When he was still a young man, St Augustine (354 AD – 430) and his friend Alypius were visited one day by Ponticianus, a man of influence in the Emperor’s palace. The visitor was surprised to see a copy of St Paul’s letters on the table, and when he realised that Augustine was giving his attention to the Christian faith he began to tell them about Anthony, the Egyptian monk. “We had never heard of him until then,” wrote Augustine. “When Ponticianus realised this he went into greater detail, wishing to instil some knowledge of this great man into our ignorant minds, for he was very surprised that we had not heard of him. For our part, we too were astonished to hear of the wonders God had worked so recently almost in our own times.” Ponticianus went on to tell them about “the groups of monks in the monasteries, of their way of life…and of the fruitful wastes of the desert.” He also mentioned the Life of Anthony, a book that had such an impact on another friend that before he had even finished reading it “he conceived the idea of taking upon himself the same kind of life and abandoning his career in the world.”
This book, written in Greek by Athanasius, archbishop of Alexandria, translated into Latin, and read throughout western Christendom, became a best-seller in the ancient world. It is still read with deep interest.
Anthony (c. 251 AD – 356) may not have been the first to abandon the decadent city life of the late Empire and flee to the desert to live a life of asceticism and prayer, but he was among the first and he was the most famous. The age of persecution was over, and many sincere Christians began to seek a way of heroism; some even saw their lives in the desert as a kind of martyrdom. By the middle of the fourth century, many thousands of Christians were abandoning society to live in the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine. They were called 'monks' (from the Greek for 'solitary'), 'hermits' (from the Greek for 'desert'), or 'anchorites' (from the Greek for 'withdrawal'). In Egypt the movement was soon so popular that both the civil authorities and the monks themselves became anxious: the officials of the Empire because so many were following a way of life that excluded military service and the payment of taxes, and the monks because the number of interested tourists threatened their solitude. This was the beginning of Christian monasticism in its various forms. In Lower Egypt there were hermits who lived alone; in Upper Egypt there were monks and nuns living in communities; and in Nitria and Scetis there were those who lived solitary lives but in groups of three or four, often as disciples of an ‘abba’.
With few exceptions, such as Arsenius and Evagrius, these ascetics were simple people, most of them illiterate - which makes their influence on St Augustine all the more impressive. They were not given to mysticism or theology, nor to saying very much at all. The literature they left behind, in the form of ‘sayings’, is full of sound common sense, humble and unassuming. They would ask one another for “a word”. These "words" - meaning brief sayings - were collected and eventually written down by disciples of the first monks, and grouped together in various ways, sometimes under the names of the monks with whom they were connected, sometimes as themes of special interest. Mixed in with these sayings were short stories about the actions of the monks, since what they did was often as revealing as what they said. These collections of "apophthegmata" were a direct transmission of practical wisdom and experience.
It was no new thing for Christians to set their face towards the desert. The desert lies at the origin of Jewish and Christian spirituality. God led the Israelites through the desert into freedom and into the Promised Land. It was in that barren wilderness that they came to know the God who “went before them.” It was there that they were put to the test and taught fidelity to the ways of God. It was from the desert, the place of wild beasts and demons, that John the Baptist emerged, to preach a new beginning. And it was from there that Jesus emerged, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand. The desert is not a place of new life in any ordinary sense, but paradoxically it is the place where a new kind of life is born. The one who comes from the desert has not been compromised by society, and therefore has a kind of leverage that no insider could have.
‘Asceticism’ is not a fashionable word today, but its Greek origin is ‘askesis’, which means ‘training’ - the training that athletes do (‘athleo’ means ‘to contend’). These men and women were not retiring from the struggles of life, but rather entering them in earnest. “In burying themselves in vast solitudes,” wrote Paul Evdokimov, “the anchorites sought to penetrate the territory of the demons in order to fight them at close range.” This is a challenge, even to onlookers, and there are always people who are repelled by this way of life, as there are others who are fascinated. In their own time, the poet Rutilius visited the desert out of curiosity and was repelled by what he saw. “They think, poor fools, that heaven feeds on filth.” Nor, famously, did they appeal to the sophisticated palate of Edward Gibbon in the 18th century. In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he wrote: “There is perhaps no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, spending his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato.” But all these impressions weigh nothing on the scales against an Augustine.
Not only Augustine, but countless Christians through the centuries have been inspired by the example and the stories of the Desert. Pachomius (c. 292 – 348), who trained with Palemon, one of the most austere pupils of Anthony, was the real founder of monastic life. The ‘laura’ already existed: a number of new anchorites would build their cells near the cell of an ‘abba’, in order to follow his example. But as the number of anchorites increased, some kind of organisation was required. It was Pachomius who took the next step, transforming the ‘laura’ into a monastery: a house in which anchorites came to live together, with common prayer and practices, under certain fixed rules and the leadership of an abbot. This was the cenobitical as distinct from the eremitical life. Having spent some time with Palemon, Pachomius went to a deserted village named Tabennisi, and tentatively founded the first monastery there. By the time of his death, there existed nine monasteries for men, and two for women. St. Basil the Great (329-379) developed a more formal "rule" - a system of organizing the lives of the monks around prayer, work, and meals in common. St. Basil's rule called for the monks who practiced more extreme forms of austerity to be answerable to a superior, and it eliminated any spirit of competition that might tempt those who saw themselves as "spiritual athletes." The writings of Cassian (c. 360 – c. 435), who made himself the interpreter of Egypt in the West, contributed greatly to the diffusion of monasticism. St. Benedict (c. 480 – 543) made use of Cassian in writing his Rule, and ordered selections from the Conferences, which he called “a mirror of monasticism,” to be read daily in his monasteries.
Charles de Foucauld (1858 – 1916) went to live the life of a hermit in Algeria, first in Beni Abbès from 1901 to 1905, and then from 1905 in the even more remote oasis of Tamanrasset in the heart of the Sahara, among the Tuareg Muslims. He compiled rules for what he called ‘Little Brothers’ and ‘Little Sisters’, but no one joined him. After de Foucault’s assassination by Bedouin tribesmen, René Voillaume and some of his friends attempted to live these rules. The community was scattered by the Second World War, but after 1945 it returned and flourished, spreading throughout the world.
The Desert is still proving “a fruitful waste,” even in our times.