Speaking from Outside the System: Social Ecology, Self-Government, and Desert Places in Early Christian Monasticism


In the 4th and 5th Century CE, Egyptians lived in constant bondage to the whims of the Roman Empire, the fluctuations of an economy of scarcity. They lived in a world where the threat of hunger was ever-present, where farmers carefully watched the Nile week after week, waiting for the yearly floods and hoping for a good planting cycle. Citizens across the Roman Empire lived in a world where scarce resources were hoarded by the powerful, and kept from the many through domination and brutal military rule.
[1] The Roman emperors were now nominally Christian, but they still operated under the logic of what the Christians had negatively called "the world," lording power over the poor and oppressed while coveting created things and procuring them through force. Since the first generation, the Early Church had seen this world as a place of sin - greed, idolatry, injustice, and war. The promise of the kingdom of God was in marked contrast to this world and present age. But in the 4th and 5th centuries, with the legalization of Christianity, Christians were becoming a part of the world. Like the world they sinned, and like the world they made compromises; they bent their Christian practices to suit the management of an Empire.
Yet while some may have questioned the possibility of living a full Christian life in the world, life outside of this Empire must have seemed impossible. There was nowhere else to go. Some Christians may have perceived the social order of Roman cities and farms to be brutal or sinful, yet they relied on this social order for their food and their safety. The landscape of Egypt dramatizes this dependence. In Egypt, the world along the Nile was green and lush compared to the "rolling dunes of dead sand, which rose in gentle ridges from the very edge of Lake Mareotis."
[2] Egyptian peasants may have faced the horrors of starvation and oppression amid the palm trees of the Nile delta, but the only other option was the vast, inhuman emptiness of sand, heat, and sky, a place whose freedom was more terrifying than the predictable routine of slaughter and poverty in the valley. Egyptian Christians could stand at the boundary between civilization and uninhabitable desert and contemplate what life might be like beyond this clear geographic border of the world. But life as they knew it was only possible in the world.
Yet some Early Christians at this time voluntarily chose to dwell in this desert. They sought to model a more fully Christian life by fleeing the world, and to do this, they had to live in territories beyond the world's control. They were searching for a new way of life that could more closely approximate Christian ideals of compassion, fellowship, hospitality, and self-control, ideals many felt could not be realized in the decadent society of empire, hunger, and greed. Sin was in control of the cities; the desert, on the other hand, was pure. By crossing over that line between green delta and yellow sand, Christian monks developed what Peter Brown calls the "myth of the desert...one of the most abiding creations of late antiquity."
[3] As James Goehring points out, St. Antony and his fellow Desert Fathers and Mothers were not the first ascetics; before, during, and after their moves to the desert there were monks living in the cities and at the edges of the cities.[4] However, the narrative of their withdrawal, or anchoresis, into open desert spaces provided a compelling and popular model through which thousands of other Christians could frame their spiritual and social aspirations for a better way of life. This "desert ideal" resonated with so many because it opened up the wilderness as a realm of spiritual freedom, where Christians could die to the slavery and domination of the world and live in a self-managing and compassionate way, taking steps towards the realization of God's paradise.
The Egyptian landscape did not mechanistically determine the historical development of this desert spirituality; certainly, earlier cultural perceptions of the desert such as the Exodus myth provided an interpretive lens with which to read the desert landscape. Moreover, the "desert ideal" was adaptable and multifaceted, easily recontextualized in the geographies of Syria, Cappadocia, and the European countryside. Basil of Caesarea visited Egypt and Syria in 357, observing monastic practices there and transplanting them to the Pontine Hills along the River Iris in Cappadocia.
[5] Martin of Tours was born to pagans in Pannonia. In the late 4th century, he converted to Christianity and "at the age of twelve, he longed for the desert"; he would later seek a life of "desert" asceticism in the forested landscapes of southern Europe. [6] As Belden Lane outlines, through Christian history the concept of the "desert" became a metaphor for interior spiritual states - the medieval Spanish mystic "Saint John of the Cross knew and wrote about desert-mountain experience better than most people in the history of spirituality, yet he spent little, if any, time in starkly arid or elevated country."[7]
However, the actual landscapes of Egypt, Syria, and Cappadocia certainly contributed greatly to the historical development of this spiritual tradition. The experience of living at ecological limits - at the edge of cultivated land and wilderness - provided the fertile tension that powers the contemplative traditions born with the Desert Fathers. To live a human life in a place considered inhuman required great self-discipline, a willingness to "die" to the social self or ego constructed by the oppressive and idolatrous world one had left behind. The desert provided a situation of displacement that brought Christians to an existential encounter, an opening of themselves to new, multifaceted possibilities of Christian practice, leaving behind the captive ego and opening to the free soul. As Peter Brown puts it, "The myth of the desert was...above all, a myth of liberating precision. It delimited the towering presence of "the world," from which the Christian must be set free, by emphasizing a clear ecological frontier."
[8] The experience of choosing freely to live on very little, within the narrow ecological limits of a desert world indifferent to human arrogance, provided key models of ethical restraint, political possibility, community flourishing, and apophatic spirituality that would later branch out into rich and complex renderings of the Christian tradition.

