|Understanding Desert Monasticism|
In the early centuries of the Church’s history, spreading as it did along the trade routes of the Middle East and the Mediterranean and Aegean coastlands, places of worship were the homes of believers or the open air, wherever they could meet unseen because there was much persecution of the followers of Christ.
This all changed early in the 4th Century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, elevating it to the state religion through the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and by doing so ushered in a major cultural shift. After 3 centuries of ‘being homeless in the world’ Christians began to find themselves in favour, rather than persecuted. The result was confusion and bewilderment in those who had accepted themselves as aliens and strangers in this world. Many accepted Constantine’s edict of toleration but it resulted in the cutting edge of the Church’s life being blunted as for the first time nominalism took root (believers in name only) further resulting in mediocrity, accommodation and compromise as social standing became the reason for faith and not love of Jesus Christ.
It was at this point, when Christians began to find themselves at home in the world, where those who had previously persecuted the Christians were putting out the welcome mat and sitting in the 'same pew', that the response to the 'call of the desert’ began to gain momentum, beginning at first with a few, and then a multitude.
Thomas Merton wrote "It should seem to us much stranger than it does, that this paradoxical flight from the world attained its greatest dimensions (I almost said frenzy) when the 'world' officially became Christian."
Was this Christian withdrawal into the desert purely a negative move? Was it a retreat from all the complications and compromise in those attempting to Christianise society? Was it a judgmental act, motivated to shame those Christians who had decided to stay and work out their salvation in the city? Which group of Christians made the right response to this new and ‘favourable’ situation, those who stayed in the 'city' or those who withdrew to the desert? In the mystery of God the answer has to be - BOTH.
One of my favourite stories, which I think will illustrate this point, comes from Elizabeth Goudges' book on the life of St Francis of Assisi. There is a moment when St Francis meets with Cardinal John, and the two embrace. You can imagine the scene, Francis in his robes of poverty and the cardinal dressed elegantly. Yet as they embrace they realise they share the same heart and devotion for the Lord. Yet, one is called to the temptations of poverty, and the other to the temptations of riches or, to put it another way, one is called to the temptations of the desert, and the other to the temptations of the city.
The moral of the story is that we each have to follow our vocation; to be who we are. Our Hild liturgy puts it well as we each pray, 'Lord, show me the right seat; Find me the fitting task; Give me the willing heart.'
The Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated to the outskirts of the cities and into the Deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine to think through the meaning of such change and to find a different way of being a Christian in the world.
Paradoxically so many people came to them for spiritual guidance, help and instruction so that within 50 years eyewitness accounts reported that the population of the desert equalled that of the towns. Some of the pilgrims stayed and this became the beginnings of Community. However, the Desert Fathers again sought solitude and withdrew from the new Community expression but the cycle repeated itself, resulting in many Communities springing up all over. Much of what was taught was in the form of pithy sayings and observations of wisdom. Here is a good example:
A brother came to visit Abba Sylvanus at Mount Sinai. When he saw the brothers working hard, he said to the old man, "Do not work for food that perishes, for Mary has chosen the good part." Then the old man called his disciple, "Zachary, give this brother a book and put him in an empty cell." Now when it was three o'clock the brother kept looking out of the door to see if someone would call him for the meal. But nobody called him, so he got up, went to see the old man, and asked: "Abba, didn't the brothers eat today?" The old man said, "Of course we did." "Then why didn't you call me?" he said. The old man replied, "You are a spiritual person, and do not need that kind of food, but since we are earthly, we want to eat and that's why we work. Indeed you have chosen the good part, reading all day long, and not wanting to eat earthly food." When the brother heard this he repented and said, "Forgive me, Abba." Then the old man said to him: "Mary certainly needed Martha, and it is really by Martha's help that Mary is praised'.
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