Searching for Intimacy with the Desert Fathers
By the middle of the fourth century, many thousands of Christians were seeking closeness to God in the deserts and wild places of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor. They were known as 'anchorites' (from the Greek word for 'withdrawal'), as 'hermits' (from the Greek word for 'desert'), and as 'monks'(from the Greek word for 'solitary'). The godly sayings and saintly exploits of some of these desert-dwellers were enthusiastically written up by various hagiographers.1
The leading anchorites later became known as the 'Desert Fathers'. Not all were men. Many anchorites were women. Early monasticism had two key components: asceticism, and withdrawal from society.
Asceticism is the suppression of the body for spiritual ends. It reflects a strong dualism of body and spirit. Greeks believed that the human body is inferior and corrupting, but that the spirit is pure. In order to attain the plane of the spiritual they believed the body must be suppressed.
Perhaps it was inevitable, as Christianity took over the Graeco-Roman world, that asceticism would become fashionable among Christians. Asceticism was much admired in the ancient world. It was widely understood that the philosopher's pursuit of wisdom and virtue would involve an ascetic lifestyle. Asceticism was also practised by many of the adherents of various cults, including the Gnostics, Manichaeans, Essenes, and mystery religions.
As in eastern religions today, it was assumed that those seeking a mystical vision of the divine must subdue the body and spend their time in meditation. A devotee of Isis, for instance, spent 23 years walled up in a dark cave, contemplating.
As Christianity became Hellenised, the more positive Hebraic view of the human body began to fade into the background. By the third century, celibacy was often seen as more spiritual than marriage.
The Pauline references to the 'flesh' (sarx) were taken as meaning the 'body', rather than our 'sinful nature'. The injunction to "mortify the flesh" was understood as literal. In such a framework of understanding, there was much in the New Testament that seemed to be a call to asceticism (eg Romans 8:13,2 or 1 John 2:15,3).
The other aspect of monasticism was radical withdrawal from society. For this, there appeared to be a biblical basis. Jesus' time in the wilderness, with all its physical deprivation and supernatural struggle, was claimed as a model. To obey Christ, one must follow his example.
Alone with God, away from all the distractions of society, away from a pampered post-persecution church, the soul would find intimacy with God. This would be obedience to Christ par excellence.
Martyrdom was no longer available. But seeking God in the desert seemed a worthy substitute. Many serious Christians felt called to do battle in the desert - battle against hunger and thirst, against the desire for sleep, against extreme heat and cold, against demons and apparitions, against loneliness, and against the fetid lusts and imaginations of the heart.
The most prominent of the Desert Fathers was Anthony. In about 270, when he was just 20 years old, he felt a call to a life of prayer deep in the desert, and he lived there until he died at the age of 105. His lifestyle there was characteristic: he would spend vast amounts of time in prayer and meditation, often denying himself food or sleep for long periods.
When he was eating normally, his food would never amount to more than a few crumbs every second day. At one point he lived in a walled-up fort, and saw no other human being for 20 years. Anthony reported numerous visitations of angels, demons, wild animals and apparitions.
Although undoubtedly a man of great sanctity, Anthony admitted that he experienced constant temptations, anxieties, and spiritual assaults. He commented: "Who sits in silence has escaped three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing, yet against things shall he continually battle, that is his own heart."
This illustrates a common experience of the anchorites, that withdrawing to the desert did not reduce temptations, but merely relocated them - and that temptation was more intense than ever. Many of them confessed that they were often in a torment of sexual temptation, even though they may not have seen a woman for years.
The anchorite lifestyle was often extremely rigorous. One hermit, Dorotheus, lived 60 years in a cave, would gather stones in the noon day sun, and always slept seated. Asked why he subjected his body to such harsh treatment, he said: "It kills me. I will kill it". Another hermit, Macarius, claimed to have stood upright through the entire period of Lent (the 40 days fast before Easter). Another, Sisoes, confessed that his greatest desire was to be held in contempt by everyone.
There can be no denying the Christian devotion of the early monks, even when we allow for the exaggeration and embellishments of their publicists. Many of them were people of outstandingly godly character, and no doubt attained great heights of spiritual awareness. They show us all up, in the hurriedness of our own prayer.
But there was a dark side. Alone in the desert, short of sleep and food, the anchorites were also prey to delusions, and many gave way to extremist or bizarre behaviour. The most fanatical of all were the Syrian ascetics. Some placed themselves in holes, so small they could never straighten up. One monk installed stones and thorns in his hollowed-out log, so that they would constantly press against his head and body.
Some lived on mountain summits, some in tombs, some in perpetual darkness. Others wore iron chains, so that they would be permanently bent to the ground, or would have to go around on all fours. Some took off their clothes and lived their lives as 'browsers', grazing on grass and herbs.
Some adopted the spiritual discipline of 'stasis', standing completely still for long periods, resisting the temptation to move - even slightly - regardless of weather, distractions, or crowds of spectators. Such obsessive asceticism was far removed in spirit from the freedom of the Gospel.
The stars of Syrian asceticism were the stylites, who spent their lives praying at the top of tall stone pillars. The most famous of these was Simeon, who lived for 40 years atop a 50 foot stone column. Many people flocked to the base of the pillar, to ask Simeon - who was believed to be on very close terms with God - to pray on their account. In all this, there was much that reflected the patterns and ideas of paganism, such as the deep veneration of holy men and belief in intermediaries.
In the fourth century, there began a gradual move away from solitary monasticism towards monks living in monastic communities. This development was very helpful in curbing most of the extremes and eccentricities of early monasticism. It also reintroduced a key element in Christian discipleship: the sanctifying effect of having to live in proximity to others. In the next few centuries, the monasteries were to be highly strategic in the Christianisation of the West - but more on that another time.
When we consider the Desert Fathers, we can rightly be challenged by their faith, their commitment, their self-discipline, their disregard of worldly comfort and success, their stunning prayerfulness. But there remains a basic fallacy in their quest. God calls us to himself, in Christ. He then sends us out, not into the desert, but into the world - a world crammed with lost and hurting people.
We all need those times of stepping aside: in unhurried prayer, or in battling prayer. But Jesus' times in prayer were not his ultimate destination. They were not the model for the whole of Christian living. They were the prelude - and accompaniment - to costly service in the midst of humanity.
3 "Do not love the world or the things in it. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it, but he who does the will of God abides forever."