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Ruminations on the Fall of Rome

So holy men left. They left for the desert and became the forerunners of the monks, though these early counter-culture revolutionaries were “in some ways less comparable to modern monks and nuns than to modern drop-outs, supporters of gurus, or others . . . who abandon the conventional world . . .”. The Fall of the Roman Empire, 145. In other words, they were the ancient predecessors of the Haight-Ashbury folk.

When society became comfortable for Christians and a source of temptation, when the bloody red of martyrdom no longer threatened, these tens of thousands of hippie forerunners opted for the white martyrdom of the desert.

Actually, the exodus to the desert started in the mid-third century. St. Jerome said the first hermit was Paul the Hermit, but most give that honor to St. Antony the Great usually gets the credit. In 270, Antony gave his ample worldly possessions to his sister and the poor, and lived alone. Fifteen years later, he—to battle more effectively with the devil, we’re told by Athanasius—fled to the wastes of Egypt, there to live by himself in an old empty fort on a hill. He stayed there nearly 75 years, coming only twice, once to dispute with the Arians, the other to dispute with the pagans.

The rest of the time, he stayed in alone, fasting and praying. Many people flocked to see this holy man and follow his example. He organized them into groups, residing in separate and scattered cells, and they came together only for common worship. A little later, a man named Pachomius established monasteries.

As the number of inhabitants at Scetis grew, so did the stories. Amazing stories, some of them true, some of them not, all of them edifying. A few examples from the Lives of the Desert Father amply demonstrate the counter-cultural ways of these holy men and women who opted for the holy harshness of the desert rather than risk the sinful comfort of Roman society.

What does it all matter? So a large handful of freaks went to the desert to lead holy lives?

It mattered a great deal. These early monks would be the forerunners of another counter-cultural movement: the monasteries of the Dark and Middle Ages.

From Antony’s and Pachomius’ beginnings in upper Egypt, the monastic ideal spread to Palestine and Europe. Many of the greatest saints of the age pushed this counter-cultural ideal: Athanasius, Jerome, Basil, Martin of Tours, John Cassian, and, finally, Benedict, who established over a dozen monasteries.

And these monasteries later preserved the great works of classical civilization from the fires and violence that prevailed from about 500 to 1000 AD. Without the monasteries, the great works of classical civilization would have been lost, or its surviving remains greatly diminished. Ironically, these institutions started as an effort to flee the death rattles of a decadent civilization, yet these institutions would preserve that same civilization’s great works of art, poetry, drama, philosophy, and science.

(From my notebooks. My apologies for the incomplete cite in the first paragraph. I wrote this about five years ago and now I can’t remember which book I was referencing.)