Entering the Terrible Wasteland: Christian Views of Desert Places

The Coptic word toou refers to both mountain and desert; it suggests that "for early Egyptian monasticism all terrain beyond the safety of the Nile was regarded as equally hazardous, a place of brokenness where divine mercy must suffice."
[9] It may be easy for us, in the early 21st century, to assume that the Desert Fathers went into the toou because they were drawn by the beauty of wilderness. In our time, wild lands are rapidly disappearing and many romanticize the wilderness as a place of recreation, a place that is supposed to provide us with an easily accessible and guaranteed "spiritual experience." But the desert monks of late antiquity did not go to the desert seeking sublimity, beauty, ecstasy, or spiritual experience; when these came to them it was generally perceived to be a gratuitous gift of God's grace amid a harsh landscape of struggle.
After all, the Roman Empire of Late Antiquity was a collection of cultures on the brink of starvation, constantly battling the elements to eke out survival. City dwellers and farmers alike were at the whim of grain markets, political fluctuations, droughts, floods, and food shortages. [cite Gurney] Perhaps for this reason, early Christian writers tended to find beauty and solace in ordered terrain, land that had been subjected to human cultivation and was thus predictable and balanced.
[10] The garden was the image of paradise, not the wilderness. Yet only a few privileged elites had their own gardens. Most Egyptians were compelled by real whips as well as the "whip of hunger" to work on the fields of others. They were disciplined into subservience because they had no other options - there was the narrow belt of Nile civilization that oppressed them and there was the vast desert wasteland beyond it.
Monks chose the landscape of the desert for both its positive and negative attributes, as we will see here.
[11] Much monastic literature describes the desert as a terrible place, grotesque and full of danger. For example: "Abba Elias was famous for having spent seventy years in the terrible desert of Antinoe. No description can do justice to that rugged desert in the mountain where [he] had his hermitage, never coming down to the inhabited region. The path which one took to go to him was so narrow that those who pressed on could only just follow its track with rough crags towering on either side."[12]

The Terror of the Desert is Better Than the Sins of the City: Critiquing the World From the Outside.

