Desert Spirituality and Mission: Coptic Perspectives

by Abouna Youhanna

Date added: 19/04/2016

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Desert Spirituality and Mission: Coptic Perspectives

By Abouna Youhanna, Abbot of St Marcarius Monastery




The retreat to the desert growth of monasticism in 4th century Egypt has long been recognized as one of the most significant and alluring moments of early Christianity. In the withdrawal from the main stream of society and culture to the stark solitude of the desert, a vibrant and original spirituality was born which had a wide influence on both contemporaries and succeeding generations. It was a rich and varied movement, full of apparent contradictions and paradoxes. Although largely composed of persons from oral, rural, peasant culture, desert monasticism also attracted many from a more literate, urban culture of the late Roman Empire. Characterized by a certain simplicity and even naivety, the monks were nevertheless capable of subtle discernment regarding the complex forces in the human soul. In their solitude, they consciously removed themselves from ordinary contact with their fellow human beings and were often perceived as aloof and forbidding; yet they were also revered for their extraordinary depth of compassion. They audaciously battled the demons in the desert, but humbly refused to acknowledge their own power. They spoke words of authority, though it was often in their silence that they were most eloquent. Many of the desert monks refused to participate in the growing establishment of the church under authorities, choosing instead to live on the margins of society under the direct guidance of the Spirit and the Word of God. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of their singular response to the issues of their time, they had a far reaching impact on contemporary society and Church and left a rich and varied legacy.[1]


The Holy Bible and its relation to the spirituality of the desert:


Monasticism began in the third century, when the young Antony entered his native church during bible reading and heard the Lord saying to the young rich " If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me" (Mat. 19:21).

And the Pope Athanasius, the writer of the biography of St. Antony the father of monasticism, says:

And this passage was as if it were read specifically for Antony, for immediately he went out of the church and gave the villagers the possessions of his ancestors, and they were 300 acres of the best lands, so that they might not become a trembling stone in his chosen path[2].

And father Matthew the poor comments on that: The life that St. Antony accepted was a life exactly according to the gospel, which the Holy Spirit supported with amazing strength. For his getting out of the world while he was only 18 years old to live in mountains and barren deserts, was an expression of a high level of a fiery faith with which the young tender heart of Antony the son of luxury, was filled, for neither the conditions of his only orphan sister, nor the seduction of the promising 300 acres which promise of happy coming days according to the flesh hindered him from saying yes to the call of the gospel!

And we must know by heart that the monastic life which the Lord Jesus Christ has drawn through his sayings and commandments in the holy bible, was the only motive that set the young Antony's heart on fire, made him to go leaving the world behind, for he didn't have any other motives, nor any other purpose in front of his eyes.

And that's affirmed by St. Athanasius in his book about the beginnings of St. Antony's life, in which he says: "and the Lord kept him for our benefit and for the benefit of others as well, so as to be a teacher of many about the monasticism which he learned from the scriptures" (The life of Antony Ch. 45).

For the obedience of the holy command which exhorts to monastic life was the only immediate inspiration which moved him – without examining or trying to mentally interpreting it – to hurry to the life of monasticism and solitude and to be far from the world with only his poor individual capabilities[3]

In fact since the Lord set up the principles of Christian monasticism by going alone into the desert and his fast on our behalf for 40 days and 40 nights, monasticism was connected with being filled with the Holy Spirit, and that because the Lord went out "being full of the Holy Ghost" (Luke 4:1). And the descending of the Holy Spirit upon Him in a bodily shape like a dove was for us not for Himself, for He was in unity with Him from the beginning. And also He was " led up of the Spirit into the wilderness" (Matt. 4:1), and " led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil" (Luke 4:1, 2); so that by His triumph over Satan, He may grant humanity the ability to have triumph over him.

St. Antony says about that:

The Holy Spirit pushes the body to fast a lot and to vigils and toil (in prayer) and to the rest of the services which are the fruits of the body. But He opens the eyes of the soul too upon true repentance, so as to get purified along with the body so that both of them become on the same level of purification, for that is the teaching of the Holy Spirit] the first epistle[4].

