A Spiritual Formation Reflection: Why did the Desert Fathers Run Deep into the Desert to Reclaim their Culture? Was Running away Cowardly or Courageous?

“In fourth century Egypt, many devout Christians were struggling to survive in a society that seemed to have an unbridled disregard for God.  Like a house burning violently from within, the only choice many devout Christians felt they had was to run for their lives before being consumed by the culture.  They ran to the desert of all places.  They weren’t running away to find a nice patch of grass for a picnic. No, instead they ran deep into the desert to reclaim their culture through spiritual warfare and renewal.  Many of these Egyptian anchorites left the fertile and inhabited regions of the Nile valley or delta to plunge into a desolate wilderness.  The terms anchorite (male) and anchoress (female), came from the Greek word ἀναχωρέω (anachōreō), which signifies ‘to withdraw’, or ‘to depart into the rural countryside.’  These men (and a few women as well) withdrew from society to be able to lead an intensely prayer-oriented ascetic (spiritually disciplined) life.[i] To the anchorite, society was to be considered a wholesale shipwreck, and the only proper response in that scenario is to swim for your life:  ‘These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.’[ii]

These are uncomfortably foreign concepts for many of us today.  Because of our modern perspective, their decision to escape to the desert to seek spiritual renewal might seem cowardly.[iii] Weren’t they being selfish for leaving the people of their cities who were lost without the Gospel to go out into the desert to seek spiritual purification? Shouldn’t they have stuck it out and lived among the culture as salt and light rather than choose to only rely on prayer to do the work of turning their society around?  Or could there be another perspective?  Maybe what they did was not cowardly, but courageous.”

For more perspective on the Desert Fathers and what we can learn from them today, read chapter 9 of Ashley Denton’s book Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory, and Practice.

This blog is an excerpt from Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory, and Practice by Ashley Denton.


[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchorite

[ii] Merton, Thomas. The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century. New Directions, 1960. Print: 3.

[iii] O’Hannay, James. Wisdom of the Desert. Las Vegas: IAP, 2009: Hannay: 10-14.