The Wisdom of the Desert



EVERY kind of effort after good has found sympathy and help in Christianity. Nothing is more wonderful and nothing more suggestive of His divinity than the way in which the words and example of the Master have been found adaptable to the ideals which have possessed the souls of men in different ages and under various circumstances. There was a time when men were impelled to search for and express truth, the eternal truth of the nature and property of the Deity Himself. At that time the life of Christ presented itself primarily as a revelation. He set forth, under the conditions of time and space, the mysterious God whose seat is amid clouds and darkness, and yet who baffles human inquiry chiefly by the garment of impenetrable light in which He has decked Himself. In another age the religious spirit took a lower flight and allowed its activities to be dominated by a political conception. Whole generations spent themselves in the effort to realize upon earth a veritable kingdom of God. To these men Christ appeared as a monarch, whose will it was their ambition to realize perfectly. The people crowded below the altar steps, and the priests from above proclaimed, pointing the Lord to them, "Behold your King." He was, indeed, conceived of as very different from any earthly king. His crown was of thorns, His throne was a cross, His glory was humiliation. Yet it was essentially as a King that they conceived of Him. He was the Ruler of a visible kingdom, the Head of a hierarchy of governors, the promulgator of a polity and laws. For men of yet another generation religion found itself in the aspiration after personal liberty. Fear and ignorance had tyrannised over the earth -- fear, the daughter of superstition; ignorance, superstition's handmaid. Minds which dared to question and doubt lived under a perpetual menace. Above all, the great tyrant was sin. Its fetters grew heavier on men's limbs, and checked the effort after progress. Then men came to think of Christ as a great liberator; their souls responded to the call, " Christ shall make you free." Since then the central point of religion has shifted again. In our time men no longer look to Christ to teach them truth. We have lost sight hopelessly of "the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces" of the city of God upon earth. The naked individualism of the reformation period offers an inadequate view of life. We are inclined to doubt about the very existence of such a thing as liberty. We have discovered in Christianity a great incentive to philanthropy. Christ is for us, perhaps the man, perhaps the God, at least the One who fed men and healed them and taught them as none other ever did. Blindly sometimes, perplexedly always, we hurry to the hovels of the hungry and the bedsides of those who suffer even loathsomely; we build libraries and schools, being sure at least of this, that in doing these things we follow Him.

To all these various ideals Christ has been found entirely responsive. Each has found in Him a starting-point from which to escape the bondage of materialism. It has never, of course, been true that one great purpose has possessed the followers of Christ to the exclusion of every other. The conception of the gospel liberty lay quite consciously behind the enthusiasm for pure truth. The most faithful statesmen of the mediaeval Kingdom of God washed the sores of lepers and cast their cloaks over the shoulders of beggars on the wayside. The dominating conception of religion has always been permeated, leavened, tempered with conceptions of the Master's meaning which were strange to it. There has always been, besides, one great conception of religion which has existed along with each of the others in its turn. Christianity has always involved a hunger and thirst after righteousness. Always and everywhere Christians have felt the unquenchable desire to be good, and have seen in Christ the great example of perfection. There has been no age in the history of the Church in which the idea of imitating Christ has failed to make an appeal to the souls of the faithful.

Yet even this desire has had its period of special intensity, its peculiar region where it became for a while the expression of Christianity. During the fourth and fifth centuries, in, the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, the craving for perfection was more painful and more narrowly exclusive than ever elsewhere. Thousands of men and women, in response to a passionate hunger after righteousness, set themselves to become perfect, as the Father in heaven is perfect. They were not, indeed, careless about right belief and the holding fast of the faith. The accusation of heresy was a thing which seemed to them wholly intolerable. Yet to them the supreme importance of being good was so felt that it seemed of necessity to bring with it a true faith. "What is the faith? " asked a brother once. The abbot Pimenion replied to him, "It is to live always in charity and humility, and to do good to your neighbonr." Their absorption in the pursuit of holiness made speculation seem vain and impious. "Oh, Antony," said the heavenly voice, "turn your attention to yourself. As for the judgments of God, it is not fitting that you should learn them." Nor must we think of the hermits as disregarding the claims which the Church made upon their obedience; still less as neglecting the claims of the poor and suffering. We shall see, later, how they thought about the Church, and how unjust it is to call them selfish. Here, first of all, it is necessary to understand that they were not chiefly theologians, or churchmen, or philanthropists, but imitators of Christ. Their desire was to be good. That they also believed rightly and did good followed -- and these things, did follow -- from their being good.

