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.

Building Others Up

While they stoutly affirm the availability of spiritual gifts today, orthodox charismatic movements also have a very specific understanding of the purpose of the spiritual gifts: to build others up. They are not meant for private, individualistic gratification, and especially not for self-aggrandizement.

The Desert Fathers shared this conviction. The overall purpose of the desert literature was to encourage the reader to pursue the virtuous life. Many of the editors begin the accounts with an explicit declaration that their goal was not to glorify the subjects, but rather to urge the reader on in the monastic way. Within the accounts themselves, there a references to the priority of edification over wonder-working. Antony’s primary ministry was urging others onto virtue, not performing miracles.

Many of the gifts described above were used to build others up. The gift of discretion was exercised exclusively to admonish or encourage the recipient of the “word”, and many stories conclude with the young monk leaving edified by the encounter. The related gift of discerning the nature of those spirits attacking a monk was also helpful because it identified the proper countermeasures to adopt in order to withstand their temptations. The priest Eulogius used his gift of knowledge to save monks from taking the Lord’s Supper impiously. Miracles persuaded pagans to convert and confronted  heretics. The exercise of miraculous gifts in the desert was not flippant or self-glorifying; its purpose was to glorify God and edify others.

Those monks who could work miracles were cautioned not to be proud or indiscriminately demonstrate their power to everyone. The desert literature contains many references to abbas who would do all they could to hide their miraculous gifts or divest themselves of the reputation they had gained:

A woman had an illness they call cancer of the breast; she had heard of Abba Longinus and wanted to meet him…When she met him, she said to him, ‘Abba, where does Abba Longinus, the servant of God live?’ not knowing that it was he. He said, ‘Why are you looking for that old imposter? Do not go to see him, for he is a deceiver. What is the matter with you?’ The woman showed where she was suffering. He made the sign of the cross over the sore and sent her away saying, ‘Go, and God will heal you, for Longinus cannot help you at all.’ The woman went away confident in this saying, and she was healed on the spot. Later, telling others what had happened and mentioning the distinctive marks of the old man, she learned that it was Abba Longinus himself.

The abbas took these sometimes extreme steps to shed their popularity in order protect themselves from vainglory or others from idolatry, to maintain their solitude, or to ensure that they were not rewarded in this life so that they could be rewarded in the next. These danger were deemed to be so great that they deemed it worth the risk of transgressing the commandment not to bury one’s talent.

This tendency to hide their gifts has caused some to brand the Desert Fathers as self-centred escapists, individualistically pursuing their own spiritual good while ignore the needs of those back in the cities. However, in addition to their support of the poor – for which some monks engaged in manual work all the year through – the abbas performed another important function for others. In antiquity, the desert was considered the realm of the demonic, as shown by the wilderness setting for Jesus’s temptations as well as some of his encounters with demoniacs. Thus, the desert monks went out into the desert to bring the fight to the enemy. They shielded the villages and cities with their prayers. For example, Antony’s death was seen as the cause of the various calamities of 356, since his prayers were no longer protecting the Christians in the city. The abbas and ammas imitated their Saviour, who both withdrew to solitary places to pray and engaged the Enemy on his home ground.