Tag Archives: Lessions from History

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

[box] 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. [/box]

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]


[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.

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

[box] 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. [/box]

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]


[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.

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.