The Desert Fathers were early Christian hermits, ascetics and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The most well known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in AD 270–271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. Sometime around AD 270, Anthony heard a Sunday sermon stating that perfection could be achieved by selling all of one’s possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor and following Jesus. He followed the advice and made the further step of moving deep into the desert to seek complete solitude. By the time Anthony died in AD 356, thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following Anthony’s example.
Anthony lived in a time of transition for Christianity, the Diocletianic Persecution in AD 303 was the last great formal persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Only ten years later, Christianity was made legal in Egypt by Diocletian’s successor Constantine I. Those who left for the desert formed an alternate Christian society, at a time when it was no longer a risk to be a Christian. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifice of the desert was seen by Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice. Anthony quickly gained followers eager to live their lives in accordance with this solidarity and separation from material goods. From these prohibitions, it is recorded by Athanasius that Anthony received special privileges from God, such as the ability to heal the sick, inspire others to have faith in healing through God, and even converse with God on occasion. Around this time, desert monasticism appeared nearly simultaneously in several areas, including Egypt and Syria.
Over time, the model of Anthony and other hermits attracted many followers, who lived alone in the desert or in small groups. They chose a life of extreme asceticism, renouncing all the pleasures of the senses, rich food, baths, rest and anything that made them comfortable. They instead focused their energies on praying, singing psalms, fasting, giving alms to the needy, and preserving love and harmony with one another while keeping their thoughts and desires for God alone. Thousands joined them in the desert, mostly men but also a handful of women. Religious seekers also began going to the desert seeking advice and counsel from the early Desert Fathers. By the time of Anthony’s death, there were so many men and women living in the desert that it was described as “a city”.
The monastic communities were essentially an alternate Christian society. The hermits doubted that religion and politics could ever produce a truly Christian society. For them, the only Christian society was spiritual and not mundane.
The Desert Fathers gave a great deal of emphasis to living and practicing the teachings of Jesus, much more than theoretical knowledge. Their efforts to live the commandments were not seen as being easy, many of the stories from that time recount the struggle to overcome negative emotions such as anger and judgment of others. Helping a brother monk who was ill or struggling was seen as taking priority over any other consideration. Hermits were frequently seen to break a long fast when hosting visitors, as hospitality and kindness were more important than keeping the ascetic practices that were so dominant in the Desert Fathers’ lives.
There are many different collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers. The collection now known as the Systematic Collection began to emerge at approximately AD 500, and features sayings from various earlier collections combined and systematically ordered under twenty one chapters.