Collage of the life of the Little Brothers of Francis
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The Desert Fathers


The earliest monks lived in the deserts of Egypt and the Middle East from the third century onwards. They were known as the Desert Fathers and lived a simple but rigorous life in discipleship of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is upon the foundations established by them that the monastic traditions of the Christian Church, with which we are familiar, were developed, especially by John Cassian and Benedict.

The teaching of the Desert Fathers, passed down through their disciples, is in the form of anecdotes, the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers", and in the biographies or "Lives" written by those who wanted to preserve the traditions of the "old men and women" of the desert. Although the early monks led an austere ascetical life, there is at the same time a radical simplicity and commonsense in their teaching. It was said of St Anthony that one day he was relaxing with his brothers outside the cell (hermitage) when a hunter came by and rebuked him. Anthony said, "Bend your bow and shoot an arrow" and he did so. "Bend it again and shoot another", and he did - and again and again. The hunter said, "Father, if I keep my bow always stretched, it will break." "So it is with the monk" replied Anthony: "If we push ourselves beyond measure we will break; it is right from time to time to relax our efforts."

At the heart of the life of the Desert Fathers was the commitment to prayer. If a life is oriented to the things of God, the driving force of that life is prayer. The aim was a quiet reflective prayer complemented with simple work that would provide for the monk's basic needs - weaving ropes and mats or making sandals. They aspired to live the Gospel life in a straightforward and uncomplicated understanding of Christ's teaching. Their gentle evangelical charity was the pivot of their work and the test of their life in the desert. Their pattern of hospitality was to receive guests as Christ would receive them. To pattern ourselves on Christ is their challenge to us.

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