Not that only, for all the early fathers also built their monastic lives upon being filled with the Holy Spirit, for Avva Maggar says: “the main thing that the monk should be is to be fervent every time in Spirit”[5]

And St. Esithorus, his close disciple, says:

[without the power of the Holy Spirit Whom God has given us in order to accomplish His commandments, and which they become stronger in us every day through participation in His body and blood, we won't get rid of the sins and we won't be able to conquer the demons, nor proceed in virtue] (the paradise of the monks pp.256).

It's well known to anyone who experienced monastic life that its way of life which appears for the first time that it's hard and heavy for the natural person, but when it's done for the love of God by the work of the Holy Spirit it becomes not only easy and light but also sweet and desired. St Antony says about that:

I'll teach you another work that affirms man from the beginning till the end, which is to love God from all his soul and from all his heart and with all the toils of the body too with meditation and vigils so the yoke of the Lord becomes light and sweet] (the eighth epistle[6].

This is the secret behind all ascetic works of St. Antony, whether daring to inhabit in graves or solitude alone in faraway mountains among the beasts, or his resistance to the demons with courage, or even in his spiritual growth even when he was very old. And it was also the secret behind all the toils of the ascetics and monks who lived in mountains, deserts and in the cracks of the earth for their great love to the King the Christ.

So we can see clearly that the ascetic life lived by the monk fathers is a practical application of the commandment of the gospel as inspired by the Holy Spirit to their hearts, with no other motive than obeying the commandment itself, for the love of Christ who loved us first and gave Himself for us.

There is no enmity or arrogance in separation from the world:

The saints, the fathers of the desert, (like St. Makarius the great, St. John al solammy and St. Isaak the Syrian)[7] were the most dedicated apologists of the truth saying that the fathers of the desert and their spirituality were not of the egocentric sort. And they are not also confined in themselves nor were they enemies of the society. But quite contrary, they saw that the happy monk is the one who consider all people like God (because of the image of God inside them), and see that their good and prosperity can bring him joy as if they were his good and prosperity.

St. Isaak affirms that: “ we – the monks – know that the mind can't be enlightened only through talking with and loving God without loving our neighbors”[8].

Also he said: “we oblige ourselves always and in every time so as to be merciful inside ourselves toward all the creation” [9].

Separation from the world is an overwhelming love for all without being satisfied:

For the inner mercy inside the soul of the monk is itself the clear demonstration of his love towards God. As the perfection of the saints and their unity with God are manifest clearly in the overwhelming flow of their love and compassion over all the people.

These are beautiful words of St. Isaak about this matter: “As the oil feeds the flame of the lamp, so does mercy feed the knowledge inside the soul. And the key of the spiritual gifts is delivered to the heart by his love to his neighbor” [10].


Unity of humanity is the hope of the ascetics:


The most powerful and influential way to achieve this unity is to transform human nature into that one perfect man, the spiritual man who is united with God, the apostolic man, and that is through the renewal of the mind and by silence which is practiced by thought, and which flows from divine love and passion, from that who felt this passion of love towards God and towards all humanity and all the world. This love opens the doors for that man so he goes into the many houses which are in the heavenly kingdom (Joh. 14:2)

the deeper the man goes, the more doors are opened in front of him that lead him to hundreds of divine houses. Then he would become rich in spirit no, but richer and increasing in riches, and the more new amazing wonderful things become disclosed to him[11].

This concept about purified heart as a house for the Lord and that all the church is the body of Christ is a common thought for the desert fathers.


The spirituality of the desert in our days in the thought of father Matthew the poor: (monastic life in few words) [12]:


+ Monastic life is a life of prayer, love and self giving.

+ The way is easy as long as there is an experienced guide and obedience.

+ As long as there is humility, there will be spiritual comfort.

+ the capital of the narrow way is repentance.

+ Asceticism is silence, fast, continuous prayer. And these are like a lightening lamp that guides our steps along the way, until we arrive at the dawn of the new life, when the face of the Beloved Jesus shines upon us.

+ The more we die for the world, the more we get born for eternal life.