What would compel thousands of former citizens of "the world" to enter a landscape they perceived to be so terrible? Historians have forwarded several competing theories as to why there was such an explosion in the fourth and fifth century of Christian ascetic practices. Some argue that as state persecutions of Christians stopped with the conversion of Constantine and parts of the Roman ruling class to Christianity, monasticism replaced earlier martyrdom as the premier model of Christian witness. Others have argued that economic hardship is what pushed Christians out of the villages; crises in the Roman Empire caused significant chaos, compelling many to seek out the monasteries in order to survive. Another explanation argues that many pursued asceticism out of a disgust for what they saw to be a decadent and too-worldly Christianity that had begun to form as many elites opportunistically donned Christian practices in order to get ahead in a now-Christian empire.
Each of these explanations has its flaws and is overly reductionistic on its own. But it is safe to say that for one reason or another, the 4th and 5th century marked a time of moral crisis for Christians in the Roman Empire, where asceticism provided them a way to live by higher ideals. Whether these ideals were a life of strenuous witness, a life free from economic oppression, or a Christian practice free from imperial corruption, Christians sought to live beyond the sinful conventions of what they called "the world." They sought to live the values of the gospels in a purer and more exemplary way, refusing to make the compromises the "world" demanded. The monk was a living icon, an image of separation. He or she represented a critique of the world from an outsider perspective. He or she modeled a way to hold up Christian values of compassion, fellowship, and hospitality as distinct from those of a dominating society and to offer these back to the world's citizens as pure gifts of spiritual guidance. As Peter Brown argues, "The 'world', 'the present age' of previous Christian radicals had been almost too big to be seen. Its measureless demonic structures had engulfed the very stars. There was no outside viewing point from which to take the measure of its faceless immensity, and no hope of disengagement from its clutches other than through drastic rituals that promised total transformation, through the formation of small, inward-looking groups of the redeemed."[14]

R.M Price develops this further, arguing that with the conversion of the Roman Empire this sense of the church as a small cadre struggling against the world was watered down. Christianity moved from being a small sect of "inward looking redeemed" and became worldly in its own right. The "drastic rituals" mentioned above, namely baptism, "[Were] now too common to seem a source of special grace."
[15] With unprecedented numbers of sometimes lukewarm Christians becoming baptized, Baptism itself seemed worldly. It was performed openly now with imperial blessing in cities full of warfare and greed. Christians needed new ways of spiritually removing themselves from entanglement with this world.
The desert landscape provided a way. From Egyptian, Syrian, and Cappadocian monks, the experiences of living beyond ecological boundaries generated rich new metaphors for the separation of the Christian soul from the sinful, oppressive, and corrupting world. In this, the emerging desert spirituality drew from a long tradition of prophets speaking from the wilderness, from the margins of society. Prophets could "speak truth to power", could condemn the rulers and elites of society by speaking from the limits of the kingdoms they controlled. But the experience of the desert monks of late antiquity marked a watershed moment in the development of the concept of the exemplary dissident who is able to survive outside of the world long enough to launch a critique of society from a detached perspective. Here we see the development of a voice that claims to speak from completely "outside the system". As Brown puts it, "Seen from the slight eminence of the desert of Egypt...the "world" was no more and no less than the green valley below. This was a valley of crowded villages, condemned to ceaseless labor by the ever-present fear of famine. These villages were presided over by ancient temples. Throughout the fourth and much of the fifth centuries, the temples still resounded with oracles that foretold the rising of the Nile: seductive, demonic rumors, as insistent as the honking of the bullfrogs along the stagnant canals in the tense night before the great river once against stirred to life, to flood the dry fields. Seen from the desert, this timeless landscape gave to the notion of the 'the world' a concreteness and a precision that it had lacked in all earlier Christian sensibility."