This aim of theirs ought not to be strange to us. Indeed, it cannot be. In the midst of our multiplied activities there is something in us which responds to the ideal of being, as well as doing, good. It is the WAY in which they sought to attain their end, and not the end itself, which is incomprehensible and generally repulsive to the modern mind. It is so, I think, mainly because it is so absolutely strange to us. Our imaginations refuse to aid us in the effort to realize a system of religious life based upon complete isolation from the world. To us the activities of life -- the getting and spending, the learning and teaching, philanthropy, intercourse, and the opportunities for influence -- constitute life itself. It is as difficult for us to form a definite conception of a life apart from the world, from business, society, and the movements of human thought, as it is to realize that life of disembodied waiting which we expect in Paradise. Yet this complete isolation was what the Egyptian hermits strove to attain; and if we are to appreciate the value of their teaching we must, first of all, grasp the fact that they were real men on whom the sun shone and the winds blew, men with local habitations, and not phantoms or unsubstantial figures in a dream. If we conceive a fourth-century traveller starting as Palladius did from Alexandria, we may suppose that he would journey due south, ad skirt at first the shores of what is now Lake Mariut. Along the barren and rocky margin of the lake, at spots as remote as possible from the track followed by caravans, he would find the hermitages of ascetics, who, like Dorotheus, maintained a comparatively close connection with the Alexandrian clergy. Leaving the lake and journeying still southwards over about forty miles of utterly desolate land, he would come to a long valley extending east and west between two ranges of mountains or table lands, covered with sandy flats, salt marshes, and dangerous rocks. This is the famous Nitrian desert. Here St. Amon built the first solitary cell. Here Evagrius Pontikus lived for about two years. Here Nathaniel was visited by the bishops. Here the "Long Brothers" lived, one of whom was the companion of St. Athanasius when he went to Italy. At the end of the fourth century the Nitrian mountains were dotted over with hermits' cells. The evenings were resonant with psalm-singing. On Saturdays and Sundays the brethren swarmed forth like bees for worship in their church. Five miles further south, still among the Nitrian mountains, lay a region so utterly desolate that it had not even a name, till the monks built over it and "christened" it The Cells. Further south still and towards the west lay the Scetic desert. It was a day's journey from The Cells. This is the most famous of all the monastic settlements. Its founder was St. Macarius the Great. We may reckon among the Scetic monks his two namesakes, St. Macarius of Alexandria and Macarius the Young. Here also, for the most part, dwelt Pior, Moses the AEthiopian, Paul the Simple, and the hermit Mark.* South-eastward, past Lake Arsinoë and Herakleopolis, lay St. Antony's birthplace, Coma. Here, no doubt, might have been seen the tombs into which he first shut himself, and across the river, the mountain on which he found his ruined fort. This mountain, which was called "the outer mountain," formed the home of smaller and less famous groups of ascetics. South-east from this, within a few miles of the Red Sea, lay "the outer mountain," to which St. Antony was guided by the heavenly voice. Perhaps this retreat was never shared with him by anyone except his chosen attendant and the few visitors who forced their way there in search of spiritual counsel. South from the "outer mountain," along the river, lay Oxyrynchus. This, even if we discount the figures of contemporary writers, must have been a great monastic city. In it monasticism took in organised ecclesiastical form. The church was served by priest-monks, and great communities of men and women carried on works of charity and evangelisation. Still further south lay Lycopolis, the home of John the prophet. This man was celebrated as well for his wonderful obedience as for his spiritual gifts. Lycopolis may be reckoned the outpost of the monasticism of lauras and hermitages. Beyond it lay the organised monasteries of the disciples of St. Pachomius. During the lifetime of the founder of Tabennisi, nine monasteries carried out his rule. Of these the most famous was that which was ruled by Bgoul and afterwards by his nephew, Schnoudi. On the sea-coast, east of Alexandria, lay the settlements visited by Cassian. The Tannitic mouth of the Nile flows into what is now Lake Menzaleh. In Cassian's time this whole region was a desolate salt swamp. The sea flowed over it when the north wind blew, destroying all hope of fertility. On the hills, which came to look like islands, stood the ruins of villages forsaken by their inhabitants. It was a land --

"Sea saturate as with wine."

