In the decades bridging the middle of the second century A.D. with the middle of the third, the desert of Egypt transformed from an empty wasteland to a unique Christian community. Into the silence of the wilderness streamed men and women from the cities of North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean basin. They came from varied backgrounds, but all sought the same thing―a hermit’s life of prayer and ascetic separation from worldly concerns.
Those concerns were many—and conflicted. The years of the emperor Diocletian saw, in 303, the last “great” state-sanctioned Roman persecution of Christians. By 313, Christianity in Egypt was legalized by Diocletian’s successor Constantine, and fast on its way to becoming not only culturally acceptable, but also culturally promoted.
Ironically, it was that promotion—not the former persecution—that galvanized the exodus of a few hermits into what became a major Christian movement. More and more seekers, disturbed by the compromises of church with state, felt the need to flee. And so they did—in the thousands. “The desert had become a city,” Athanasius would eventually write in his biography of Anthony, the great desert trendsetter. And so the desert had.
The “desert fathers and mothers,” as these men and women came to be called, would only be a footnote in Christian history though, if the initial pull to be hermits—individuals truly cut off from human connection for prayer—had won. Instead, in a movement that would come to shape Christian history, those who fled to the desert did not abandon community. In fact, even in the wilderness, community flourished. Beginning with informal clusters of hermits and solitaries coming together for the sharing of practical needs, prayer, and the occasional celebratory meal, small communities formed. These, as the seasons passed, became more organized, finding practices in community to support their individual journeys of prayer. As years rolled on, the desert monastics became a living legacy. Today, it is difficult to trace a Christian tradition that has not benefitted from their experience passed on through the centuries.
Individuals in Community
The desert fathers and mothers are the starkest example I can think of to illustrate a principle quietly at work in our own churches. It is this: our individual spiritual lives need community, and our communities need robust, vibrant, individual Christians. A great part of an effective leader’s contribution is learning how to promote the growth of both at the expense of neither.
Pastors and group leaders typically gravitate toward one option or the other. They either encourage and support the growth of personally vibrant, devotionally grounded individuals who cluster from time to time into loose groupings called “church,” or skew to the opposite pole, and create communities that scurry like ants, yet do little to promote a deep and personal spiritual life for their members once the frenzy ceases. (After reading that, take a moment to ponder which type of leader you are.)
Spiritual health, like so many truths of ministry, is found in the balance. There is nothing that can replace a personal and growing devotional life with God—a life of daily prayer and rhythm, of nurturing the profound inner secret of one’s faith in Jesus. To downplay this individual life and relationship means spiritual disaster for any of us, for we can only live Christ’s life when it is becoming our life, incapable of being truly described to another, so personal it is, so rooted in that place in our soul that is beyond language.