Many ascetic texts argue that this world is even more full of pain and drudgery than the difficult, yet free life of the desert monk. For example, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers describes the following exchange between Abba Paphnutius of the Egyptian desert and one of his disciples who was struggling with sexual temptations: "[The brother] said, 'Even if I take ten wives, I shall not satisfy my desire.' The old man encouraged him, saying, 'No, my child, this warfare is from the demons.' But he did not let himself be persuaded and he left for Egypt to take a wife. After a time it happened that the old man went up to Egypt and met him carrying baskets of shellfish. He did not recognize him at all, but the other said to him, 'I am so and so, your disciple.' And the old man, seeing him in such disgrace, wept and said, 'How have you lost your dignity and come to such humiliation? No doubt you have taken ten wives?' And groaning, he said, 'Truly I have only taken one, and I have a great deal of trouble satisfying her with food.' The old man said, 'Come back with us.' He said, 'Is it possible to repent, abba?' He said that it was. And leaving everything, the brother followed him and returned to Scetis, and thanks to this experience he became a proved monk."
The gender dynamics here are certainly troubling - the monk leaves his wife behind, hungry and probably socially ostracized while he seeks his own freedom. But the significance of this passage for the argument I am developing here lies in the ideological framework it sets up as a teaching tool for young monks. It attempts to argue that the drudgery and labor of the world is humiliating and below human dignity. Dignity and freedom come from being self-managing in one's own work and survival, as part of a desert community. This requires self-control over one's desires; the monk who is able to quiet his or her passions is able to live more happily in the desert than in the city, shaping his body like an athlete for the performance of freedom. The passage is especially striking in that it places the responsibility of agency on the monk himself, not his spiritual master. Paphnutius has no coercive control over the young brother and when the brother chooses to go to the city, Paphnutius lets him go. Desert life is a choice, for which a monk would have to take responsibility; he or she would have to renew this choice on a day-to-day basis.
In this sense, the ascetic texts describe the world as a place of constant temptation. Just as the Israelites of the Exodus story were tempted to return to a slavery that seemed easier than their desert freedom, monks must remain ever vigilant lest Satan and his demons tempt them back to a life of servitude in the cities and valleys. Living first at the edge of the city, St. Antony became a model of Christian witness: "The only fire that burned in the heart of that exceptional man was that of his determination to appear second to none...And he did this in such a way that although he surpassed all others in glory, he was nevertheless dear to them all."
He has already given up the household and familial commitments that bound a person to the Roman social world and had become self-sufficient beyond the city limits as an athlete for Christ: " He no longer thought of his family wealth or of his relations but focused all his longing and attention on what he had undertaken and worked with his hands, for he was aware that it says in the Bible, 'He who does not work, will not eat'."
Yet, Antony had to struggle fiercely to maintain this independence and autonomy: "While Antony was busy with these things which caused everyone to love him, the devil, an enemy of the word Christian, could not bear to see such outstanding virtues in a young man so he attacked him with his old wiles. First of all he tried to see whether he could drag Antony away from the form of life to which he had committed himself: he made him remember his possessions, his sister's protection, his family's high status. He tried to awaken in him a desire for material things or for the fleeting honors of this world."
In many monastic texts, the devil tries to tempt monks by luring them back from the desert into "the world." Material cares, familial responsibility, and honor were some of the basic social values that made a person a recognizably human in Roman society; to reject these required fighting for ones' psychological autonomy, defining a new and exemplary way of human being. When Antony resisted these temptations and succeeded at living as a new person, he became a model of a Christian who could successfully live beyond the values of the world. This required his firm commitment to stay outside the city and refuse the temptations to leave the desert.

The Desert as a Self-Governing Social Alternative

This ascetic freedom made monks potentially dangerous to the social order. Once they had become dead to the world like Antony, the persuasions of household, wealth, status, and honor no longer held them. As Belden Lane puts it, "The broader political implications of this truth were not lost on the authorities in the early years of the Christian empire. The desert monks, unlike others in society, were free to love at great risk. It was no wonder that prelates and emperors continually sought to curry the favor of these desert athletes, recognizing the intense political danger of a people who had nothing whatever to loose."
And indeed, though bishops and emperors tried to manage the monastic movement, monks could not be easily threatened or co-opted. Authorities could not banish them because they had already gone into voluntary exile in the desert. Authorities could not starve them because they were already living on small loaves of hard bread and brackish water. Authorities could not kill them because many of them were all too willing to become martyrs, and were already voluntarily climbing up the cross.
Bishops often wrote hagiographies (saints' biographies) of these ascetics, certainly with ideological intentions in mind. For example, in Life of Antony, Athanasius emphasizes Antony's obedience to the bishop and his unflagging orthodoxy. Nevertheless, the political radicalism of the monks comes through even in these texts, showing perhaps that there was only so much the bishops could do to domesticate the monks. For example, when the emperor Maximin was persecuting the church, Life of Antony describes Antony leaving his desert cell and following the trail of martyrs to Alexandria. Antony says "we shall either take part in the fight ourselves or we shall watch the others in battle." He was a destabilizing political presence in Alexandria because he organized the martyrs in work camps and galvanized their resistance: he was, "Ministering to the confessors in the mines and in the prisons, he exhorted with great frankness and concern those entering the lawcourt for he hoped to prevent them being driven to deny Christ by fear of their wicked persecutors. Rejoicing that the sentence given meant that they received the martyr's crown, as if he himself was the victor, he accompanied them as far as the place where their blessed blood was to be shed. The judge was disturbed by the steadfastness of Antony and his friends and gave the order that no monk should watch the trial or stay in the city. And on that day everyone else thought it was a good idea to hide, but Antony had no fear; disregarding the persecutor's order he washed his overgarment. The next day he took up a prominent position, dressed in white, to catch the judge's attention as he walked past, for Antony was burning with a desire for martyrdom. He demonstrated to us that Christians ought to persist in an attitude that scorns punishment and death."

