Agape Love in the Desert Fathers

by Travis Pickell

The Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries were famous for their asceticism and their heroic world-denying practices. They sold all that they had in order to achieve the higher perfection that Jesus commends to the rich young man (of course, their way of interpreting this verse differed widely from Clement of Alexandria, who preferred to “spiritualize” the meaning of Jesus’s command).  They moved into the desert in order to “mortify the body and [keep] it under subjection” and to (quite literally) wrestle with their demons.[1] The goal of such askesis was the purification of the soul and the attainment of a particular sort of virtue or perfection—a mixture of Stoic resolve and Christian humility. It was said of Antony, after he emerged from 20 years of solitude in a cave in the desert that “when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.”[2]

Such a description seems to tend toward a self-regarding ethic that focuses on one’s own welfare (spiritual, not material). What seems most remarkable about the ethic of the desert fathers, however, is the place of other-regarding love. This is most explicit in the sayings of the desert fathers XVII.xviii:

“A brother asked a certain old man, saying, ‘There be two brothers, and one of them is quiet in his cell, and prolongs his fast for six days, and lays much travail on himself: but the other tends the sick. Whose work is the more acceptable to God?’ And the old man answered, “If that brother who carries his fast for six days were to hang himself up b the nostrils, he could not equal the other, who does service to the sick.”

In addition to service and hospitality toward those outside the monastic vocation, many of the desert fathers also stress the importance of compassion and grace toward those who are struggling against their own demons. Older men and women are not to be harsh toward younger ones, but are “to have compassion on those who are harassed by temptations of this sort” (V.iv.). There is a recognition, at least from the wisest fathers, that temptation comes to different people in different ways, but it does indeed come to all. The tone is certainly far from that of Tertullian, who does not seem to be the most patient and graceful of church fathers.[3]

My favorite demonstration of love in the sayings of the fathers occurs when a young man, beset by repeated temptations of lust, visits an old man (elder?) for help. The old man comforts him until his temptations go away. After returning to his cell the young man is again tempted and returns to the old man who comforts him again. We are told that this happens eleven times, until the old man said “Believe me, my son, if God permitted the thoughts which my own mind is stung to be transferred to thee… thou wouldst dash thyself headlong” (V.xiii.). So it was that by his “great humbleness, [the old man] did quiet the goading of lust in the brother.” Here is a picture of gentleness, patience, compassion, and humility. Rather than banishing the young man as a distraction from prayer and asceticism, the old man cares for him and identifies with him. This saying of the desert father shows me what mentorship and accountability can look like in Christian community, and it encourages me to aspire to it in my own life.


[1] See Athanasius, Life of St. Antony, 36-40.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Of course, the desert fathers are talking about the young monk wrestling with temptation—not the penitent monk admitting to outright sin. I would be interested to know if there are sayings of the desert fathers that deal with the latter topic.

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