Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 1 of 3)

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 1 of 3)

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput recently remarked that “Americans have never liked history” since the “past comes with obligations on the present, and the most cherished illusion of American life is that we can remake ourselves at will.”[1] This self-imposed historical amnesia causes the church to have an unhealthy “egocentric obsession with the present.”[2] Christianity, however, does not belong solely to the living but also to those who have confessed Christ throughout the ages.[3] Accordingly there is wisdom in listening to and learning from the ancient fathers and mothers who have helped set the course of Christianity. While history is rich with saints worthy of study and emulation, this three part blog series will seek to examine the lives of the Desert Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era. Similar to modern believers, these Jesus followers lived at a time when the prophetic edge of the church was dulled and Christianity was in favor in the halls of power.[4] Seeking to follow Jesus with all their heart, soul, strength and mind (Lk. 10:27), the Desert Fathers gave up fleshly comforts (e.g. soft beds, nice clothes, conveniences, regular meals, etc.) and embraced a life of simplicity and self-sacrifice. Though their lifestyle may seem extreme, “rough-hewn words of life” pour forth from these ancient fathers to water the souls of the modern Christian who are facing an increasingly materialistic, sexual, hectic, and individualistic culture and church world.[5] Contrary to the prayers of those seeking the American Dream of wealth and riches, Agur the son of Jakeh asked the Creator King to keep both poverty and riches far from...
Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers

Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers

Translated by Maxwell Staniforth, the book Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers is a collection of ancient manuscripts from the second century CE. It includes works by Clement of Rome (The First Epistle to the Corinthians), Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Ephesians, Epistle to the Magnesians, Epistle to the Trallians, Epistle to the Romans, Epistle to the Philadelphians, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, and Epistle to Polycarp), and Polycarp of Smyrna (Epistle to the Philippians) as well as four texts from unknown authors (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Epistle to Diognetus, Epistle of Barnabas, and The Didache). Though it is not known for sure whether or not all the authors personally knew the Apostles, these texts represent the “first trickles” of Christianity beyond the time of the Apostles who walked with Jesus.[1] Though each of the thirteen texts included this book were written in a different context (with the exception of the seven letters from Ignatius of Antioch), two common themes emerge when reading them. The first theme is the emphasis placed on the authority of the local bishop. As Ignatius puts it, the bishops “represent the mind of Jesus Christ” and, as such, believers are to unite in a “common act of submission” and acknowledge the “authority of [their] bishop and clergy.”[2] While this emphasis on the authority of the local bishop can be hard for a 21st century Protestant in the Western world, it is understandable as these authors were trying to protect the treasure given to them by the Apostles. The New Testament, while written, had not been canonized by the church at large, leaving open the...
The Rule of St. Benedict

The Rule of St. Benedict

Though very little is known about the life of St. Benedict, his Rule was to have a lasting impact on the development of Christianity. Born into a “distinguished Italian family” in 480 C.E., St. Benedict would abandon his liberal education in Rome for a life of solitude.[1] However his solitude would soon be broken by groups of monks who sought out his wisdom and guidance. While at first St. Benedict refused to allow these visiting monks to live near him, he eventually took them on as disciples. At some point in his life, St. Benedict wrote his famous Rule to help guide these disciples as they banded together into communities. By the time of his death in 547 C.E., St. Benedict had founded twelve monasteries “with an abbot and twelve monks in each of them.” [2] The Rule itself is fairly simple and straight forward, blending the best elements of the Eastern and Western monastic movements. The four primary guiding elements of the Rule are the opus Dei, communal work, intellectual activity, and vow of stability. Gluing these elements together was an “evident love and concern for the welfare” of the monks along with some basic common sense. [3] In reading the Rule I could not help but be struck at the cult-like instructions of total obedience to the abbot. Not only were the monks to obey every command of the abbot, they were not allowed to disagree with him on threat of physical punishment. [4] Though I know the culture was different during the time of St. Benedict with family patriarchs regularly controlling the actions of their offspring,...
“The Life of St. Anthony” by Athanasius

“The Life of St. Anthony” by Athanasius

As the persecution of the early church stopped and Christianity gained favor in the halls of power, dedicated followers of Jesus turned from the red martyrdom of death to the white martyrdom of the desert. These white martyrs gave up fleshly comfort (e.g. soft beds, nice clothes, etc.) and embraced an “austere and rigorous discipline” of solitude, prayer, and fasting.[1] The most famous of these desert hermits was St. Anthony the Great (c. 251 CE–356 C.E) who lived in the remote areas of Thebaid (a Roman province in modern day Egypt). The story of St. Anthony’s life was written down by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 295-373 C.E.) between 356-362 C.E. With a few short years, The Life of St. Anthony had “won acclaim not only among Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern Mediterranean, but also among Latin Christians in Gaul and Italy.”[2] A Latin translation of the book was read by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.) in Milan, Italy, and changed the course of his life, leading him to embrace the life of asceticism.[3] In the end, Athanasius’ The Life of St. Anthony became the “paradigm for the genre of Christian hagiography” adhered to by subsequent authors.[4] The flow of the book itself is fairly simple. Starting with St. Anthony’s childhood, the book follows him into the desert and traces his battles with himself and with the forces of darkness. Armed with a regiment of prayer, fasting, physical work and solitude, St. Anthony “gained mastery over Satan and his agents.”[5] He also trained other monks in the “use of prayer and the sign of the cross” for fighting...
Abrahamic Denominations Active in the United States

Abrahamic Denominations Active in the United States

This Christmas I had the pleasure of reading through the Handbook of Denominations in the United States (13th edition). For those who are not familiar with this book, it’s an encyclopedia of sorts giving a brief history and overview of the theology/practice of the Abrahamic religious denominations active within the USA as of 2010. Granted, the Handbook only lists those groups with at least 100 congregations and/or five thousand members so there are some smaller denominations/groups that are not listed. The Handbook itself is split into three major selections according to the three major Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As to be expected, the Christianity selection takes up the bulk of the book with the various denominations listed alphabetically according to the major traditions within Christianity (i.e. Lutheran tradition, Reformed, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian tradition, Holiness tradition, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches tradition, etc.). Under the Judaism and Islam section, the Handbook lists out all the major traditions of those Abrahamic religions. This to me was one of the coolest parts about the Handbook as it was nice to understand a little more about the different sub-groups within Judaism and Islam. For example, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) was under the “Holiness Churches” tradition within “Christianity.”  The Union for Reform Judaism was placed under the “Judaism” selection just like Sunni Islam and Wahhabism was placed under Islam. Interestingly enough, the Vineyard was listed under “Pentecostal Churches” tradition within “Christianity” section. This is odd to me as the Handbook includes a “Community and New Paradigm Church” sub-group that would have seemed a better fit for the Vineyard…  I guess...