While state functionaries struggled to keep their cities under control, some became disturbed by the new ways of life brewing up in the mountains and out in the wilderness, fearing that bands of monks could swoop down and disturb the peace of the cities. Like modern guerillas, monks disciplined and trained themselves out in the wilderness, yet also engaged in the struggles of society when the time became right.
Just as disciplined monks were more immune to threats than worldly Christians, they were also more immune to co-optation. Abba Arsenius was a former aristocrat who gave up his wealth to become a desert ascetic. One day, a magistrate came to him in the desert, bringing the will of a senator in his family who had died and left Arsenius with a large inheritance. "Arsenius took it and was about to destroy it. But the magistrate threw himself at his feet saying, 'I beg you, do not destroy it or they will cut off my head.' Abba Arsenius said to him, 'But I was dead long before this senator who has just died,' and he returned the will to him without accepting anything."
If he had accepted the will, he would have become again the manager of an estate, exploiting the labor of peasants and living by the social codes of the aristocracy. Instead, he chose to die to all of this, and live as a Christian, side by side with Egyptian peasants as their equal: "One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, 'Abba Arsenius, how is that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, you ask this peasant about your thoughts?' He replied, 'I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant."[24] Rather than managing an inherited estate, Arsenius chose instead to focus on managing himself in the desert, living with and learning from his brothers as equals.
In Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton compares the monastic movement to the modern anarchist movement, saying that the monks lived by a higher authority, rejecting the false authority of the state: "They were in a certain sense, 'anarchists', and it will do no harm to think of them in that light. They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values."
However, like the better angels of the contemporary anarchist movement, the Desert Fathers and Mothers were not anti-social individuals cut off from any meaningful community, government, or organizational life. Monasticism was never completely a self-righteous counterculture of ornery folks bent on the destruction of society. Monasticism was a social alterative to the world, an orderly and stable challenge to the world, dynamically engaged with it, offering its citizens new values and new possibilities of living by higher ideals. Antony's example of monastic life spawned a vibrant, stable, and functional society in the desert. According to Life of Antony, the monks "Appeared to inhabit an infinitely large area, a town removed from worldly matters, full of piety and justice. Anyone who set eyes on the multitude of ascetics, anyone who saw that heroic and harmonious community were no one caused any harm, where there was no slander from tale-bearers, but a crowd of people leading lives of restraint, competing with each other in the performance of their duties, would immediately burst out with these words, 'How beautiful are your dwellings, Jacob! Your tents, O Israel, are like shady groves, like a garden by the river, like tents that have been pitched by the Lord, like cedars growing beside the waters.'"[26]
Athanasius (certainly with some exaggeration) describes the emerging monastic community as a perfectly self-governing society based on Christian values, where people compete to serve the community rather than to hoard resources as they do in the world. This new community recalls the tribal federations of ancient Israel, governed in harmony and justice. It also prefigures a garden paradise, the hope of the kingdom of God- a renewed social order as a part of a renewed natural world and a renewed cosmos. Hence, the harsh infertile landscape of the desert becomes politically, socially, and spiritually fertile, "like a garden by the river."

