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and the early Desert Fathers
why their contribution to the faith was important then and why it is important now
Of utmost relevance to contemporary Christianity is learning from examples who have gone before us. A wealth of knowledge is available to those who are so inclined to look. This paper is an endeavor to learn. We learn by engaging history, and therefore others learn through that same research. By focusing on the experience of Anthony and the Desert Fathers I will take a journey through the past, into the present, stressing the necessary concept of discipline, and how that is a necessary part of the perfection of the Christian life. The culmination of perfection is not for our own purposes. It is God Himself who desires this culmination in our lives, so that we can give it away as quickly as we have attained it. Society is waiting for an answer to the problem of life, and without an active pursuit of Godliness, the church is ill-equipped to provide that answer. I believe a necessary component to achieving this goal, as much as we are able in this life, will be found in those who have captivated history by the contemplative life they have lived.
Societal Problem Today is a day of technological savvy, of intellectual superiority, of refinement and sophistication, a day in which we look back on years past and smugly chuckle at how primitive and ignorant they were. We like to think of our accomplishments
positively, preferring to see the overall good of what those advancements have accomplished rather than the wars, poverty, depression, and other ills that have befallen other generations of the human race unfortunate enough to suffer the abuses of modernity. Escaping our notice, or more disturbingly, being conveniently ignored, is that our society is suffering from rampant anxiety and depression, suicide, murder1, and individualization. We are an overstimulated generation gorging ourselves on media, superfluous appliances, Internet and other communication devices, access to knowledge (both true and false), and a host of other advancements designed to simplify our lives but in fact contributing to an overall increase in social isolation and deprivation. It is time to take a look back, some 1600 years, to a time when thousands were rebelling against their own battle of modernity. In studying the lives of the early desert monks, most notably Anthony, we can learn the benefits of withdrawing from the world to seek God, but also the pitfalls from their extremities.
Then In the 4th Century A.D. a young man of about “twenty years of age, gave away his wealth and soon took up the life of solitude in a tomb”2 to pursue an 80 year journey of searching out the deep things of Christ. The reason for doing so was because of what was happening in the world, and in large part that was having an unhealthy influence on the church.3 The rise of Constantine paved the way for a new kind of Christianity, one that has been criticized immensely since. Before Constantine, the martyrs had been
Mostly in the form of abortion. Almost 100,000 in Canada alone in 2005. “Annual Abortion Rates.” AbortionInCanada.ca. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.
Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. 2nd ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 1995. 118. Print. Shelley 118
heralded as the pinnacle of Christian ideology. There had been no higher honor than to die for the cause of Christ. The legalized form of Christianity however, halted the persecution that had unknowingly formed the backbone of the martyr. The asceticism of the monks then succeeded the resolution of the martyrs.4 With the advent of imperial Christianity the era of martyrdom came to an end, and the dedication of Christians predictably waned. With “the progress of the mass conversion the discipline of the Church was being relaxed and the gap between the ideal and the performance of the average Christian widened.”5 What would be the face of the new kind of dedication? It took on the form of the hermit, the ascetic, the desert monk, in large part because of Anthony. In the rampant church growth of the 4th Century, there were need of these radicals, who by sheer dichotomy, could show the nominal Christians to what extent devotion to Christ could be sought. In an age where so many became Christians by necessity or popularity, people like Anthony were desperately needed to call those new Christians into account. Their lives became a testimony to such a degree that people, like me, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years after, forcibly set them against their will upon a high spiritual pedestal as exemplary witnesses to the faith we all would like to emulate, at least ideally.
Now Secularism produces a society devoid of true meaning. In an effort to reduce the notion of “God” society has endeavoured to eliminate that which I believe is a vital part
Bainton, Roland. Early Christianity. New Jeresy: D. Van Norstrand Company (Canada), Inc, 1960. 72. Print. Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. New York, N.Y.: 1975. 221. Print.
of the holistic human being, the spirit. Without this notion of a spiritual life prominence is given to immediacy, which is intrinsically selfish, and we contemplate little beyond our own lives. Since this life is all that there is, satisfaction, purpose, and happiness is derived for our own personal benefit. The ladder we so often speak of has nothing to do with the one Jacob dreamt of so long ago,6 where God stood and spoke words of encouragement and destiny over His unworthy servant. We now speak of a ladder which forms the basis of all we hold dear, namely, our individual advancement. When society does speak of spiritual things, which studies have fortunately shown to be increasing,7 they do so in regards to the “transcendent”, which seems to be just another way to promote spirituality, without actually giving anyone the tools to tangibly attain this spiritual transcendence. It is reduced to something so subjective that any definition is seen as short-sighted or “religious”, entirely missing the goal of spirituality. While I see this secular spirituality as completely missing the point, I can admit that this is a step in the right direction at least. Any opening up to the things of the spirit is an opening for God to break through, and also an opening for His people to communicate His love to people in such ways as they have not experienced before. The Church has also been affected by this secularism, and while I cannot speak with much authority on the state of Roman Catholicism, I can generalize based on my
Sense, Andrew, and Mario Fernando. "The Spiritual Identity of Projects." International Journal of Project Management 29.5 (2011): 504-13. Web.
