Who were the abbas (“fathers”) and ammas (“mothers”) of the desert?
(This was written by a member of the monastic community of Taize, France. All of Christian monasticism share the same origins of the desert fathers and mothers.)
An elder said to one of the brothers: Go and stay in your kellion * and your kellion will teach you everything.
In around the fourth century, in Egypt, but also in Syria, Palestine and other areas of the Middle East and Asia Minor, a few men, and also some women, left their possessions, their families, and the everyday life of their time and went to live alone in the desert. They are known as the desert fathers and mothers.
There they lived an austere life. They made their homes in caves or in little kellia which they built themselves. They ate bread, herbs, and vegetables. They earned their living by simple manual work: weaving linen, making baskets or ropes…. And above all they prayed.
What was their motivation? Above all a deep thirst for communion with God. Their humble manual work, their life of poverty and asceticism, continual prayer, acceptation of oneself and of others, and the struggle with one’s own darkness… the amma or abba undertook all these things in order to be available for God. The kellion, which was both their refuge and the place they chose to remain in, became the symbol of this personal struggle.
In the desert, each one confided to an elder his or her way of life, the thoughts that came to them, their habits… This was surely the most cooperative aspect of their lives.
Traces of these conversations have come down to us in the form of hundreds of brief stories, like the one quoted above, in which we find a mixture of wisdom, advice, anecdotes, imagination, and humour…
Though their life can seem heroic to us, it was above all very realistic. In the desert, there is almost nothing, and surviving meant looking after the few living things to be found there. That was true not only for food, for the earth, but also for the other people they occasionally met, and even, according to some legends, animals as well.
Respect for all that is alive, contemplation of the vast desert spaces, getting to grips with one’s own limits… Could it not be said that the abbas and ammas practised, rather ahead of their time, a real ecology of the desert?
* Kellion (plural kellia) is a Greek word meaning a cell, a kind of little house.
(The most famous desert father is Saint Anthony of Egypt… his life is recorded in the book “The Life of Anthony” by Athanasius of Alexandria.)