who embraced its hardships wished to live the religious life with all possible dedication. Still, there were choices to be made. Some, like Anthony, chose to live far from others in caves or modest stone or brick cells. There were also elders who welcomed or at least tolerated disciples who settled nearby; they formed little colonies, periodically meeting for communal worship, shared meals, and conversation. Still others chose to participate in a growing network of monasteries founded by Pachomius, a Coptic elder later recognized as a saint, which modelled a way of life destined to exercise enduring influence across Christendom in later centuries.

Their practice was not our practice; few among us today could accept the life of silence, abstinence, and struggle against natural impulses that characterized work on oneself in that place and time. But there is an unexpected and inspiring reality: though their practice was different and often harsh, much of the wisdom that emerged among them is wholly recognizable and congenial, as if spoken yesterday and to all. So too their fluid relations, which favored conversations and silence, silence and conversations: this too is recognizable, congenial—and efficient for a teaching that needed both solitude and sharing. Much of what they had was what any seeker today can in all justice desire. The shared intention to cleanse our human identity; to know directly what we can know of higher things, however little; to search with others, acknowledged as indispensable companions and mutual educators on the way; and to serve whatever we can detect of God’s will—all of this and more generates recognizable and reasonably consistent patterns of life, no matter the time or place. Scetis and the Desert Fathers and Mothers are not just akin to us; they are us. Affectionate attention all but erases time and space. Many of the desert seekers, content with little, earned what money they needed by gathering reeds in nearby marshes and plaiting them into ropes that had market value. It takes no great imagination to sit with one of the fathers or mothers and learn to do it ourselves. And, of course, ask our questions.

“What is a monk?” So a father asked Abba John the Dwarf, one of my favorites and a favorite in his lifetime—he had many disciples. The question is seemingly impudent: doesn’t everyone in that society know what a monk is? But John must have understood that “we want to hear from you, too,” and he responded. “He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is.” The moment was prized and recognized in this society—the moment when a new word can appear because it is requested and needed. In that era there was an implicit code of challenge: the bold question, the bolder answer. It is the same in our time, or potentially so. John’s answer strikes a chord, so simple, so true not only of monks but aspirationally for every seeker: not to relent, not to forget. The culture of the search is a large world of echoes and validations. What is said and true in one place and time is said and true elsewhere and later. Dag Hammarskjöld, the brilliant secretary-general of the United Nations in the mid-twentieth century and a knowing religious seeker, recorded in his private journal a line from a fifteenth-century text, the Imitatio Christi of Thomas à Kempis: “Why do you seek rest? You were only created to labor.” Hammarskjöld wasn’t thinking of the desert, but desert values had reached and made sense to him.

A story about John the Dwarf captures both the rigorous demands these men and women made on themselves and the curious, shapely beauty of the tales to which they gave rise. As a young seeker in Scetis, John was the disciple of an elder who, in an uncanny gesture, took a piece of dry wood, planted it, and instructed him to water it every day until it bore fruit. “Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. Then the old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’” This story, with its legendary pattern of three years and limitless patience, may remind you of Milarepa’s ordeals as a disciple of Marpa the Translator—in a wholly different world, eleventh-century Tibet, yet a world akin. There is a universal culture of the search.

The elders had an arresting view of the solidarity that must prevail among the desert seekers. They were “wearing the same body, the same face, the same soul.” Here is the entry in a fuller version: “The elders used to say that each one ought to assume responsibility for how his neighbor is, almost putting him on with his body and wearing the whole man, suffering with him in all situations, and weeping and rejoicing with him too, … disposed in that way because one is wearing the same body and has the same face and the same soul.” This is extraordinary. It inches up against one’s own experience of solidarity—and distance from—one’s companions in whatever it is one takes most seriously. It may engender the taste of shame. Scetis was not the first community of seekers; others in early centuries have left vivid records, for example the Pythagorean circle. Perhaps it was the influence of the desert itself and the ascetic way of life that yielded an incomparable vision of how to be, of what matters, of solitude and community. We are wearing the same body—who would deny that?

Monk’s cell in the Wadi el-Rayyan monastery, Libyan desert, Egypt. Photograph by Roland Unger, 2007. Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Roland Unger.

We shouldn’t pass lightly over the chosen harshness of life among the desert seekers. The austerities were not relentless, there were joys and humor, confrontations and remarkable moments of empathy and mutual understanding, but all against a steady background of personal sacrifice willingly made. At Scetis, the cell—the isolated dwelling—was primordial. “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’” You would want to know that the Ethiopian Abba Moses the Black, now a saint in the Eastern churches and patron of non-violence, had started life as a slave and then was a much-feared robber—and, surely to his surprise, became a devoted disciple and in time a sought-after desert elder. Moses was conveying the common wisdom of the desert: the cell is the teacher. Every spiritual tradition has its cell, its call to solitude and reflection. The cell needn’t be built of mud brick, it can be built of intention. The desert seekers, as in all things, lived the call to solitude extremely and stated the need for it unforgettably.

The cell was sometimes a quiet place of prayer, contemplation, spiritual reading, and diligent rope-plaiting—and sometimes a cauldron. This was understood, it could not be otherwise. There is again an illustrative story of John the Dwarf, who reported to a respected elder that he had conquered his passions; he was at peace, “without an enemy.” The elder responded that John should beseech the Lord to “stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress.” John obeyed, inner warfare resumed, and soon he was praying, “Lord, give me strength for the fight.” This, like so much else in these tales, is an enduring truth from the ancient desert. One of John’s peers, Abba Alonius, put the matter in what must be its most extreme form: “If I had not destroyed myself completely, I should not have been able to rebuild and shape myself again.”

