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Desert Fathers

In Egypt there were three types of monasticism that more or less corresponded to three geographical regions: Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, and Nitria and Scetis. Lower Egypt was associated with the hermit life, of which Anthony was the most celebrated. In Upper Egypt, monks lived in organized communities—coenobitic monasticism. Pachomius was an early organizer of this form of monastic community, which was united, not around a spiritual father, but a mutual commitment to each other in a life of prayer and work. Finally, Nitria and Scetis were associated with groups of ascetics. In these monastic settlements, several monks lived together most often as disciples of an ‘abba’ or father. Macarius the Egyptian was a founder of a settlement in Scetis, and Amoun was the founder of two of these settlements in Nitria and Kellia.

Studying the ancient literature of Egyptian monasticism five names appear quite frequently: Anthony (c. 254-356), Pachomius (c.254-356), Macarius the Egyptian (c.300-390), Amoun (c.290-347), and Macarius the Alexandrian (c.300-293). All appear in the Apophthegmata Patrum, or The Sayings of the Fathers, and are considered pioneers of the monastic life.

What we know of these ancient monks comes to us through a small group of writers and anonymous texts. The following writers played an important role in transmitting the lives and wisdom of desert monasticism to wider world: Athanasius (c.295-373), who wrote the Life of Anthony; Evagrius Pontius (c. 345-399), the author of Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, two very important works on the theology of monasticism; John Cassian (c. 360-435) composed two works Institutes and Conferences, which had a profound impact on Western monasticism and facilitated the translation of desert spirituality into the West; and Palladius (c. 363-c. 431). In addition to these writers, two texts played a crucial role in transmission of the desert experience: Apophthegmata Patrum and The History of the Monks in Egypt.

The Apophthegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Fathers was a very important anthology of spiritual stories and memorable sayings. Most of the sayings were attributed to monastics living between the 330’s and the 460’s. The text was most likely compiled and edited in the early sixth century. The History of the Monks in Egypt, composed in Greek by an anonymous writer in the fifth century, describes the journey of seven Palestinian monks through Egypt in 394.

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