Alone in the Desert?

IN OCTOBER 346, Alexandria was abuzz with word of Archbishop Athanasius’s return from six years of exile. In that city, his Arian opponents were in retreat, and his followers were aflame with heightened zeal for their faith. Wives and husbands heeded Paul’s advice (1 Cor. 7:5) to refrain from sexual relations and turn instead to prayer. Fathers persuaded children to renounce the world, and children encouraged parents in their asceticism. Young women who had looked forward to marriage chose instead to remain virgins for Christ, and young men followed the example of others and became monks. The laity’s zeal had found embodiment in the renunciation of the world.

By the middle of the fourth century, asceticism was in the air and spreading, especially in Egypt. But what exactly did this life entail? And why were so many suddenly attracted to it?

Monastic growth movement

Renunciation of the world, an orientation so at odds with our modern culture, had in fact nourished the growth of Christianity from the start, and by 346, persons who wished to embark on an ascetic life had many exemplars from which to choose.

Within cities, Christian philosophers and teachers learned from the ascetic lifestyles of their non-Christian counterparts. As young people had in the past pursued wisdom by going to the philosopher Antoninus, who according to an ancient account, “despised his body and freed himself from its pleasures,” so now Christian youth sought out Christian ascetics under whom they might learn the new Christian philosophy.

In Alexandria, the theologian Origen (who lived in the early third century) had taught new converts about Christianity and amazed them with his renunciations, including sleeping on the floor, going barefoot, extreme fasting, and abstaining completely from wine.

In fourth-century Leontopolis (in the Egyptian delta), one Hieracas formed an ascetic association of single persons who came together for study and worship. These Christians rejected traditional marriage and advocated instead a form of ascetic companionship, in which the partners renounced sexual activity.

More traditional Christian leaders, however, abhorred the practice. Athanasius, for example, wrote letters to virgins warning them that to live celibately with a man was to pour fuel on the flame of passion. “For does a person tie up a fire in his bosom and not burn his clothes? Or does a man walk on a fire’s burning coals and not burn his feet?”

Still, Athanasius encouraged young women to become “brides of Christ” within their parents’ home or in a house of virgins. Male ascetics too lived in the cities in their parents’ homes, alone (this is called “anchoritic” monasticism), or in small ascetic houses.

By 325, a more elaborate form of village asceticism had also emerged. In Upper Egypt, Pachomius brought ascetics together within a walled community to practice a common life under a shared rule ("cenobitic” monasticism). Priests and deacons in Alexandria sent ascetically minded youth up river to join the Pachomian community. Within the cities, towns, and villages of Egypt, ascetic Christians had become so commonplace that the author of the Historia Monachorum en Aegypto (a late-fourth-century travel journal) ventured to suggest that monks and virgins almost outnumbered the secular inhabitants in the town of Oxyrhynchus (on the Nile, about 100 miles south of modern Cairo). “The city,” he asserted, “was so full of monasteries that its walls resounded with the monks’ voices.”

Gradually, the withdrawal from the world evident in these lifestyles, practiced often in the towns and villages of Egypt, became separate spatially as more and more ascetics withdrew into the desert. When Antony embarked on the ascetic life around A.D. 271, he first apprenticed himself with an old ascetic in a neighboring village. From there he moved into deserted tombs located some distance from the village, and then even farther away to a deserted fortress across the river. He eventually established a monastery at the inner mountain by the Red Sea.

Amoun, a contemporary of Antony, lived in an ascetic marriage in the Delta for 18 years before he withdrew alone (about 330) to Nitria, at the edge of the western desert beside the village of Pernoudj. By 338 so many ascetics had joined Amoun in Nitria that he withdrew six miles further into the desert to a place that became known as the Cells (Kellia). Here the monks lived in a colony of isolated cells (called “semi-anchoritic” monasticism), each located out of earshot of its nearest neighbor.

Initially cells must have been small, though archaeological excavations reveal that in later times some came to include a courtyard, a vestibule, an oratory, two bedrooms (one for the ascetic and one for his disciple), an office, a kitchen, and a latrine.

In this setting, less advanced monks practiced the ascetic life under the tutelage of a more experienced master. Thus when a novice asked Abba Paisios what he should do to fear God, he was told, “Go, and join a man who fears God, and live near him; he will teach you, too, to fear God.”

Feats of spiritual athletes

In spite of the severe demands, communal asceticism proved increasingly attractive through the fourth century. Palladius reported that eventually 600 monks lived at the Cells and that they had their own church and priest. Even further into the desert beyond the Cells lay Scetis, which had been founded at about the same time by Macarius the Egyptian. Distant enough to satisfy the desire for solitude, yet close enough to meet transportation and economic needs, it became famous and attracted many ascetics.

Palladius, who visited Egypt toward the end of the fourth century, reported 2,000 monks living in the monasteries around Alexandria and 5,000 in Nitria. (The population of Alexandria has been estimated at about 180,000 in the fourth century.) In Athanasius’s famous words, “The desert was made a city by monks who left their own people and enrolled for citizenship in heaven.”

The sayings and stories of these desert ascetics are filled with accounts of amazing trials and extraordinary feats. One hears of monks who walked on hot coals or scorpions or asps with their bare feet, of others whose unshaven hair alone served as their clothes, and still others who grazed with the antelope for food. Some monks wore chains and let their hair grow long, much to the dismay of others. Women shaved their heads and passed as male ascetics, their ruse discovered only in their death.

