Desert Monks II



The beginning was hard for me. When I read the Life of Antony during the first month of my novitiate I hated it. The demonology seemed naïve and embarrassing. We were not given much help in understanding the spiritual depth of the text; the focus was historical and literary. I dreaded having to teach it myself. But then something happened. Perhaps I crossed the threshold of experience that allowed me to relate Antony’s teaching to my own experiences of obsession, temptation, and despair. I saw the developmental structure of Antony’s move into deeper and deeper solitude as preparation for deeper availability to other people. The effort in this text and similar ones to articulate both the internal and external aspects of emotional states fascinated me. The psychological language of “passions” or “vices” underscored human responsibility, while externalizing these forces through demonology was a way to assert the fundamental goodness of human nature without denying that virtue comes through struggle. The ambiguity of these categories reflects attentive awareness of the tension between experience and the claims of Christian faith, the dynamics Paul described in his anguished confession of the battle between flesh and spirit (Rom. 7). Antony and other monastic teachers insisted on that attentiveness (prosoch¯e), and made it the starting point of all asceticism. I could identify.

Columba Stewart, OSB, “‘We’? Reflections on Affinity and Dissonance in Reading Early Monastic Literature,” Spiritus 1 (2001)

Fr Stewart warns us against reading early monastic literature with romanticism or a wide-eyed infatuation: “It is not the fourth century, even on the Holy Mountain. And there is not a single good reason why it should be.” Indeed, Fr Stewart notes that the early fathers could be excessively polemical, their asceticism can occasionally come close to being life-denying, and the literature does suffer from a paucity of female experience. But he has always come back, sometimes after an initial reluctance, to these early monastic writings, drawn especially to the unexpected psychological insight of Antony, Cassian, and Evagrius. It is in this spirit that I want to look at early Egyptian monasticism by looking together at an article in the American Benedictine Review by Tim Vivian (56 [2005]) – not because our uncertainty about our times should lead us into escapism, but because the insight of the monks helps illuminate the present.

Fr Vivian tells us that monks have lived in the Wadi al-Natrun (Scetis) for 1700 years and Egyptian monasticism even had a second golden age in the twentieth century (a subject, hopefully, for a future post). The first golden age began in the fourth century, and it was then that Macarius the Great came to the desert. There, as the author of the Life of Macarius pictures him, Macarius would become another Abraham, the father of a people, just as Athanasius imagined Antony and his followers making a new city in the desert. The point was not to live with disgust, dramatically rejecting the world over and over again, but rather to withdraw from the transient to seek the ultimately real, the eschaton. Macarius would be the center of a community of disciples who would come to see him to disclose their thoughts and to get the spiritual counsel of the “Spiritbearer,” as he was known. This was essential; Abba Paphnutius tells us that he went to see his elders every two weeks, walking twelve miles to do so. The young monk’s question to the elder would always be, “My father, tell me a word that I may be saved,” keeping in mind the young man from the Gospel who asks Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life (Mt 19:16). While very few of us will go out into an actual desert, this is a reminder of the importance of what one scholar calls a “hand-to-mouth spirituality.”

The young monks desired single-mindedness and the path to it might come as a surprise to us. It does require a shocking (and, for most of us, unrealistic) amount of renunciation – not because of masochism or to desperately try to gain God’s approval, but in order to dispossess oneself into hesychia, the simplicity and silence that is a space where we can become completely attentive to God. The problem with the passions is not that they exist, but that they are disordered, that, as a recent writer claims, they are atheistic insofar as they displace God. Hesychia, Fr Vivian reminds us, is not “drugged out bliss or apathy,” but rather a place of greater understanding. This is paradoxical, however, since we become aware of our separation from God, so that we might then be healed through Christ. Isaiah of Scetis, in the fifth century, writes:Silence gives birth to ascetic discipline. Ascetic discipline gives birth to weeping. Weeping gives rise to fear of God. Godly fear begets humility. Humility begets foresight. Foresight begets love. Love renders the soul undiseased and free from the passions. Then, and only then, does a person know that he is far from God.

