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Why Men and Women Fled to the Desert in 4th Century Egypt

  • Rome itself was an empty shell, threatened from within by corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency, from without by Teutonic tribes hungry for land.
  • In the fourth century AD, Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire (in modern terms, an occupied territory) vital to Roman security, since the Nile valley supplied most of the grain for the "bread and circuses" that kept Rome's proletariat quiet. But that didn't get Egypt any preferential treatment. It was rigorously controlled, ruthlessly taxed; many small farmers, too poor to pay, abandoned their land, and Egypt's economy slowly deteriorated. By then Rome itself was an empty shell, threatened from within by corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency, from without by Teutonic tribes hungry for land. The one self-confident force was the Christian Church. Less than a century before, its followers had fled, apostasised or suffered agonising deaths in the final persecutions. Now Christianity was the official religion, its Church a rich, powerful, strictly hierarchical institution. Where, in all this pomp and circumstance, were Christ's teachings?...History and Hermits - The Desert Fathers of Egypt
  • Corruption by Church Officials.
  • "The attitude of the hermits towards the religious establishment, while outwardly respectful, was wary, even suspicious. Suspicion often focused, not without reason, on the highest religious official in Egypt, Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, who diverted money meant for widows and orphans to the building of opulent churches, and brought false charges of sodomy against the priest who blew the whistle on him. The hermit Arsenius, when asked by Theophilus for a word of spiritual counsel, said "If you hear Arsenius is anywhere – don't go there!" Such was their distaste for the official Church that hermits often resisted attempts to ordain them, sometimes by flight, in at least one case by self-mutilation – Ammonius cut off his own ear, and threatened to cut out his own tongue if Theophilus persisted. A contemporary joke: What are the only two things a hermit flees from? Answer, a woman and a bishop."... History and Hermits - The Desert Fathers of Egypt
  • Tensions of living in the "world" had proved unbearable.
  • "Although a prior ascetic tradition existed in Christianity, Egypt was a region prone to asceticism. Men in Egypt were driven to the desert by a crisis in human relations, where tensions of living in the "world" had proved unbearable, as ascetic literature such as the Apophthegmata Patrum overwhelmingly demonstrates. For example, when Abba Matoes was asked by a brother for advice on how to control his tongue and condemnations towards others in his community, he was advised accordingly: If you cannot contain yourself, flee into solitude. . . . It is not through virtue that I live in solitude, but through weakness; those who live in the midst of men are the strong ones. The overwhelming popularity among Egyptians to take up the askesis [discipline, exercise, training], based on this "crisis in human relations," is explained by the tense and uneasy relationships between members of Egyptian villages. These villages were made up of peasants who were self-sufficient in mind, possessing an air of total disengagement from their neighbors: however, neither of these ideals were possible for them to carry out. Instead, villagers were forced, out of necessity, to cooperate; life in the desert village was difficult, and survival required cooperation among its members as a whole, not only conforming with the annual demands of Imperial taxation, but also cooperation in order to control the precious water of the Nile: to withdraw, anachoresis, was a natural reflex reaction.6 The idea of escape was very real to the Egyptians, based on their autarkic [being self-sufficient] way of thinking. Therefore, Egypt was a predisposed hot-bed for asceticism, built into the minds of the men who lived along the Nile." Egyptian and Syrian Asceticism in Late Antiquity: A Comparative Study of the Ascetic Idea in the Late Roman Empire during the Fourth and Fifth Centuries by Jeffrey Conrad
  • Escaping from the world into a life of poverty and simplicity, piety and virtue.
  • "St. Paphnutius used to tell a story which may serve as a fit introduction to this book. It contains a miniature sketch, not only of the social state of Egypt, but of the whole Roman Empire, and of the causes which led to the famous monastic movement in the beginning of the fifth century after Christ.

    Now Paphnutius was a wise and holy hermit, the Father, Abba, or Abbot of many monks; and after he had trained himself in the desert with all severity for many years, he besought God to show him which of His saints he was like.

    And it was said to him, "Thou art like a certain flute-player in the city."

    Then Paphnutius took his staff, and went into the city, and found that flute player. But he confessed that he was a drunkard and a profligate, and had till lately got his living by robbery, and recollected not having ever done one good deed. Nevertheless, when Paphnutius questioned him more closely, he said that he recollected once having found a holy maiden beset by robbers, and having delivered her, and brought her safe to town. And when Paphnutius questioned him more closely still, he said he recollected having done another deed. When he was a robber, he met once in the desert a beautiful woman; and she prayed him to do her no harm, but to take her away with him as a slave, whither he would; for, said she, "I am fleeing from the apparitors and the Governor's curials (apparitor: an officer who carried out the orders of a civil or ecclesiastical court) for the last two years. My husband has been imprisoned for 300 pieces of gold, which he owes as arrears of taxes; and has been often hung up, and often scourged; and my three dear boys have been taken from me; and I am wandering from place to place, and have been often caught myself and continually scourged; and now I have been in the desert three days without food."

