When discussing Christian history, one always comes to the inception of the monastic movement. The monastic movement, which continues to this day, has far reaching influence on the Christian faith, even though the majority of Christians still think to choose such a life is more than a little odd. Nothing in the Christian faith is more odd than the beginnings of the monastic movement, namely the Desert Fathers and the way in which they chose to live and lead their lives. Shelley reminds us of this genesis.
“The first form of monasticism was the lonely hermit. The word ‘hermit’ comes from the Greek word for ‘desert’ and is a reminder that the monastic flight from the world began in Egypt, where a short journey either east or west from the narrow ribbon of Nile fertility would put the monk in a rigorous desert” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 118).
This movement to the desert was a profound moment in the church. These Christians went from a struggling, rough day-to-day life to now being pampered by the empire at large. Constantine the Emperor instead of persecuting Christians, became one and also became highly involved with the church and her affairs. Many men felt that the Christian life was supposed to be about struggle, that this ultimate struggle is what made the disciples great. With the loss of struggle, there were all kinds of evil waiting to get into the church. So some fled to the desert, into a forced, self-inflicted struggle where they would be forced to wrestle with the forces of darkness alone and in the dangerous terrain of the desert.
To emphasize this point, Shelley states: “The hermit often fled, then, not so much from the world as from the world in the church” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 118). What a bold way of life! These men were of course seen as crazy men and much of the majority sought to ignore them, but there was still a mystifying air about these men. Choosing to live in the desert, choosing to struggle for daily sustenance was something rarely done. So, as we will see many people flocked to see these men, some desired to join but very few ended up living in this manner.
Before we delve deeper into the lives of these desert fathers, I personally must confess my own intrigue at these men and I can’t help but see how we in Western, American Christianity look a lot like the Roman Christians under Constantine. We BEG for a President who is so like-minded as us that we would even seek to raise up a cult leader just so our “Christian Ideals” are met in our country. I struggle deeply with the false face of many Christians in our church culture. I struggle with seeing our churches so overrun with culture that we forget the power of God living within us by the indwelling spirit. I wrestle with how to change such moods, and actions of Christians so in a way I can see why these men fled to the desert.
I personally like the comforts of shelter, food and football that I would not likely leave all of that and flee to the desert but I can surely understand the rationale. Seeing the church, the Bride of Christ turn in their scars for political favors was probably disorienting at best and maddening at worst. Before this reading of these men, I was inclined to write them off as lunatics who were to fanatical about their faith. Now however, I see a deeper reasoning for their eccentricity. They were mourning a season in the life of the church in the West. The church in the West would never be the same, true, honest, persecuted church it once was. It would now see corruption, political correctness as well as political scheming. In some way, I believe the desert fathers foresaw some of this and ran into the desert.
What was it about struggle that was so attractive to these men? Sittser reminds us: “They believed that struggle is normal, necessary and even healthy in the spiritual life” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 74). Struggle was in fact the essence of their flight to the desert. It was to struggle: with themselves, with the devil, with God and with the elements they found themselves living within. These men believed that we shouldn’t flee struggle; “Rather, we should embrace it as one aspect of our calling to discipleship, for the goal of life in this world is not ease, prosperity and success but intimacy with God, maturity of character, and influence in the world” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 74).
That last quote continues to hit me right in the gut. The faith of these men was just off the charts, how often is the Christian western message about the very things they were against? Such things as ease, prosperity and success are main sermon driving messages that many preachers put together willy-nilly from the Scriptures! Yet, these men purposefully walked away from even the temptation of those things to seek the better things: intimacy with God, maturity of character and influence! I confess that I’ve been doing my own introspection through this reading, I’ve been looking at my “Christians goals” and even though I may not seek them consciously, I know I seek the wrong things in practice and living.