Onnophrius withdrew so far into the desert that Paphnutius had to walk over eight days and receive miraculous aid to reach him. Abba Bessarion avoided sleep for 14 days and nights by standing upright in the midst of thorn bushes, and Eulogius often fasted an entire week, eating only bread and salt. Pachomius bound ashes against his loins so that they ate away at him, and another monk’s body became so irritated through his ascetic practices that he was infested with vermin. A solitary, or hermit, in lower Egypt avoided the temptation of a woman by shutting himself in his cell and dousing the flame of lust by thrusting his fingers one by one into the flame of his lamp.

Fantastic tales such as these, however, only tell part of the story. While the tales emphasize the remoteness of the desert, most early ascetics dwelled near towns and villages or within relatively easy reach of them. Contact among monks was frequent, and the necessities of life required at least minimal contact with the world. The monks’ handiwork required markets, and food and other necessities required an income.

John the Dwarf wove baskets that a camel driver picked up from his cell in Scetis, and Isidore went to the local market to sell his goods. Esias worked in the local harvest, and Lucius purchased his food with money earned plaiting ropes. Poemen interceded on a villager’s behalf with a local magistrate, and in a letter, one writer appeals to the hermit John to obtain his release from military service. The “remoteness” of the desert was, in fact, not that remote. In the stories, it serves as a description of the monks’ “otherness.”

Yet even the near desert proved a difficult abode. If monks fled the city to avoid its temptations, they found in the desert the home of the demons. If they sought in the desert a place to avoid contact with the opposite sex, they found the desires and images of the flesh ever present in their minds. Theirs became a psychological battle, and ascetic techniques were aimed to conquer the mind as well as the body. Work and fasting became essential tools. Solitude and silence curtailed careless chatter. Hands busy weaving mats kept the mind occupied.

A carefully controlled diet helped. Monks recognized, along with medical writers of the day, that certain foods lowered one’s sexual drive. Wine, meat, and rich foods, which had the opposite effect, were of course avoided. Jerome, citing the physician Galen, states that “bodies of young men . . . and women glow with innate warmth” and that “all food is harmful which tends to increase that heat.” He advised them, “Drink only water . . . avoid all hot dishes. . . . With vegetables also avoid anything that creates wind or lies heavy on the stomach. . . . Nothing is so good for young Christians as a diet of herbs. . . . By cold food the heat of the body should be tempered.” Monastic diets varied, but bread, lentils, and vegetables were among the staples.

Living Bibles

Scripture served as the ultimate guidebook for these men and women. They read it carefully and committed large portions of it to memory. Antony paid such close attention when he heard the Scriptures read that his memory served him in place of books. Pachomian monks memorized large portions of Scripture, especially the Psalms, and meditated upon them. In an ancient rock-cut tomb used by a monk as a cell, the owner painted the first line of each Psalm on the wall to aid him in his recitation of the entire text. The memorized text was then embodied in the ascetic’s life.

The tales of the desert monks are replete with examples of such “lived” Scripture. When Abba Macarius returned to his cell one day, he found a man stealing his belongings. He reacted calmly and helped the thief load his donkey with the objects from his cell. As the man departed, Macarius recited the words from Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Sarapion loved his copy of one of the Gospels and read it often. Yet he sold it and gave to the poor, following its advice to “sell what you have and give to the poor.”

Theodore refused a visit from his mother, citing Matthew 10:37: “He who loves his father or his mother more than me is not worthy of me.”

The radical Christians who responded to the ascetic call embarked on a path of personal change. They sought to embody the teachings of Scripture, to live as angels on earth by imitating Elijah, Christ, and the ascetic heroes about whom they heard. As angels were not bound by family and belongings, they sought to free themselves of such encumbrances. As angels were passionless, they sought to control the passions. As angels were asexual, they sought to overcome sexuality.

Late fourth-century monk and spiritual writer John Cassian wrote, "To pray ‘thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ is to pray that men be like angels, that as angels fulfill God’s will in heaven, men may fulfill his will, instead of their own, on earth.” Ascetic practices tore down the old self as defined by “the world” and fashioned a new self defined in terms of radical Christian spirituality. Arsenius, a man of senatorial rank who served as tutor to the Roman princes Arcadius and Honorius, prayed to God to lead him in the way of salvation. “And a voice came saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.’ “ Arsenius renounced his rank and wealth and became a monk in Scetis.

When later a relative, a senator, left him a large inheritance, he returned it saying, “I was dead [to the world] long before this senator who has just died.” Arsenius had become a new man in Christ. His transformation is described more mystically in reports that “a brother came to Arsenius’s cell at Scetis, and waiting outside the door, he saw the man entirely like a flame” (symbolizing the monk’s ascetic perfection). Heaven and earth met in the successful ascetic.

The stories and sayings of the desert monks served as spiritual guidebooks for those who would embark on an ascetic life. Novices in the ascetic life strove to imitate the great ascetic heroes of the past. The sayings and stories, however, served not only future monks, but other Christians as well. Stories like that of Macarius related above, after all, convey their moral within an idealized story. The reader need not help a thief plunder his home in order to recognize in Marcarius’s detachment a challenge to his own attachment to the things of the world. CH

For more information on this topic, see:

Medieval Sourcebook: Athanasius: Life of Antony, Full Text—antony.html

Chapter 37 of Gibbon's The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire 

By James E. Goehring

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #64 in 1999]

James Goehring is professor of religion and chair of the department of classics, philosophy, and religion at Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is author of Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism (Trinity Press International, 1999).
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