I read widely, as you might guess. I always have and suppose I always will. I am presently reading Douglas John Hall’s theological autobiography, Bound and Free, an engaging and moving memoir by a prominent theologian of our time. In the evening, and for sheer fun, I am reading and enjoying the baseball biography, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (2005), by Jonathan Eig. In the mornings, along with the Scriptures, I am reading two books: Wisdom of the Little Flower: Therese of Lisieux—Bearer of Western Spirituality, a wonderful treatment of the biblical spirituality of the nineteenth century French Catholic saint, written by Rudolf Stertenbrink. Yesterday I began the Desert Father: A Journey in the Wilderness with Saint Anthony, by the Australian author James Cowan, a book I discovered while browsing in Borders on Sunday evening. (I can’t go into these places and not buy one book most of the time!)
Along with these books I recently began reading a wonderfully helpful 1992 out-of-print title, The Myth of Certainty, written by Bethel College English professor Daniel Taylor. This book is like a window into my own mind showing me that I am a “reflective” Christian. It explains psychologically why I have never found it appealing to exist in the boxes created by conservative and safe Christian thinkers. To be entirely truthful my essential Christian orthodoxy has never been clearer and stronger, now at age 57, but my willingness to think and reflect beyond the normal patterns of “expected” thought is what time and again gets me in trouble with some people and groups. Taylor has helped me understand myself and I am in his debt.
The book by James Cowan, Desert Father: A Journey in the Wilderness with Saint Anthony, has taken me into a world that I knew next to nothing about, that of the Egyptian desert. Here monks have lived and pursued God since the time of Anthony the Great in the fourth century. My entire educational background turned me against such people, telling me all kinds of half-truths about their lives and vision. I think the only monk related story I recall from my evangelical college was about Simeon Stylites, who sat on a pole high up in the air, for decades. We all laughed and went on believing that these men were near crazy!
James Cowan correctly understands the flight of monks to Egypt as a departure from the status quo of the newly established Christian empire in the fourth century. The goal was to preserve a radical path to liberation that these unusual men saw in Christ’s teaching. Cowan refers to them as counter-culture hippies, or people committed to breaking with the norms of a society out-of-touch with deeply spiritual values and ways of living. Cowan concludes that, “Anchoritism, therefore, was very much a statement of rebellion not unlike the hippie movement of the 1960s” (22). Cowan adds, “The holy man, the ‘stranger,’ therefore, was a man who lived beyond the boundary of society and thus was able to offer to many an alternative to the drudgery and seeming aridity of material existence” (23). Since these men could not be appropriated by any section of society, including the emperor or the church, they were able to act as mediators and to preserve something that was in danger of being entirely lost in this period of Christian history.
The monastic movement surely led to excess in certain areas, but then what recovery movement doesn’t. Cowan notes that “The ascetic life is so remote from us now that we wonder how a man could survive such a fanatical regime” (35). And, “Monastic life was central to early Christianity. The supernatural essence of Christian life was nurtured within the confines of its walls. In many ways the monastery replaced martyrdom as a method of exclusion from secular society” (43). The bottom line is that “The ascetic, protected by monastic life, becomes the ‘salt’ that prevents the world from sweetening Christianity and so making it subject to itself” (43).
In a world where the evangelical movement has gone stark crazy trying to emulate secular society, and works overtime to control the outcome of secular agencies and institutions, I find this prophetic witness desperately needed. Who knows, maybe some young Christians will find a powerful witness to Christian living, as true salt in society, by reading some of these “Desert Fathers” of the ancient Christian faith. If Anthony the Great had such a powerful influence upon the great Athanasius, who wrote his story for Christian posterity, can this movement have nothing to say to us busy and spiritually starved modern Christians? Reading Cowan’s description of Dionysius alone moved me to seek for deeper personal meaning in these amazing, and generally unknown, sources. He concludes: “It was his humility, his gentleness, and his heartbreaking courtesy that were the seal of his sanctity to his contemporaries, far beyond abstinence, miracle, or sign” (46). I don’t see much of that in me or anyone else looked to for leadership in the modern church. There is not a single reference, in any of this emphasis, upon how widely a person is known, or how large their church is, or who they have been endorsed by in the marketplace of modern celebrities. I believe this type of thinking and living will have a greater and greater appeal the further the church goes into compromise with the modern world. Who can seriously doubt that this will happen? God will always have a people who refuse to be identified by the marks of success.