Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of a paper about the values of simplicity and self-sacrifice as seen in the lives of the early Dessert Fathers. The first part of this series can be found here.

Danger signSt. Anthony, the most famous of the Desert Fathers, was reported by St. Athanasius as teaching his follow sojourners not to pursue nor yearn for earthly possessions. Rather, followers of Jesus were to pursue “prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger,” and “hospitality.” [1] These are the possessions that will run ahead of a believer, preparing heaven for their arrival.[2] This message of Anthony carries within it echoes of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:23-34 to his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

The thought of giving away one’s material possessions in an effort to pursue Jesus may sound strange and extreme to most 21st century Christians in the United States of America. Capitalism and materialism has so enveloped American culture that such thoughts of simplicity and self-sacrifice are rarely, if ever, heard or contemplated. The Desert Fathers, however, beckon the believer of today to resist the seductive nature of modern culture and fight the “battle of the heart.”[4] It is about recognizing the forces at work that cause a person to desire something they currently do not have while simultaneously embracing an indifferent attitude towards material items.[5] Rather than pursuing riches and the American Dream, modern Jesus followers would do better to “live simply and generously, promoting economic equality and sustainability.”[6]

The struggle to live simply with few material possessions was seen by the Desert Fathers as part of the Christian life in which they tried to face the darkness within themselves.[7] Drawing on the example of Jesus, they saw the incarnation as something to “inspire them to choose suffering because through the incarnation suffering had become redemptive.”[8] Syncletica of Blessed Memory, one of the few Desert Mothers remembered by history, once commented on this desire to suffer through lack of material possessions: “It is a great good for those who are able. For those who can endure it endure suffering in the flesh, but they have quiet of soul. Even as stout garments trodden underfoot and turned over in the washing are made clean and white, so is a strong soul made steadfast by voluntary poverty.”[9]

The abbot Hyperichius echoes this sentiment about the redemptive quality of simplicity and self-sacrifice when he declared voluntary poverty as the “treasure house of the monk.”[10] An unknown Desert Father was recorded in the Verba Seniorum as proclaiming that “if a man have humility and poverty and judgeth not another, so comes in him the fear of the God.”[11]  The abbot Abraham expands the redemptive quality of simplicity beyond a lack of material possessions in his comments to Cassian of Marseilles about why the fathers dwelt in the desert rather than in the valleys of the Nile. “We have despised…all the luxurious pleasures of the world: we have joy in this desolation, and to all delight do we prefer the dread vastness of this solitude…whence the saying of the Lord in the Gospel, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’”[12]

Footnotes

[1] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 43.

[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 44.

[3] New International Version: Thinline Bible, Luke 12:23-34.

[4] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 94.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments: A Rule of Life (Lexington, Kentucky: The Order of Sustainable Faith, 2014), 32-33.

[6] Grenholm, Micael. “Charismactivism: Combining Miracles, Evangelism, Peace and Justice” (Unpublished book manuscript emailed to the author, May 5, 2016), 81.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 85.

[8] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 79.

[9] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[10] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[11] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 69.

[12] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 166-167.

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