The Monastic Reaction: The First Monks of the Desert (Part 3)

The History of Christianity #99

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Mark 1:35 which reads: “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Saint Anthony of Egypt, Father of the Monks. He said: “One should not say that it is impossible to reach a virtuous life; but one should say that it is not easy. Nor do those who have reached it find it easy to maintain. Those who are devout and whose intellect enjoys the love of God participate in the life of virtue; the ordinary intellect, however, is worldly and wavering, producing both good and evil thoughts, because it is changeful by nature and directed towards material things. But the intellect that enjoys the love of God punishes the evil which arises spontaneously because of man’s laziness.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Monastic Reaction: The First Monks of the Desert (Part 3)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Both Paul and Anthony went to the desert before the time of Constantine – and even then, there were others already there. But when Constantine came to power, the life these hermits had led became increasingly popular. Some travelers who visited the region declared, with obvious exaggeration, that the desert was more populated than some cities. Others speak of twenty thousand women and ten thousand men leading the monastic life in a single area of Egypt. Similar figures are sometimes given for the arid regions of Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey, where monks dug caves in the soft stone of the region. No matter how exaggerated these figures may be, one fact is certain: those who fled society for the withdrawn life of the hermit were legion.

Their life was extremely simple. Some planted gardens, but most of them earned their living weaving baskets and mats that they then traded for bread and oil. Apart from the ready availability of reeds, this occupation had the advantage that while weaving one could pray, recite a psalm, or memorize a portion of scripture. The diet of the desert consisted mostly of bread, to which were occasionally added fruit, vegetables, and oil. Their belongings were limited to the strictly necessary clothing, and a mat to sleep on. Most of them frowned on the possession of books, which could lead to pride. They taught each other, by heart, entire books of the Bible, particularly the Psalms and books of the New Testament. And they also shared among themselves edifying anecdotes and pearls of wisdom coming from the most respected anchorites.

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