Among the ruins and amid the surrounding desolation dwelt the monks who were the heroes of Cassian's earlier Conferences. No scene has seemed to me to convey more vividly at once the pathos and the nobility of the monk's renunciation of the world than this one. In Nitria and Scete the ascetic is at least remote from all remembrances of common life. On the islands of Menzaleh he kneels in solitary prayer within the very walls where women once laughed to see their children sport. He gazes over brine-soaked swamps, which once were harvest-fields thronged with reapers. Westward from Menzaleh lay Lake Burlus. Between it and the sea stretched a desolate spit of sandy land, given up by farmers as hopelessly barren. This was the Diolcos described in the Institutes, and the eighteenth Conference. Here Archebius and his fellow hermits struggled for life in their inhospitable home, husbanding even their water as no miser would husband the most precious wine.

Thus we have five distinct and widely separated regions in which Egyptian monasticism existed and flourished during the fourth century. First, Nitria, with its offshoot The Cells; second, Scete; third, the region in Upper Egypt which came under St. Antony's more immediate influence; fourth, Southern Egypt; fifth, the sea-coast of the Nile Delta. In very close connection with these, so as to be predominatingly Egyptian in the tone of their monasticism, were the hermitages and lauras of south-western Palestine and the settlements in the Sinai peninsula. Outlying from the greater centres were single hermitages and small lauras, wherever the monks hoped to find solitude.

In many places life was supported only with extreme difficulty. Sometimes water had to be obtained by collecting and storing the dew which fell at certain seasons. Sometimes it was carried with immense toil from distant wells. There were districts where the hermits lived in constant dread of the irruption of barbarian tribes, which destroyed tranquillity and even threatened life itself. Bands of wandering robbers sometimes rifled the cells of their miserable furniture, or captured, insulted, and injured the hermits. At other times the silence of these retreats became so awful, that the hermit was startled into uncontrollable emotion by the chance shout of some shepherd-boy who had driven his goats too far; or came to find the rustling of dry reeds in the wind an almost insupportable noise.

For the most part in the deserts north of the Thebaid the monks saw very little of each other. Even the inhabitants of grouped cells led almost solitary lives. On Saturdays and Sundays they met for public worship and perhaps a common meal, but during the rest of the week they lived alone in their cells, or with a single disciple. If the monk were wise, he worked. Sometimes he wove mats or baskets. These were afterwards exchanged by the hermit himself or his disciple for the necessities of life in some neighbouring village. If the cell lay too remote from human habitation to permit of such traffic, the mats or baskets were accumulated in piles, and in the end burnt. They had fulfilled their function, and were got rid of that way as well as in the markets; for the hermit was not a tradesman. He worked, not for wages, but lest the devil might tempt him in his idle hours. Sometimes a garden was cultivated around the cell. The hermit struggled with drought and barrenness until he produced a little stock of vegetables. Sometimes his cell was happily placed where date palms grew. He watched his fruit against the depredations of wild birds. Nothing is more striking than the insistence of the greater hermits on the necessity for labour of some sort. It was from their experience and their illuminated introspection that St. Benedict learnt the truth on which he built a great part of his rule -- "Idleness is the enemy of the soul."

Besides working, the monks prayed. Hours every day were spent in prayer, which must have been more of the nature of meditation than intercession. In the intervals of prayer and work they sang or said psalms, and often repeated aloud long passages from the prophets. Books were scarce among them, and we read of monks visiting. each other for the purpose of learning off by heart fresh passages of Holy Scripture. The attainment of unbroken monotony was a thing greatly to be desired. Perfect quietness was the monk's opportunity for spiritual communion with God. Therefore they regarded restlessness and the wish for change as a sin to be fought against. Long periods of unbroken monotony were liable to produce in the monk a spirit of irritable peevishness and discontent with his surroundings, which was recognised as subversive of true spirituality. They called this state of mind "accidie" and held that it was the work of a special demon. The monk felt its force chiefly during the long hours of daylight when he grew weary of praying and shrank from the petty tasks which had to be performed around and within his cell. The spirit which tempted him to accidie was "the demon which walketh at noonday." It was chiefly in order to conquer this sin that the monks worked as hard as they did at even quite useless tasks. They knew that it was fatal to try to avoid the attacks of accidie by seeking change of scene and fresh interests. Their one hope lay in labour and remaining quietly in their own cells.

