The Desert Fathers and the Methods They Used

By Ray Yungen

Catholic priest William Shannon in his book, Seeds of Peace, explained the human dilemma as being the following:

This forgetfulness, of our oneness with God, is not just a personal experience, it is the corporate experience of humanity. Indeed, this is one way to understanding original sin. We are in God, but we don’t seem to know it. We are in paradise, but we don’t realize it.1

Shannon’s viewpoint defines the basic underlying worldview of the contemplative prayer movement as a whole. One can find similar quotations in practically every book written by contemplative authors. A Hindu guru or a Zen Buddhist master would offer the same explanation. This conclusion becomes completely logical when tracing the roots of contemplative prayer. Let us look at the beginnings of this practice.

In the early Middle Ages, there lived a group of hermits in the wilderness areas of the Middle East. They are known to history as the Desert Fathers. They dwelt in small isolated communities for the purpose of devoting their lives completely to God without distraction. The contemplative movement traces its roots back to these monks who promoted the mantra as a prayer tool. One meditation scholar made this connection when he said:

The meditation practices and rules for living of these earliest Christian monks bear strong similarity to those of their Hindu and Buddhist renunciate brethren several kingdoms to the East … the meditative techniques they adopted for finding their God suggest either a borrowing from the East or a spontaneous rediscovery.2

Many of the Desert Fathers, in their zeal, were simply seeking God through trial and error. A leading contemplative prayer teacher candidly acknowledged the haphazard way the Desert Fathers acquired their practices:

It was a time of great experimentation with spiritual methods. Many different kinds of disciplines were tried, some of which are too harsh or extreme for people today. Many different methods of prayer were created and explored by them.3

Attempting to reach God through occult mystical practices will guarantee disaster. The Desert Fathers of Egypt were located in a particularly dangerous locale at that time to be groping around for innovative approaches to God, because as one theologian pointed out:

[D]evelopment of Christian meditative disciplines should have begun in Egypt because much of the intellectual, philosophical, and theological basis of the practice of meditation in Christianity also comes out of the theology of Hellenic and Roman Egypt. This is significant because it was in Alexandria that Christian theology had the most contact with the various Gnostic speculations which, according to many scholars, have their roots in the East, possibly in India.4

Consequently, the Desert Fathers believed as long as the desire for God was sincere–anything could be utilized to reach God. If a method worked for the Hindus to reach their gods, then Christian mantras could be used to reach Jesus. A current practitioner and promoter of the Desert Fathers’ mystical prayer still echoes the logical formulations of his mystical ancestors:

In the wider ecumenism of the Spirit being opened for us today, we need to humbly accept the learnings of particular Eastern religions … What makes a particular practice Christian is not its source, but its intent … this is important to remember in the face of those Christians who would try to impoverish our spiritual resources by too narrowly defining them. If we view the human family as one in God’s spirit, then this historical cross-fertilization is not surprising … selective attention to Eastern spiritual practices can be of great assistance to a fully embodied Christian life.5

Do you catch the reasoning here? Non-Christian sources, as avenues to spiritual growth, are perfectly legitimate in the Christian life, and if Christians only practice their Christianity based on the Bible, they will actually impoverish their spirituality. This was the thinking of the Desert Fathers. So as a result, we now have contemplative prayer. Jesus addressed this when he warned His disciples: “And when you pray, do not
use vain repetitions, as the heathen do.” (Matthew 6:7)

It should be apparent that mantra meditation or sacred word prayer qualifies as “vain repetition” and clearly fits an accurate description of the point Jesus was making. Yet in spite of this, trusted evangelical Christians have often pronounced that Christian mysticism is different from other forms of mysticism (such as Eastern or occult) because it is focused on Jesus Christ.

This logic may sound credible on the surface, but Christians must ask themselves a very simple and fundamental question: What really makes a practice Christian? The answer is obvious–does the New Testament sanction it? Hasn’t Christ taught us, through His Word, to pray in faith in His name and according to His will? Did He leave something out? Would Jesus hold out on His true followers? Never!

