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The Wisdom of the Desert

EVERY kind of effort after good has found sympathy and help in Christianity. Nothing is more wonderful and nothing more suggestive of His divinity than the way in which the words and example of the Master have been found adaptable to the ideals which have possessed the souls of men in different ages and under various circumstances. There was a time when men were impelled to search for and express truth, the eternal truth of the nature and property of the Deity Himself. At that time the life of Christ presented itself primarily as a revelation. He set forth, under the conditions of time and space, the mysterious God whose seat is amid clouds and darkness, and yet who baffles human inquiry chiefly by the garment of impenetrable light in which He has decked Himself. In another age the religious spirit took a lower flight and allowed its activities to be dominated by a political conception. Whole generations spent themselves in the effort to realize upon earth a veritable kingdom of God. To these men Christ appeared as a monarch, whose will it was their ambition to realize perfectly. The people crowded below the altar steps, and the priests from above proclaimed, pointing the Lord to them, "Behold your King." He was, indeed, conceived of as very different from any earthly king. His crown was of thorns, His throne was a cross, His glory was humiliation. Yet it was essentially as a King that they conceived of Him. He was the Ruler of a visible kingdom, the Head of a hierarchy of governors, the promulgator of a polity and laws. For men of yet another generation religion found itself in the aspiration after personal liberty. Fear and ignorance had tyrannised over the earth -- fear, the daughter of superstition; ignorance, superstition's handmaid. Minds which dared to question and doubt lived under a perpetual menace. Above all, the great tyrant was sin. Its fetters grew heavier on men's limbs, and checked the effort after progress. Then men came to think of Christ as a great liberator; their souls responded to the call, " Christ shall make you free." Since then the central point of religion has shifted again. In our time men no longer look to Christ to teach them truth. We have lost sight hopelessly of "the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces" of the city of God upon earth. The naked individualism of the reformation period offers an inadequate view of life. We are inclined to doubt about the very existence of such a thing as liberty. We have discovered in Christianity a great incentive to philanthropy. Christ is for us, perhaps the man, perhaps the God, at least the One who fed men and healed them and taught them as none other ever did. Blindly sometimes, perplexedly always, we hurry to the hovels of the hungry and the bedsides of those who suffer even loathsomely; we build libraries and schools, being sure at least of this, that in doing these things we follow Him.

To all these various ideals Christ has been found entirely responsive. Each has found in Him a starting-point from which to escape the bondage of materialism. It has never, of course, been true that one great purpose has possessed the followers of Christ to the exclusion of every other. The conception of the gospel liberty lay quite consciously behind the enthusiasm for pure truth. The most faithful statesmen of the mediaeval Kingdom of God washed the sores of lepers and cast their cloaks over the shoulders of beggars on the wayside. The dominating conception of religion has always been permeated, leavened, tempered with conceptions of the Master's meaning which were strange to it. There has always been, besides, one great conception of religion which has existed along with each of the others in its turn. Christianity has always involved a hunger and thirst after righteousness. Always and everywhere Christians have felt the unquenchable desire to be good, and have seen in Christ the great example of perfection. There has been no age in the history of the Church in which the idea of imitating Christ has failed to make an appeal to the souls of the faithful.

Yet even this desire has had its period of special intensity, its peculiar region where it became for a while the expression of Christianity. During the fourth and fifth centuries, in, the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, the craving for perfection was more painful and more narrowly exclusive than ever elsewhere. Thousands of men and women, in response to a passionate hunger after righteousness, set themselves to become perfect, as the Father in heaven is perfect. They were not, indeed, careless about right belief and the holding fast of the faith. The accusation of heresy was a thing which seemed to them wholly intolerable. Yet to them the supreme importance of being good was so felt that it seemed of necessity to bring with it a true faith. "What is the faith? " asked a brother once. The abbot Pimenion replied to him, "It is to live always in charity and humility, and to do good to your neighbonr." Their absorption in the pursuit of holiness made speculation seem vain and impious. "Oh, Antony," said the heavenly voice, "turn your attention to yourself. As for the judgments of God, it is not fitting that you should learn them." Nor must we think of the hermits as disregarding the claims which the Church made upon their obedience; still less as neglecting the claims of the poor and suffering. We shall see, later, how they thought about the Church, and how unjust it is to call them selfish. Here, first of all, it is necessary to understand that they were not chiefly theologians, or churchmen, or philanthropists, but imitators of Christ. Their desire was to be good. That they also believed rightly and did good followed -- and these things, did follow -- from their being good.