The Social Role of the Monks: Dual Power as Neutral Arbiters in Desert Places

Though this type of monastic community existed for its own self-development, focusing on building the virtue of its members, this task by no means signifies an indifference to the rest of the world. The monk of late antiquity played a definite social role in relationship to everyday people from the cities and farms. Peter Brown asserts that ascetics were admired in late antiquity as neutral arbiters or legislators, people distanced enough from the world to be able to judge it rightly. At a time when many traditional institutions were loosing legitimacy, Christians turned towards monks to resolve dilemmas such as property disputes, family problems, and grievances against unjust magistrates.
[27] In these cases, they instituted a sort of dual power situation, setting up an alternative framework of judicial and economic affairs. For example, according to Theodoret of Cyrrhus's History of the Monks of Syria, James of Nisibis saw a judge giving an unjust verdict and "Laid a curse on a huge stone that lay nearby, and commanded it to shatter and explode, and thereby confute the man's unjust verdict. Immediately the stone broke up into a thousand pieces. The bystanders were panic-stricken, and the judge, now filled with terror, revoked his earlier verdict and decreed instead a just one."[28]
Stories like this display a desire for a type of order and justice that the world could not provide; the desert ascetic, because he is free from the world and dead to its entanglements and corruptions, is able to judge the world and correct it.
Belden Lane argues that the ecological dynamic between desert and cultivated land provided a rich metaphor to reinforce this image of the ascetic as separate from, yet just and compassionate towards people of the world. Monasteries were built far enough away from human habitation to maintain this sense of being "outside the world." Yet, these monasteries had to be close enough to accept pilgrims, providing spiritual service to those struggling "in the world." Lane shows how many Judean monasteries were built into hillsides, where they were difficult to access yet had a clear "prospect" or view of cultivated land.
[29] Monastic texts often emphasize the distance and difficulty in reaching monasteries, sometimes exaggerating their remoteness from the city. Yet these texts show from their own testimony that dedicated pilgrims could reach the desert ascetics and bring their message back to the world. For example, Jerome describes the landscape of the Wadi Natrun on the border of the Libyan Desert in Egypt: " the place is reached by no path, nor is the track shown by any landmarks on earth, but one journeys by the signs and courses of the stars."[30] From landscapes such as this, monks could judge the Empire from a safe distance.
In the process, these removed, wild places - formerly seen as dangerous - took on an aura of holiness. They were "non-places" transformed by the emerging desert ideal into sacred places, zones of liberation. For example, when James of Cyrrhestica, a monk in Syria, "Repair[ed] to that mountain which is thirty stades distant from this town, he has made it distinguished and revered, although formerly it was totally undistinguishable and sterile. So great is the blessing it is confidently believed to have now received that the soil on it has been quite exhausted by those coming from all sides to carry it off for their benefit."
James chose to live without a roof, at the mercy of the elements, marking his complete independence from the necessities of the world's economy. Local people, oppressed under the burden of this economy took soil from James' "desert" in the hope of finding the power of this detached, free holiness in their own lives. James became a symbol of a human being who could survive completely outside of the world, dependent only on God's glory and the holy mountain. As a result, the mountain's "wilderness," formerly seen as a dead and ugly place, was transformed into a holy place as it came to symbolize the monk's transcendence of the world below.