+ Monasticism is a spiritual school, in which our great teacher is Jesus, and our guide is the Holy Spirit, so be a disciple of the gospel and fulfill its commandments, and let the Spirit of God leads you in every thought and action.

+ Monasticism is the self crucifixion for Christ's sake and the crucifixion of the world, then the absolute adherence to the commandments of Jesus to salvation.

+ Then getting busy every moment with "prayer", then got filled with love for a life of continuous unity with the Lord Jesus.

+ Work and toil are good for the monk, for the weary body is better than the weary spirit, and the Lord God will shine over both, the spirit and the body. Work, toil and giving without asking for the fare or thanks or accepting praise, make the monk get lifted above the earth as he is living in the heaven, and the secret of the cross is opened to him.

+ There is no unified law in the monastic life for all the monks, but every monk has his own law, and he has a spiritual father that guides him, a father who took the gift of fatherhood, providence and discernment.


Secret spiritual transformations in the monk's life: [13]


1 – The first transformation: and in fact it isn't a compensation but it's a progress.

When a monk enters a monastery, while he has truly put the world behind his back, the angels and the spirits of the saints receive him, as a new member of the saints' parish and one of the household of God. The monk has left a world to enter to a new one, literally and practically, and the more he fills his eyes and heart from that new world, giving thanks and praises joyfully, the smaller and fader the world he left is getting and the weaker its attraction is getting until it vanishes from his heart. And the more he got filled with the goods and the fat of God's household and the more settled the issue of deprivation inside him without confusion, and that is his preoccupation every day.

About the effects of grace in the new life, they work invisibly toward the side of his family, relatives, friends and the rest of social relations, so the soul feels as if there were a deep barrier separates her from all, because she belongs now to another world as if he has enterred into a new heaven and a new earth, and Christ is the center of all. So the monk can no longer have both together, the old and the new, not because he failed to prove what he is up to, but because he is living in another dimension, spiritual one that fills his mind, thoughts and his senses, and that satisfies his soul with a satisfaction that there is nothing can be added to it from what was before. Here he attains to the spiritual existence which flows from being with Christ in the new life, so the monk no longer feels deprivation or lack of anything, nor does he look behind, for he is busy now with a new far reaching vision that lays in front of him from which he doesn't move his gaze, mind or heart. And the more distance he goes ahead in his spiritual struggle with prayer, fast, vigils and meditation in God's word, the more distant the vision becomes and the more it takes his heart behind her, so he is going ahead without being had enough.

The monk that lives by spirit, eats a grace with every morsel, and drinks the Spirit with every drink of water, so he no longer distinguish between the delicious and the hateful, for the taste of the Spirit makes one loses the taste of the created, and the fullness of the grace is enough with crumbs to fill the belly. Whatever is introduced to him, he receives as if from the hands of Christ, so it will be a blessing for him. … all what concerns him is that he won't get lost from the narrow way upon which the previous happy generations walked and crossed over it through the door of ordeals without complaining, so they were counted worthy of being saved, and help came to them from the most high heavenly holies in time.

2 – Spiritual compensation for leaving marriage, and that also is not a compensation, but it's another step high:

Marriage is a self pleasure, psychological comfort, worldly amusement, human responsibility, life of communion, moral faithfulness, a church sacrament of bodily unity. It's sharing the morsel, thought and responsibility to establish a family and to raise up children. When the disciples saw the instructions about marriage that were put by the Lord difficult and said to him, "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.  For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Matt. 19:10-12). The monk is not like everyone, for he was given not to get married, according to what was said by Christ.

And Paul the apostle said it like that "So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better" (1co 7:38). Here the advantage according to the apostle Paul was described that the whole man's concern is to be given to the Lord.

But the ecclesiastical sacrament which gives man and woman one body in the holy marriage, is compensated by the monk with the sacrament of the Holy Spirit who makes that who adheres to the Lord one spirit with Him, as said St. Paul: "But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit." (1co 6:17).

