The Vitae Patrum is in Latin and dates from 1628. It was compiled by Heribert Rosweyde SJ from ancient sources dating from the third and fourth centuries, written either in Latin or Greek. Since I retired I have been using a lot of my time translating bits and pieces from the Vitae Patrum. There are a number of books in print with selections from the Lives of the Fathers. It just occurred to me that there might be some people who have no Latin but who would like to have available long chunks of it, which no conventional publisher would want to publish. So I thought I might just as well make a Website out of it, where it will be available for anyone who wants it. I am no scholar so am not able to provide any critical apparatus. It is just that I happened to come across this large and heavy volume in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye many years ago. It measures 365mm x 240mm x 110mm, and has 1060 pages plus indices. I find the lives of the Fathers of the Desert absolutely fascinating. I enjoy translating the Latin and I am quite happy to share this pleasure with anyone else who is interested.
But what exactly are the Desert Fathers all about? To understand this perhaps it might be best to begin with an account of the most famous of them all, Antony of Egypt, a 20 year old Coptic Christian, who one day in the year 270 or thereabouts, on a farm near a village in the Nile Valley, found himself, because of the death of his parents, in sole charge of a valuable farm and a young sister. After his initial grief he might easily have looked forward to a comfortably well-off life enjoying the fruits of his inheritance. Instead, as his biographer Athanasius tells us,
One day in church he chanced to hear the gospel read in which the Lord says to the rich young man: 'If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me' (Matt.19.21). To him this seemed like a word from God, as if Scripture had been addressed directly to him. The Lord's command affected him so deeply that he went home to dispose of everything that he had. To avoid any cause of grievance from anyone towards either him or his sister he distributed to his neighbours his three hundred choice and fertile fields. All his other goods he sold for a considerable sum of money, all of which he gave to the poor, except for a small amount which he kept back for his sister, who was in need of it because she was a woman and young. (Vitae Patrum,I, Vita Antonii.2)
Having made sure that his sister would be properly cared for by a local community of women,. he then went to live by himself near his native village, supporting himself by working with his hands. He knew of other Christians living a solitary life in the neighbourhood, and with their advice and with constant prayer he began to try and discover how to serve God in as thoroughgoing a way as possible. He found that deeper solitude and silence was necessary for him, and over a period of thirty-five years he moved in successive stages further and further into the desert in ever deepening solitude. Eccentric, even mad, you might think? But when eventually people heard about his eccentricity, and battered on his door demanding to be let in, Athanasius tells us that
he came out looking like someone wrapped in a heavenly radiance. They were all astonished by his graceful speech and the dignity of his bearing. Lack of exercise had not made him flabby, nor had fasting and conflict made him look pale and sickly. On the contrary, as if no time had passed at all, his old grace of movement remained just as before. What a miracle! Just what must his purity of heart have been like? He neither gushed with cheerfulness like a man buoyed up with false optimism, nor did he look gloomy as if the remembrance of his sins was too much for him, nor was he in the least bit conceited by the excessive flattery of those who idolised him. Solitude had in no way warped him, nor had he become embittered in this daily battle with the enemy. He brought the dispassionate judgment of a finely tempered mind to all his dealings. (VP Book I, Life of Antony.13)
Many were so impressed that they began to follow him in this way of life. And that, so Athanasius says, was the beginning of the 'peopling of the desert'.
Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373. These were turbulent times in the church with fierce arguments about what was the true catholic faith. Athanasius was exiled four times as a result of his beliefs. Shortly after Antony's death in 356 he wrote Vita Antonii which was to have a profound effect on the whole development of monasticism. Nowadays some scholars question his actual authorship, preferring to attribute it to an Athanasian milieu, but what cannot be disputed is the immense influence the Vita has had on future ages.
Athanasius was writing hagiography of course, rather than biography as we understand it today, nevertheless it is certainly an historical fact that Athanasius' Life of Antony, written only a few years after Antony's death, brought into prominence a way of Christian life which struck a chord in the hearts of many of his contemporaries. It was a time when the long persecutions of the Christian church by the Roman Empire were coming to a close. Among Christians the persecutions had resulted in an immense reverence for those who had been martyred for their faith. Now that persecutions seemed to be diminishing there was a desire to follow in the steps of the 'martyrs of blood' by voluntarily embracing a 'white' martyrdom in which the flesh might be crucified so that the spirit might live. In the providence of God it seems that Antony came at precisely the right time to be a pioneer and a guide to those who felt called to ascesis and prayer.
