Last month, at the East Ohio Annual Conference session at Lakeside, Ohio, the Keynote speaker for the "Day Apart" on health and healing made mention of the desert fathers, or Abbas, of the early Church. What he said was essentially this (and I am paraphrasing here): "What the desert monks did failed, because people need to be in community to be healthy." Or something like that. And I would agree with him, if I didn't know anything about the Desert Fathers, if I thought that they actually did live in total isolation from others, and if I believed that success and health were defined completely by numbers and institutions built (which I don't).
Let me address these one by one:
1. The Desert Fathers: The Abbas of the desert were not "running away" from the world, as their detractors often state (wrongly). In fact, a good argument could be made that the Abbas, and those who stand in their tradition, were "running to" the very place where they are needed the most. For the early Christians, the desert represented a place of temptation, a place where one would have to confront his/her worst nightmares, and the best daydreams the human mind can conjure up. Fast forward to the Middle Ages in England, and you encounter St. Cuthbert, who went with his monks Lindisfarne and the other Farne islands, not to get away from the world, but to battle the greatest forces of evil in their times. The Farne islands were reputed places of Druidic worship, and human sacrifice to the gods. Thus, Cuthbert and his monks were moving in ot the neighborhood where people didn't value the lives of their fellow human beings, and slaughter was happening to innocent people. Its 21st century equivalent would be moving into the inner-city, right into the neighborhood where the most drive-bys and drug deals were going down. The Abbas (and Ammas, or Desert Mothers), confronted evil and oppression with the most powerful force they could muster--their daily prayers and sacrifices. They are examples of non-violent resistance and unconditional love without peer in our history.
2. The Desert Saints Lived in Total Isolation: Not. In fact, though the Abbas and Ammas lived individually in their rooms or "cells," they did not live completely away from community. There is evidence that these saints did prize the severity of their living conditions, and the "aloneness" of their accommodations, they were never so far away from one another that they didn't have any contact with one another, or with the outside world. There are countless stories in the "Sayings of the Fathers" about the monks spending time together in prayer, worship, teaching and study. My impression of them is that they lived in a community of caring and concern, and welcomed visitors who were truly interested in their way of life. They provided food for one another, counseled each other, and prayed for the needs of the entire community.
3. The definitions of "failure" and "success": If, by "failure," you mean that the Desert Fathers and Mothers are no longer a viable Christian movement, then yes, they failed miserably. I don't know of anyone today who chooses to move to the desert in order to grow in their spiritual faith (though I am willing to admit that there might be some who do). If, on the other hand, you look at the long-term impact of the teaching and example of the Abbas and Ammas, you will see that their experiment in solitary-yet-communal living was a raging success. They inspired later generations, like Benedict and Francis, to create the monastic orders that still exist today, which have grown and influenced the Church and the world. And, I would submit, they provide an example for us about how to live faithful Christian lives in the 21st century.
But that will have to wait for another post.