O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.
Your power and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens.
You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?
20 You who have made me see so many troubles and calamities will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.
21 You will increase my honour, and comfort me once again. from a sermon by Chris Cheah; 13th Feb 2005, the paragraph about St Antony. It's worth another look, especially the additional notes.
The 'desert fathers' (and mothers) refers to one of the most impressive counter-culture movements in history. During the fourth century AD, that is about 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, people from all over the Roman empire started moving into the Egyptian desert to find wisdom and meaning and a way to God. They were following the lead of St Antony. In the middle of the third century AD, at the age of 20 young Antony inherited a comfortable living on the family estate on the Nile river, but decided to give it all away and live an ascetic kind of life. He started off in a fairly conventional way for the time, by living in a house on the edge of town and talking to other ascetics. But he become progressively more radical, moving first into an old tomb for 15 years, where he reputedly had encounters with demons. He then decided that even this was too comfortable and he moved into a deserted fort in the desert where he became the first Christian 'super-hermit'. Perhaps even more weirdly, other people started setting up around him and begged him to come out and teach them. After many years he relented, and came out, to everyone's surprise, looking great. He then spent 7 years setting up the first monastic community, before 'retiring' to the inner desert in Egypt near the Red Sea and dying at the ripe old age of 105.
St Antony obviously struck a chord in a tired out Roman empire and perhaps an even more tired out, occupied Ancient Egypt. What followed was a time of radical experimentation in how to live a Christian life in pursuit of God. In Lower Egypt some people tried living as hermits who lived alone. In Upper Egypt there were monks and nuns tried out living in communities. And in other places some lived in groups of three or four, often as disciples of a master. Also, a number of visitors who were impressed by the life of the monks imitated their way of life as far as they could back home, and also provided a literature that explained and analysed this way of life for those outside it.
This environment produced some of the greatest saints and teachers of early Christianity and it is these people who are generally called the desert fathers. One of them was a fellow called John Cassian who, with a friend of his called Germanus, went, like many young people still seem to, to the East — to the Egyptian deserts which is where one went in those days — to look for the wisest people and the greatest spiritual masters of their time in the desert. St John Cassian (as he became) recorded the conversations he and Germanus had with these masters in what has become known as the Conferences of Cassian.
Cassian's writings were very influential. They were read in other places including later by young Italian called Benedict. St Benedict went on to found the first western monasteries and drew up the Benedictine rule. Thus western monasticism and everything in our church traditions that comes from it, draws heavily on, and explicitly points to, the desert experience.
Here endeth the history lesson.