The Living Desert
Toward the end of the third century, Chariton of Iconium (in Asia Minor) was tortured at the hands of the emperor Aurelian for being a Christian. After his release, Chariton pledged to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a way of thanking God for his survival. But as he was approaching the Holy City, bandits attacked him, robbed him of his possessions, and took him to a cave in the Judean desert. When his captors died, he decided to settle permanently in the Holy Land and established a monastic community near Jericho.
In the fifth century, Mary, a harlot from Alexandria, Egypt, traveled with some pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem "in the hope of seducing them." Out of curiosity, she followed them into the church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she was miraculously barred from entering. Her repentance provided the necessary key for entering the magnificent basilica—she was, in a sense, baptized by her own tears. After leaving the church, Mary withdrew to the nearby Judean desert.
Jerusalem and its surrounding lands have always been a unique and powerful place for religious transformation. Pilgrims traveled to Palestine in order to see and honor the places where Jesus Christ lived, taught, and died. But for some pilgrims, like Chariton and Mary, the experience led to a lifelong commitment to poverty, prayer, and self-renunciation.
The monastics who chose to stay in the Holy Land became objects of pilgrimage themselves. Later pilgrims traveling through Palestine during the Byzantine era came not only to honor the holy sites; they also sought the advice of "holy" men and women who had settled in the region. For such pilgrims, the monastic Christians living in the Holy Land represented a tangible link to the disciples of the apostolic ...