Christian History Home > Issue 64 > Antony and the Desert Fathers: Christian History Interview - Discovering the Desert Paradox
Antony and the Desert Fathers: Christian History Interview - Discovering the Desert Paradox
What many found when they sought God in a seemingly God-forsaken landscape.
Discovering the Desert Paradox
It is difficult to fathom today why the desert fathers did what they did, or why the church, East and West, was so taken by their example for the next millennium. It requires a great deal research and historical imagination to see what the desert monks were getting out of their ascetic discipline.
Belden Lane, a Presbyterian professor of theology at St. Louis University, is one who has done the research and has the historical imagination. His The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Mountain and Desert Spirituality (Oxford, 1998) is a brilliant analysis of how geography has played a vital role in the history of Western spirituality. Christian History asked Professor Lane to help us grasp the attraction of desert asceticism throughout Christian History.
Why did the desert fathers choose to work out their spirituality in the desert?
They sought God, first of all, and they knew that God was most easily found in a place without distractions. Second, the desert was also a marvelous laboratory for dealing with the self, which was their other major spiritual project.
How do you handle the ego and its anxiousness, its constant need for support? You walk into the desert, which doesn't care one bit about who you are or what you bring to it. That kind of terrain offers a marvelous antidote to the problem of the ego, the false self.
In the Bible and Greco-Roman culture, the desert is not so much a place of spiritual growth but a place of evil and temptation. Didn't the monks believe that?
They did, and that is another reason they went into the wilderness. They found precedents in the life of John the Baptist (you won't find a desert monastery without an icon of John the Baptist) and especially in Jesus. Throughout his life, Jesus withdrew into the desert to pray. He began his ministry in the wilderness, being tempted for 40 days. Likewise, Antony started his ministry by going into the desert to empty himself and face temptation there.
The desert is a place where you expect the temptations of hunger, of power, of beauty—the things the desert lacks are the things you find yourself wanting desperately. The monks looked on demons and temptation as aides to their spiritual lives. But they were not overwhelmed by trials and temptations. Instead, they found God in the midst of temptation and struggle.
Today, many go into the wilderness to "get back to nature." Was that part of the monks' motivation?
No. It's so easy for us to romanticize their motivation today. Abba Macarius in Egypt was said to be a lover of the desert, but this was only after spending years there. For the monks, the desert was primarily a training ground.
How did the desert as such shape these monks' spiritual lives?
The desert asks two questions: What do you learn to ignore? And what do you learn to love? In other words, how do you let go, and what do you hold onto? Those are the basic dimensions of the spiritual journey that the desert monks went through as they embraced the desert.
Let me paraphrase one of the best illustrations of this, found in Sayings of the Desert Fathers: A young man, a spiritual groupie of sorts, comes to Scetis, west of the Nile, to seek out the great monk Abba Macarius. He asks Abba Macarius, "How do I get to be a holy man? I want to be a holy man. And I want to be one tomorrow."
Macarius smiles and says, "Spend the day tomorrow over at the cemetery. I want you to abuse the dead for all you're worth. Throw sticks and stones at them, curse at them, call them names—anything you can think of. Spend the whole day doing nothing but that."
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