The designation “Desert Fathers and Mothers” refers to sources of ascetic literature from late antiquity that are associated with monasticism principally in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Arabia. Monasticism, which sought physical removal from the inhabited world, quickly identifi ed with the uninhabited desert as a refuge from temptation and as a hostile environment in which to train the body and the mind toward the single goal of serving God.
The literature that captured the central ideas of those who had renounced and withdrawn from the world consists of practical advice for monks, primarily solitaries, including those who might not have access to an experienced teacher. The essential example of this literature consists of the Apophthegmata Patrum, or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. This collection circulated in the East and West in three different editions and was translated into a number of languages before the Middle Ages.
One edition is attributed to Poemen of Egypt, as are several of the sayings in the collection. It is possible that sayings attributed to Poemen by his disciples were the kernel around which the rest of the collection grew. Other Desert Fathers include Anthony, Pachomius, Ammun, and Bishoi, all of Egypt, and Hilarion and Abba Isaiah of Palestine. Sarah and Syncletica are two of the names of several Desert Mothers whose sayings have been preserved. In the version of the Sayings that is arranged alphabetically by the name of the father or mother, there are some 134 names. Those fathers and mothers who can be dated are all from the third and fourth centuries c.e., and reflect preclassical Christian monasticism.
The literature consists of short and direct statements on different topics. Topics include vigilance, self-control, humility, fasting, and prayer. The role of the the spiritual father (abba) or mother (amma) was essential to the perspective of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The abba or amma was not a discussion partner or counsel but a source of wisdom, whose advice the novice was to put into practice. Rather than theological speculation, the abba’s or amma’s advice is the epitome of simplicity and common sense. This advice was always specifi c to the individual and, hence, was based on the abba’s or amma’s knowledge of his or her novice.
Each monk or nun must experience his or her own path of spiritual progress. The Desert Fathers and Mothers as the source of this wisdom were thus held not as strict models to be imitated but rather pioneers from whose mistakes and discoveries later generations could profi t. This literature was intended to complement the rule of a monastery and church legislation designed to ensure a stable institution, regulating the life of the monastic community so that each of its members could proceed on their individual Christcentered spiritual path.
The practical approach to questions taken by these authorities was refl ected in every aspect of the monk’s or nun’s work, the goal of which was to fi nd God. The Desert Fathers and Mothers are presented as champions of asceticism. Asceticism entailed fasting and the control of the passions as well as the struggle with demons both within and without, but the end of this work was to become humble, quiet, and vigilant in order to serve God and neighbor, to listen for and to the Word of God, and to trust in God alone.