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Table of Contents


Love for Nature3

Selection of Austere Place4

Hazard, Prospect, and Refuge in a Desert Landscape6

Survival in Lonely Conditions7

Early Christian Monks8

Desert Theology of Death and Resurrection10

Monasticism in Other Religions11

End Notes14



Monasticism is derived from Greek monos, meaning alone, is the religious practice in which one renounces worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one's life to spiritual work. The origin of the word is from Ancient Greek, and the idea was originally related to Christian monks. A monk out of the desert, said Anthony of Egypt, is like a fish out of water.[1] Early Christian monasticism was so inextricably tied to a particular geographic terrain that the connection between the monk and the desert was never questioned. The choice of vocation and the choice of landscape were almost always one.[2] Jerome accepted this as a given when he described the habitat of the desert fathers and mothers at Wadi Natrun on the borders of the Libyan Desert in Egypt.

The place is reached by no path, nor is the track shown by any landmarks on earth, but one journeys by the signs and courses of the stars. Water is hard to find. Here abide men perfect in holiness (for so terrible a place can be endured by none save those of absolute resolve and supreme constancy). . . To this spot they withdraw themselves: for the desert is vast, and the cells are sundered from one another by so wide a space that none is in sight of his neighbour, nor can any voice be heard. One by one they abide in their cells, a mighty silence and a great quiet among them.[3]

Love for Nature

One has to be careful in suggesting a natural love of wildness and wild terrain on the part of the early desert Christians. The Greek patristic view of nature generally preferred the ordered beauty of a "middle landscape," land that had been worked by human hands. Wilderness was more often an object of fear and distrust.[4] Yet the desert, for negative as well as positive reasons, remained the landscape of choice for much of early Christian asceticism. The desert environment played a major role in shaping the character of monastic life.

Peter Brown observes that monasticism in Syria and Egypt assumed different forms because of variations in the desert terrain they occupied. In Egypt one found "true desert," with a rainfall of only I. I inches per year. Sheer survival in such a hostile environment required structure, conformity, and adherence to routine. By contrast, in the rugged, mountainous terrain of Syria, milder and less demanding than the Egyptian desert, the ascetic life would be characterized by greater individuality, freedom, the embrace of wildness. Less energy had to be absorbed in the onerous task of staying alive. Hence, Syria was "notoriously the Wild and Woolly West" of early Christian asceticism.[5]

Selection of Austere Place

A preference for wild, uneven terrain could be found from time to time, however, even beyond Syria. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote to his friend Basil the ...
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