Arsenius, a learned Greek who had once been tutor to the emperor’s children in Constantinople, underwent a sudden, definitive conversion that prompted him to take leave of luxury and high learning to live as a hermit at Scetis. In time his excellence even in that world was recognized. Arsenius understood that the rules were different in Scetis. “One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’” The word translated here as “his own thoughts” is more interesting than it looks. One of the sources in English leaves the Greek untranslated as logismoi—thoughts, yes, but larger than that: it refers to the whole state of the man, to the impulses sacred and profane, free and captured, moving through him. This is what was worth inquiring about. 

Arsenius did not have an easy time in solitude. Once his disciples heard him praying behind the door of his cell: “God, do not forsake me. I have done nothing good in Your sight. But according to Your Goodness, let me now at least make a beginning of doing good.” Yet he was a widely respected abba, to whom even miracles were attributed. Again the desert template, the severe ancient model of spiritual search and community, sheds light on the sometimes faintly perceptible but real inner structure of the search. If the teacher does not struggle, how will the student learn to struggle?

Episodes of kindness, understanding, rueful realism, and humor in the written records reflect another side of life among the desert seekers. Abba Poemen, one of the leading voices in their world, was wary of excess in the desert life. “Many of our fathers,” he once said, “have become courageous in asceticism, but in fineness of perception there are very few.” It was Poemen, as well, who knew how to tame the self-abnegating zeal of a brother who confessed to him that he had committed a sin and had in mind “to do penance for three years.” Abba Poemen said to him, “That is a lot.” The brother said, “For one year?” Poemen again said, “That is a lot.” Others present at this encounter proposed forty days of penance—to which Poemen said, “That is a lot.” And then he wound up the conversation: “I myself say that if a man repents with his whole heart and does not intend to commit the sin anymore, God will accept him after only three days.” The kindness and common sense in this word of Poemen must speak for many such occasions in the transactions of older and younger at Scetis.

Another occasion lingers in my memory. A council assembled to judge a brother who had committed some unspecified fault, and an emissary went out to Abba Moses’s cell to invite him to attend. He refused at first but relented when he heard that everyone was waiting for him. “He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.” Such sweetness here, like that of a perfectly ripe date.

There was latitude where forgiveness was concerned, and latitude concerning vocations. We might presume that there was just one model in this community of seekers, just one way to be, but a beautiful conversation—Abba, tell me a word—shows that this wasn’t so. “One of the fathers asked Abba Nistheros the Great …: ‘What good work should I be doing?’ He [replied]: ‘Are not all actions equal? Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable, and God was with him. David was humble, and God was with him. Elias loved interior peace, and God was with him. So, do whatever you see that your soul desires according to God, and guard your heart.’” The words tumble in: the invitation to discover one’s identity, the need to guard the heart so as to remain true to that identity. Abba Poemen, reliably wise, often said that “we do not need anything except a vigilant spirit.” Abba Bessarion shared this conviction in a final illumination when he was at the point of death: “The monk ought to be as the cherubim and the seraphim: all eye.”

So far, little humor—but the desert seekers were fully human, they knew how to laugh and when to record comical incidents, not to be forgotten. One day a camel driver, a middleman on the way to local markets, came to the cell of Abba John the Dwarf to pick up the cord he had plaited. John went inside to fetch the cord but he forgot, “having his thoughts fixed on God. So the camel driver alerted him by knocking at the door, and again Abba John went in and forgot. When the camel driver knocked a third time, he went in saying, ‘Cord, camel.’”

St. Mary of Egypt. Anonymous, eighteenth century. Kuopio Orthodox Church Museum, Finland. Wikimedia Commons. Source: Icons of Saints at the  Orthodox Christian Page

There is someone missing, isn’t there: the ammas, the women who embraced the hard life of Scetis and made it their own. The record keepers of Scetis were for the most part less interested in them than we are now; a growing literature is restoring them more fully to the map. Certain individuals, among them Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, Amma Sarah of the Desert, and the woman long since canonized as St. Mary of Egypt, are recognizable, endowed with voices equal to those of the men, whom they mocked on occasion. “A monk who encountered some nuns on the road got out of their way. Their superior said to him, ‘If you were a proper monk, you would not have noticed that we are women.’” Like this unnamed mother superior, Amma Sarah gave as good as she got. Once she said to the brothers, “It is I who am a man, you who are women.” Who knows what the situation was? It can’t have been pretty.

Most quoted in the ancient records, and with sustained respect, was Amma Syncletica, a woman of education and means who abandoned all to live as a hermit, in time surrounded by other women anchorites who looked to her. She knew the city from her youth, experience that served her well as an insightful teacher. Amma Syncletica said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.” She was a clear-minded one.

So many aspects of the culture of the search are fully realized at Scetis—more than we have taken time for. There was, for example, an inquirer still finding his way who reported to his abba that when he studied scripture he found himself involuntarily preparing “a fine speech so that I have an answer to questioning.” So recognizable! He is not alone. More to the point, we are not alone. His abba called him back to himself and to the present moment: “There is no need for that,” he was told. “Do you rather acquire the ability to think and speak out of the purity of the mind.”

Shall we do our best to accept that advice and move on? Cord, camel. ◆

Sources Used:

Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers 
John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert
Tim Vivian, The Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, vol. 1
John Wortley, The Book of the Elders 
Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2023 issue of Parabola, 
TRANSFORMATION. You can find the full issue on our online store

By Roger Lipsey

Roger Lipsey is a longtime contributor to Parabola. Among his recent books are Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down and Hammarskjöld: A  Life. In February 2019, Shambhala will publish his Gurdjieff Reconsidered: the Life, the Teachings, the Legacy.