The Lives of the Desert Fathers
A most interesting and inspiring read
I like these guys. Didymus was said to be a man of `charming countenance'; Apollo told people that happiness was not an option but an obligation for Christians: "He used to say: `Those who are going to inherit the kingdom of heaven must not be despondent about their salvation. The pagans are gloomy [is this a reference to Al Gore's apocalyptic ideas?], and the Jews wail, and sinners mourn, but the just will rejoice ... we who have been considered worthy of so great a hope, how shall we not rejoice without ceasing?".
This book has a very good introduction of about 45 pages, then the text is some 80 pages, and a few more pages of notes. It's a very interesting read for Christians and those interested in the early days (or centuries) of Christianity. I have to admit I was a little prejudiced against these folk, more than anything because of ignorance, but also because I had this idea that these Christians were `faking it' by going into the desert in Egypt to live an ascetic life. I maliciously thought it had to be an excuse in order to `get something', even if it was only vainglory. True, there are bad apples in our churches, and that's the devil trying to infiltrate wherever to do more damage to the true Gospel, and that happened in those early times just as today. Only think of the number of people who went into the religious `business' in the Middle Ages, not to die of starvation, and you'll understand what I'm talking about. But that doesn't refute the basic truth: that there were, and are, real honest folk who love Christ and try as sincerely as they can to follow Him.
The monastic experiment had started in the mid 4th century, and it had flourished in a way that population in the desert (delta of the Nile) equaled that of the towns by 394. It was the boom of anachoresis -so goes Benedicta Wards's introduction. An account of the life of Antony the Great, who died in 365, written by Athanasius, spurred even more the enthusiasm of visitors to undertake the journey and learn from the monks at first hand. One of the journeys through Egypt at the end of the 4th century produced the `Historia Monachorum in Aegypto', which was chosen as the basis for this book. The original text was written in Greek and its author remains anonymous.
How must we view these early monks? If we travel back in time we'll see that there already were two different opinions about the monks: one of outsiders and one of the monk himself. From outside they were considered sort of a talisman (that's my word), "a peace-maker between men, and a friend of God; the one who had influence at the court of heaven. He was, at least, good luck for those fortunate enough to be near him." But the monk defined himself as a sinner, a weak man. Both opinions -the one society had, and the one formed by their visitors from Palestine- form the contents of the book. Personally, I couldn't help loving these characters. That the Devil used the originally good intentions of monasticism to corrupt its ideals, as it happened later on, is another issue.
A key to understanding this early monastic experiment is the following quote: "It is not the exercise of asceticism in itself which is fundamental to this way of life, but repentance, metanoia, the turning from the cultivation of the ego."
What kind of people were these monks? They were sinners, prodigal sons returning from a far country (a return at first physical but an ultimately spiritual one); some had been robbers and murderers, and some had a more mundane background. But all of them turned away from their sin, and looked to Christ resurrected.