January 21, 2011
I guess my family knows me pretty well – so the Christmas presents I received were mostly books. I received from my son a copy of “The Making of Late Antiquity” by Peter Brown, a classical historian at Harvard and most notable for his groundbreaking biography of St. Augustine. The book is a collection of lectures Professor Brown gave several years ago on the transition from pagan to Christian belief in the third and fourth centuries within the Roman Empire.
The final chapter of the book explores the development of the spiritual practice of the Desert Fathers of Christian Egypt of anachōrēsis (disengagement or withdrawal from the world). Brown sets this spiritual movement of men and women to live a solitary life in the wilderness in its social and political context of late antique Egypt. It turns out that the first Egyptian monks came not from the families of impoverished peasants but in fact from relatively well-to-do farm families whose expanding acreage provided them with a comfortable living.
The social and cultural ideal of farmers of fourth century Egypt, burdened by increased taxes, burdensome communal obligations, lawsuits and other demands of their neighbors and total dependence on the rise and fall of the Nile River, was self-sufficient independence. Scholars have discovered the voice of one farmer, an Aurelius Isidore in a surviving papyrus legal document who wrote this about himself: “Although I possess a good deal of land and am occupied with its cultivation, I am not involved with any person in the village but keep to myself.”
I’m reminded of people who have headed north to Alaska in hope of finding a place where they can hold their neighbors at a distance and keep to themselves, either as solitary individuals, families or communities. They are looking to “get off the grid” (the Nile River of our time), live off the land and in this way escape or transcend the many (and real) discontents of social and political life.
Throughout our history, heading west across the Atlantic or out into the territories or ‘north to the future,’ to make a new, unencumbered start free from the restricting and corrupting influence of civilization (however defined) has been an enduring and widely shared American cultural ideal. It turns out that the new start away from everyone else inevitably doesn’t work out as imagined. Not only because we are by nature social, economic (and I dare say, political people), who find it next to impossible to close ourselves off from each other, but because, alas, we are fallen creatures, sadly prone to sin, who live in a fallen world. Trying to get away unaided from our fallen nature is like trying to jump over our own shadow – it just can’t be done.
What is interesting to me is that the Egyptian anchorites of the fourth century took up this social ideal of keeping to oneself and applied it to the spiritual life. Having despaired of living an authentic Christian life while immersed in the relentless envy, gossip, hatred, condemnation and conflict that characterized the tightly knit world of the villages that they lived in, they fled not material but spiritual poverty.
That radical model of spiritual anachōrēsis, of disengagement or withdrawal from the world, makes so much sense to me. Yet it is never easy to do. I think, for example, how extreme and harsh so much of our public and private discourse has become in this society. It is as though, convinced of our own righteousness, we are somehow absolved from the obligation of charity towards our neighbor or even from common courtesy.
It is easy to point out the lack of charity or anger or contempt in others. It is not so easy to own up to one’s own spiritual poverty, one’s own part in harshly judging and condemning others. The lesson of the saints who withdrew to the desert is not that they considered themselves too holy to remain in such a contentious and uncharitable social environment. No, they withdrew because they admitted how caught up in it they really were and left to train themselves to live in a different way.
So much of the ascetical discipline of the Egyptian desert anchorites was to avoid anger and to control their speech. This is a major theme of the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, a collection of stories and aphorisms attributed to the earliest monks living in the Egyptian desert. In the “Making of Late Antiquity,” Peter Brown relates a story from the Sayings that exemplify both the difficulty and the importance of turning away from thoughts of anger and angry words.
An old man who came to Abba Achilles found him spitting blood out of his mouth. He asked him, “What is the matter, Father?” The old man answered, “The word of a brother grieved me. I struggled not to tell him so and I prayed God to rid me of this word. So it became like blood in my mouth and I have spat it out. Now I am at peace, having forgotten the matter.”
I have no desire to imitate the example of anchorites of the fourth century by withdrawing to the desert or moving off to a remote cabin in the interior. But I do know that I desire to follow their example by undertaking an anachōrēsis of the heart. I want to be freed interiorly as well as exteriorly from the temptation to give in to thoughts of anger and of condemnation, and even worse, to speak with anger or condemnation to or about my brother or sister.