The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XVI:
On the Life in the World

THE hermits succeeded in separating their lives not only from the world but from the ways of those Christians who lived in the world. Save for their own brief excursions into village market-places to sell their baskets, and the visits of pilgrims in search of teaching or healing to their cells, the hermits came very little into contact with ordinary members of the Church. It is not to be supposed, therefore, that they either gave much thought to the position of Christians in the world or tried to persuade them to leave it. The hermits were neither theorists nor philosophers. Their religion was entirely practical, and mainly personal. They made no effort whatever to explain why some Christians married, grew rich, and accepted the world's honours, while others retired into the solitude of the wilderness. The hermit was very vividly conscious of his own call to the ascetic life, but he was content to leave others to work out for themselves their own salvation in their own way. The question of the relation of the monastic to the secular life had occupied the mind of Origen, but the hermits either did not know or were totally uninterested in his speculations. The same problem came up for solution afterwards, and was argued out by men like St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, but the hermits did nothing towards providing a philosophy of the life they lived. In spite of the mass of teaching that they left behind them, references of any sort to Christians who lived in the world are extremely few.

The spirit of these few references is wholly different from what we might expect. Experience teaches us that men who are rigorists, who, to a greater or less extent, stand aloof from the common joys and labours and ambitions of mankind find it necessary, as it were in self-defence, to judge sternly of those who do not walk in their ways. It is a lamentable fact that the great earnestness which enables men to make real renunciations is too often connected not only with want of charity, but with a total incapacity to appreciate the amount of genuine religion which exists in systems less rigorous than their own. It has come to be recognised as almost an unvarying law that the Christian who fasts and weeps, even if he does not fail in charity to individuals, will never be able to recognise that there is a real religion in which laughter and dancing find their place. Of all men the hermits were the most rigorous in their life. We should expect therefore to find them most ready in definite condemnation of religious ways which differed from their own. I do not suppose that anyone who has learnt to appreciate the depth and spirituality of their religion would expect to find them bitter and uncharitable towards individuals. Such a spirit cannot coexist with the seeing and desiring to see the God who is love. Nor, I think, should we be surprised to find them recognising some possibility of good in the life of the Christian in the world. It is, however, with real amazement that we read the few judgments which they passed on the secular life. It is not that they look on such life as good, though poorer and lower than their own; still less do they regard it with that pitying contempt which is often misnamed charity. They recognise gladly that it may be in every way equal to their own lives. They go back to their cells from the kitchens of housewives and the workshops of tradesmen humbled by the contemplation of a perfection to which they themselves have not been able as yet to attain.

St. Macarius of Alexandria was one of the very sternest of the hermits in his ascetic practices. The fierceness of his efforts to subdue his body shock us, while we wonder at the strength of the man who made them. Of all the leaders of the movement he would seem the least likely to appreciate the beauty of a Christian life lived in the world. Yet it is he who says, "Truly virginity is nothing, nor marriage, nor the monk's life, nor life in the world." Certainly it was a special revelation which led him to the house of the two women whose way of life taught him this truth; yet we must suppose an almost incredible magnanimity in the man, placed as St. Macarius was, who could receive and profit by such a revelation. It is not so wonderful that St. Antony should have reached to the understanding of the many different ways in which God leads men upwards to Himself. We know enough about him to appreciate the broadness and sanity of his character. Yet even from him it is startling to hear such words as those he spoke to the Alexandrian tanner: "Of a truth, my son, you are on your way to the kingdom of God, and I, like a man without wisdom, am passing the time of my solitude without attaining to the measure of the perfection that you have told me of."

The words of Muthues are poorer, perhaps, than the confessions of St. Antony and St. Macarius, yet they have a special value. They show us how it was that the hermits became capable of such clear-sightedness in the recognition of good. It was through their humility, that virtue which is likened, aptly, to the rudder of a ship. God Himself could not have revealed the great truths about life, which these saints saw, except to men whose hearts were well prepared for His Spirit by a long discipline of subduing pride.


How the divine guidance enabled St. Antony to see that a life well pleasing to God may be accomplished by one who is in the world as well as by a monk.

Once, while St. Antony was praying in his cell, there came to him a voice which said, "Oh, Antony, for all your life in the desert you have not yet attained the measure of the perfection of a tanner who lives in Alexandria." When he heard this the saint rose up early, took his staff; and came with haste to Alexandria. He speedily found the man of whom he had been told. The tanner was struck dumb at the sight of so great a saint. St. Antony said to him, "Describe to me the manner of your life. I have come here from the desert to learn about your good deeds." The tanner answered him, "I have not, so far as I know, done anything good at all. I am a very sinful man. When I rise from my bed in the morning, before my work begins I say, 'All the people in this city must be better than I am. From the least to the greatest they may well be entering into the kingdom of heaven. I, because of my sins, am certainly going to everlasting punishment.' Then when I am going to rest at night I find myself obliged to repeat this same saying." Then St. Antony replied to him, "Of a truth, my son, you, as you sit here quietly in your house, are on your way to the kingdom of God. I, like a man without wisdom, am passing the time of my solitude without attaining to the measure of the perfection that you have told me of."


How St. Macarius was guided by the Spirit to a knowledge of the same truth.

Once, while the abbot Macarius was praying, a voice sounded in his ears, which said to him, "Macarius, you have not yet arrived at the measure of the sanctity of two women who dwell in the neighbouring city." When he heard this he arose and, taking his staff, set forth for the city which had been named. He sought and found the house where the women lived. When he knocked at the door one of the women came out, and, perceiving who he was, welcomed him into the house with great joy. St. Macarius called the two together to him, and said, "On your account I have endured the toil of coming here from my solitude. I desire to know your way of life. I pray you to describe it to me." They, however, replied to him, "Most holy father, what kind of life is ours for you to ask about?" He persisted in asking that they would describe it to him. Then, since he compelled them, they said, "We are not, indeed, related to each other by blood, but it happened that we married two brothers. Now, though we have lived together for fifteen years, we have had no quarrel, neither has either of us spoken a sharp word to the other. We both desired to leave our husbands and enter a community of holy women. We begged our husbands to permit us, but they would not. Then we vowed that until the day of our death we should hold no worldly talk with each other, but converse only about spiritual things." When St. Macarius heard what they told him, he said, "Truly virginity is nothing, nor marriage, nor the monk's life, nor dwelling in the world. It is purposes and vows like this which God seeks from us, and He gives the spirit of life to all alike."


How the monk must not reckon himself safe because he is a monk, nor must think of those who live in the world as lost.

The abbot Muthues said, The nearer a man draws to God the more he sees his own sinfulness. Thus when the prophet Isaiah had his vision of God he exclaimed that he was wretched and unclean. Let us be careful to hold this truth fast, for the Scripture saith, "Let him who thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." We voyage doubtfully across the waves of this world. We indeed may seem to be sailing over quiet seas while they who dwell in the world go amid dangers. We shape our course in the daylight, lit upon our way by the Sun of Righteousness. They, as if in the night-time, may steer in ignorance of where they go. Yet it often may come to pass that the dweller in the world, just because he voyages through a dark night, is very watchful, and his ship comes safe to port. So too we, just because we voyage over quiet seas, grow careless. Too often from our very security we perish, letting go the helm, which is humility. Just as no ship can be safe without a rudder, so it is impossible for a man to come safe to his journey's end without humility.

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