"After the peace of the church when the supreme test of martyrdom was no longer demanded," writes historian Christopher Dawson, "the ascetics had come in the eyes of the Christian world to hold the position the martyrs had formerly occupied as the living witnesses of the faith and the reality of the supernatural world."

Other historians note an increasing laxity of devotion in the church, and see the monastic movement as an attempt to live out the demands of the gospel more literally.

Then again, the pioneers of the movement all began their desert lives before the "peace of the church," before things went supposedly lax. Antony took up asceticism over four decades before the persecution of Christians ceased, and he visited a number of Christian hermits who had already been living apart from society for years.

There seems to have been, then, some other motive driving Christians to abandon family and property and pray their days away.

For some, it was clearly an attempt to earn God's favor, a classic case of "works righteousness." For others, it was clearly an expression of spiritual pride, an attempt to be one up on fellow believers. For others still—let's call them the kooks—it was a great way to work out their pathologies.

But I, for one, believe most monks yearned to know and love God in a way that was not possible in the hubbub of city life. Furthermore, I believe their disciplines allowed them to discover something about God that cannot be discovered unless one does what they did.

That time seems to be one of those moments when men and women touched the hem of God's garment in a special way. In this issue, we are merely trying to touch the hem of the robes of those men and women.

Questions to answer

The ultimate question this ...

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