IN OCTOBER 312, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, claimed that the Christians’ God had helped him crush his enemies and secure power at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. This marked the end of persecution and the apparent promotion of the Church to a privileged position in society. “Christendom” was born – the Church was wedded to the political power of the day.
In reality, Christendom was a dreadful deception. The Church for the most part abandoned its call to be a countercultural embodiment of the Kingdom of Jesus – which He had described as “not of this world”. Empire and Church were mingled. The proclamation of the gospel was largely drowned out in the clamour of the marching feet of imperial armies. “Love your enemies” morphed into “slay the barbarian”.
Some, however, resisted this development. Men such as Antony, Pachomius and Macarius and other Desert Fathers forsook wealth and influence and moved to the desert. Here they formed radical communities, a quiet but powerful alternative to the political Christianity of the empire.
Antony was a true pioneer, whose influence is still felt today. Born in Egypt about AD 251, his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune. One day he heard a Christian quote Jesus’ words: If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow Me (Matt.19:21). They cut him like a knife. He sold his estate and became the disciple of a godly pastor.Yet his heart grew restless. He didn’t belong to the world he saw around him. He felt a strong pull to the desert beyond the Nile. Here hot and cold, flood and drought engaged men in a daily, physical battle for life itself. To Antony, this mirrored the human soul in its battle between flesh and spirit, love for God and love of self. Here too was a pioneering adventure, where only the real would make it.
So Antony went to live alone in the desert. Friends sent food every few days; the rest depended on his survival skills. His experiences were later dictated to a follower – and what reading they make! He fought boredom and guilt, sexual temptations and hunger for possessions. He gives graphic accounts of battles with demons, but also of sweet times of intimate communion with Jesus. He also learned the importance of manual work for focussing the mind; he wove reed baskets and sold them in town.Gradually his reputation spread, and men came to the desert to be near Antony.
Reluctantly, in AD 305, he left his solitude and spent six years drawing these disciples into a community of hermits. In time, some 5,000 were with him. They lived alone or in pairs in the week, then came together on Sundays for worship, fellowship and mutual support. He taught them the foundational principles that he had based his own life on: love, patience, celibacy, gentleness and humility. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh, he taught. Gain your brother, and you have gained God. Offend your brother, and you sin against Christ.
Finally, Antony withdrew deeper into the desert, where he lived to be 102. He appeared only twice: to strengthen persecuted brethren in Alexandria, and (at 101) to preach against a dangerous heresy. His burial place was kept secret, since he feared men’s idolatry. Today, Antony is acknowledged as the father of the monastic life; the man who broke the mould and let passion for Jesus create a new, living ‘wineskin’ for the Holy Spirit’s life.
Pachomius was born in Egypt about AD 291. As a young man he was press-ganged into the Roman army. One day some Christians showed such care to his unit that he determined to find Jesus himself. He was converted in his twenties. In AD 318, he was walking in the desert when he felt God prompt him to found a monastery at that very spot (an old Roman fort called Tabennisi). So he and a friend did just that.
Numbers grew rapidly, and in time there were seven monasteries for men and two for women, several numbering over a thousand souls! There were major differences between Tabennisi and the collection of hermits that St Antony had formed. This was a carefully structured organisation where the brothers lived together at all times, followed a Rule (set of precepts) and had their set jobs and ministries for the good of all.
The monks lived in communal houses according to the work they did (carpentry, basket- weaving, etc.). Each house held around 40, and there might be 30 houses to a monastery – a large undertaking! There was a senior leader (abbot) over the whole monastery, and leaders for each house. At weekends the whole monastery met for worship and the bread and wine; in the week they met together in their houses. They wore a simple white tunic and shared two simple meals a day – unless they chose to fast. Their crafts and industry were such that they had their own boats on the Nile to ferry goods to market.
Pachomius was a gifted leader. What he built was not equalled for 1,000 years. He was a deeply spiritual and loving man. He spoke in tongues and saw frequent visions, but kept his monks focussed: The greatest vision you can have, he taught, is of a pure and humble man. His leadership style was to insist on the same basic rules for everyone, for the sake of self-discipline, while encouraging brothers to go beyond it according to their zeal and strength. Spiritual fatherhood was a key issue for him. He taught that a leader must be a man of scripture, prayer, humility, service and miracles. In all his communities it was a rule that leaders should serve: lay tables, answer the door, and tend the sick. He led the way himself. He truly loved the monks as sons, frequently addressing them as ‘my little children’. No wonder he became father to thousands.
Macarius was born in Egypt in AD 300, of Christian parents. He had a soft conscience and strong sense of justice. He was called the “aged youth” in his village, because he had great spiritual wisdom even in his twenties. For a while he worked as a camel-drover, but in 330 he withdrew to the desert and sought out St Anthony to disciple him.He relocated to Scetis, south-west of the Nile Delta, and at first lived as a hermit. But soon other men were joining themselves to him and a community began.
It was particularly active in healing ministry. People from far and wide made their way to the desert to be prayed for by Macarius. According to his biographer, there was an average of five or six healings a day. He always had other monks with him, to learn healing. He also taught them to use spiritual gifts of words and discernment. Sometimes Macarius withdrew – with the help of an underground passage to a remote cave – because he heard the praise of men.
Another mark of his community was fatherly humanity. He urged full renunciation of money and property on all the monks, but at times broke his own rules out of love. Once he travelled to Alexandria in person t buy some sherbet to soothe the throat of a young brother who had fever.
The third characteristic was Macarius’ stress on the Holy Spirit. Every Christian should pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, because it is the Spirit who transforms us and stamps us with Christ’s image, “as a gold coin is imprinted with the king’s image and is then fit for the royal treasury”.
Macarius was deported for a time, but returned to Scetis, where he died in his nineties.
Antony, Pachomius and Macarius and other Desert Fathers with their visionary communities demonstrated the need for God’s people to be an alternative culture to the violent, power-hungry world system.