Father Zossima left his monastery during Lent to enter the desert, hoping to find a spiritual father to offer him wisdom. Instead he met a woman, her naked body scorched by the Egyptian sun. Recognizing a life filled with holiness, he knelt and begged her blessing.

Reluctant with modesty, she spoke of her conversion from prostitution and of the 47 years she had lived alone in the desert: "I was burned by the heat of summer and frozen stiff and shivering in the winter … struggling with many and diverse needs and huge temptations but through it all even until this day the power of God has guarded [me]."

The woman, St. Mary of Egypt, was exalted in this popular sixth-century story as a source of spiritual wisdom who could teach even a godly monk like Zossima. But the characters in this story, a monk and a desert hermit, would have seemed strange or even distasteful to many pagan Romans, because they seemed to reject traditional values such as loyalty to one's city, marriage, and obligation to family. How did early Christians come to embrace such peculiar lifestyles?

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, Christians no longer faced the specter of martyrdom as the ultimate test of devotion. Instead, many ardent Christians withdrew to the wilderness to fast and pray. The "monk" (meaning "solitary"—either male or female) practiced "asceticism" (literally "training"), a life of spiritual discipline, either alone in the wilderness like Mary of Egypt or within the structure of a monastery as Zossima did. The temptations to despair or pride experienced by monks living alone could be guarded against by living with others in community. The Christian ascetic inherited the mantle of the martyr, as a witness ...

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