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

joshs-phone-068Philadelphia 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 him and, instead, give him only his “daily bread.”[6] This desire for just enough for each day sums up the lessons of simplicity from the Desert Fathers. To have too much is to risk disowning the Lord and trusting in the riches of the world while to have too little is to risk dishonoring the Lord by becoming poor and stealing from others. Having just enough for each day allows one to focus on the truly important things of life “without being encumbered by an inordinate amount of responsibilities” that demand time, money and attention.[7]

It must be stated that the call to embrace simplicity does not mean that one believes that material possessions are inherently evil. This concept, called Gnosticism, was something the church fathers of the second-century successfully fought against.[8] The Desert Fathers stayed with orthodoxy by affirming the belief that God created all things good.[9] Their embracement of simplicity and self-sacrificial denial of material possessions, therefore, was less about the inherent evil of such items and more about self-discipline.[10] The simplicity of having few possessions allowed the Desert Fathers to focus their attention to seeking God and helping those around them.

The Verba Seniorum (Saying of the Fathers) records a time when a wealthy nobleman visited one of the desert communities and gave them a basket filled with golden coins. The community’s priest told the man that the brethren had no need for the gold, but the nobleman pressed them as he could not understand their lack of desire for monetary wealth. Finally the priest placed the basket of golden coins by the doorway of the church and told the brethren that each could take what they needed. No one touched the coins as they needed nothing. Rather they all agreed with their leader when he turned to the nobleman and said, “God hath accepted thine offering: go, and give it to the poor.” [11]

This connection between simplicity and helping the poor can also be seen in the fourth century Historia Monachorum (History of the Monks in Egypt). In this document, a story is told of a group of monasteries under the leadership of Serapion. Each monk in the monastery worked with their hands to earn money while living a life of simplicity. This allowed them to give the majority of their income to the “poor, so that not only were the hungry folks of that countryside fed, but ships were sent to Alexandria, laden with corn, to be divided among such as were prisoners in gaols, or as were foreigners and in need.”[12]


[1] Chaput, Charles. “Remembering Who We Are and the Story We Belong To” (speech, Notre Dame, Indiana, October 19, 2016), National Catholic Register, accessed October 20, 2016.

[2] Zahnd, Brian. Water To Wine: Some of My Story (Spello Press, 2016), Kindle edition, 1344, 1349.

[3] Zahnd, Brian. Water To Wine, Kindle version, 1379.

[4] González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (New York: Prince Press, 2009), 136-137.

[5] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), xix.

[6] New International Version: Thinline Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), Proverbs 30:7-9.

[7] Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint: How to Live Simply and Love Extravagantly (Boise, Idaho: Ampelon Publishing, 2008), 20.

[8] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 36.

[9] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), 74.

[10] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 74-75.

[11] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 91.

[12] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 57.

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