experience working with multiple denominations in varying continents within Protestantism. In the Church, there once again needs to be a withdrawing from society to our own desert experience. “One of the driving motivations for the monk was the search for solitude. Society, with its noise and its many activities, was seen as a temptation and a distraction from the monastic goal”8 which ultimately was Christ-likeness. With all the distraction that society offers to us, which some would say are a form of God’s blessing, there is a dire necessity to carve out our own cave in the midst of it, finding solitude which will enable us to meet with Christ and hear from Him as how to live more fully in tune with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to serve our needful culture in a more Godlike way. When Anthony first heard the call of the ascetic life it was in the form of the Gospel account of Jesus and the rich young ruler. Anthony entered a church and “heard the Lord saying to the rich man ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.”9 Anthony immediately did this, even going to such extremes of giving up his younger sister into the care of a local convent to follow his calling!10 This was a huge key for Anthony to experiencing the peace of God in his life; the self-sacrificial nature of Kingdom living in which true joy is only found.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1984. 138. Print.
Athanasius. St Athanasius: Life of St Anthony. Amazon Digital Services, 2010. Location 31. Kindle Edition. Athanasius 42
Anthony heard the words of Matthew in his account of Jesus’ life in chapter 16, verse 21. When we read the word “perfect” (or “complete”, as it can also be rendered) in our English Bibles we must realize that Matthew likely heard this teaching of Jesus in Aramaic, and he chose the Greek word teleios as the nearest equivalent to what Jesus said. The word teleios means “Finished, that which has reached its end, term, limit; hence, complete, full, lacking nothing” and “figuratively meaning full-grown in mind and understanding; in knowledge of the truth; in Christian faith and virtue.”11 In light of this, a picture starts to form about why Jesus told the rich young ruler, and Anthony, and Francis of Assisi, and many other hundreds of seeking followers, to sell all and give to the poor, not looking to tomorrow but only taking thought for today. What seems to us to be extreme fanaticism is actually the liberation each of us crave and truly desire, but our materialism chokes us from this very freedom we so desperately need. When Anthony obeyed this call he broke chains of oppression which held himself and have held millions (possibly billions) alien to the life of communion God has desired for us. Like the rich young ruler, God wants to free us from the snare our material possessions hold us in. This is indeed good news. It would be entirely impractical for every one of us to take this command literally. We live in a much different day and culture than Anthony did, but the principle remains the same. The world is corrupt, and unfortunately the church remains far behind the teleios where Jesus wants her to be, much for the reason that she is influenced to a great degree by that very world. We all need our own desert experience, a withdrawing from the business and shallowness of life, to refocus on our Savior and His ultimate
The Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible. New American Standard Bible. Ed. Spiros Zodhiates, Warren Baker, Joel Kletzing. Chattanooga, TN. AMG International, Inc., 2008. 2290. Print
purposes for our life. It breaks my heart, and it must break God’s too, when His church is consumed with trivialities while the suffering around us grows and grows. We are not even close to the teleios intended. The monks fled from this injustice, yet we need not. Even with all the influence Anthony and the early Desert Fathers had, there was a fatal flaw in the theology of monasticism that we can learn from. It was “an erroneous view of man. The soul, said the monk, is chained to the flesh as a prisoner to a corpse. That is not the biblical view of human life, and it created a fundamental flaw in monasticism”12. An underlying contribution for this concept of the body was the influence of several schools of philosophy popular in that culture, stating that the spirit was imprisoned in the body. Stoic doctrine also lent beliefs to the monks, in that passion is an enemy of wisdom, and to deny your passion was to pursue that wisdom and achieve perfection.13 This is unfortunate because Biblically speaking, humans (and everything else for that matter) were created by God as good14. We were created as body, soul, and spirit15, threefold, even as God Himself is trinitarian. There is no part of us that imprisons another part, but the goal is that we would function well as a whole, not in individual segments. The monks did not look at the human holistically, but separated the human into parts, some of which were good, and some which were not good. The born-again
Shelley 123 Gonzalez 137 Genesis 1:31 1 Thessalonians 5:23
spirit became that which was good, while the body needed to have rigorous forms of discipline imposed upon it so that it may become like the spirit. The struggle with sin should indeed be a concern for us, but strict denial can often take a form of legalism, which is far from the freedom Christ intended for us. Discipline is surely needed for us to live a life of Godliness, but we need not extract ourselves from humanity to pursue it. If it is not possible to be separate from the world while being a part of society, then a major prayer of Jesus remains unrealized.16 A major challenge of the Christian remains just that, how to live for Christ and be an influence to the fallen world around us, while not succumbing to every temptation the world throws our way.
