Tag Archives: St. Benedict

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

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

insignificant-actionsIn the intervening years between the time of the Desert Fathers (4th and 5th century C.E.) and today (21st century C.E.), many people have sought to incorporate the concepts promoted by the humble men and women of the desert. St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), a notable materialistic playboy before his conversion to Christianity, was especially taken with the simplicity and self-sacrifice of St. Anthony, one of the first Desert Fathers. In pondering Anthony’s life, Augustine, a young man in Milan (the capital of the Western Roman Empire at the time), came to the conclusion that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints.”[1] This conclusion prompted Augustine to reject the culture of his day and embrace the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Father, concepts he later helped promote throughout Christendom.

Father Joseph Warrilow (1909-1998 C.E.) is a more modern example of someone who embraced the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Father Joe, as he was commonly called, was a Benedictine monk who lived seventy years in a monastery on the Ryde Isle of Wight in England.[2] The Benedictine order of the Roman Catholic Church was started by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 C.E.) who drew upon the wisdom of the Desert Fathers in the creation of his Rule.[3] Accordingly Father Joe’s life was ordered around the self-sacrificial rhythms of the Desert Fathers which granted him the time and energy to pastor multiple people.[4]

The Order of the Sustainable Faith is another contemporary example whose members’ lives reflect the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Started by Jared Patrick Boyd (1978– Present) in 2014 as a “missional monastic expression for the Vineyard,” The Order of the Sustainable Faith draws on the contemplative example of Christian forebears and includes both cloistered (residential) and mendicant (non-residential) expressions.[5] The Order is governed by A Rule of Life that promotes simplicity and self-sacrifice akin to both the Rule of St. Benedict and the lives of the Desert Fathers. Similar to the Desert Fathers, the voluntary embracement of simplicity and self-sacrifice by members of The Order of the Sustainable Faith are both for the formation of the members’ soul as well as for creating space to help others.[6]

In conclusion, while the lives and actions of the early Desert Fathers may sound strange to a modern follower of Jesus, the wisdom of the Fathers are of immense value to the Christian of the twenty-first century. In embracing the concepts of simplicity and self-sacrifice modeled by the Desert Fathers, the modern Christian enters into a place that allows them to see “how unfriendly the modern culture is to the spiritual life.”[7] As they continue to walk down the self-sacrificial path of the Fathers, their soul will find rest and they will, like the Fathers of old, be able to demonstrate the love of Jesus to the world around them in practical ways.[8]

Footnotes

[1] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 197.

[2] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (New York: Radom House, 2004), 265.

[3] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M.L. del Mastro (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1975), 28.

[4] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe, 268.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, v-vii.

[6] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, 30.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 93.

[8] Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint, 25.

The Rule of St. Benedict

St. Benedict, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129 AD
St. Benedict, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129 AD

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 content of the Rule is hard to digest with my modern Western mindset.

Endnotes

[1] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M.L. del Mastro (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1975), 25.
[2] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict, 27.
[3] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict, 28.
[4] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict, 54-55, 70.