The other week I read “Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” because I liked the sound of “desert fathers,” and I thought it might be weird. It was. These were guys who lived out in the desert in Egypt in tiny monastic communities. Or sometimes just alone, in a dis-custing hole. They had a different way of life and wanted different things out of it:
They used to say about Theodore of Pherme that he kept these three rules before all others: poverty, abstinence, and avoiding the company of other people.
“John the Short said, ‘I will invent a man composed of all the virtues. He would live as though buried in a tomb and already dead.’”
They were very scared of ladies:
Once Abraham, the disciple of Sisois, said to him, ‘Abba, you are now old. Let us go into the world for a short time. Sisois said to him: ‘Yes, provided that we go where there are no women.’ The disciple said, ‘Where is there a place that is without women except the desert?’ Sisois said, ‘Then let me stay in the desert.’
They got visitors sometimes, like pilgrims or people who want them to say a word. A healing word or some such thing:
In Babylon there was a nobleman’s daughter, who was possessed by a devil. Her father asked a monk for help. The monk said to him, ‘No one can cure your daughter except some hermits I know.’
Imagine if you were that nobleman. Damnit, you monk, that’s not the “help” I was looking for! The monks fast a lot. One phrase that stood out to me was: “Even if our mouths stink from fasting, we may still lack what God wants, humility and love.” I had never thought about the stench aspect of fasting. But just because they fast doesn’t mean the monks don’t let loose every now and then:
When Agatho was on his death-bed, he lay for three days with his eyes open, without moving. The brothers nudged him, saying, ‘Abba, where are you?’ He said to them, ‘Please don’t talk to me, I’m busy.’
The monks also spend a lot of their time just running away from people. They’ll be out walking around, carrying some palm plaits that they wove in their cells, and a camel driver will come by and say something to them and they’ll drop all the palms and run away. At one point they run away from a dragon:
When Nesteros the Great was walking in the desert with a brother, they saw a dragon and ran away. The brother said, ‘Were you afraid, abba?’ Nesteros answered, ‘I wasn’t afraid, my son. But it was right to run away from the dragon, otherwise I should have had to run away from conceit.’
One thing I learned while doing research on prehistoric creatures is that desert people in the ancient world came across fossils all the time. Sand would shift around and expose entire skeletons of dinosaurs. Some people think that griffin myths had their origin in discoveries of protoceratops fossils. Those myths start right when the Greeks come into contact with Mongolian nomads from the region where tons of protoceratops are found today. And look at the fossils!
Now, here’s a cool timeline about ancient encounters with fossils (from “The First Fossil Hunters,” by Adrienne Mayor):
The Nitria mentioned is right around where these Desert Fathers lived.
Now, don’t you wish we lived back then? When people found huge bones and thought they were a giant’s? I suppose that some might say we DO live in those times – better, even – because we still find those huge bones, and they’re from things that actually existed, and we can tell their tales through science! But those people don’t know anything.
To conclude, I hope that my corspe-handlers will consider for my epitaph this saying from the Desert Fathers:
Some years later, having put his sister in the care of some nuns, he went to live alone in the utter desert.