The Desert Fathers: A Sad Omission of the Black Church

 

One of the first books I received when I converted to the Orthodox Church was “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” Only briefly in Malcolm X’s autobiography did I see any mention that we should even consider knowing about them.  I have read and been familiar with black liberation theology.  But, authors such as Cone and Willmore seemed more willing to use Barth, Tillich, and even Marx as material of how we should consider the place of religion in the black community rather than the wisdom of St. Moses the Black and his contemporaries.  In my years as a Baptist pastor, there was discussion of the latest books and sermons from the latest Christian ministers.  Yet, I can’t say that I had ever heard my former colleagues discuss lessons from the Life of St. Anthony or the Homilies of St. Macarius.  I think this lack of knowledge of the Desert Fathers is detrimental to black Protestantism in a couple of ways.

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Denial of the Desert Fathers gives black Christians a lack of an ancient African Christian perspective that we can present to those in our community who are looking for disciplined spiritual path to God.  In the Nation of Islam, Hebrew Israelites, and other beliefs in our community, black men (in particular) are drawn by the challenge of having to read prescribed sets of scriptures and offer prayers that have been handed down for hundreds of years.  While we can point out how Elijah Muhammad, Samuel Crowder, and others do not represent ancient truths; at least they have not turned Islam and Judaism into places of entertainment and emotional release as modern churches have done.  Brothers who are in these faiths are tired of sacredness that constantly tries to mold it’s self into a secular form.  They have no interest in ministers and ministries that are busy keeping up with popular trends.  They want a path of spirituality rooted in something ancient.  The current black church has become too contemporary.

The black church can say, with absolute accuracy, that Jesus was not a blonde haired man with blue eyes and pale skin.  But, what is the point of saying that when they offer no writings (or images) of early Christians that were African?  There are books and writings by the monks of Egypt that would open the eyes of black men to further develop lives of spiritual discipline with prayer, fasting, and challenging ways to consider the scriptures.  Indeed, there are old Coptic, Ethiopian, and even Byzantine and Eastern European icons where Christ, Mary, and the saints look like us.  If black churches put these books and images in the hands of black men, they could be used not only to put brothers back in the pews.  Even more so, they may become stronger Christians as they have authentic tools to help them in this effort.  But, too many in the black clergy and laity are more interested in modern styles rather than ancient spiritual substance.

During Black History Month, church bulletin boards are loaded with pictures of King, Obama, Robinson, Tubman, and Truth.  But, very rarely is there one image of Athanasius, the African bishop who (in 367 AD) put together a list of 27 books he requested the clergy under him to use in worship services.  Though not one of the Desert Fathers himself, Athanasius was under the tutelage of St. Anthony the Great.  And before he accepted the office of bishop, he consulted with the monks that had aided him.  Of all the black inventions from the hot comb to the “super soaker” water gun, very rarely do black Christians speak of the New Testament, the list made by Athanasius, being canonized by the Church at a council in Carthage in 398 AD.  The black church does a poor job of showing how ancient and black Christianity is.  It is a strange thing to say, “Everything I need to know about God is in the Bible,” when you don’t know where the Bible came from and some of the people who it came from looked just like you.

The light of the Desert Fathers could not be hidden.  Arsenius the Roman aristocrat left his power and wealth to come to Egypt and was a disciple of John the Dwarf.  Before becoming one of the Great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil spent time with the monks in Africa and the Middle East.  The Golden Mouthed John Chrysostom spoke highly of the wisdom of Egyptian monks.  John Cassian, Benedict, and others learned from African monastics and built monasteries in Europe.  To this day, Orthodox and traditionally minded Catholics and high church Protestants point back to the words of Desert Fathers as a help to them in the struggle to overcome personal sin and oppression from outside forces.   Where is the advantage of modern black churches not learning from them as well?  Eugene Rose, a southern California intellectual, read the works of ancient saints including those from Africa.  He became Russian Orthodox and helped publish a magazine that was smuggled into communist nations to help oppressed Christians there keep the faith.  Today, Fr. Seraphim Rose is highly regarded in Eastern Europe and has been an influence on many American converts to Orthodoxy.  In this time of so many social ills in the black community, why don’t we need to know the wisdom Rose learned to help us keep our hands in God’s hand?  Modern black Christians can benefit from these ancient words just as white Christians did in their time of suffering.

There is a growing movement of African-Americans to argue that Christianity is a mere copy of stories from Egyptian religions.  Osiris is also said to have been resurrected from the dead and that his mother, Isis, conceived him miraculously as well.  Some would say that Emperor Constantine and other Romans and Byzantines forced Christianity on the Egyptians and other North Africans as far south as Ethiopia.  Of course this is false.  The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 was the first Christian of that nation.  The Apostle Matthew evangelized in that kingdom.  Mark the Gospel writer established the church in Egypt.  African martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage, Maurice of Thebes, Perpetua and Felicity were killed by pagan Romans long before Constantine was even born.  Paul of Thebes, Anthony the Great and other men and women fled to the desert to pursue the spiritual life before Constantine saw any vision of the cross.  And even after becoming Christian, the only city where he had a heavy hand against pagan worship was in his new Roman capital, Constantinople.  But, when modern black Christians do not know about the Desert Fathers or anything else in ancient African Christian history, they are easy prey for those who argue against them.  Sticking one’s head in the sand and saying, “Well, I don’t see all that in the Bible,” is not answering any questions.  Denying a need to reveal the real and whole story of African Christian is stirring up dissatisfaction with the black Church and is helping to cause more of us to leave.

Granted, there was no way for our slave ancestors to have known about ancient African Christians.  Nor were there very many opportunities for those growing up in the Jim Crow era to learn about such history and wisdom.  During the Civil Rights Movement, we were too busy dealing with fire hoses and police dogs to read and contemplate anything from the Desert Fathers.  But, what possible excuse do we have now not to learn about these men and their writings?  Yes, there is still racism in America.  But, no one is stopping us from reading and studying this material that has existed for almost two thousand years.

It is high time for African-American Christians to reclaim this vital element of who we are in the faith.  Books such as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Fifty Homilies of St. Macarius, and the Life of St. Anthony the Great are not that hard to order online.  The Coptic Agbeya and Ethiopian Glory of the Kings are also available to anyone who wants them.  Ancient writings such as St. John Cassian’s Institutes and the influential volumes of the Philokalia have a wealth of wisdom from African and Middle Eastern Christians.  More modern Orthodox writers such as Ignatius Brianchaninov, and Seraphim Rose also made use of many quotes from black saints and scholars.  The black community is asking spiritual questions of its church.  I believe we should look to our past for answers.   

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One thought on “The Desert Fathers: A Sad Omission of the Black Church

  1. As a practicing contemplative Christian of mixed (including African) ancestry, I appreciate your article. My spiritual tradition heavily relies on works of Ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers. I find myself asking why these teachers are wholeheartedly embraced in all but Black churches. God Speed on your work and research.

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