The Desert Fathers and the Geography of the Human Heart

“The crown of the monk is humility.”  ∼ Abba Orr, Desert Father, fourth century.

The Lenten season is well underway and it would be difficult to find devotional writings more aligned with the spirit of Lent than the words of the Desert Fathers. Two volumes come to mind: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG; and The Lives of the Desert Fathers, translated by Norman Russell with four helpful, introductory chapters by Ward. Both volumes are published by Cistercian Publications.

In the preface to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourzh is on-target in contrasting much of modern spirituality with the ascetic endeavor of the Desert Fathers. The archbishop wrote that “Modern man seeks mainly for ‘experience’—putting himself at the centre of things he wishes to make them subservient to his aim; too often, even God becomes the source from which the highest experience flows, instead of being Him Whom we adore, worship, and are prepared to serve, whatever the cost to us.”

Clichés abound in the modern quest: people are “on a journey of self-discovery,” and, if they encounter a few obstacles along the way, their journey becomes “a triumph of the human spirit.” Such hackneyed talk often serves as a thin veneer for an insidious narcissism.

The spirituality of the desert, in contrast, according to the archbishop, puts God at the center and is built upon the foundation of the nothingness of man: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Humility is the gateway to God, Abba John the Dwarf said, and since we are nothing, everything we receive from God—our salvation, sanctification, and glorification—is a gift.

Anthony of Sourzh asserts that ascetic discipline was the Desert Fathers’ loving response to “God’s generous, self-effacing, sacrificial Love.” We love because he first loved us (John 4:19).

Imagine two people are making the journey from New York to San Francisco during the early nineteenth century. One is a healthy, strapping young man, who may need a little help here and there on his trek but arrives safely without incident and enjoys his first view of the Pacific Ocean.

The other person making the trip is a weak, sickly child who is completely dependent on his father for everything: food, water, medicine, protection, emotional support. It goes without saying that in our sojourn through this Vale of Tears, the Fathers see us as the child. The only thing we can do is return love for love.

Lent and the spirituality of the desert have striking parallels. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, where the ashes made from blessing the previous year’s palm branches are placed on the heads of the believers with the accompanying words “Repent and believe the Gospel” or “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words highlight the utter weakness of humanity (nothingness) and the obligatory fasting provides hunger pangs that cause us to physically experience that weakness.

During Lent, in both fasting and giving up certain things, we imitate the sacrifice and temptation of Christ in the desert for 40 days. Yes, like the reading of the Desert Fathers, Lent is a journey into the desert, but the desert isn’t so much a place as a geography of the human heart.

The desert is an accurate physical representation of the human person without the grace of God: nothingness, desolation. “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Without the grace of God we have neither our physical existence that begins at conception nor our spiritual existence through the regeneration of Baptism and the forgiveness of sins. These are like two Big Bangs that precipitated two creations ex nihilo.

With Lent we begin at the beginning: our own nothingness is a wonderful lens through which to view life. Seeing our existence through such a prism cultivates gratitude because we realize that all we have, whether natural gifts (beauty, intelligence, certain aptitudes) or virtues born of the Spirit (prudence, temperance, fortitude), are from the hand of God.

It also cultivates humility because we know that our business acumen, mechanical inclination, fortitude, or prudence, are all gifts of God. Pride is the act of taking these back for ourselves, in acting as if we did it all ourselves.

An excellent question a person may ask is, “Don’t we play a role in the process in cooperating with the grace of God?” The answer is yes, and yet, even the ability to avail ourselves to the grace of God is rooted in grace.

This is why the Desert Fathers are so opposed to judging their neighbor. Abba Moses said, “A monk must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all, in any way whatever.”

This does not mean a person cannot judge a particular behavior as sinful (e.g., adultery, coveting, bearing false witness), but he cannot then take the common next step of looking down in self-righteousness on his neighbor. The fathers regarded this arrogance as committing a worse sin than the one committed by the person we are judging. This humility is rooted in the revelation that without the grace of God, every one of us would be walking advertisements for the full-flowering of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The desert as a geography of the human heart, in all its simplicity and stripped-down desolation, reminds us of the importance of removing all that is superfluous and extraneous from our lives. Benedicta Ward writes about the Desert Fathers: “…it was a radically simple life: a stone hut with a roof of branches, a reed mat for a bed, a sheep-skin, a lamp, a vessel for water or oil.”

Food and sleep were reduced to a minimum. It calls to mind the quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

Lent is an excellent time to eradicate the superfluous. You don’t need to upgrade to a new home when the one you have now meets all your needs or pursue the promotion at work when you know that higher pay and more prestige will have the deleterious tradeoff of substantially less time for marriage and family.

Sometimes we have extraneous activities that need to be streamlined. Many mothers and fathers become “Taxi Mom” and “Taxi Dad” in running their kids to multitudinous extracurricular activities, some of which are not necessary. Some practicing Catholics overlook the fact that you can be overcommitted to church activities to the point of negatively affecting important relationships.

The Fathers were also dedicated to eliminating superfluous words in their relationships. Abba Agathon lived for three years with a stone in his mouth with the goal of learning to keep silence.

St. John of the Cross believed that silence was God’s first language and the Holy Writ is replete with such citations as Proverbs 10:19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

Who hasn’t had conversations that went on too long and deflated the human spirit or holy moments that were diminished by the tsunami of noise and chatter? Cardinal Robert Sarah has written wisely about such issues in his recent book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.

During Lent, in imitating Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, we imitate his relationship to the superfluous. He was silent because words were not necessary. He did not need to turn stones to bread because he lived by every word that proceeded from the mouth of God. He didn’t need the kingdoms of this world because he already was the King of Kings.

He didn’t need to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and have his angels save him to prove that he was the Son of God because he was already secure in his divinity. May God grant us all the discernment during Lent to distinguish the difference between the superfluous and the necessary.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Hermit” painted by Gerrit (Gerard) Dow in 1670.

Jonathan B. Coe


Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.