Discipline We need not flee our homes, our vocations, our families, our churches, and our very lives to seek the highest communion with God, because He has made His presence readily accessible wherever we currently are. We just need to make ourselves more aware. This takes discipline however. It should not come as a surprise that as a society, we are about as undisciplined as is possibly imaginable. Christians pray little, serve even less, study even less than that, fast even less than that.............need I continue? The list could go on for pages. As Luther fought for reform in the 1500’s so too should we raise a cry for it in our generation. But we should seek a reformation not of division but of personal devotion, holding the things of God far above the things we idolize in place of Him. We should silence our televisions for even an hour each night to seek God in prayer and service.
We should discipline our appetites, finally standing up to the demon of gluttony, and identify on even the tiniest of levels, with the millions of people across the globe who do not have the choice of eating such diverse, full meals that we take for granted. We should seek to serve each other in humility, actively looking for ways to bless each other in the name of our Lord. It might even benefit us to set our alarm clock an hour earlier, so that we could start our day in fellowship with our precious King, after all, looking back on our lives when we are preparing to meet our Lord, will we really have missed those few hours of sleep compared with the closeness of our relationship with God we traded them for? What would life start to look like if we, as a community, started practicing these simple disciplines? How would the church look in a year? Would we even recognize ourselves? Would the world even recognize us? Would they accuse us of “turning the world upside down”17 as they did to Jason and some of the other brothers? It was said of Anthony that “he was constant in prayer”18, “he often continued the whole night without sleep”19, he “ate once a day, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four”, bread and water were his sustenance, and never did he indulge in flesh and wine20. He sought to imitate the life of Elias21 (or Elijah), not just in word but in deed. Anthony thought little of what we deem necessary, and he gave utmost attention to those things we think deserve little importance. All his bodily disciplines are the focus of much banter in today's conversations regarding the desert fathers. That is where major differences between us and Anthony form, he had discipline, and we seem to lack
Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville, TN. Holman Bible Publishers. 2003. Acts 17:6. Print Athanasius 53 19 Athanasius 110 20 Athanasius 111 21 Athanasius 123
it. It is also a telling fact that he had great intimacy with God, and once again, we seem to have great lack in this area.
In Conclusion We have seen how the world is in an increasingly secular, and spiritually weakened situation. When the desert fathers noticed the infiltration of this secularism into the church they fled from it in hopes of preserving and perfecting their own souls. This world is no less secular, and no more religious, than it was in Anthony’s day. By applying the positive things he exemplified (such as his devotion, steadfastness, discipline, etc) we can identify tools which would enable us to live for God in the midst of this Godless culture. By perfecting our lives as much as we are able, we can be truly be the salt of the earth22, the light of the world, the city set on a hill23 for all to see. For the greater part of society in the latter half of the 4th century, church had little meaning. With the legalization of Christianity the church could offer the world everything the world wanted; peace and prosperity most notably. The problem with this is that when the church offers society what they are already seeking there need not be repentance and transformation to enter into the life of Christ. One does not need conversion. When thousands enter the church in these conditions complacency in regards to the cause of the Kingdom should be expected, not surprising. The hermits could not bear this, so they fled. They did not flee from God but to Him, even if they abandoned the masses to do it.
Matthew 5:13 Matthew 5:14
For the greater part of our society, church also has little meaning. The majority of people, when asked, choose the word “hypocrisy” when describing Christianity. But really, the church is so irrelevant in their lives that they seldom even give it a thought. Most Christians I know are the same way. They go to church for a couple of hours a week, yet spend very little time throughout the week cultivating a living, active relationship with Him whom they claim is their reason for living. We are naive to think society does not pick up on this. The Apostle Paul says that we are the Bible that society is reading. “You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”24 Those around us who are not believers are actually reading the Bible more than most of the Christians I spend time with. They are reading it through our lives. How we live our lives, privately and corporately, speaks to this age in which we live. As James said, and would still say today, “faith without works is dead”25. We must exemplify what we testify if our witness is to be credible. Anthony inspired awe in people. While many reckoned his life much too extreme to duplicate, they were nonetheless convicted by his piety. This influence extended even to the societal elite, even “Constantine Augustus, and his sons Constantius and Constans the Augusti wrote letters to him, as to a father”.26 It can be said that the “great contribution of monasticism was that the monks, to quote Helen Wadell, ‘by the very
New American Standard Bible. Grand Rapids, MI. 1995. 2 Corinthians 2:2-3. Print NASB James 2:26 Athanasius 941
exaggeration of their lives, stamped infinity on the imagination of the West’.”27 The church needs another “stamp of infinity” in 2012. God is just waiting for those foolish enough to “seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness”28. The open invitation has been given. God waits for our reply.
Bainton 73 Matthew 6:33
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