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About the time Christianity got legal and official, followers of Jesus began trekking into the deserts to find god again and to lead the good life.  There is a statement I want to make about the Monks who went into the Egyptian desert in the Fourth century, but I cannot make it.Maybe it is a bit of hagiography or maybe I imagined it.  I thought I read it in Helen Waddell's book on the Desert Fathers, but I cannot find it there.  The statement is this:  In spite of an economic crisis throughout the empire and in spite of a growing inequality between rich and poor, the voluntary poverty of the desert monks almost wiped out the involuntary poverty in the villages and desert of Egypt.  If I didn't make this up; if this might have happened,  It might have happened this way,

Take some men and women, say 20,000 or more, who are committed to prayer, celibacy, poverty, hard work, and charity, distribute them at random across the desert of Northwestern Egypt, not too close to the cities or the river or the sea, and leave them to their own devices.  They will work hard, keep little, and give the rest away.  At the same time Christianity is growing rapidly and now is the religion of choice of about one-third of the citizens of the Roman Empire.  Unlike later generations, these Christians knew that Christianity is about the sermon on the mount and they regard the desert monks as heroes.  They start to live as close to a monastic life as their circumstances permit and they also start to give away more than they keep.  Eventually so much is given away to so many that there is drying up of the supply of poverty so the demand for charity can no longer be met.  Charity must spread out through Egypt, then to the empire, then to the world.  Of course this did not happen, and we have a right to know why!

First of all, the Church feared the monks, they were self disciplined, they thought their own thoughts, the did not require the Church to tell them what to do or believe.  They were so dedicated to god that they had no dedication to spare for family, church, or state.  One of my favorite pieces of hagiography has to do with an old monk who got an innocent man released by having the victim cry out from his grave in the presence of authorities that the suspect was innocent of his death.  So the police asked tho old man to have the victim tell them who the guilty person was.  "No, said the old man, "God is only interested in freeing the innocent, he is not interested in punishing the guilty."  This sort of attitude, spread wide enough and deep enough, challenges institutions, especially the state.  Soon Pachomius comes on the scene (an ex-soldier--they should have seen this coming) and begins organizing the hermit monks into walled monasteries with rules of discipline and conduct.

For the next 1600 years the desert "fathers and mothers" were a laughing stock and a scandal, percieved by both religious and secular people as maniacs whose lives were shamelessly wasted in self torture and useless drivel.  They were so regarded 50 years ago.  The only desert monk I remember hearing about was Simon Styletes, the pole sitter. (This in spite of the fact that Waddell's book was published in 1936).  Now I hear the desert "fathers and mothers" treated with more respect and appreciation.  Who knows where that will lead?

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
amaebi
Apr. 22nd, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC)
Say, have you read Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints? I love it, and think you'd enjoy it a lot.
bobby1933
Apr. 23rd, 2009 12:43 am (UTC)
No, I haven't; and thanks.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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