Sometimes the monotony of life was broken for the monk by the arrival of a stranger. The more famous among them were so frequently visited, that the quiet which was necessary for their own religious life was seriously interfered with. St. Antony, for instance, was obliged to retire to his remote "inner mountain" in order to avoid his numerous visitors; and Arsenius made it a rule during one period of his life to receive no visitors under any pretext whatever. For most of the monks, however, the arrival of a stranger was a comparatively rare occurrence. Sometimes, if his cell lay between two great settlements, he would be called upon to entertain brethren who were travelling from one to the other. If he lived within reach of any town, clergy and pious laity came occasionally to his cell as to a kind of retreat, looking for spiritual refreshment from his words, and participation in his prayers. Aspirants after the glories of the monastic life visited hermits, of whom they happened to have heard, in search of advice. On all such occasions it was the duty of the hermit to entertain his visitors. Hospitality was as much a duty in the Egyptian deserts in the fourth century as in the mediaeval monasteries of the Benedictines. The monk brought out his little store of dainties and spread a "feast" for his guests. Here is the account of a "sumptuous repast" offered to a traveller. "He set before us salt and three olives each, after which he produced a basket containing parched vetches, from which we each took five grains. Then we had two prunes and a fig a piece. When we had finished our repast, he said to us, 'Now, let me hear your question.'" The hermit not only afforded his guest the best food at his command, but, in a true spirit of hospitality, he ate with him. Very often this necessitated breaking a fast which he was keeping, or departing from his ordinary rule of life. Sometimes, for the sake of his guests, he even omitted portions of his evening prayers, or said them secretly after his visitors had gone to sleep; for the duty of hospitality came before almost every other.

Sometimes the monks themselves deliberately broke the monotony of their lives, and went on an expedition to visit some renowned saint. They did so to seek advice for the conquering of some besetting sin, or to inquire the meaning of a passage of Holy Scripture over which they had long meditated in vain. Often they asked vaguely for "a word," so they called it, from the saint; that is, for any exhortation that might be offered, any fruit of a religious experience deeper than their own. These answers, or "words," were eagerly treasured in the memories of those who heard them. They passed from mouth to mouth as opportunities for intercourse occurred. The brethren in a laura were eager to hear from a returning monk what he had learned on his visit. Thus we read of the brethren in the Scetic desert crowding round St. Macarius on his return from the "inner mountain," and plying him with so many questions that he was interrupted in his account of what St. Antony had said to him. Naturally collections of specially striking sayings and anecdotes came to be made in the various lauras. I imagine that quite early in the fourth century the monks took a pride in remembering as many as possible of the "words" which they had heard. Soon collections of them began to be written down, and probably before the end of the fourth century there existed in the greater lauras written lists of famous sayings. These local collections embodied stories from all sources, and very frequently the names of the original authors are altogether lost. In the course of the fifth century larger collections came to be made, probably by travellers who either had the opportunity of inspecting local collections or heard the stories from old monks. If we believe that the collection given by Rosweyd in Book III. of his Vitae Patrum was actually made by Rufinus himself, we have one dating from the end of the fourth century. In these larger collections the stories are arranged in one of two ways, either they are grouped under the names of their authors, where these are known, or in chapters according to the subjects they deal with. Thus, in the great Greek collection, (published in Migne P.G. LXV.) all the anecdotes bearing the name of St. Antony are grouped together, and those with the name of Besarion together, and so on. In the collections of which Rosweyd published Latin translations, all the stories illustrating, for instance, such virtues as humility and patience come together, without regard to the names of their authors. That these various collections were made independently of each other, and from different sources, is seen in the fact that anecdotes which are quoted as anonymous in one collection bear the name of an author in another. Sometimes the same saying is attributed to different authors, and sometimes what is substantially the same story appears in several different forms. Thus there is a fine saying attributed in one place to Sisois in the form -- "Qui peregrinatio nostra est, ut teneat homo os suum," which appears twice elsewhere as anonymous in the shorter form "Peregrinatio est tacere." It seems likely in this case that the longer form is the nearest to the words originally used. I have endeavoured to give the sense of this saying -- translation I take to be impossible -- in chapter xiv., number iii.

It is from the collections of these "words of the fathers," which have been published by Rosweyd and Migne, that the greater part of the translations in this volume are made. That they are genuine remains of the teaching of the early monks of the Egyptain and South Palestinian deserts I have no doubt whatever. At the same time, it is only fair to warn the reader that these collections have never been critically edited, and that other collections exist which have not yet been published. It is much to be desired that some competent scholar would undertake the labour of editing those which exist only in MS. and critically examining the whole mass of this literature.

In order to appreciate fully the marvellous spiritual beauty of their teaching, it is necessary for the modern reader, in the first place, to realize that the hermits were actual living men, and to make an effort to understand the kind of lives they lived. It is as a help to such effort that I offer the first part of this introduction. In the second place, the reader must try to clear his mind of certain prejudices which exist against the hermits and their way of life. It is to the consideration of these prejudices that I have given up the following portion of this introduction.