The devotional life of these men was of the charts. In particular one man, who stands out to me, is St. Antony. Antony heard a passage of Scripture that called him to sell all he had and give it to the poor, which he did in increments. Shortly after selling all of his things and handing his sister over to the care of friends, he set off to the wilderness to seek God. He met an Abba (or father) where he began his way of life in what he called “the discipline” –which was the main driving force of these desert fathers and the core of their devotional life. It included “such acetic exercises as vigils, fasting, celibacy, poverty and solitude” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 76).
Antony delved deep into the life of the desert followers, memorized scriptures and learned how to work with his hands in order to provide for his physical needs. The craziest part of Antony’s journey is when he secluded himself in the desert for 20 years in almost total isolation. Athanasius’s account of Antony, which Sittser records much of continues to share how Antony was tempted several different ways in life but his persistent working out “the discipline” allowed him to prevail. His life is an incredible example of the desert fathers, their struggles, and the purpose for their struggles. The way in which they lived then set up (as earlier eluded to) the monastic movement.
Monks who desired a separate life, but no one so extreme as the desert set up monasteries where they could practice much of “the discipline” as known by the desert fathers but in a more communal way. Pachomius, a former soldier “instituted the first Christian monastery. Instead of permitting the monks to live singly or in groups of hermits, each a law to himself, Pachomius established a regulated common life, in which monks ate, labored and worshiped” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 119).
This development from the desert to the monastery did amazing things for those who desired “the discipline”, especially for women. The desert for women was much to dangerous, but this allowed women to be dedicated to God in their own way in a common life as well as men. Although, even the monastic life is uncommon to the normal Christian believer, these early beginnings did much for our way of life even now as Christians. Sittser points to the rhythms in which these men and women lived. He wisely stated: “Monastic rhythm strikes a balance between two activities-prayer and work— which constitute the basic purpose for which humans were created” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 97). This has a profound impact for us because we as humans are created to worship God and to work, all the while integrating God into all aspects of life. Where as with the desert fathers, this concept was hard to grasp [that of integrating God into normal life] the monastic movement embedded this living theology of integration, which we as Christians today should be grateful for.
Several great Christian leaders played roles, big and small in the monastic movement. Augustine himself started a small group of monastic believers and helped to set rules down for community living, because he believed that community is where maturity is best fostered (Sittser, 2007, pg. 105). Saint Benedict (c. 480-550) also had a huge and long lasting impression on the monastic movement where we even today have Benedictine monks.
A book that profoundly opened my eyes to monastic living interestingly enough was a fantasy novel by Stephen R. Lawhead titled: Byzantium which follows the life of a monk named Aidan; Lawhead had always done amazing research and so his pictures of monastic life are deep, intrinsic and correct. Now, through this reading of the desert fathers and the monks I am sure of it. Their lives are intriguing to me because it is more attainable than the desert fathers. The inception for them to live separate came out of the same anxiousness that haunted the desert fathers. Yet it is more bearable due to it being done in community and not complete isolation. Granted there is isolation built into the very foundations of monastic living, yet there is a brotherhood or sisterhood that is formed by these folks that is incredible and encouraging. Too often, I think many Christians think of these men and women as a bit loony for choosing such a life, yet I agree with Sittser when he says: “…it is easy for us to dismiss him [meaning the desert father Antony], ridicule him and even call him crazy, which would only have the unfortunate consequence of depriving us of an opportunity to learn from this unique man” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 78). I think he’s right not only of Antony but of all the desert fathers and those who choose the monastic life. We have tons to learn from them, tons to glean from them and more to gain from studying them than ignoring them.
As stated before, I think we suffer in the West from much of the same pains in our churches to day as they did then. Too much political living, too much worry about stuff and not enough worry about our relationship with God and our influence for Him in this world. Learning from these men and women has done a great deal to reinforce in my heart that I worry too much about silly thing that people, even I could live without. I ignore many things in this life that as a Christian I should be about.
Shelley, Bruce L. (2008). Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Edition. Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, TN.
Sittser, Gerald L. (2007). Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.