This aim of theirs ought not to be strange to us. Indeed, it cannot be. In the midst of our multiplied activities there is something in us which responds to the ideal of being, as well as doing, good. It is the WAY in which they sought to attain their end, and not the end itself, which is incomprehensible and generally repulsive to the modern mind. It is so, I think, mainly because it is so absolutely strange to us. Our imaginations refuse to aid us in the effort to realize a system of religious life based upon complete isolation from the world. To us the activities of life -- the getting and spending, the learning and teaching, philanthropy, intercourse, and the opportunities for influence -- constitute life itself. It is as difficult for us to form a definite conception of a life apart from the world, from business, society, and the movements of human thought, as it is to realize that life of disembodied waiting which we expect in Paradise. Yet this complete isolation was what the Egyptian hermits strove to attain; and if we are to appreciate the value of their teaching we must, first of all, grasp the fact that they were real men on whom the sun shone and the winds blew, men with local habitations, and not phantoms or unsubstantial figures in a dream. If we conceive a fourth-century traveller starting as Palladius did from Alexandria, we may suppose that he would journey due south, ad skirt at first the shores of what is now Lake Mariut. Along the barren and rocky margin of the lake, at spots as remote as possible from the track followed by caravans, he would find the hermitages of ascetics, who, like Dorotheus, maintained a comparatively close connection with the Alexandrian clergy. Leaving the lake and journeying still southwards over about forty miles of utterly desolate land, he would come to a long valley extending east and west between two ranges of mountains or table lands, covered with sandy flats, salt marshes, and dangerous rocks. This is the famous Nitrian desert. Here St. Amon built the first solitary cell. Here Evagrius Pontikus lived for about two years. Here Nathaniel was visited by the bishops. Here the "Long Brothers" lived, one of whom was the companion of St. Athanasius when he went to Italy. At the end of the fourth century the Nitrian mountains were dotted over with hermits' cells. The evenings were resonant with psalm-singing. On Saturdays and Sundays the brethren swarmed forth like bees for worship in their church. Five miles further south, still among the Nitrian mountains, lay a region so utterly desolate that it had not even a name, till the monks built over it and "christened" it The Cells. Further south still and towards the west lay the Scetic desert. It was a day's journey from The Cells. This is the most famous of all the monastic settlements. Its founder was St. Macarius the Great. We may reckon among the Scetic monks his two namesakes, St. Macarius of Alexandria and Macarius the Young. Here also, for the most part, dwelt Pior, Moses the AEthiopian, Paul the Simple, and the hermit Mark.* South-eastward, past Lake ArsinoŽ and Herakleopolis, lay St. Antony's birthplace, Coma. Here, no doubt, might have been seen the tombs into which he first shut himself, and across the river, the mountain on which he found his ruined fort. This mountain, which was called "the outer mountain," formed the home of smaller and less famous groups of ascetics. South-east from this, within a few miles of the Red Sea, lay "the outer mountain," to which St. Antony was guided by the heavenly voice. Perhaps this retreat was never shared with him by anyone except his chosen attendant and the few visitors who forced their way there in search of spiritual counsel. South from the "outer mountain," along the river, lay Oxyrynchus. This, even if we discount the figures of contemporary writers, must have been a great monastic city. In it monasticism took in organised ecclesiastical form. The church was served by priest-monks, and great communities of men and women carried on works of charity and evangelisation. Still further south lay Lycopolis, the home of John the prophet. This man was celebrated as well for his wonderful obedience as for his spiritual gifts. Lycopolis may be reckoned the outpost of the monasticism of lauras and hermitages. Beyond it lay the organised monasteries of the disciples of St. Pachomius. During the lifetime of the founder of Tabennisi, nine monasteries carried out his rule. Of these the most famous was that which was ruled by Bgoul and afterwards by his nephew, Schnoudi. On the sea-coast, east of Alexandria, lay the settlements visited by Cassian. The Tannitic mouth of the Nile flows into what is now Lake Menzaleh. In Cassian's time this whole region was a desolate salt swamp. The sea flowed over it when the north wind blew, destroying all hope of fertility. On the hills, which came to look like islands, stood the ruins of villages forsaken by their inhabitants. It was a land --

"Sea saturate as with wine."