Understanding this truth, God has declared in His Word that He does not leave it up to earnest, yet sinful people, to reinvent their own Christianity. When Christians ignore God’s instructions in following Him they end up learning the way of the heathen. Israel did this countless times. It is just human nature.

The account of Cain and Abel is a classic biblical example of spiritual infidelity. Both of Adam’s sons wanted to please God, but Cain decided he would experiment with his own method of being devout. Cain must have reasoned to himself: “Perhaps God would like fruit or grain better than a dead animal. It’s not as gross. It’s less smelly. Hey, I think I will try it!”

As you know, God was not the least bit impressed by Cain’s attempt to create his own approach to pleasing God. The Lord made it clear to Cain that God’s favor would be upon him if he did what is right, not just what was intended for God or God-focused.

In many ways, the Desert Fathers were like Cain—eager to please but not willing to listen to the instruction of the Lord and do what was right. One cannot fault them for their devotion, but one certainly can fault them for their lack of discernment.

Notes:
1. William Shannon, Seeds of Peace, p. 66.
2. Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind 1988, p.53.
3. Ken Kaisch, Finding God, p.191.
4. Father William Teska, Meditation in Christianity , p.65.
5. Tilden Edwards, Living in the Presence , Acknowledgement page.

Related Material:

A list of ancient mystics (taken from Chris Lawson’s A Directory of Authors: Three NOT Recommended Lists booklet)

Mystics from the past oftentimes favorably endorsed by “Christian” authors today

Middle Ages (Medieval Times) and Renaissance

Angela of Foligno (1248–1309)

Anthony of Padua (1195–1231)

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)

Bonaventure (1217–1274)

Catherine of Siena (1347–1380)

Desert Fathers, The

Hadewijch of Antwerp (13th century)

Henry Suso (1295–1366)

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

Hugh of Saint Victor (1096–1141)

Jacopone da Todi (1230–1306)

Johannes Tauler (d.1361)

John of Ruysbroeck (1293–1381)

John Scotus Eriugena (810–877)

Julian of Norwich (1342–1416)

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1212–1297)

Meister Eckhart (1260–1327)

Richard of Saint Victor (d.1173)

Richard Rolle (1300–1341)

The Cloud of the Unknowing (anonymous, instruction in mysticism, 1375)

Theologia Germanica (anonymous, mystical treatise, late 14th century)

Thomas a’ Kempis (1380–1471)

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

Walter Hilton (1340–1396)
Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter–Reformation

Brother Lawrence (1614–1691)

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1822)

George Fox (1624–1691)

Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556)

Jakob Böhme (1575–1624)

Jean Nicolas Grou (1731-1803)

John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes) (1542–1591)

Joseph of Cupertino (1603–1663)

Madame Guyon (1647–1717)

Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582)

Theophan the Recluse (1815–1894)

William Law (1686–1761)

Modern Era (19th—20th Century)

Alexandrina Maria da Costa (1904–1955)

Bernadette Roberts (1931–)

Berthe Petit (1870–1943)

Carmela Carabelli (1910–1978)

Domenico da Cese (1905–1978)

Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941)

Flower A. Newhouse (1909–1994)

Frank Laubach (1884–1970)

Frederick Buechner (1926–)

Karl Rahner (1904–1984)

Lúcia Santos (1907–2005)

Maria Pierina de Micheli (1890–1945)

Maria Valtorta (1898–1963)

Marie Lataste (1822–1899)

Marie Martha Chambon (1841–1907)

Martin Buber (1868–1965)

Mary Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938)

Mary of Saint Peter (1816–1848)

Mary of the Divine Heart (1863–1899)

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887–1968)

Pierina Gilli (1911–1991)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881– 1955)

Simone Weil (1909–1943)

Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)

Thomas Merton (1915–1968)

Thomas Raymond Kelly (1893–1941)

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