My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Upper Egypt (ie. southern) had cenobitic or communal monastics; lower Egypt had hermits such as St. Anthony, considered to be the founding father of Western monasticism. He died in 356 AD at the age of 105. Syria, Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) and Palestine all had monasteries or hermits in the 5th century AD.
What makes their story, and this book, particularly fascinating is that they were developing their spiritual practice as they lived from day to day – in most cases they were not following the rules laid down by others. “The essence of the spirituality of the desert is that it was not taught but caught; it was a whole way of life,” according to the Foreword.
These extraordinary men (and occasionally women) were the pioneers of the great tradition of monasticism that was later to develop right across Europe. Perhaps this makes their stories and their words even more relevant to men and women in the West who today often find any kind of appointed spiritual authority (such as a church) hard to bear.
To the modern temperament, these monks, nuns, hermits and solitaires (hermits who stayed in one location and could be visited) are mad. Today, the Three Cs rule – comfort, convenient and celebrity. Anyone not pursuing this triple crown is usually considered a “loser” or out of touch with “reality” or having “opted out”. The suggestion that the pursuit of material abundance as an end in itself (sometimes called affluenza) is what is truly bizarre is dismissed at the very least as eccentric, if not downright dangerous and anti-social.
True, these desert fathers and mothers took things to extreme:
“Abba Arsenius prayed on Saturday evening with his hands stretched out to the setting sun, and he stayed there until the sun shone on his face on Sunday. The usual pattern was to say the psalms, one after another during the week, and to intersperse this with weaving ropes or palms, sometimes saying, “My Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” The aim was ‘hersychia’, quiet, the calm through the whole man that is like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun. To be in true relationship with God, standing before Him in every situation – that was the angelic life, the spiritual life, the monastic life, the aim and the way of a monk. It was life oriented towards God.”
Free PDF: The Hermit Fathers