A Side-Journey with the Desert Fathers; Exploring Unceasing Prayer. Part One: Introduction.

Saint Anthony the Great is widely known as the “Father of Monks” for his witness and example of the earliest Christian monastic practice in the Egyptian desert. Yet even Anthony himself went out to the desert and met those who were already practicing the ascetic and eremitical life. He inherited a tradition of the pursuit of communion with God, the bios angelica, and transmitted this tradition to others through his life and teachings.[1] Just as Anthony received this tradition, the modern reader may also be brought into the presence of the earliest witnesses of the monastic life through the lives of the Desert Fathers. The sayings and deeds of the Desert Fathers are collected in two different collections, one arranged alphabetically according to the names of the sage (referred to as an abba or amma) and another collection of apothegms that are arranged according to twelve different themes. These texts bring to life the sayings, ascetical practices, and theological views of the earliest monastic tradition through small pericopes that display their teaching and practice. It is the latter collection, the Apophthegmata Systematica, from which our examination of the practice of unceasing prayer will come.

To understand the preeminent role that prayer plays in the monastic life and the way in which it aids in a reditus to God in the contemplative life, it is important to have at least an introductory knowledge of monastic methodology. While developed and elucidated in varying ways throughout its early history, the purpose of monastic life is the practice of ascesis (discipline) in order to overcome vice, to put one’s thoughts (logismoi) and passions (pathos) in their right order, and to grow in virtue and communion with God. The first steps of ascesis, known as the purgative way, lays the foundation for one to continue on toward the illuminative way in which one, having attained a control and order of their logismoi and pathos, sets in proper order the matters of the world, thereby reaching a state of apatheia in relation to matters of the mind and of the world.[2] Through this co-operation with God’s grace, one may reach the unitive way (contemplatio; Greek: θεωρία) in which they may participate in the divine life of contemplation, the bios angelikos. If contemplatio is the telos, then apotheia is the skopos by which one arrives.

The Apophthegmata, then, is a collection of stories and teachings of how the earliest eremitic Christians would travel this path from the purgative way to the unitive way in pursuit of contemplatio, which is itself a divine and unmerited grace. Central to this path and the last precipice for one to crest in reaching contemplatio was prayer. Yet simple prayer performed at certain hours is a far cry from the biblical mandate to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), a mandate that was central to the monk’s pursuit of contemplatio. Cassian would later say that “the whole purpose of the monk and indeed the perfection of his heart amount to this – total and uninterrupted dedication to prayer” (Conferences, 9.2). It is this particular difficulty of unceasing prayer that we will examine in the next post – along with how it may be done and what hindrances arise.

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[1]  Apophthegmata and Athanasius’ The Life of Antony.

[2] For a more thorough understanding of apatheia, see Evagrius, Praktikos, 57ff.

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