Among the ruins and amid the surrounding desolation dwelt the monks who were the heroes of Cassian's earlier Conferences. No scene has seemed to me to convey more vividly at once the pathos and the nobility of the monk's renunciation of the world than this one. In Nitria and Scete the ascetic is at least remote from all remembrances of common life. On the islands of Menzaleh he kneels in solitary prayer within the very walls where women once laughed to see their children sport. He gazes over brine-soaked swamps, which once were harvest-fields thronged with reapers. Westward from Menzaleh lay Lake Burlus. Between it and the sea stretched a desolate spit of sandy land, given up by farmers as hopelessly barren. This was the Diolcos described in the Institutes, and the eighteenth Conference. Here Archebius and his fellow hermits struggled for life in their inhospitable home, husbanding even their water as no miser would husband the most precious wine.

Thus we have five distinct and widely separated regions in which Egyptian monasticism existed and flourished during the fourth century. First, Nitria, with its offshoot The Cells; second, Scete; third, the region in Upper Egypt which came under St. Antony's more immediate influence; fourth, Southern Egypt; fifth, the sea-coast of the Nile Delta. In very close connection with these, so as to be predominatingly Egyptian in the tone of their monasticism, were the hermitages and lauras of south-western Palestine and the settlements in the Sinai peninsula. Outlying from the greater centres were single hermitages and small lauras, wherever the monks hoped to find solitude.

In many places life was supported only with extreme difficulty. Sometimes water had to be obtained by collecting and storing the dew which fell at certain seasons. Sometimes it was carried with immense toil from distant wells. There were districts where the hermits lived in constant dread of the irruption of barbarian tribes, which destroyed tranquillity and even threatened life itself. Bands of wandering robbers sometimes rifled the cells of their miserable furniture, or captured, insulted, and injured the hermits. At other times the silence of these retreats became so awful, that the hermit was startled into uncontrollable emotion by the chance shout of some shepherd-boy who had driven his goats too far; or came to find the rustling of dry reeds in the wind an almost insupportable noise.

For the most part in the deserts north of the Thebaid the monks saw very little of each other. Even the inhabitants of grouped cells led almost solitary lives. On Saturdays and Sundays they met for public worship and perhaps a common meal, but during the rest of the week they lived alone in their cells, or with a single disciple. If the monk were wise, he worked. Sometimes he wove mats or baskets. These were afterwards exchanged by the hermit himself or his disciple for the necessities of life in some neighbouring village. If the cell lay too remote from human habitation to permit of such traffic, the mats or baskets were accumulated in piles, and in the end burnt. They had fulfilled their function, and were got rid of that way as well as in the markets; for the hermit was not a tradesman. He worked, not for wages, but lest the devil might tempt him in his idle hours. Sometimes a garden was cultivated around the cell. The hermit struggled with drought and barrenness until he produced a little stock of vegetables. Sometimes his cell was happily placed where date palms grew. He watched his fruit against the depredations of wild birds. Nothing is more striking than the insistence of the greater hermits on the necessity for labour of some sort. It was from their experience and their illuminated introspection that St. Benedict learnt the truth on which he built a great part of his rule -- "Idleness is the enemy of the soul."

Besides working, the monks prayed. Hours every day were spent in prayer, which must have been more of the nature of meditation than intercession. In the intervals of prayer and work they sang or said psalms, and often repeated aloud long passages from the prophets. Books were scarce among them, and we read of monks visiting. each other for the purpose of learning off by heart fresh passages of Holy Scripture. The attainment of unbroken monotony was a thing greatly to be desired. Perfect quietness was the monk's opportunity for spiritual communion with God. Therefore they regarded restlessness and the wish for change as a sin to be fought against. Long periods of unbroken monotony were liable to produce in the monk a spirit of irritable peevishness and discontent with his surroundings, which was recognised as subversive of true spirituality. They called this state of mind "accidie" and held that it was the work of a special demon. The monk felt its force chiefly during the long hours of daylight when he grew weary of praying and shrank from the petty tasks which had to be performed around and within his cell. The spirit which tempted him to accidie was "the demon which walketh at noonday." It was chiefly in order to conquer this sin that the monks worked as hard as they did at even quite useless tasks. They knew that it was fatal to try to avoid the attacks of accidie by seeking change of scene and fresh interests. Their one hope lay in labour and remaining quietly in their own cells.