Monasticism, as a joint unto the Lord, is a gift, as said the Lord: " to whom it is given". And a gift needs to be stirred up: " Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God" (2Ti 1:6). So a gift is heat from God that needs to be stirred up and be kindled, and that is done through prayer, tears with fast and patience to stand at God's door and knock with shouting day and night. For the stirring up of the divine fire and kindling it is very precious, and is a sure guarantee that leads to the Kingdom of God….

And he who submitted his instincts realizes how great is the pride of the holy call to live with Christ, as in a spiritual high esteemed marriage, so, not only his spirit enjoys the Lord's presence and the goodness of talking with Him in a fellowship with secrets that can't be spoken of, but the body also enjoys rest and peace in a satisfaction that is not stained with the feeling of deprivation.

3 – spiritual compensation for the instinct of parenthood which is set to bear family responsibility in giving and sacrifice:

And that is in fact not a compensation, but it's a step higher to what is better and more generalized.

Here also, instead of instincts that are specifically in man to serve his family, and that the father won't be satisfied until he fulfills it and do what they compel him to do, man is given an overflow of unlimited power and a wide gift of parenthood that can't be exhausted to serve the whole world. It doesn't come from instinct and it doesn't aim at the satisfaction of parenthood, but it comes from Christ the worker and the one who wants in us as a father to all humanity. That's why Paul the apostle insisted on calling to celibacy, so that man can give full time to the Lord who works in him to serve all, every human, without discrimination, in a kindled jealousy like fire: " Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?" (2Co 11:29). … here is giving with love, with toil and labor with work, not on the level of satisfaction of paternity instinct nor fulfilling a parental responsibility, but fulfilling a super parental gift that can't be described, empowered by divine power that contains the love and compassion of God himself, hear the apostle Paul describing his eagerness to bear pains and hardships on the like of Christ Himself, and for Him: " Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church" (col1:24).

4 – Spiritual compensation for self inheritance and survival instinct in the world:

In fact that is not a compensation, but a spiritual step up…

The monk cut the extension of his existence in the world and lost intentionally his inheritance, and so bequeathing what he has for he has no one to inherit him, so that he can inherit the kingdom of heaven. For he is no longer the son of his bodily father, but a son of God in Christ: " The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ" (Ro 8:16, 17)…

Struggle in the monastery is against the self that is capable of depriving man from all his striving and his end, if it asked for survival and perpetuity upon the dust of the earth, and that is when she demands her pleasures. So the apostle John who wrote the Apocalypse exhorts us by the mouth of Christ: " He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son" (Rev. 21:7). What shall the monk overcome? But the world which is still pulling him towards the dust through his instincts! And what shall he inherit if he overcomes? But Christ Himself! For when Christ wanted to encourage and empower us against the world, He reassured us saying: " but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (Joh 16:33) … and so Christ evaluated caring for God as death for the world. Is not this why He said: " If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross (his death), and follow me!!" (Mat16:24)…

So, the spirituality of the desert is life according to the gospel and the commandments of the Lord Jesus under the leadership of the Holy Spirit under the guidance of a spiritual experienced father to deliver to him the secrets of the way. And they were summarized by the fathers in three words: poverty, obedience and chastity.

Glory be to our God for ever. Amen.

[1] Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, Introduction: p. 3.

[2]   The biography of St. Antony by Pope Athanasius the apostolic.

[3]  Father Matthew the Poor: St. Antony, an Evangelic Ascetic, 1st print 1972.

[4]  The epistles of St. Antony.

[5] virtues of Avva Maggar 171.

[6]  The Epistles of St. Antony.

[7]  Taken from an essay: Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology, by Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, Liturgical Press, USA 1991.


[8]  Ibid. (commandment 76:377)

[9]  Ibid. (commandment 6:276)

[10]  Ibid. (commandment 48:234)

[11]  Ibid. (St. Makarius 8:69-70; 14:93)

[12]  Monastic life in few words: private diaries of the monks of the monastery, father Matthew the Poor.

[13]  Father Matthew the Poor: Monastic instructions (1) secret transformations in the monk's life and positions of failure and recidivism.


Abouna Youhanna

Abouna Youhanna


Articles by Abouna Youhanna

Desert Spirituality and Mission: Coptic Perspectives (19/04/2016)

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