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The first Christian monks lived nearly two thousand years ago but the accounts of their lives and the records of their words are still being read today. They were originally written down in Greek and Coptic but were soon translated into Latin, so that they could be read widely in all parts of Christendom.
It is perhaps surprising to find that such ancient texts are, like the Gospels, so fresh and available in this third millennium. It was a strange way of life, strange both to contemporary secular society in the fourth century and to other Christians at the time. These were men and women who chose to live outside the towns and villages of the ancient world, as far as possible from civilized life, often entirely alone. They had also chosen to be sexually alone for life; there were no children or lovers in the desert. They had very few possessions, and wanted to have as little as possible, choosing to do without them in order to be free for God. They lived in handmade huts or in caves, eating and drinking a sparse diet of bread and herbs with water. Their clothing was that of the poorest people, a simple garment, with a sheepskin that could be used as a blanket or rug. They were neither scholars nor preachers, neither teachers nor clerics, they came from all kinds of backgrounds but mainly from that of poverty and need. They learned how to be still and silent, to know themselves before God, waiting on the Lord, not helping others or interfering in their lives, but becoming themselves part of the redeeming work of Christ for the world.
Their behavior seemed as remarkable to their contemporaries then as it does now, whether the comments were favorable or hostile. These monks were people living on the edges, at the limits of both society and the church, and it seemed to some regrettable that as well as living without comfort and wealth, they had abandoned the duties and delights of ordered society to live apart from the treasures of a cultivated world, with no concern for education, literature, and the arts of the civilized man, with no involvement in corporate liturgical prayer, and no responsibility for the service of others in either the state or the church. On the other hand, many recognized in their lives a continuation of the eschatological attitudes of the early church, where Christians were aware of themselves as living in the last days, with no concern for the future on earth, eagerly awaiting the consummation of all things and therefore celibate and without children because the Child had been born and the orientation of the whole of life had changed. Many regarded the monks as heroes, seeing them as the successors of the martyrs, as those who followed most closely after the Savior. For these reasons, especially after the peace of the church under the Emperor Constantine, they attracted many tourists as well as serious seekers after God. Both of these approaches say more about contemporary society than about the monks.
Many read about or heard about this way of life and wanted to learn from it. They came to Egypt and to Palestine, and though many were moved and helped by the silence and solitude they found there, many of the assumptions and hopes of less perceptive contemporaries were contradicted by the actual approach to life of the monks and this could cause bewilderment and disappointment, until they realized what was at stake. Archbishop Theophilus of blessed memory once came with a certain judge to see Arsenius. The archbishop questioned Arsenius, wanting to hear some wisdom from him. For a while the hermit was silent, and then he replied, “If I tell you something, will you do it?” They promised that they would do it. So he said to them: “Wherever you hear Arsenius is, do not go there.” Another time the archbishop wanted to see him, and sent a message first to ask if he would open the door to him. He sent a message back saying: “If you come here, I will open the door to you. But if I have opened the door to you, I must open it to all, and then I shall no longer be able to live here.” When he heard this, the archbishop said: “Since my visit upsets him, I will not go to see to the holy man again” (Arsenius 7)
The visitors to the desert wanted to help the monks and their instinctive action was to offer them presents which would alleviate the severity of their life; but for the monks gifts were most unwelcome, being destructive of their choice of austerity and non-possession and again and again they refused what was offered. But the far more subtle assumption that they were there to give advice and counsel was for them a more dangerous trap which could have destroyed their whole way of life, making them not only no longer solitary and unknown but proud of themselves, the last temptation. They refused gifts, they abstained from either giving advice or working miracles, yet still people read about them and wanted to visit them. What continued to attract the attention of their contemporaries more than anything else was the sincerity of their lifestyle. They were genuinely doing what they claimed mattered to them. It is this strand of total self-commitment in practice to what is most deeply believed which accounts for their continued attraction through the centuries. They avoided teaching others, living their lives in the conviction that the only director of souls is God Himself.
|List of Illustrations|
|1||The Text through the Centuries||9|
|2||The Age of the Desert Fathers and Mothers||15|
|4||The Desert as Space||33|
|5||The Struggle against Demons||37|
|6||The Patience of the Cell||40|
|7||Silence and Tears||45|
|8||The Treasury of the Heart||53|
|9||Spiritual Guidance along the Way||63|
|10||The Power of Detachment||69|
|11||Education and Formation||75|
|12||Solitude and Charity||79|
|13||The Desert and the Body||83|
|14||The Desert and the Environment||85|
|15||The Desert and Gender||89|
|16||Miracles and Signs||93|
|17||Praying to God||97|
|Introduction to Abba Zosimas: Reflections||111|
|The Text of the Reflections||123|