The topic of this issue confronted us with three major problems, each of which we tackled, as we are wont, by examining books.

Ancient documents

The first problem had to do with the veracity of the fantastic stories told about the desert monks. Many modern historians are automatically cynical about any extraordinary event recorded in ancient documents. We tend to view these stories on a case-by-case basis, making judgments at least partly by a careful reading of the earliest accounts. Sometimes a miracle that sounds crazy in summary form (someone rising from the dead, e.g.), actually sounds credible when you read the original sources (the Gospels, e.g.).

Five key primary source documents for the desert fathers are these:

(1) Athanasius's Life of Antony,

(2) The History of the Monks of Egypt (a.k.a, Historia Monachorum en Aegypto),

(3) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,

(4) Cyril of Scythopolis's The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, and

(5) John Cassian's Conferences.

You'll find portions of (2) and (3), as well as other ancient histories, in Helen Waddell's The Desert Fathers (Vintage, 1998); Owen Chadwick's, Western Asceticism (Westminster, 1958) contains translations of (3) and (5).

Benedicta Ward's The Lives of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian, 1980) is a full translation of (2) and R. M. Price's Cyril of Scythopolis: The Lives of the Monks of Palestine (Cistercian, 1991) is what it says it is, as is Robert C. Gregg's translation of Athanasius: The Life of Antony (Paulist, 1980).

Fortunately, all these are modern, accessible translations and fascinating reads.

In addition, you can find older translations of these documents on the Internet. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library ( has Cassian's Conferences (, ...

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