The Desert Saints were strange people!
Chapter 3 explores a group of men and women that retreated from city life and lived in the desert as a form of spiritual growth. These people were eccentric, quirky, and very committed to the Christian faith.
Their reason for living in the tough conditions of the desert is that they did not want a ‘watered down’ faith. They felt that a part of spiritual growth included struggle.
St. Antony is a famous example. He heard a sermon in church where Matthew 19:21 was read- “If you wish to be my disciple, go and sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
And that’s exactly what Antony did.
He sold everything that he had, distributed it to the poor, and then moved to the desert. “Antony’s reputation as a spiritual master spread. People became fascinated by stories about a man who had the courage to live alone in the wilderness and to seek God.” (Sittser 77).
The Desert Fathers practiced a type of faith that we would call extreme today. They fasted for days at a time. They lived alone or in small groups. Some lived in ruins, others in caves. They often pushed their physical body to the limit as they practiced a severe asceticism. One person lived on a pillar for 30 years.
How did a movement like this get started?
It was a response to their belief that Christianity was being compromised by the Roman culture of their day.
In A.D. 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. Now, for the first time in its young history, Christianity was legal in Rome. The days of intense persecution and martyrdom were over, at least temporarily. “In less than a generation, therefore, Christianity ceased to be a persecuted faith and became a privileged faith…Church attendance grew at an unprecedented pace; meanwhile, standards of discipleship appeared to decline.” (Sittser 80)
The Desert Saints believed that true discipleship evaporated with the legalization of Christianity.
And they probably had a point.
In a society where it is illegal to be a Christian, only the most devout and committed will practice the faith. In a society where it is legal to be a Christian, some may come to call themselves ‘Christian’ without truly living out the rigors of discipleship.
The Desert Saints wanted to reclaim true discipleship. They may have gone a bit overboard, but their intention was good.