Engaging Stories of the Desert Fathers and the Power of Story Telling

The Desert Fathers were men of the late 3rd and 4th Centuries who went to live in the desert. The Egyptian Desert was the most common locale.  At first they lived mostly alone, but later, formed loose-knit communities, and later, close-knit ones. As the Church was emerging from persecution many of them had become disenchanted with how quickly the Church became worldly. Some left for the desert as a protest. Others went there because they saw life in the desert as a form of martyrdom no longer widely  available as the supreme witness to the faith.

Around them emerged a large collections of writings and stories, many of which are memorable and enlightening. I would like to reproduces a few of them here for your encouragement and edification and also to make the point that a story is worth a thousand words:

1. On Humility and the problem of evil: The Abbot Antony, being at a loss in his meditation on the depth of the judgments of God, prayed, saying, “Lord, how comes  it that some die in so short a space of life, and some live to the further side of decrepit old age: and wherefore are some in want, and others rich with various means of wealth, and how are the unrighteous rich and the righteous oppressed by poverty?” And a voice came to him saying, “Antony, turn thine eyes upon thyself: for these are the judgments of God, and the knowledge of them is not for thee.”

2. On the need of the learned to respect the wisdom of ordinary peopleAt one time the Abbot Arsenius Was taking counsel with an old man of Egypt about his thoughts. And another, seeing him said, “Abbot Arsenius, how is it that thou, who art so great a scholar of Latin and Greek, dost take counsel of this common countryman?” And he answered, “I have indeed apprehended the learning of the Greeks and the Latins as this world goes: but the alphabet of this countryman I have not yet been able to learn.”

3. On the need to leave vengeance to GodOne of the brethren that had been insulted by another, came to Abbot Sisois and told him the scorn that had been put upon him, and said, “I am set to revenge myself , Father.” And the old abbot began to entreat him to leave vengeance to God. But he said, “I shall not rest till I stoutly avenge myself.” So the abbot said to him, “Since thou hast made up thy mind once for all, now let us pray,” and rising, the abbot began to pray in these words: “God, Thou art no longer necessary to us that Thou needst be anxious for us: for we ourselves, as this brother hath said, are able to avenge ourselves.”  But when the brother heard it, he fell at the abbot’s feet seeking his pardon, and promised  that he would contend no more with the man against whom he was angered.

4. On radical poverty and obeying the word of GodA certain monk, Serapion, owned a Gospel manuscript: and he sold it and gave to the hungry, following the memorable saying: for, he said, “I sold the same Word that said to me, ‘Sell what thou hast and give to the poor.'”

5. On humility as a foil against the devilThe devil appeared to a certain brother, transformed into an angel of light, and said to him, “I am the angel Gabriel and I am sent unto thee.” But the brother said, “Consider well if you were not in fact sent to some other: for I am not worthy that an angel should be sent to me.” And the devil was no more seen.

I find that brief stories such as these say more than a thousand words. I was tempted to comment on them. But that would ruin them. They speak volumes for themselves.

Stories have deep impact. I wish I were better at collecting and telling them, I know my homilies would greatly benefit. Perhaps you know of some great sayings or stories of the desert Fathers you would like to share. Or perhaps you know a story from any source that has great impact on you. Consider sharing it here.

In this brief video, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a master story-teller and observer of the Human family, shows how a story can really bring the point home. He begins by stating some facts about contentment which are all good. But it is the story that brings it home and makes it memorable.

17 Replies to “Engaging Stories of the Desert Fathers and the Power of Story Telling”

  1. The story I would like to share is not from one of the desert fathers (as great as they are), but one of St. Francis. I heard this story at a time in my life when I was very disenchanted with the Church and frustrated with the lukewarm faith I perceived in those around me.

    The story as I remember it is that someone goes to St. Francis and tells him of a priest in a village who was openly keeping a mistress in his house. So, Francis gets up and goes to that house. “Go get ’em Francis!” I thought, “Condemn that man! Declare his sin! Call him on his hypocrisy”. And what did Francis do? He knelt before the priest and kissed his hands because those were the hands that were used by Jesus to celebrate the Eucharist.

  2. So… one of the Desert Fathers had Satan appear to him and claim to be Gabriel? Haven’t we heard that one before in another desert a little to the east?

    Could the claims be similar Muhammed?

    1. Exactly. That’s why the orthodox church is sceptical when it comes to any “revelation”. We know from the that even demons can take on angelic light to trick us.

  3. For anyone interested in a very in depth work on this subject, I recommend The Conferences by John Cassian. This is proof of the timelessness of the truth of the Gospels.

