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Desert Fathers


The hermits and cenobites of Egypt, c. 250 to 500, who through their way of life and spiritual teachings developed the institution of monasticism. They made three Egyptian desert areas famous: the thebaid, the Nitrian Desert or Valley (also called Scete), and Middle Egypt, between the Nile and the Red Sea, where anthony of egypt directed colonies of hermits. Paul of Thebes (c. 227340) is the first hermit of whom there exists an account that clearly identifies him as an inaugurator in the Desert tradition (jerome, Patrologia Latina 23:1728). Anthony of Egypt (c. 250356) is usually regarded as the prototype of the Desert Fathers because of the widespread influence of his vita by St. athanasius of Alexandria. pachomius from the Thebaid, a younger contemporary, ranks among the first of the Fathers as the founder of cenobitism (c. 320). Ammon was the founder of the cenobitic settlements in Nitria (c. 320); Macarius, Paphnutius, and Pambo were some of their most noted Fathers. From the end of the third century, increasing numbers of Fathers, many of them simple Coptic peasants, drew thousands to permanent discipleship in their desert retreats through the force of their single-minded search for God and the freshness and vigor of their teachings. As these teachings came to be recorded in ascetical treatises, monastic rules, sermons, and above all in collections, of spiritual sayings or apophthegmata, they created a distinct literary type. When studied with the reports of pilgrims from other parts of the Christian world, including those of rufinus of aquileia, jerome, John cassian, and palladius of helenopolis, these writings attest that the first hermits and cenobites of Egypt form a distinct and important group among the fathers of the church and for their influence on ascetical and mystical doctrine, and in the institution of monasticism.

Bibliography: j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1950) 3:146189. p. de labriolle, Histoire de l' église depuis les origines jusqu' à nos jours, eds. a. fliche and v. martin (Paris 1935) 3:299369. h. rosweyde, ed., Vitae Patrum, 2 v. (Antwerp 1628; repr. Patrologia Latina 7374). h. waddell, tr., The Desert Fathers (New York 1936). r. draguet, ed., Les Pères du désert (Paris 1949). e. a. w. budge, ed. and tr., The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, 2 v. (London 1907). athanasius, The Life of Saint Anthony, ed. and tr., r. t. meyer, Ancient Christian Writers, ed. j. quasten et al., 10 (Westminster, Md. 1950). g. m. colombÁs, "The Ancient Concept of Monastic Life," Monastic Studies 2 (1964) 65117. g. gould, The Desert Fathers on Monastic Community (Oxford 1993). a. g. elliot, Roads to Paradise: Reading the Lives of the Early Saints (London 1987). m. galli, ed., "St. Antony and the Desert Fathers: Extreme Faith in the Early Church," Christian History 64 (1999) 845. d. e. linge, "Asceticism and 'Singleness of Mind' in the Desert Fathers," in Monastic Life in the Christian and Hindu Traditions, ed. a. b. creel and v. narayanan (Lewiston, N.Y. 1990) 3770.

[m. c. mccarthy]

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