When the "sumptuous" repast, which I have just described, was finished, the abbot Serenus said to his guests, "Let us hear your question." One of them replied, "We want to know what is the origin of the great variety of hostile powers opposed to men and the difference between them." In reply, the monk discussed for several hours the nature of principalities and powers, of Beelzebub, of the Prince of Tyre mentioned by Ezekiel, of Lucifer, and of the crowds of evil spirits which hover in the atmosphere around us. Such questions and such discussions inevitably raise in our minds a prejudice against the men who engaged in them. We leap at once to the belief that there must have been in their minds a tendency to fantastic and entirely barren speculation. I am not inclined to either minimise or explain away the fact that the whole literature of early Egyptian monasticism is shot through and through with evidences of a belief in the reality, personality, and power of demons. The monks believed that every temptation which came to them was the work of a special demon. There was the demon of anger, who provoked brethren to quarrel with one another; there was the demon of despair, whose voice reminded the penitent of former sins, and urged the impossibility of his salvation; there was the demon who walked at noonday -- he lured the monk into the sin of accidie; there were demons of gluttony, of pride, of vainglory, of covetousness. The demons had the power of assuming appalling or seducing forms, of becoming visible and palpable. Monks heard them clamouring and roaring, felt their blows, smelt them when they were present. Victorious fiends who had terrified their victims into submission or lured them into sin vanished amid peals of derisive laughter. Defeated, they departed with lamentable and awe-inspiring shrieks. Men who had experienced the ferocity and insistence of these powers of evil cannot be accused of being unpractical or merely speculative when they discuss their nature. To the Egyptian monk the power of devils was, except only the power of God, the most practical and pressing question which could be discussed.

Yet, even if we grant this, our prejudice remains. The whole apparatus of these powers of evil is strange and incredible to us. Good and evil as tendencies or opposing principles we understand, or think we understand. We smile at what seems the rude anthropomorphism which sees a demon personally present in the natural cravings of a starved body, and hears a voice through the broken sleep of a long series of solitary nights. We dismiss such tales as no doubt meant to be true, but in reality only the delusions resulting from prolonged fasts and the morbid phenomena of hysterical enthusiasm. It would be possible, of course, to urge, in defence of the hermits' beliefs, that the apostles thought substantially as they did about the powers of evil. We might parallel even such stories as that of the beating of St. Antony from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It might be urged that our Lord's own teaching forces us to believe in just such personal, audible, and palpable spirits of evil as the hermits say they strove against. Unfortunately such appeals to authority, even to the supreme authority of all, are of comparatively little use to us. They may result in an irritated assent to the conclusions of a syllogism, or check the utterance of words of contemptuous incredulity; they can neither compel our sympathy nor silence the protests of our imagination. It seems better, if we wish to get into spiritual touch with the hermits, to approach these demon stories in another way. We must be conscious that we have never hungered and thirsted after righteousness with such intensity as these early monks did. We have not been driven, as they were, into a divine madness by the unsatisfied desire for perfection. Until we have felt as they did, struggled as they did, forced our way into the region of spiritual effort in which they lived, have we any right to feel sure that our interpretation of their experiences is the true one? It may be, too, that we allow ourselves to be prejudiced against the hermits' version of what they endured by the bald simplicity with which the tales are told. St. Athanasius' doctrine, so far as the reality and, personality of the powers of evil are concerned, is in no way different from that of St. Antony. It is because he philosophises in the light of history, instead of narrating experiences, that his doctrine does not shock us. We are not irritated by the conception to which the poet Milton has given utterance in his Ode.

Milton's demons are in no way essentially different from those which attacked the hermits in the deserts. Yet, because his conception is expressed in gorgeous words and sonorous rhyme, our imaginations do not refuse to rise to it. Neither the speculations of the great father nor the language of the poet are any argument for the reality of the demons they describe; but the fact that we can enter sympathetically into their thought does seem to suggest that it is not the substance, but the manner of the hermits' demon stories, which revolts us. It is, after all, quite in accordance with the spirit of the apostolic age to conceive of the ancient gods as demons, whom Christ had driven from the images where they lurked and the temples in which they were worshipped. It requires but a simple application of the Lord's words to enable us to think of these malevolent beings trooping in mortified disgust to desert places, there to wander, seeking in vain for rest. It was along some such line that the thoughts of the hermits moved. St. Antony and the others went into the wilderness with the belief that they were entering upon a region still the property of demons, as the whole world had been before the coming of the Lord, In their journeyings along the reaches of the Nile they stumbled upon the ruins of once gigantic temples. Huge images frowned upon them, painted figures, "delicate and desirable," smiled to allure them. Amid the vast monotony of the desert, where man's insignificance is impressed upon him, nothing seemed strange because it was supernatural. The monks conceived themselves as fighting a final Armageddon with the already broken forces of the Prince of this world; or, when the ascetic conception of St. Paul appealed to them, as "filling up that which was lacking in the sufferings of Christ," and consummating the final expulsion of that kind which goeth not out but by prayer and fasting. Along such lines of thought it is perhaps impossible for our minds to move with a sense of comfortable security. Yet our imagination ought not to be wholly incapable of making such an effort to appreciate their view of life as will enable us to understand their teaching and sympathise with their effort.

