The persecution of Christians in North Africa was brutal at the start of the fourth century. There Christians raised the cry: “To the desert!” Many left the “world” and headed for the desert, and monasticism was born. Monasticism was an escape, but it did save many lives, preserve learning, and ultimately produce some of the men who led the Reformation.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, when the Church’s effort to dominate all life was at its zenith, some Christians, in and out of the monasteries, went all out to take Christianity “to the world.” As Johan Huizinga says in The Waning of the Middle Ages, “All life was saturated with religion to such an extent that the people were in constant danger of losing sight of the distinction between things spiritual and things temporal.” Dr. Huizinga relates that some zealous Christians ate their food in three portions in honor of the Trinity and drank in five draughts to commemorate the five wounds of the Lord.
Today, many feel they must again cry: “To the desert!” With or without persecution, this cry has an appeal. Those who voice it point out the insidious attrition of Christianity that accompanies association with the ways and wiles of the world. Some persons do compromise their convictions under pressure to conform to the world. Or, resisting the world by assuming, or attempting, an inhuman pietism, they may come to the conclusion that the only way to avoid catastrophic hypocrisy is to get out of the “world.” So, in the ensuing times of soul-searching, “To the desert” possesses genuine enchantment.
Others are crying: “To the world!” They say the Church has become a desert. They speak of the Church’s ingrown institutionalism, its civic-club camaraderie, and its pathetic striving ...1
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