In 1979, Ken Davis published an article that outline the characteristics of an orthodox Charismatic movement (as opposed to heretical ones), and then proposed that the 16th Century Anabaptists were such a movement. Taking up his work, I see the 4th Century Desert Fathers and Mothers were another such movement. This series explores those characteristics and shows how they were expressed among the Desert Saints.
Expectancy in Orthodox Movements
The first, and preeminent, characteristic of an orthodox charismatic movement that Davis identifies is an expectancy that the Spirit works with the same power today as in the time of Christ and the apostles. In particular, they believe that all of the gifts of the Spirit described in the New Testament, including the so-called “miraculous gifts” continue to be operative today. Without this conviction, the movement in question, whether orthodox or heretical, is not truly charismatic.
Some of the desert literature contains an explicit defence for the possibility of miraculous activity after the biblical age:
Were not the holy prophets and apostles, who have handed to us the power to do such things, men themselves? Or was God present then, but is now away on a journey? God can always do these things, for with him nothing is impossible.
However, a more common approach was to defend the practice implicitly by citing examples of the miraculous in the lives of the abbas and ammas.
There are numerous accounts of spiritual gifts in the four sources under consideration, representing the full range of gifts described in the New Testament. In the desert vocabulary these divine endowments are called “gifts”, “charisms” or “graces”. The four main lists of spiritual gifts can be found in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4, although there are scattered references to spiritual gifts elsewhere in the New Testament. Of these gifts, the so-called “miraculous” gifts that are found most frequently in the literature of the Desert Fathers are prophecy/knowledge/ wisdom, healing and exorcism.
The revelatory gifts of prophecy, wisdom and knowledge are the most commonly cited miraculous gift in the desert literature. Many abbas exhibited the gift of prediction – fore-telling future events12 – or clairvoyance – perceiving present events at a distance. Clairvoyance was less frequently cited than prediction, presumably because it lay within the power of demons, while true prediction was beyond their ability, and thus a more reliable sign of God’s activity. The gift of knowledge or wisdom is also mentioned in the literature, albeit less frequently. Healings and exorcisms were also widely reported.
However, the desert spiritual gift par excellence was discretion, or the ability “in a specific situation to know what to do and how to do it”. It was understood to belong to the cluster of prophecy, wisdom and knowledge, which are not so finely differentiated from one another in the desert literature. The most common expression of this gift was the giving of a “word” – a kind of “word of knowledge” or “word of wisdom” whereby the abba would be able to supernaturally discern what particular advice a young monk he had never met before would need to follow in order to progress most rapidly in virtue. Discretion was so characteristic of the fathers that it was the possession of this gift that made an abba worthy of the title. One potential account of the gift of tongues is found in an episode recorded in the Historia Monachorum:
By grace the man had a competent knowledge of three languages, being able to read Greek, Latin and Coptic, as many told us, and as we discovered from the father himself. For knowing that we were strangers, he wrote on a slate, giving thanks to God for our visit.
It is unclear from context whether these languages had been learned through natural means or not. However, the phrase “by grace” elsewhere in the Historia Monachorum implies a spiritual gift. It is also interesting to note that the father did not write in an unknown or angelic tongue, but rather a foreign tongue (i.e. xenolalia as found in Acts 2, as opposed to the glossolalia in 1 Corinthians 14). In any case, speaking in tongues was not a common charismatic expression in the desert.
The miraculous activities of the Desert Fathers were not limited to the spiritual gifts found in the various lists in the New Testament. They would imitate the acts of the Old Testament prophets, the apostles or even Christ himself. Some could commune with or command animals, since their purity had restored the Adamic authority over the created order. Others were immune to poisonous creatures, like the “snake-handling” described in Mark 16:18 or Paul’s episode with the viper in Acts 28:2-6. Some had faces that shone like angels, as did Moses in Exodus 34:29-35, or were seen wreathed in fire like the saints in the upper room at Pentecost in Acts 2:3. Antony was physically assaulted by demons and eventually vindicated by God – just like Job. Some prayed for food or water in the desert, echoing Israel’s experience in the Sinai wilderness. Bessarion made salt water fresh and made the sun stand still like Moses, and walked across water like Peter. Despite the negative connotation in 1 Samuel 28, a number interrogated the dead. Some subsisted entirely on food miraculously provided by angels like Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4-8. Apollo was freed from prison by an angel the way the apostles were in Acts 5:19, Peter in Acts 12:7 and Paul in Acts 16:26. Some even raised the dead. The abbas and ammas took seriously the prediction of Jesus recorded in John 14:12: “anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works” (NLT).
