Who are the desert fathers?

The desert fathers (and mothers!) were the pioneers of monastic life in the Church. Beginning in the third century, some Christians began to flee the comforts and conflicts of pagan cities to seek a life of asceticism in the desert. They sought a simpler life, in imitation of Christ during his forty days in the wilderness, and dedicated themselves to solitude, labor, poverty, fasting, charity and prayer. Some of them lived in isolation; others developed rules for communal life that evolved into large monastic communities. Over time their reputation for holiness grew, and Christians from the surrounding areas sought them out for advice and spiritual direction.

Some of them became great spiritual giants and teachers in the history of the Church: they include St. Anthony the Great, St. Pachomius and St. Athanasius (in Egypt) and St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina (in Asia Minor.) Their influence in the Church has been deeply felt though the centuries, particularly as monasticism and religious life developed; ancient collections of their sayings have carried their wisdom down through the centuries. One popular collection today is The Wisdom of the Desert, compiled by Thomas Merton.