The desert fathers is the name given to the earliest Christian monks and hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert from around 200 AD(CE) to 500 CE.
Most students of this movement have concluded that several forces caused a large number of people to move to remote desert regions to pursue their Christianity. One factor was Christian persecution. Another factor was a desire to live a life modeled after such bible figures as John the Baptist or Elijah who often withdrew to the desert and wilderness (see dryness). Thus it was felt that by moving to a secluded inhospitable environment a person could seek God without the distractions of “the world”. The third (and largest) factor was the changes that occurred in Christianity once it became a favored religion in the Roman Empire after the “conversion” of the emperor Constantine.
The history of the desert fathers merges with legend, but several very reliable sources of first hand observation are known, including early church fathers such as Athanasius and Cassian. A reliable book that introduces the history of the desert fathers is “The Desert Fathers” by Helen Waddell.
The desert fathers, as the first monks, became the forerunners of the medieval monastic movement. The principles they lived by became the foundation of nearly all later holiness practices. The most important principles were self denial, solitude and silence, mortification, and prayer. The goal of their lives can be summed up in 3 “stages”: purgation, illumination, union.
Purgation refers to the purification of motive, thought and action. That is, all worldly pleasure, power, distraction, status, ambition and accomplishment, was renounced. Additionally, legitimate morally neutral human activities, such as marriage and family, were surrendered in the attempt be pure of the “flesh”.
Illumination refers to the light of God that was the result of purgation and prayer. That is, the person became a “friend of God” and was given wisdom and understanding from Him. This wisdom helped the monk have a single minded devotion, a peaceful heart, contentment and right motives. In some cases this wisdom was testified to by the Holy Spirit as some notable desert fathers were led back to society and were very influential in counsel and church doctrine.
Union with God is a state of oneness with God perceived as a united will and spirit. It does not refer to the heretical notion that somehow the person becomes divine (see mysticism).