Christians are a peculiar people. After all, their founder was a homeless man who called his followers to pray for their enemies, to ascribe meaning to suffering, blessing to poverty, and to find their lives only by losing them. It is good, then, particularly in this culture where Christianity is often too easily allied with American values of capitalism, pluralism, and the like, to be reminded of the essential strangeness of the claims we make. And in the long history of the Church, no group of Christians have been more peculiar than the monastics (from the Greek word monachos meaning ‘solitary’), those men and women who withdraw from society, willingly rejecting human comforts and conventions, in order to be more fully devoted to God.
Monasticism traces its origins to at least the early second century, but it is not until the fourth century that it explodes on the scene. The legalizing of Christianity and the concurrent alliance between the Church and the Roman Empire signaled, for many fourth century Christians, a troubling loss of the counter cultural heart of the Gospel message. The monastic path emerged as an antidote to the Empire, a means of continuing the sacrificial nature of the faith most clearly displayed by the stories of the martyrs. Thus, the fourth century witnessed a steady stream of Christians forsaking their comfortable lives and heading into the harsh Egyptian desert with nothing more than a desire for deeper communion with God.
In this unprecedented migration lie the foundation of the monastic movement that endures to this day, as well as some of the more fascinating texts of the Patristic period, namely, the sayings of the Desert Fathers. These writings—recorded by monks in training and passed on as collections of short sayings and anecdotes—address a number of different issues, but at their heart lie an understanding of discipleship as union with God, which, because of human self-centeredness, is achieved only through a gradual submission of one’s will and desires to the will of God. Thus, the voluntary renunciation of possessions, relationships, and self-determination (what would, in organized monasticism, become the official vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience) was essential to the process.
Athanasius’ Life of Antony (c. 357 C.E.), a biography of the desert monastic Antony, provides a paradigmatic account of monastic discipleship. Antony was a wealthy landowner who, upon hearing Matthew 19:21 (“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor…and come, follow me”) read in church, promptly sold all he owned and went into the desert to seek Christ. For nearly twenty years, Antony lived in solitude, carving out a meager existence, focusing on the words of Christ he had committed to memory. Athanasius describes the period as one of intense spiritual warfare, a wrestling with the demons similar to the desert temptations Christ endured at the start of his ministry. Antony was learning the hard road of discipleship; he was losing his life. After his solitary ordeal, “Antony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the presence of God” (Life of Antony 14). He had found Christ.
The imagery of light and fire, hinted at here with Athanasius’ ‘shrine’ language, is prominent in the sayings of the Desert Fathers mysteriously representing, it would seem, the goal of discipleship. Father Joseph, for example, taught his followers, “You cannot be a monk unless you become a consuming fire.” Father Theodore, in answer to a prayer of whether he should enter the diaconate, recounts a vision of “a column of fire, reaching from earth to heaven, and a voice said to him, ‘If you can become like this pillar, go be a deacon.’” Likewise, Macarius, whose writings had a profound influence on John Wesley, writes in one of his homilies, “Sometimes indeed the very light itself, shining in the heart, opened up interiorly and in a profound way a hidden light, so that the whole person was completely drowned with that sweet contemplation”, an inner illumination that elsewhere Father James identifies with knowledge of “all the virtues and commandments of God.” Perhaps most startling, one account has a monk asking Father Joseph what discipleship consisted of beyond fasting, praying, meditating, and living in peace with his neighbors. In response, “the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’”
The meaning of these somewhat peculiar stories is to be found in the scriptural imagery associated with theophanies, those places in scripture—like the burning bush, the flashes of light on Sinai when Moses receives the law, or the pillar of fire in the wilderness—where God literally shows up. Because God is transcendent and invisible, the scripture writers describe God’s appearance by using the mysterious imagery of thunder, wind, and, most often, fire. Through this prism, then, the goal of discipleship in the sayings of the Desert Fathers comes clearly into view. True disciples, men and women who are united to God through submission to his will, become theophanies, places where God appears. “For I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul said, “And it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
These days, the monastic witness is often marginalized, particularly by Protestant Christians, with the thin and somewhat pious objection that Christians should remain engaged in the world. The more likely reason for the dismissal is an understanding of discipleship with significantly lower standards of what ought to be required of us. The monastics frighten us for we too often assume that the call to follow Jesus does not entail leaving anything. We prefer, rather, to blend in. No wonder the most persistent question in Western Christianity is, ‘where is God?’
The monastics were peculiar. They left everything, losing their own lives in fact, to chase after Christ. The path led all the way to the desert, but when they found him, he was dwelling within them.