More than 1,700 years ago, a man called Antony moved into the desert. The son of rich landowners, Antony—who would later be known as Saint Antony the Great—took what he read in Matthew 19:21 literally: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven.” He became a hermit, sacrificing all worldly goods with the sole intention of knowing God better.
Antony developed a reputation as a man of great virtue and wisdom (as well as being a little eccentric) and Christians desperate to know God in a more intimate ways followed his example shortly after. These communities became early examples of the monastic lifestyle, and those who gathered around Antony are often known as then Desert Fathers. People would travel from far and wide to listen to the wisdom and guidance for how to live from of these mystical figures.
While selling everything and moving to the middle of nowhere might not be what God wants you to do with your life, there is still much we can learn from these pioneers of the faith, and plenty of aspects of their community we can incorporate into our own walks with God. Here are some words of wisdom to increase the effectiveness of your prayer life from the Desert Fathers themselves.
1. Silence is golden
“I have often been sorry that I have spoken, but never that I have been silent.”
In a world that is rapidly becoming noisier and noisier, we would do well to heed this advice. One of the central characteristics of the Desert Fathers was their dedication to silence, to stilling the heart of words and thoughts in order to better engage and be in relationship with God.
As counter-cultural in their day as it is now, the decision to live a silent life is a difficult one. In our own lives, we can learn to be silent more often. To be slower to respond to others, to allow ourselves a chance to reflect before shooting off the first idea that pops into our head. To turn off our phones from time to time, to enjoy the moment we are in rather than constantly seeking out other thrills. To simply sit in God’s presence, not asking or demanding anything but resting in Him, or as the Desert Fathers put it, “empty your mind.”
2. Seek wisdom
“To please God … keep him in mind, whatever you do.”
The Desert Fathers were such a draw to so many because they seemed to emanate wisdom. Their works have remained popular with Christians throughout the generations because of the pearls wisdom found within. Where did this wisdom come from? Time spent seeking God’s will.
The Desert Fathers were wise because they were committed to being in God’s presence as much as they possible could. They sought the wisdom of God not out of pride or self-worth, but because they recognized their need of it.
Wise people are rare, and once you find them, you never want to let them go. Surrounding yourself with people who know God can influence how you prioritize your prayers and what you bring to God in your life.
3. Humility over success matters
“Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.”
The Desert Fathers reject earthly goods and pleasures for a variety of reasons, not least out of an act of humility. Their pursuit of humility was noble – if at times counterproductive (there is a danger in being so focussed on attaining humility that one becomes rather proud of their pursuit).
But the Fathers genuinely recognized that there is no room for the prideful in the Kingdom of God. They believed humility to be the starting point of the journey deeper into God, and for them that meant selling everything and relying on each other and, at times, the kindness of strangers. C.S. Lewis famously said that humility “isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” His remarks are very close to the attitude the Desert Fathers took—put others first.
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously
There is a wonderful story of two Desert Fathers that goes like this: Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, “Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as is the way of men.” The other answered, “I don’t know how a quarrel happens.” The first said, “Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, that’s mine. Then you say, no, it’s mine. That is how you begin a quarrel.” So they put a brick between them, and one of them said, “That’s mine.” The other said, “No, it’s mine.” He answered, “Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.” They were unable to argue with each other.
The point of that story is to show the harmony that comes from living so close to God, but it also serves to remind us that sometimes, things don’t have to be as complicated as we make them out to be. There are times to be serious and also times to laugh, and to remember that God has seen it all before and that our desperate attempts to do the right thing are often worthy of a laugh or two.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
5. Make your relationship with God your priority
“Be joyful at all times and give thanks for all things.”
Anyone who visited the Desert Fathers would have noticed one thing above all else: These were people whose focus was on God and God alone. Their minds were not divided or distracted. They were at peace with their Lord and at peace (mostly) with one another. Their choice of lifestyle may have been drastic, but it allowed them to focus on God in a way no other way of living would have.
The heart of their message is to put God first, to prioritize Him above all things. No matter what shape our lives take, this is something we can and should aim for – and if we do, God will meet us in new and powerful ways.