Another prejudice against the hermits and their teaching arises from our extreme dislike of their severe physical asceticism. We are disgusted by the details of their war against the flesh, and we rise in revolt against their ideal of crucifying their bodies. In our time the popular conscience has come to have an almost morbid dread of pain. Perhaps the fact that our religion is largely dominated by the idea of philanthropy is simply one expression of a widespread shrinking from the suffering which is the common lot of humanity. We have almost ceased to speak of this shrinking as cowardice in the case of the individual who dreads pain for himself. We frankly stigmatise as brutal the infliction of pain as punishment, which former generations regarded as an edifying spectacle. It is therefore peculiarly difficult for us to appreciate the position of men who deliberately refused to gratify the cravings of their bodies, who joyfully sought out suffering for themselves, and did not hesitate to encourage others to "crucify" their bodies. It is not to be denied that our position with regard to physical asceticism finds a specious justification. We may ask whether it is believable that the Creator can be pleased with creatures who reject His gifts and nullify the instincts which He implanted in them; whether we can imagine the tender and compassionate Saviour demanding as the price of following Him such renunciation as St. Antony's. Such questions are not easy to answer. They open up the whole problem of the place of asceticism -- askêsis, exercise, discipline -- in the Christian life. It is not possible here to enter on such a discussion. There are, however, two considerations which, if they in no way solve the general difficulty, yet may serve to mitigate the prejudice which the special austerities of the Egyptian hermits arouse in us. In the first place, we must remember that these men aimed at perfection, and hoped to attain it by a literal imitation of Christ. Now Christ on one occasion fasted forty days and forty nights. It is quite natural that men who aimed at imitating Him should fast and should try to make their fasts like His in their severity. Christ also lived a virgin life. It is only to be expected that His imitators should determine to be virgin too -- virgin in body and, if we may use the expression, virgin in mind, according to His explanation of the meaning of purity. Christ describes Himself as homeless and poor. He was worse off than the foxes and the birds. We cannot wonder that the desire of imitating Him has led men to renounce their property and to accept homelessness as one of the conditions of living perfectly. Christ's life terminated in the torture of the cross. To "crucify" themselves -- the word is a favourite one with them -- was part of the ideal of the monks. They meant by "crucifixion" every kind of hardship, privation, and pain home voluntarily for Christ's sake. It was nothing else than an attempt at participation in the suferings of Christ. Once, on a feast day, a disciple moistened his master's bread with a few drops of oil. The old hermit burst into tears, and said, "My lord is crucified, and shall I eat oil?" Christ proclaimed that a man could not be His disciple without hating his father and mother and his own life also. The words came as a challenge to those who wished to follow Him, a challenge which the monks accepted literally. Of course, it is possible to say that all such simple acceptance of Christ's teaching and literal following out of His sayings is a narrowing, even a perverting, of the spirit of the gospel, and that it leads to a kind of life quite different from that which the Lord contemplated for His disciples. This may be so. To discuss it is to enter upon that larger question of the place of asceticism in the Christian life which we have already passed by. Whether we are prepared to recognise the monastic ideal as the ultimate and loftiest conception of the teaching of Christ or not does not for our present purpose seem to matter. The hermits' life was certainly an attempt to imitate Christ and obey His commandments. No one who loves the Lord can refuse to sympathise with men who, even mistakenly, have tried very hard to follow Him. The second consideration which I wish to urge in mitigation of our prejudice against the extremity of the hermits' physical asceticism is this. They never regarded it as anything but a discipline, a means to an end. They have been accused of being the slaves of a mechanical theory of virtue, of imagining that religion consisted in outward observances, of teaching that fasting and watching were righteousness. There is hardly any accusation possible which would be more decisively disproved by an appeal to the facts of the case. That it should have been made and repeated, as it has been, is a very curious instance of the confidence with which we are all inclined to dogmatise about things of which we are almost ignorant. Probably never, except in the age of the apostles, has the purely spiritual aim of all religion been kept more steadily in view than it was by the hermits. The best of them -- and it is only from its best men that the true spirit of a movement can be learned -- never for one single instant let slip the truth that no practice or discipline is of any use at all except in so far as it helps towards the attainment of the perfection which is in Christ Jesus. No one will be inclined to deny that it is possible to pick out of the literature stories of excesses which seem to us monstrous. There were many among the hermits who never rose above the idea that asceticism was an end in itself. But the excesses were discouraged and the mistaken idea condemned by the leaders of the movement. Fasting, virginity, labour, the reading and recitation of Holy Scripture, vigils, meditation, and even prayer itself, were looked upon simply as ways of arriving at a perfect life. There is no need to discuss whether or not they mistook the way. Even supposing that they did, at least the end they had in view was one which we must recognise as very great. It is possible, in spite of the evidence of accumulated Christian experience, that a man is hindered, and not helped on the road which leads to union with God, by fasting and watching and poverty, yet since this union is a thing which we also seek, we should, at least, approach with sympathy the study of the teaching of men who made for the goal by a way which was neither broad nor easy.