However, the Fathers were not uncritical about miracles. Many cautionary tales warn how monks could be led astray by visions, underscoring the need for such experiences to be tested carefully. They recognized that the revelatory experience is the beginning of the discernment process, not the end. It was also considered inappropriate to marvel at the miraculous acts of an abba or amma who could exorcise demons or heal the sick. Instead, the young monk was called to imitate the miracle worker’s disciplined lifestyle, which was considered more important. Furthermore, the non-miraculous gifts were not neglected by the Fathers. Hospitality was held in very high regard, as demonstrated by various injunctions to forgo one’s usual ascetic regimen in order to entertain visitors. Giving generously to the poor, especially from the fruit of one’s own manual labour, was also practiced extensively. Service was important, whether serving other monks or non-Christians as a form of witness. The abbas would also frequently exercise the gift of encouragement, often with young monks who were on the verge of giving up the desert life in despair due to their failures. These gifts were practiced as much as the miraculous gifts, and valued equally as demonstrations of spiritual maturity. This point is made in one story where a monk asked an abba to pray for him so that he might be granted some spiritual gift. The result was that he was granted, not a gift of healing or prophecy, but rather the gift of gentleness.
Expectancy in Heretical Movements
Heretical charismatic movements, on the other hand, take this expectancy of the Holy Spirit’s activity today to the extreme. These movements are “ultrasupernaturalist”, believing that the only way the Spirit works is miraculously, thereby denigrating natural faculties, human institutions, and even the “mundane” spiritual gifts.
One place where the Fathers exhibit ultrasupernaturalism is in the routinization of the miraculous. This is particularly evident in the accounts contained in the Historia Monachorum. As mentioned above, there are accounts in this book of abbas only ate food provided by angels, some for a period of decades. Two monasteries purportedly had hundreds of monks, each of whom could perform miracles. Other abbas were reputed to have been instantly granted anything they asked of God. Such accounts not only strain credulity, they also indicate that the Desert Fathers were vulnerable to ultrasupernaturalism. However, in the Sayings there is consistent theme that manual work should not be neglected for more “spiritual” pursuits, demonstrating that this tendency had a limit.
Another common symptom of ultrasupernaturalism is anti-intellectualism. Exaggerating the biblical idea that “your thoughts are not my thoughts”, human wisdom is understood to be antithetical to godly wisdom. The result is the neglect of, or even active antagonism towards, human learning.
The desert fathers appear to denigrate human learning and abilities at certain points. Even though Antony couldn’t read, he had a perfect memory for Scripture, which replaced books for him. He also taught that “You do not need to go abroad for education like the Greeks do, for the Kingdom of God is within you”. Despite being illiterate, Antony intellectually bested the Greek philosophers who visited him; he then demonstrated the powerlessness of their philosophy by exorcising demons. Another illiterate father was taught the Scriptures “by his conscience”, and thereby surpassing “all the ancients in knowledge of the Scriptures”. Secular education was considered valueless in the pursuit of virtue:
Someone said to blessed Arsenius, ‘How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get no-where, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?’ Abba Arsenius said to him, ‘We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.’
Even worse, being “full of learning” could lead to apostasy if not accompanied by a “a hunger for the Word”. In another account, the “reading of books” was denigrated together with “the abundance of delights” and “the possession of houses”.
However, there is another stream of teaching in the Fathers that emphasized the need for learning from others. It was considered dangerous to separate oneself from the teaching and company and help of holy men. When one monk believed that he needed no teachers “but Christ himself”, he was revealed to be suffering from pride. The great learning of certain monks was admired and reading of spiritually helpful books was encouraged. However, others taught that it was better to give your (very expensive) books away because supporting the poor and embracing poverty was even better than reading spiritually profitable books. Therefore, the Desert Fathers were not anti-intellectual per se; they were simply wary of learning that was unmatched by piety.