As surprising as that might sound, what will most provoke us, I think, is the focus on God as philanthropos, as compassion. There is a very moving story about a weeping antelope coming to see Macarius because of her deformed young; Macarius prays to Jesus Christ, remembering his “numerous treasuries of mercy,” makes the sign of the cross, and heals the animals. But God’s compassion isn’t just about smiling at delightful stories (not that the antelope story reduces into that): philanthropia must move us to non-judgmentalism. The Apophthegmata tells us that Macarius’ divinization (theosis) occurred because “just as God protects the world, so too did Abba Macarius cover shortcomings: when he saw them it was as though he did not see them and when he heard them it was as though he did not hear them.”

The combination of renunciation (we have no illusions about our nearness to God) and non-judgmentalism (we have no need to assert our virtue) would mean that, while the withdrawal into the desert might be necessary to free oneself from the passions and come closer to one’s true self, the desert was not to be held apart from the contaminated world in splendid isolation as some sort of special “protected” space. The monks would return to the world to offer healing and salvation. And, strikingly, there are many monastic stories about monks finding holiness in the most unexpected places or discovering that the path of heaven is wider than they might have imagined or unconsciously desired. Here is one:

As Abba Silvanus sat one time with the brothers, he had a mystical experience (en ekstasei) and fell flat on his face. After a long time he got up and wept. The brothers entreated him, “What’s wrong, father?” but he remained silent and continued weeping. When they forced him to speak, he said, “I was carried off to judgment and I saw numbers of people dressed like us in monastic habits going away to punishment and I saw numbers of people who were not monks going away into the kingdom.”

In another story, an old man “who served God for many years” learns from an angel that a gardener pleases God more than him. Naturally, he goes and finds the gardener, who does seem to be a holy man. The gardener even prays at the beginning and the end of each day that “this city, from the least to the greatest, will enter the kingdom because of their righteousness, but I alone will inherit punishment on account of my sins.” But the old man, a veteran of the desert, is still not convinced. Then, they happen to hear people in the street singing the songs that people sing in streets. The old man asks, “Brother, wanting as you do to live according to God, how do you remain in this place and not be troubled when you hear them singing these [scandalous] songs?” The gardener says that he is not troubled. The old man asks what the gardener could possibly conceive in his heart when he hears such songs. The gardener responds, “That they are all going to the kingdom.” Then the old man finally understands: “This is the practice which surpasses my labor of all these years.” The earliest monastic traditions do not give much emphasis to the miracles and wonders that impress us; we must emulate the gardener’s virtue.

A later Egyptian holy man, Daniel of Scetis, would encounter a holy fool that is really a chosen vessel, a blind beggar doing great things, and what appears to be a drunken (and despised) nun who is really a person of great sanctity. These strange figures have performed a withdrawal that is comparable, even superior, to going into the desert because they have left behind their social identities (even, in one case, sexual identity). Fr Vivian says that “Daniel appears to be holy precisely because he has the humility and discernment to see holiness in others.” He does not fear strangeness, even if the outsider status of the eccentric is implicitly a critique of the exclusivity of the monastic tradition. Fr Vivian writes, “Daniel, as it were, instead of merely performing the duties of law-abiding abbot, goes outside the enclosure to welcome these atypical ascetics inside, knowing full well that their presence within will initially provoke consternation and resistance but that such friction will eventually wear at the accumulated rusts and lazy habits and comfortable traditions.”

“It is not the fourth century, even on the Holy Mountain. And there is not a single good reason why it should be.” As Fr Stewart reminded us, we should not use early monastic literature to retreat into an imaginary world. But the early monks do place us, here and now, under question: Do we seek self-renunciation? Do we imagine God as philanthropos so that we are moved to refuse to judge our neighbor? Can we bear to find holiness in unlikely places, willing, as Fr Vivian says, to “bulldoze the narrowly self-constructed gates of heaven that some Christians, in imitation of gated communities so popular now in suburbia, build for themselves and against others”?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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