Desert Monastics as Hidden Models

220px-St_Macarius_the_Great_with_CherubEarly in the fourth century, at about the time the Emperor Constantine suddenly made Christianity respectable, numerous men and a few women settled in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine. They made their homes in caves or built simple cells with their own hands. They had few, if any, possessions. They ate very little, sometimes just a few raw vegetables a day or every other day. They spent their days in constant prayer and labor. The most common work was weaving baskets, a simple activity they could do while they prayed, and they gave the proceeds beyond their minimal needs to the poor. Much of their prayer consisted of recitation of the Psalms, often said from memory, as even having a Bible was considered superfluous to some of these monastics. One of them sold the Bible he had and said he had sold the book that told him to sell all his possessions. This saying points to the fundamental aim of these monastics: to imitate Christ. They were men and women of few words, but the words that have come down to us are weighted with significance. One of the most famous teachings is: “Go to your cell and stay there. Your cell will teach you everything.” For the monastic, the cell was and still is a place to be shared with God, a place where one devotes oneself to sweeping away the clutter of the desires shared with other people to immerse oneself in the Desire of God.

These monastics withdrew from the intense communities of the villages or the decadent cities to free themselves from the entanglements of mimetic rivalry. Abba Arsenius, particularly known for his quest for solitude, said he fled life in the royal court, a place notorious for mimetic tensions when a voice told him: “Flee from men and you will be saved.” Upon being asked why he avoided his fellow monastics, he said “I cannot live with God and with men. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many.” This quote shows quite a powerful awareness of the effects of other peoples’ desires. What these monastics discovered, however, is that these entanglements remain inside the person just as much as they do while one is in the midst of society. One monastic who withdrew into solitude because he was constantly losing his temper with others found himself throwing the same tantrums when he spilled water he was carrying from a distant spring. He decided to go back to his community. They also found themselves fighting the same battles with long-standing grudges or memories of sexually attractive people concerning people they had ostensibly fled.

These monastics also often failed to leave their rivalrous impulses behind them. The practices of severe fasting and sleep deprivation along with intense prayer was supposedly for the purpose of devoting oneself entirely to God with nothing held back. Unfortunately, comparisons with each other sometimes became their sole possessions when they failed to heed to the warnings of elders against comparing themselves with each other. Macarius, an experienced monastic who should have known better, heard of a group of younger monastics who seemed proud of their ascetic accomplishments, so he paid them a visit to put them to shame by outdoing them in austerities to an impressive degree. The abba of the community thanked Macarius for giving the younger brothers a lesson in humility and gently showed him the door. I can’t help but think that Macarius was still in need of many lessons in humility himself. In another story, a monastic starting out to visit a fellow monastic ran into that very monastic who was on the way to visit him. Annoyed that this brother was threatening to outdo him in good works he said accusingly: “I possessed a treasure and you have tried to steal it.” The other monastic, showing a little more maturity, retorted: “Does the narrow gate have room for you alone?” In the end, an angel of the Lord intervened to say: “Your rivalry has gone up to God like a fragrant perfume.” Presumably the rivalry is a “fragrant perfume” only if the two monastics stop arguing.

Better yet was a pair of monastics who lived together in the same cell for many years without having an argument. One day, one of them suggested they have an argument like “other people in the world.” The other didn’t even know how to begin, so his companion put a brick between them and said: “This brick is mine. Now you say it is yours.” The other monastic complied. But when the first monastic said again that the brick was his, the other just said: “Okay, it’s yours.” So they failed to have an argument. A simple story, but one that shows how mimetic desire between people can a desire for peace and a mutual renunciation of rivalry.

Some desert monastics fought their rivalrous tendencies by doing everything they could to avoid praise, realizing instinctively that caring about one’s reputation was to stir deeply into the pot of mimetic desire. Amma Synkletike said: “As wax is melted when confronted by fire, so the soul is dissolved by praises and loses its intensity.”She also said: “As it is not possible to be both plant and seed at the same time, so it is impossible for us to produce heavenly fruit with earthly glory all about us.” When a group of visitors came out to see Abba Moses, they asked a monastic where his cell was and were told Abba Moses was a fool and they shouldn’t waste their time listening to him. Only later did they find that the man who said that was Abba Moses himself. Another monastic, when visited by a bishop refused to speak, so that the bishop left without hearing a word. When asked why he would not speak to such an important person, the monastic said: “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my words.” With a person in power, any word would likely lead to a mimetic trap, even if inadvertently.

One of the most common ways of putting ourselves into mimetic rivalry with other people is by passing judgment on them in a judgmental manner that leaves us in a superior position, which is actually the illusion of a superior position. Abba Poeman said that we should ask ourselves in every situation: “Who am I?” and “do not pass judgment on anybody.” Abba Poemen also said “Whenever we cover up our brother’s fault, God covers up ours, and whenever we reveal the brother’s, God reveals ours.”

Many desert monastics were not inclined to follow this counsel. One monastic who had been successful in fighting off thoughts of sexual lust was approached by a troubled younger monastic who confessed to having serious struggles with sexual fantasies. The older self-righteous monastic rebuffed the younger brother for his weakness and sent him away. A more mature monastic found out what had happened and prayed that God would send this callous monastic the same temptation that had troubled the younger one. God granted the prayer (probably without needing to be asked) and the old monastic ran off to the brothels of Alexandria in his despair. The mature monastic placed himself in position to intercept this despairing monk and tell him to return to his cell and not be so judgmental in the future.

