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How Solitude Builds Community

An ancient monk's surprising role in bringing justice and healing to his neighbors.

As a history professor, I have asked my students, "What is monasticism?" and I often get suspicious, negative answers: "Monks withdrawing from the world."

"Unhealthy isolation and no evangelism." "Men and women who won't engage with the surrounding culture."

"Those who thing the body and material world are evil."

"Those too busy in self-centered devotions to care for others."

"My students think they know what motivated the early monks: obsessed with their own salvation and afraid of their own sexuality, they retreated to the desert to fight "demons," which were actually vivid manifestations of their own libido-right?

Interestingly, the early monks did fear the temptations of demons, but what sorts of temptations did those demons actually present to their would-be victims? Sure, fornication was among them. But what did fornication actually mean?

For at least one of the original monks, Antony of Egypt (A.D. 251-356), fornication stood for anything that dragged the heart away from God—any ...

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