One more prejudice remains to be noticed, and this is one which has most to do with alienating our sympathy from the early monks. It has been said -- there is no comment on monasticism which we hear more frequently -- that the hermit life was a selfish one, and therefore essentially remote from the spirit of Christ. There is a very obvious retort to this accusation which, in spite of its obviousness, is not so superficial as it seems. The charge is directed against men who gave up everything that is usually counted as desirable. Renunciation like that of the hermits is not usually a symptom of selfishness. It comes from the lips of a generation who have found the service of Christ not incompatible with the full enjoyment of all life's comforts and most of life's pleasures. Perhaps, however, this retort, like most others of its kind, misses the real true point of the charge. The hermits are called selfish because they aimed at being good and not at being useful. The charge derives its real force from the fact that philanthropy, that is, usefulness to humanity, is our chief conception of what religion is. We appeal to the fact that Christ went about doing good, and we hold that the true imitation of Him consists in doing as He did rather than in being as He was. The hermits thought differently. Philanthropy was, in their view, an incidental result, as it were, a by-product of the religious spirit. Here, no doubt, there is a great gulf fixed between us and them. There is a difference of ideal. It is possible to aim at doing good, and snatch now and then, as opportunity offers, a space for the culture and of spirituality, for the "making" of the soul. It is possible also to shape life for the attainment of perfection, welcoming, as it may happen to offer itself, the chance of usefulness. The latter was the ideal of the hermits. Is the former ours? Surely the purest altruism will decline to accept it. We recognise, when we are at our best, that what we ought to aim at is that good should get done, and not that we ourselves should do it. The faithful soul, even when most pitiful of suffering, will still desire less to be useful than to be used in the cause of humanity. Impatience, that glorious impatience to be up and doing which we cannot but admire, rebels against delay and indirect approach. The evil around us is so clamorous for amendment that it seems like a betrayal to spend our strength any way but in the combat with it. Yet it remains, at least for the student of history, a question whether in the end, there is not more good accomplished for humanity through the agency of those who, in the first instance, only aim at being good. The case of the Egyptian hermits is an illustration of what I mean. They did not aim at doing good. This is why we call them selfish. Yet certainly there was accomplished through them a great work for religion and for the Church. We can only guess at how great an incentive to piety their lives, viewed from far off, were for Christians, who remained "in the world." We know that many men, clergy and laity alike, visited the hermits, sought and, we cannot doubt it, received from them fresh spiritual strength, rekindled in the desert cells lamps that had gone out for want of oil. We can only guess, too, at what their share was in the great battle for the catholic faith. How much did St. Athanasius owe to them when he stood against the world? It was no small thing for him to know that there stood behind him men whom no court party had any bribes to buy, whom no emperor's frown had any power to terrify. The student of their literature will remember also that they did something for the material benefit of the Egyptian people. I do not insist upon the cures they wrought, or the devils they cast out of those possessed. Some of these stories belong to the region of the miraculous, though others are, and more no doubt will be, recognised as natural by the scientific mind. Apart altogether from these miracles, the hermits did an immense, but now quite unrecognised, amount of charitable work. Many of them earned a great deal more than they needed to spend, and all that they could spare was given to the poor. They appointed some of their number to oversee the distribution of their alms. They not only fed the hungry and relieved the destitute with whom they came into actual contact, but they sent camel and boat-loads of food to the poor in the great Egyptian cities. They tried to alleviate the misery of the prisoners confined in gaols. On at least one occasion they organised a collection and distribution of food on a large scale in a famine-stricken district. We shall, surely, not want to quarrel with a way of life which in fact proves to be very useful, even according to our own standard of usefulness, because in the first instance it aimed at something else. It is not however only, or even mainly, by their work for their own generation that the usefulness of the Egyptian hermits must be judged. They were the spiritual fathers of the monks of the west. It was to the Egyptian fathers that all the great founders of western monasticism looked back. St. Martin of Tours, Cassian, Benedict of Nursia and his later namesake of Anian, all drew their inspiration from the lives of St. Antony and his followers. The work which the western monks did for mediaeval Europe is written large across the pages of history. It is recognized even by writers who are out of sympathy with the monastic ideal. It is not necessary to describe the beautiful monastic charities for which our poor -- laws have proved but a dismal substitute. We are ready to grant that the mediaeval monasteries were useful in their day. Ought not their usefulness to be reckoned for righteousness to the Egyptian hermits, who were the fathers of all monasticism? The Benedictine Rule, the parent of all the great rules down to the time of the Mendicant Orders, was nothing but the systematic adaptation of the teaching and experience of the Egyptian hermits to the needs of western life. So long as the western monks, under any rule, remained true to the old ideal of trying to be good in simple imitation of Jesus Christ, they also did good and were, as we say, useful. It is only when they forget or turn away from this ideal, when are touched with the spirit of the world, or set themselves to the accomplishment of some policy, that their organisations tend to do mischief. From this point of view the usefulness of the hermits far outlasted their own generation. Through them was effected a great good which could not have been foreseen. It is perhaps just because they denied themselves the satisfaction of aiming at usefulness that they were so greatly used. This seems to be one of the laws of the divine government of things. The Lord Himself suggests it when He says: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."