One of my favorite of all stories on this theme is about the time Abba Moses was called by a group of monastics to pass judgment against a member who had committed a serious sin. Abba Moses demurred at coming until he was urged several times to join them. When he did come, he carried a leaky basket full of sand. When asked why he was carrying the basket, Abba Moses said: “My sins are falling out behind me where I cannot see them and you expect me to judge this brother!”

Another story along these lines has to do with two or three monastics who were pretty sure a fellow monastic had brought a woman into his cell. They went to a wise abba and dragged him to cell to discipline the errant brother. The wise abba saw a hamper that he knew had to be the woman’s hiding place so he sat on it while the monastics searched everywhere else. When they failed to find the woman, the abba rebuked them and sent them away. Then he opened the hamper, took out the woman and said to the monastic who had brought her in: “Take heed for your soul.” This episode shows concern to put a stop to delinquent behavior but in such a way as not to foster mimetic rivalry.

These last two stories show that even monastics who spent much time in prayer could gather around one of their own who was perceived to be delinquent the way everybody in Jerusalem gathered around Jesus to put him to death. One monastic found himself in this position, not for anything he had done, but because his fellow monastics decided to pick on him and heap insults on him fast and furiously while the one insulted said nothing and did not react in anger. After the insulting stopped, one of them asked him if the insults had hurt him. The monastic answered: “It hurt, but I kept silent.” This monastic had learned what Christ was all about and was able to teach this to the others.

The wisest of these monastics realized that the best way to avoid judging others judgmentally was to be constantly aware of one’s own shortcomings and take responsibility for them. One monastic was seen choking horribly to the alarm of his fellow and ended up coughing up a bit of blood. When asked for an explanation, he said he had been angry with a brother, but had coughed up the anger so that he was no longer angry with him. In a situation where many people will expel the person who caused the anger, this monastic chose to expel his own anger.

There is a deeper way of renouncing mimetic rivalry than renouncing judgmentalism. That is to care for the dignity of another person in a heroic way. Heroic caring tends to come in small circumstances. It is easier to rise to the occasion to care for others during and after a natural catastrophe then on a daily basis when small things crop up. My favorite story about heroic caring involves a group of monastic who took a journey together. One of the monastics was the guide for the others. After night fall, the guide clearly had lost his way but he was having trouble realizing it or admitting it. A wise abba in this group took his companions aside and said he didn’t want to embarrass the guide or trouble him. So he suggested that he say that he is weary and needed to stop and rest for the night. The others agreed and that is what they did. When morning came, the guide had no trouble orienting himself and was able to guide the others to their destination.

While living in solitude with God and enduring elected hardships, these monastics came to realize that love and concern for others was what their lives were really all about. One monastic said that one who hung himself by the nose would be less pleasing to God than another who went out to aid the sick. The older, more experienced monastics gradually came to realize that charity was so central that their austerities did not make them holy. Alma Synkletike said: “There are many in mountains acting like city dwellers who are perishing and many in cities doing the deeds of the desert who are being saved. For it is possible to alone with one’s spirit while in the company of many and also to have one’s thoughts with crowds when one is alone.” When one is centered on God as deeply as this, there is no rivalry between persons.

These men and women who left cities and villages for life in the desert were not thinking of settling examples for others. Before long, however, the older, more experienced monastics modeled the life of prayer to younger, less experienced disciples. One of the paradoxes about withdrawal is that it is noticed and thought about. For people living in the fleshpots of Alexandria, it was a challenge when rumors began to float around the city that some people had gone off to the desert to spend time in silence and prayer with a minimum of food and possessions. Why would anybody do that? For the spoiled and self-centered rich people at the centers of power, this question was haunting. Whether they liked it or not, they knew their lifestyle was being challenged. St. Athanasius, a great theologian who aided the church’s Christology greatly, though at the cost of much mimetic rivalry that led to violence, wrote a biography of one of the first desert monastics, St. Anthony. This book presented Anthony as a model for the monastic life, a model to challenge the life of any Christian, including the life of Athanasius himself. During his time of religious crisis, St. Augustine of Hippo saw this book about St. Anthony and was inspired by Anthony’s example as he gave himself over to Christ.

Helen Waddell, in the introduction to a collection of sayings of the Desert Monastics, wrote some of the most stirring words of their influence:

. . . Paradoxical as it seems, their denial of the life of earth has been the incalculable enriching of it, and they have affected the consciousness of generations to which they are not even a name. They thought to devaluate time by setting it over against eternity, and instead they have given it an unplumbed depth. . . . The sense of infinity is now in our blood: and even to those of us who see our life as a span long, beginning in the womb and ending it in the coffin or a shovelful of grey ash, each moment of it has its eternal freight.

1 thought on “Desert Monastics as Hidden Models

  1. Andrew, I enjoyed reading this. This avoidance of rivalry business is tough to live. I found myself laughing at our human comedy. There are a few typos or missing words in the text that I stumbled over.



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