    And when the robber heard that, he took pity on her, and took her to his cave, and gave her 300 pieces of gold, and went with her to the city, and set her husband and her boys free.

    Then Paphnutius said, "I never did a deed like that: and yet I have not passed my life in ease and idleness. But now, my son, since God hath had such care of thee, have a care for thine own self."

    And when the musician heard that, he threw away the flutes which he held in his hand, and went with Paphnutius into the desert, and passed his life in hymns and prayer, changing his earthly music into heavenly; and after three years he went to heaven, and was at rest among the choirs of angels, and the ranks of the just.

    This story, as I said, is a miniature sketch of the state of the whole Roman Empire, and of the causes why men fled from it into the desert. Christianity had reformed the morals of individuals; it had not reformed the Empire itself. That had sunk into a state only to be compared with the worst despotisms of the East. The Emperors, whether or not they called themselves Christian, like Constantine, knew no law save the basest maxims of the heathen world. Several of them were barbarians who had risen from the lowest rank merely by military prowess; and who, half maddened by their sudden elevation, added to their native ignorance and brutality the pride, cunning, and cruelty of an Eastern Sultan. Rival Emperors, or Generals who aspired to be Emperors, devastated the world from Egypt to Britain by sanguinary civil wars. The government of the provinces had become altogether military. Torture was employed, not merely, as of old, against slaves, but against all ranks, without distinction. The people were exhausted by compulsory taxes, to be spent in wars which did not concern them, or in Court luxury in which they had no share. In the municipal towns, liberty and justice were dead. The curials, who answered somewhat to our aldermen, and who were responsible for the payment of the public moneys, tried their best to escape the unpopular office, and, when compelled to serve, wrung the money in self-defence out of the poorer inhabitants by every kind of tyranny. The land was tilled either by oppressed and miserable peasants, or by gangs of slaves, in comparison with whose lot that even of the American negro was light. The great were served in their own households by crowds of slaves, better fed, doubtless, but even more miserable and degraded, than those who tilled the estates. Private profligacy among all ranks was such as cannot be described in these or in any modern pages. The regular clergy of the cities, though not of profligate lives, and for the most part, in accordance with public opinion, unmarried, were able to make no stand against the general corruption of the age, because--at least if we are to trust such writers as Jerome and Chrysostom--they were giving themselves up to ambition and avarice, vanity and luxury, intrigue and party spirit, and had become the flatterers of fine ladies, "silly women laden with sins, ever learning, and never coming to the knowledge of the truth." Such a state of things not only drove poor creatures into the desert, like that fair woman whom the robber met, but it raised up bands of robbers over the whole of Europe, Africa, and the East,--men who, like Robin Hood and the outlaws of the Middle Age, getting no justice from man, broke loose from society, and while they plundered their oppressors, kept up some sort of rude justice and humanity among themselves. Many, too, fled, and became robbers, to escape the merciless conscription which carried off from every province the flower of the young men, to shed their blood on foreign battle-fields. In time, too, many of these conscripts became monks, and the great monasteries of Scetis and Nitria were hunted over again and again by officers and soldiers from the neighbouring city of Alexandria in search of young men who had entered the "spiritual warfare" to escape the earthly one. And as a background to all this seething heap of decay, misrule, and misery, hung the black cloud of the barbarians, the Teutonic tribes from whom we derive the best part of our blood, ever coming nearer and nearer, waxing stronger and stronger, learning discipline and civilization by serving in the Roman armies, alternately the allies and the enemies of the Emperors, rising, some of them, to the highest offices of State, and destined, so the wisest Romans saw all the more clearly as the years rolled on, to be soon the conquerors of the Caesars, and the masters of the Western world.

    No wonder if that, in such a state of things, there arose such violent contrasts to the general weakness, such eccentric protests against the general wickedness, as may be seen in the figure of Abbot Paphnutius, when compared either with the poor man tortured in prison for his arrears of taxes, or with the Governor and the officials who tortured him. No wonder if, in such a state of things, the minds of men were stirred by a passion akin to despair, which ended in a new and grand form of suicide. It would have ended often, but for Christianity, in such an actual despair as that which had led in past ages more than one noble Roman to slay himself, when he lost all hope for the Republic. Christianity taught those who despaired of society, of the world--in one word, of the Roman Empire, and all that it had done for men--to hope at least for a kingdom of God after death. It taught those who, had they been heathens and brave enough, would have slain themselves to escape out of a world which was no place for honest men, that the body must be kept alive, if for no other reason, at least for the sake of the immortal soul, doomed, according to its works, to endless bliss or endless torment.