Staying Put and Staying Human in an Inhuman Place: The Monastic Regimen

This sense of place was important not only for pilgrims from the cities, but also for the monks themselves. Many monastic texts emphasize the need to commit oneself to a particular desert place. The paradigm for this is Antony's decision to live within the tombs at the limit between the Nile valley and the open desert. As Douglas Burton-Christie argues, Antony's long-term commitment to this place, despite being attacked by demons, was his decision to finally "die" to the domestic world and rise again to a new desert life. The monk's position as a holy person removed from society yet close enough to serve it is an inherently unstable one, open to infiltration or temptation by the encroaching "world" until the monk finally dies to his ego and thus to threats and co-optations. According to many spiritual masters, the best way to fight these fears and temptations was through fidelity to a particular place. Once he became an Abba, Antony cautioned that, "Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who...pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of their inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell." When asked "what must one do in order to please God?" Antony answered pastoraly, "In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it."
[32] Similarly, Amma Syncletica counseled," Just as the bird who abandons the eggs she was sitting on prevents them from hatching, so the monk or the nun grows cold and their faith dies, when they go from one place to another." [33]
Perhaps these texts emphasize particular places to prevent the "desert ideal" from becoming an abstraction, a nice romanticized image excerpted from the actual physical struggle to survive beyond the principalities and powers of the world. In the Life of Antony, Athanasius uses the word place (topos) at least 20 times, and consistently mentions the names of specific places.[34] Conceivably the goal here is to belie any essentialized, fixed, or universalized conception of the desert life, to focus instead on the particular situations of struggle that constitute desert asceticism. Abbas and Ammas knew that their monks would not survive in the desert if they idealized it as an automatically holy place. One could not go to the desert and be guaranteed a "spiritual experience." Without careful attention to the minute particularities of exterior life - daily work, observing the weather, procuring food, etc. a young monk out to have a "desert conversion" would not only miss this experience but would likely die. In a world with many scorpions and little water, every detail counted. Abba Antony counseled: "If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it."[35] While this could be interpreted as an authoritarian master disciplining his disciples, what it evokes when read in context is a careful leader concerned for the survival of his community. Antony recognized that if monks did not discipline themselves carefully, with the help of their community, they could easily die in the desert.
In addition to this careful accounting of external details, the emphasis on paying frank and careful attention to interior thoughts and mental habits was not simply a method of prayer, it was a method of survival. In fact, the merger of survival and prayer is a hallmark of desert spirituality; the desert is place where you literally have to pray to stay alive. Brown outlines the constant fear of loosing one's humanity in such an inhuman environment. The monks had left behind many of the conventions of "civilized" life and they feared going mad in their absence. They had to cling to a constant discipline of prayer, liturgy, and fasting in order to keep a semblance of human dignity: "In moments when he was close to breakdown, the ascetic felt driven to wander as free and as mindless as a wild beast, gnawing at the scattered herbs, mercifully oblivious, at last, to the terrible ache of a belly tied to morsels of human bread, cruelly spaced out by the human rhythms of prayer and fasting. This was the dire state of adiaphoria. In it, the boundaries of man and desert, human and beast collapsed in chilling confusion."

Fasting and Agency in the Desert

If a monk could remain sane in such a state of deprivation, he could finally break free of "the world." The world lay beyond the dunes of Egypt, the scrub of Syria, the dark forests of Europe, offering food but also drudgery, domination, oppression, greed, etc. To escape this system, the monk had to learn to live on nothing, to survive as a human in an inhuman environment. In many ways, the Roman Empire in late antiquity was a place of starvation whether in the wilderness or the city. In the city, people were constantly scrambling to survive in an economy of scarcity, dominating each other to procure food. The goal of the monk was to transcend this domination and replace it with Christian self-restraint and hospitality. However, to do this, he would have to learn to live outside of this world. This required choosing poverty and starvation (through fasting). Like the peasants in the valley below, the monk was poor and hungry. The difference was that he had come to choose this poverty, calling it a fast. In effect, the fast was a way to survive without food on inarable desert land, but it was dignified as a free choice, an act of the will. This act prefigured a free society, beyond necessity and domination, and validated the self-activity of everyday people: " Perched at the edge of the desert along the valley of the Nile, within sight of the settled land, the monks of fourth-century Egypt stood as a perpetual challenge to the situation of hunger and bitter dependence on the marketplace that characterized the society of a starving and laborious Near East. They, at least, had broken the dark cycle of hunger and avarice."
When monks flocked to follow his example and join St. Antony in the desert, this message was the basis of his homily exhorting them to a new way of life. He points out that all things of the world are inherently limited and will pass away. Whatever wealth can be horded will be lost, at the very least, by death. The ascetic realizes this, and seeks instead to live by higher ideals: "Why then do we not make a virtue out of necessity? Why do we not voluntarily abandon what must be destroyed when this light comes to an end, so that we might gain the kingdom of heaven? Let Christians care for nothing that they cannot take away with them. We ought to seek after that which will lead us to heaven, namely wisdom, chastity, justice, virtue, an ever watchful mind, care of the poor, firm faith in Christ, a mind that can control anger, hospitality. Striving after these things, we shall prepare for ourselves a dwelling in the land of the peaceful, as it says in the gospel."
The ascetic must reject the logic of hoarding resources, waging war, and oppressing the poor that justifies the ways of the world. If she can develop "a mind that can control anger" and can die to all things which will die, all things which cause death, then she can live for others in hospitality. She can care for the poor and act with justice and virtue. Monastic life then prefigures the kingdom of God, the "land of the peaceful." The ascetic's example, replacing hoarding domination with generous hospitality, is thus an eschatological move, representing a step towards the Kingdom of God.