  4. For more stories I recommend:
    Lausiac History by Palladius (It is the ancient accounts of great desert Fathers). This book is well
    known in scholastic and early church periods.


    2 Books to recommend:
    “The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers” by Thomas Merton
    “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers” by Cistercian Publications – most complete collection

  5. Yes, stories are powerful. This is exactly why Jesus told them. Even the most deceptively simply story has such depth and complexity, I need to read your blog to understand it at a deeper level. Thank you. Even on the days I don’t say it.

  6. One of the greatest sorrows of the modern age is that our storytellers have abandoned truth and virtue for sensationalism and chaos. As the tales are, so will be the lives of the people who hear them. Life imitates art, rather than the other way around, at least when it comes to stories.

  7. Over on the New Advent site, under the Church Fathers section, they have a collection of writings by or about the Desert Fathers, including St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony of Egypt.

  8. In the 5th century, Arenius determined to live a holy life. so he abandoned the comforts of Egyptian society to follow a simpler lifestyle in the desert. Yet whenever he visited the great city of Alexandria, he spent time wandering through its markets. Asked why, he explained that his heart rejoiced at the sight of all the things he didn’t need.

    From: http://www.becomingminimalist.com/2010/01/28/his-heart-rejoiced/

  9. The closest thing I’ve read of the Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries is The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. I’m not sure he counts, I think he’s late 5th/early 6th century and I also think he’s Eastern Orthodox not Catholic, but I’m not sure if that makes a difference or not from that period?

    I never realized it was a literary work and but was always intrigued by the term. I later became aware of the Icon by the same title. When I did some googling for the Icon I discovered it was also a book by St. John Climacus and purchased both on-line.

    Long story short, I’m very impressed by the book. Out of any serious spiritual reading I’ve done, John Climacus is surprisingly powerful, clear, concise and understandable. It’s separated into 30 short ‘steps’ much like Msgr. Pope lists his bullets in this article. For example, Step 1 is ‘On Renunciation of Life’, Step 2 ‘On Detachment’, etc. Each step is filled with amazing and heroic accounts of other Monks. I especially liked Step 4 ‘On Obedience’ and Step 5 ‘On Penitence’. I’d love to quote some of the Monks stories in Step 4 ‘On Obedience’ but most are too long to post.

    I love the book, it’s filled with fascinating absolutely heroic stuff regarding the attainment of virtue, but I’m not sure it would be considered sound Catholic reading as I believe it’s considered Eastern Orthodox spirituality? I also have to add, being the spiritual moron I am, stuff like this usually tempts me to scrupulosity more than anything else. Is anyone else familiar with it?

  10. I think if John Climacus was from the 5th/6th century, he’d have been Catholic, given that there was only one Church then. He may not be venerated in the Western church, but there are plenty of people who haven’t heard of St. John Chrysostom either!

    My favourite bit from the Desert Fathers was told by Abbot Christopher Jamieson OSB, of Worth Abbey. He relates that a young hermit went to the Abbot and asked him how he was to “pray without ceasing”. The Abbot explained the importance of daily psalms, the Mass, acts of charity, and so on. At the end, the hermit was still none-the-wiser, and asked for something simpler. After a moment’s pause, the Abbot told him, whenever he needed, to simply say, “Oh God, come to my aid. O Lord, make haste to help me!” And the Church has been praying those words ever since.

  11. @Dismas

    St. Jonh Climacus, also called ‘Scholasticus’ is recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint an mystic. Indeed the division between Orthodox and Catholic only came in the XI century.

    1. chatto/Ismael

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ve developed quite a fondness for St. John Climacus. I can now truly recommend ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’ without any reservations. Another thing that astounds me is his ability to decode the most obscure scripture passages in his narrative.

  12. Another interesting collection of stories about the Desert Fathers is Charles Kingsley’s “The Hermits”, which is available for free in several formats at Project Gutenberg:


    People with iOS devices (ipad, iphone, ipod) can download the book (or any Project Gutenberg book for that matter) at no charge from the iBook store.

    The book includes the biography of St. Anthony of the Desert written by St. Athanasius.

    As an aside, Kingsley is the Anglican who claimed John Henry Cardinal Newman was a crypto-Catholic posing as an Anglican before his public conversion. This charge prompted Newman to respond by writing his Apologia pro Vita Sua, his story of his life of faith, and how he read himself into becoming a Catholic by reading the writings of the Church Fathers.

  13. Yes, stories are powerful. This is exactly why Jesus told them. Even the most deceptively simply story has such depth and complexity, I need to read your blog to understand it at a deeper level. Thank you. Even on the days I don’t say it.

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