    But that the world--such, at least, as they saw it then--was doomed, Scripture and their own reason taught them. They did not merely believe, but see, in the misery and confusion, the desolation and degradation around them, that all that was in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, was not of the Father, but of the world; that the world was passing away, and the lust thereof, and that only he who did the will of God could abide for ever. They did not merely believe, but saw, that the wrath of God was revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men; and that the world in general--above all, its kings and rulers, the rich and luxurious--were treasuring up for themselves wrath, tribulation, and anguish, against a day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who would render to every man according to his works.

    That they were correct in their judgment of the world about them, contemporary history proves abundantly. That they were correct, likewise, in believing that some fearful judgment was about to fall on man, is proved by the fact that it did fall; that the first half of the fifth century saw, not only the sack of Rome, but the conquest and desolation of the greater part of the civilized world, amid bloodshed, misery, and misrule, which seemed to turn Europe into a chaos,--which would have turned it into a chaos, had there not been a few men left who still felt it possible and necessary to believe in God and to work righteousness.

    Under these terrible forebodings, men began to flee from a doomed world, and try to be alone with God, if by any means they might save each man his own soul in that dread day.

    Others, not Christians, had done the same before them. Among all the Eastern nations men had appeared, from time to time, to whom the things seen were but a passing phantom, the things unseen the only true and eternal realities; who, tormented alike by the awfulness of the infinite unknown, and by the petty cares and low passions of the finite mortal life which they knew but too well, had determined to renounce the latter, that they might give themselves up to solving the riddle of the former; and be at peace; and free, at least, from the tyranny of their own selves. Eight hundred years before St. Antony fled into the desert, that young Hindoo rajah, whom men call Buddha now, had fled into the forest, leaving wives and kingdom, to find rest for his soul. He denounced caste; he preached poverty, asceticism, self-annihilation. He founded a religion, like that of the old hermits, democratic and ascetic, with its convents, saint-worships, pilgrimages, miraculous relics, rosaries, and much more, which strangely anticipates the monastic religion; and his followers, to this day, are more numerous than those of any other creed.

    Brahmins, too, had given themselves up to penance and mortification till they believed themselves able, like Kehama, to have gained by self-torture the right to command, not nature merely, but the gods themselves. Among the Jews the Essenes by the Dead Sea, and the Therapeutae in Egypt, had formed ascetic communities, the former more "practical," the latter more "contemplative:" but both alike agreed in the purpose of escaping from the world into a life of poverty and simplicity, piety and virtue; and among the countless philosophic sects of Asia, known to ecclesiastical writers as "heretics," more than one had professed, and doubtless often practised, the same abstraction from the world, the same contempt of the flesh. The very Neo-Platonists of Alexandria, while they derided the Christian asceticism, found themselves forced to affect, like the hapless (hapless: unfortunate; unlucky) Hypatia, a sentimental and pharisaic (pharisaic: emphasizing or observing the letter but not the spirit of religious law; self-righteous; sanctimonious; hypocritical) asceticism of their own. This phase of sight and feeling, so strange to us now, was common, nay, primaeval, among the Easterns. The day was come when it should pass from the East into the West. And Egypt, "the mother of wonders;" the parent of so much civilization and philosophy both Greek and Roman; the half-way resting-place through which not merely the merchandise, but the wisdom of the East had for centuries passed into the Roman Empire; a land more ill-governed, too, and more miserable, in spite of its fertility, because more defenceless and effeminate, than most other Roman possessions--was the country in which naturally, and as it were of hereditary right, such a movement would first appear.

    Accordingly it was discovered, about the end of the fourth century, that the mountains and deserts of Egypt were full of Christian men who had fled out of the dying world, in the hope of attaining everlasting life. Wonderful things were told of their courage, their abstinence, their miracles: and of their virtues also; of their purity, their humility, their helpfulness, and charity to each other and to all. They called each other, it was said, brothers; and they lived up to that sacred name, forgotten, if ever known, by the rest of the Roman Empire. Like the Apostolic Christians in the first fervour of their conversion, they had all things in common; they lived at peace with each other, under a mild and charitable rule; and kept literally those commands of Christ which all the rest of the world explained away to nothing".... Why Men (and Women) Fled to the Desert in 4th Century Egypt, Excerpts from the Charles Kingsley

  • The world was regarded as a shipwreck from which each individual man had to swim for his life.
  • "In the fourth century AD the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, and Persia were peopled by a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude. Why did they do this? The reasons were many and various, but they can be summed up in one word as the quest for "salvation." And what was salvation? Certainly it was not something they sought in mere exterior conformity to the customs and dictates of any social group. In those days men had become keenly conscious of the strictly individual character of "salvation." Society--which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life "in this world"--was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each individual man had to swim for his life. We need not stop here to discuss the fairness of this view: what matters to remember that it was a fact. These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the "world" was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve."...Excerpts from The Wisdom of the Desert Thomas Merton
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