Like the Roman Empire in late antiquity, our own society is ecologically limited. With the reality of global climate change, we also face famines, floods, and crop failures. As resources become increasingly scarce, we will likely see an increase in domination and oppression as elites attempt to manage this scarcity for the sake of a few. In this, the desert monks model the psychological, spiritual, and ethical disciplines necessary to live Christian lives under a regime of scarcity. When the world defines domination, war, empire, and starvation as a necessary though tragic reality, the monks of late antiquity model for contemporary communities the possibility of Christian agency and self-activity contrary to this constructed "reality."
Our own environmental movement draws from the spiritual imagery of the Christian desert experience - the redemptive challenge of wilderness, the hope for a new humanity that may emerge there, etc. The liminality of the desert experience provided a lasting metaphor for Christian theology, one that has been taken up by modern and contemporary ecological writers such as John Muir and Terry Tempest Williams.
However, it is still an open question of what new spiritual forms, new literature, new politics, new theologies may emerge from our own experiences of landscape and ecological limitation, our own attempts to live at the borders of ecological limits so as to be free of the world's sin and oppression. What theologies will we glean from the landscape as we attempt to live by ideals higher than those of a dominating society scrambling for vanishing resources?

[1] Peter Brown, "The Desert Fathers: Anthony to John Climacus" in The Body and Society. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. Page 217.
[2] Brown, page 215.
[3] ibid, page 216.
[4] James Goehring, "The Encroaching Desert: Literary Production and Ascetic Space in Early Christian Egypt" in Ascetics, Society, and the Desert: Studies in Early Egyptian Monasticism. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999. Pages 73-88.
[5] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Page 47.
[6] Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin of Tours in Early Christian Lives, trans. and ed. Carolinne White. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. Page 137.
[7] Lane, page 41.
[8] Brown, page 216.
[9] Lane, page 3.
[10] D.S. Wallace-Hadrill, The Greek Patristic View of Nature, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1968. Page 90.
[11] Lane, page 160.
[12] Historia Monachorum, XII, in PL:21.432B. trans. and cited in Lane, page 160.
[13] R.M. Price, intro to Theodoret of Cyrrhus, History of the Monks of Syria, trans. and ed. R.M.Price. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1985. Page xxvi.
[14] Brown, page 216.
[15] Price, page xxvii.
[16] Brown, page 216.
[17] Trans. Benedicta Ward, Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975. Page 203.
[18] Athanasius, Life of Antony, in White, page 11.
[19] White, Life of Antony, page 10. Note: this emphasis on actual economic self-reliance was a greater feature of Egyptian asceticism than of Syrian asceticism. In Syria, the monks were generally supported by the church, while Egyptian hermits and monasteries attempted to support themselves.
[20] White, Life on Antony, page 11.
[21] Lane, page 172.
[22] White, Life on Antony, page 37.
[23] Ward, page 14.
[24] Ward, page 10.
[25] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert. New York: New Directions, 1960. Page 5. Cited in Lane, page 173.
[26] White, Life of Antony, page 36.
[27] Lane, page 162.
[28] Price, page 15.
[29] Lane, page 162.
[30] ibid, page 160.
[31] Price, 135.
[32] Ward, page 2.
[33] ibid, page 231.
[34] Douglas Burton-Christie, "The Place of the Heart: Geography and Spirituality in the Life of Antony" in Harriet Luckman and Linda Kulzer, eds. Purity of Heart in Early Ascetic and Monastic Literature. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999. Page 47.
[35] Ward, page 9.
[36] Brown, page 220.
[37] Brown, page 221.
[38] White, Life of Antony, page 21. Italics mine.