It was not as if his way of life was considered to be anything completely strange, according to the cultural climate of the time - different, yes, but not outrageous. On the contrary, in Christian circles at that time Antony was seen to be one more person in the long line of eminent solitaries of the past who were understood to be standing over against society and singlemindedly for God. The prophets of the Old Testament, from the call of Abraham, Elijah and onwards, were no strangers to desert life (cf. 1 Kings,19); they were often alone, and either much sought after by authority or else totally unpopular with it. They had one concern only, to discern and proclaim the word of the Lord. Besides the named prophets of the Old Testament there were apparently many others, as the references to the 'sons of the prophets' show (1 Kings,20, 2 Kings,2).
Within the Jewish nation at about the time of Christ, there was the Essene community, a group of people living outside society, in the desert, under a strict ascetical rule. The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (c.20 BCE - c.50 CE) gives an account in his De Vita Contemplativa of them and of the Therapeutae, another Jewish community at Lake Mareotis near Alexandria, who lived in strict seclusion, meeting together only on the Sabbath and high festivals. The Vitae Patrum records that as early as the beginning of the second century a certain Frontonius with seventy brothers left the world and went to live in the desert, 'labouring yoked together in the work of the Lord, meeting the challenges of spiritual trials' (VP,I, Vita Frontonii.i).
This ascetic tradition, often linked with a life of solitude, together with the publication of the Life of Antony and the end of the Roman persecutions all came together to enable the 'peopling of the desert' to flourish. The trickle of people who followed Antony fairly quickly became a flood, and the deserts soon became peopled with men and women living in individual cells which they built with their own hands, earning their living by weaving baskets and mats sold in nearby markets, giving their lives to prayer and silence, while at the same time forming a loose knit community of mutual care and spiritual support. There are many perils to be encountered in living alone, but the advice and help of the elders was freely given to those who were beginners in this extraordinary mode of life. Rufinus of Aquileia, a contemporary visitor to the desert some time after Antony's death, described them succinctly like this
They live in separate cells, scattered apart in the desert but united in love for each other. They live separately so that in undisturbed silence with a mind directed towards God they will not be distracted by any voices or meetings, or unnecessary conversation. They maintain their mental discipline each in his own place, looking for the coming of Christ as a beloved father, or like soldiers waiting for the coming of their general into their fort, or like faithful servants expecting their lord who will bring them liberty and many gifts. For they none of them take any thought for food or clothing or any such things, knowing that as the Scripture says it is the Gentiles who seek after these things (Matthew 6.32). They seek after righteousness and the kingdom of God and all those things which the Saviour has promised. (VP, II, prologus)
In the course of time the advice given to the younger by the elders came to be written down and circulated as helps on the path of pilgrimage; brief biographies (or rather hagiographies) of eminent monks were written as examples of how to live this kind of life, and the result is a considerable surviving body of writings. To the eyes of modern Christians some aspects of their life-style may seem unnecessarily severe, even masochistic, but you cannot fail but admire the singlemindedness of their search for the Kingdom of Heaven, and they cannot fail but be justified by the wisdom and humanity of the witness that they have left for us to enjoy in their writings, especially in Books 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, which all date from the earlier times of the 'peopling of the desert'. Book Ten is much later and has quite a different atmosphere, for which I have written a separate brief introduction
The next page of this site contains a brief summary of the contents of the whole book, with hyperlinks to the bits which I have actually translated. The amount which I have not yet translated is vastly greater than the amount that I have. I don't imagine I shall finish it all before I die (I was born in 1926) but someone else might want to download it and go on from where I have left off
Anyway, here goes, and if you are looking for a directory of other types of spirituality there is quite a good one at http://www.the-insight.com/spirituality/fasting-and-cleansing
Next Top of Page Book One Book Two Book Three Book Four
Book Five Book Six Book Seven Book Eight Book Nine Book Ten Appendix 3
Last updated 12 July 2004
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