Sometimes the monotony of life was broken for the monk by the arrival of a stranger. The more famous among them were so frequently visited, that the quiet which was necessary for their own religious life was seriously interfered with. St. Antony, for instance, was obliged to retire to his remote "inner mountain" in order to avoid his numerous visitors; and Arsenius made it a rule during one period of his life to receive no visitors under any pretext whatever. For most of the monks, however, the arrival of a stranger was a comparatively rare occurrence. Sometimes, if his cell lay between two great settlements, he would be called upon to entertain brethren who were travelling from one to the other. If he lived within reach of any town, clergy and pious laity came occasionally to his cell as to a kind of retreat, looking for spiritual refreshment from his words, and participation in his prayers. Aspirants after the glories of the monastic life visited hermits, of whom they happened to have heard, in search of advice. On all such occasions it was the duty of the hermit to entertain his visitors. Hospitality was as much a duty in the Egyptian deserts in the fourth century as in the mediaeval monasteries of the Benedictines. The monk brought out his little store of dainties and spread a "feast" for his guests. Here is the account of a "sumptuous repast" offered to a traveller. "He set before us salt and three olives each, after which he produced a basket containing parched vetches, from which we each took five grains. Then we had two prunes and a fig a piece. When we had finished our repast, he said to us, 'Now, let me hear your question.'" The hermit not only afforded his guest the best food at his command, but, in a true spirit of hospitality, he ate with him. Very often this necessitated breaking a fast which he was keeping, or departing from his ordinary rule of life. Sometimes, for the sake of his guests, he even omitted portions of his evening prayers, or said them secretly after his visitors had gone to sleep; for the duty of hospitality came before almost every other.

Sometimes the monks themselves deliberately broke the monotony of their lives, and went on an expedition to visit some renowned saint. They did so to seek advice for the conquering of some besetting sin, or to inquire the meaning of a passage of Holy Scripture over which they had long meditated in vain. Often they asked vaguely for "a word," so they called it, from the saint; that is, for any exhortation that might be offered, any fruit of a religious experience deeper than their own. These answers, or "words," were eagerly treasured in the memories of those who heard them. They passed from mouth to mouth as opportunities for intercourse occurred. The brethren in a laura were eager to hear from a returning monk what he had learned on his visit. Thus we read of the brethren in the Scetic desert crowding round St. Macarius on his return from the "inner mountain," and plying him with so many questions that he was interrupted in his account of what St. Antony had said to him. Naturally collections of specially striking sayings and anecdotes came to be made in the various lauras. I imagine that quite early in the fourth century the monks took a pride in remembering as many as possible of the "words" which they had heard. Soon collections of them began to be written down, and probably before the end of the fourth century there existed in the greater lauras written lists of famous sayings. These local collections embodied stories from all sources, and very frequently the names of the original authors are altogether lost. In the course of the fifth century larger collections came to be made, probably by travellers who either had the opportunity of inspecting local collections or heard the stories from old monks. If we believe that the collection given by Rosweyd in Book III. of his Vitae Patrum was actually made by Rufinus himself, we have one dating from the end of the fourth century. In these larger collections the stories are arranged in one of two ways, either they are grouped under the names of their authors, where these are known, or in chapters according to the subjects they deal with. Thus, in the great Greek collection, (published in Migne P.G. LXV.) all the anecdotes bearing the name of St. Antony are grouped together, and those with the name of Besarion together, and so on. In the collections of which Rosweyd published Latin translations, all the stories illustrating, for instance, such virtues as humility and patience come together, without regard to the names of their authors. That these various collections were made independently of each other, and from different sources, is seen in the fact that anecdotes which are quoted as anonymous in one collection bear the name of an author in another. Sometimes the same saying is attributed to different authors, and sometimes what is substantially the same story appears in several different forms. Thus there is a fine saying attributed in one place to Sisois in the form -- "Qui peregrinatio nostra est, ut teneat homo os suum," which appears twice elsewhere as anonymous in the shorter form "Peregrinatio est tacere." It seems likely in this case that the longer form is the nearest to the words originally used. I have endeavoured to give the sense of this saying -- translation I take to be impossible -- in chapter xiv., number iii.

It is from the collections of these "words of the fathers," which have been published by Rosweyd and Migne, that the greater part of the translations in this volume are made. That they are genuine remains of the teaching of the early monks of the Egyptain and South Palestinian deserts I have no doubt whatever. At the same time, it is only fair to warn the reader that these collections have never been critically edited, and that other collections exist which have not yet been published. It is much to be desired that some competent scholar would undertake the labour of editing those which exist only in MS. and critically examining the whole mass of this literature.

In order to appreciate fully the marvellous spiritual beauty of their teaching, it is necessary for the modern reader, in the first place, to realize that the hermits were actual living men, and to make an effort to understand the kind of lives they lived. It is as a help to such effort that I offer the first part of this introduction. In the second place, the reader must try to clear his mind of certain prejudices which exist against the hermits and their way of life. It is to the consideration of these prejudices that I have given up the following portion of this introduction.

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 No. 88
 Posted on 7 June, 2006
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