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.