The Missing Christian Leader

The Missing Christian Leader

That the modern world is filled with spiritual sickness is no surprise. Despite our increasing mastery over nature through medicine, technology, and science, the battle within still rages on. Depression is on the rise, alienation the norm, and fear dominates everything from the 24-hour news cycle to what car we should drive if we want to be noticed. Never before in history have so many of the earth’s most blessed people felt so very much the opposite. This might lead us to ask that if the answers we all seek aren’t in the middle of all the action, but rather at the margins. It is from here that the ancient Christians known as the Desert Fathers have much to say, often using very few words to say it, a welcome change from the avalanche of words we now climb out from under daily. In the early centuries of Christianity, at the peak of the Roman Empire, these intrepid souls ventured out into the deserts away from bustling cities like Alexandria, and did battle not with other men, but with themselves. The great 20th century popularizer of monasticism Thomas Merton put it this way:

These Fathers distilled for themselves a very practical and unassuming wisdom that is at once primitive and timeless, and which enables us to reopen the sources that have been polluted or blocked up altogether by the accumulated mental and spiritual refuse of our technological barbarism. [1]

Has there ever been a more accurate diagnosis of the spiritualties of our time? Does anyone else feel as if they are in danger of drowning under the tsunami of Christian products? You need his new study, this new online tool, this new book, this new video series. Technological barbarism indeed. Modern Christians, especially Christian leaders, may soon find themselves experiencing a strange sort of spiritual constipation, wondering why they feel more confused than ever despite all the knowledge in the marketplace, saying something all the time, but not really having anything to say.

It started in 313 when Christianity was no longer an enemy of the empire but instead sanctioned as a legitimate religion. By 399, all pagan temples were shut down (though only for a time) and Christianity began to see massive conversions that were seen by many as a mixed blessing. The popular story is that these changes facilitated a mass exodus of the truly faithful into the desert of Egypt, to reject the comforts of Christian Empire and do battle with the evil within. This is not entirely untrue, but has been shown to be a simplistic telling of the story in recent years.

The truth is that many had already fled into the desert for various reasons, one of which was to simply escape debts or taxes or “liturgies” (public works projects in which every man had to participate). This led to many families in places like Alexandria filing missing person’s reports known as anakechorekotes, or “those who had fled.” Later this word would become synonymous with those who would flee into the desert to pursue the liturgy of God and not of people. Among these was the monk known as Antony, and his biography paved the way for the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Fathers. [2] This book, though somewhat difficult to read, is a manual of sorts that can help the Christian leader beat back the technological barbarism of our time. Indeed, the Desert Fathers might suggest that to save themselves and the people they lead, going missing might be just what the doctor ordered for the Christian leader. In these pages “The Jesus Prayer” was birthed, and Christian giants from across the ages have found a cure for their souls. What follows are a few of the more short, but insightful, sayings from this collection:

Book cover, The Desert Fathers

“Sisois said, ‘Our form of pilgrimage is keeping the mouth closed’” (27).

“He also said, ‘The monk who cannot control his tongue when he is angry, will not control his passions at other times’” (28).

“An abbot said to a hermit in his care, ‘Whenever the demon troubles you, come to me, and this will rebuke him, and so he will go away. Nothing troubles the demon of lust more than laying bare of his urgings. Nothing pleases him more than the concealment of his temptation’” (37).

“This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me’” (44).

“A brother was leaving the world, but kept some goods for his own use. He went to Antony, who said, ‘If you want to be a monk, go to the village over there, buy some meat, hang it on your naked body and come back here.’ The brother went, and the dogs and birds tore at his body on the way back. Antony said, ‘Those who renounce the world but want to keep their money are attacked in that way by demons and torn to pieces’” (53).

“Syncletica said, ‘An open treasury is quickly spent; any virtue will be lost if it is published abroad and is known about everywhere. If you put wax in front of a fire it melts; and if you pour vain praises on the soul it goes soft and weak in seeking goodness’” (82).

“A brother said to Poemen, ‘If I see my brother sin is it really right not to tell anyone about it?’ He said, ‘When we cover our brother’s sin, God covers our sin. When we tell people about our brother’s guilt, God does the same with ours’” (85).

“If a man preached but does not practice what he preaches, he is like a well of water where everyone can quench their thirst and wash off their dirt, but which cannot clean away the filth and dung that is around it” (100).

“Evil cannot drive out evil. If anyone hurts you, do good to him and your good will destroy his evil” (101).

“A man whose house is about to fall down may invite travelers inside to refresh them, but instead they will be hurt in the collapse of the house. It is the same with teachers who have not carefully trained themselves in the good life; they destroy their hearers as well as themselves” (105).

“All temptations have a single source. You must consider what kind of root of temptation you have, and fight against that and in this way all the other temptations will also be defeated” (111).

“’Abba, I have memorized the Old and New Testaments!’ ‘And you have filled the air with words’” (112).

“A monk ought to be like the Cherubim and Seraphim, all eye” (119).

“They used to say about Poemen that when he was ready to go out to the meeting for prayer, he first sat by himself for an hour in self-examination, then went” (122).

“Be hospitable. It is not wooden doors we were taught to shut; the door we need to keep shut is the mouth” (135).

“Why do you not answer if you have the right answer? If I answer them, I will be pleased that I have been praised” (159).

“What is pilgrimage? To keep silent, and wherever you go say, ‘I am at peace will all men’” (160).

“A ship cannot be built without nails and no one can be saved without humility” (161).

“What is humility? To forgive a brother who has wronged you before he is sorry. If a man cannot attain this standard he should run away and choose silence” (163).

“I never wanted work to be useful to me while causing loss to my brother, for I have this hope that what helps my brother will bring fruit to me” (182).

“The nature of water is soft, the nature of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above a stone letting water drip down, it wears away the stone. It is like that with the Word of God. It is soft and our heart is hard, but if a man hears the Word often, it will break open his heart to the fear of God” (191).


[1] Thomas Merton, Souls in Transition: The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions Publishing, 1970), 11.


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