During the fourth and fifth centuries, the laboratories for Christian monasticism were in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. Many of these desert communities emphasized prayer as a life continually attuned to God. Monks and hermits practiced solitude, silence, hospitality, asceticism, fasting, and charity. These desert fathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, gave advice and counsel to those who came to them with the request "Give me a word."

These sayings are filled with ethical injunctions, parables, and folk wisdom. For example: "Abba Poeman said that Abba John said that the saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them."

All of us are distracted while praying. Here is an insightful tip from Abba Nilus: "Do not be always wanting everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases, then you will be undisturbed and thankful in your prayer." Anyone who has experienced a dark night of the soul will find sympathetic souls amongst the abbas and ammas. Sometimes their advice seems thoroughly contemporary and right on target. Here's a good one: Abba Bessarion tells a brother who asks him what he should do: "Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others."