It seems quite possible then that what is called selfishness in the hermits, may be in reality the loftiest altruism. If so, the gulf between their ideal and ours is not so great that the heart cannot cross it. It is only needful that we should see clearer and think deeper than we do, that we should be less sure that only we have grasped the meaning of the Master's life. It is in the hope that the study of them may make for clearer vision, deeper thought, and most desirable humility that I offer these fragments of the wisdom of the desert to those who sincerely desire to be the friends of Jesus Christ.

* Since writing the description of the relative positions of Nitria, Cellia, and Scete, I have read the very valuable note (No. 14) in Dom Cuthbert Butler's Lausiac History (No. 2). He suggests a solution of the they geographical problem so different from mine that I think it right to give his words.

"Though the three authorities (Palladius, Cassian, and Rufinus) differ in their figures, they still agree as to the fact that Scete was distant from Nitria a long journey across the desert; and as they had all three visited Nitria, and as Palladius and Cassian claim to have actually made the journey between Nitria and Scete, their evidence as to the main fact must be accepted. The danger of losing one's way on the journey is illustrated by Palladius' story of a monk who died of thirst while travelling from Scete to Nitria or Cellia. . . . Now if Scete lay a day's journey to the south of the Wady Natron, it is difficult to understand how there can have been easy communication between it and Terenouthis; yet many passages show that such was the case (see Amélineau, Géographie, 493); e.g. when the Mazices made an irruption into Scete it was to Terenouthis that the monks fled; but if Scete was several miles to south of Nitria, it would have been much more natural them to have gone on the line of the present track towards Cairo."

Dom Butler then cites a passage from Ptolemy, and adds: "Ptolemy thus places the Scetic region to the north of Nitria. If he is correct, and I am disposed to believe he is, Scete was that portion of the Libyan desert which between the Delta and the Wady Natron, some fifty miles across. And if that be so, Cellia was situated in this desert, six or seven miles north of Nitria; while still further to the north or north-west, in the heart of the Scetic desert, lay the monastic settlement of Scete."

The greatest weight must be attached to anything which so competent an authority as Dom Butler says on the subject of monastic Egypt, and I ought, perhaps, to give up at once the idea that Scete and Cellia lay to the south of Nitria. One great objection, however, to the northern site still weighs with me. Scete appears always to be regarded as more difficult of access than Nitria. If it lay to the north, would it not be easier to reach from Alexandria and even form a stage on the journey from that city to Nitria?

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