The desert fathers, whether living in solitary, in clusters, or in highly structured environs, were truly brothers. They went to the desert for many reasons: secularization, spiritual discipline, splits in doctrine, hard work, prayer, or new communities’ types. They “watched over themselves” (Topliffe, p. 14). I was particularly intrigued by Anthony. Anthony devoted his life to prayer, discipline and learning the virtues of others. Visitors witnessed the attack of the demons on Anthony but were protected by the sign of the cross. Anthony was fortified by their weaknesses. People came to imitate Anthony. He exhorted, advised and cured the sick. He fought off a constant barrage of evil spirits in order that his disciples would learn “not to fear the devil or the delusions of the demons” (Topliffe, p. 20). Anthony told Satan himself, “The coming of Christ has made you weak” (Topliffe, p. 21). If the evil spirits find you in a state of weakness, despair or depravity, they will exploit your weakness to your destruction. “While the Lord is with us, our foes can do us no harm” (Topliffe, p. 22). Anthony’s life is a fitting life for which I would want to strive.
Can the Church live like Anthony without living in a monastery? Yes! Avoid all television, newspapers and radio. When you read, read about the Lord. Follow all of the commandments especially love of neighbor and God. When you talk to yourself, talk to God for He is always listening. Take note of all things you say and don’t say and all thing you do and don’t do and be sure that they are all directed toward God, all with a joyous and unboastful heart. For it is not the believer, but the Lord who heals and has power over demons. These rules are not for everyone. They cannot be imposed on the Church but must at least be identified and encouraged.
Here are some other bits of wisdom I learned from the desert fathers that would be useful in the Church today. 1) Confession of sin to a holy man can relieve all of your burdens especially when you place them upon the Lord. Leave all of your sins behind “for it came from evil” (Topliffe, p. 32). 2) Sexual desire is the hardest for man to overcome. Lust, if acted upon, leads to fornication. Women are much stronger in the sexual arena because they, unlike men, do not have two heads from which to make decisions. 3) Maryana lied about her identity and probably suffered greatly for it, as we see from her story. Her penance was to accept false accusations willingly. All those around her were saved upon discovery of the truth. 4) Confession and repentance frees a man from the shackles of the evil one. 5) The desert fathers fasted on Wednesdays because that was the day the Jews plotted to kill our Lord and on Fridays because that was the day the Jews killed our Lord. 6) Partake in the Eucharist every day. 7) Thieves and murderers can become saints in the Lord’s eyes, especially upon visitation from angels. 8) “Weep for the judgment of sinners” (Topliffe, p. 57). 9) “It is good to live in peace, for the wise person practices perpetual prayer” (Topliffe, p. 59).
For monastic life to become fruitful again, the Church today should encourage the first two types of monks given by Cassian. According to Cassian the Desert Fathers where one of three types of monks: those that lived together in one community under the authority of an elder; those who trained in monasteries, achieved a life of perfection and chose the hidden life of solitude; and those who only attempted such a life for show. He also mentioned a fourth type of monk who flattered himself for being solitary. This last type were the most numerous type emerging, just as the Christians after the apostolic era began to lose their identity and drifted away from a true discipleship with Christ. Unfortunately for church goers today, most find no benefit must less a desire to live such a life. Interestingly though, such a life can still be lived either within or without a monastery but with much dedication and sacrifice. Listen to the words of Cassian. “True patience and humility can only be acquired and kept when the innermost heart is humble” (Cassian, p. 193). “The disease of envy is harder to cure than any other” (Cassian, p. 199). The Church and myself included need to learn these bits of wisdom and create a desire to put them into action if for nothing else than for eternal salvation.