I found a Podcast version of Palladius’ Lausiac History and enjoyed listening to it since it offers a good look at early monasticism. Since I had an audiobook form of this text, it’s difficult to quote and whatnot, but a few stories stuck out to me.
The most interesting one was of Melania the Elder. Wikipedia briefly recounts the story from Palladius: “[s]he stayed with the monks in the desert near Alexandria, Egypt (today the area is known as Wadi Natroun) for about six months. When persecution broke out after the death of Bishop Athanasius in 373 and many of the monks were exiled to Diocaesaraea in Palestine, Melania followed and supported them financially. The governor had her briefly imprisoned, but released her when he realized her social status. She built a convent in Jerusalem, and a monastery on the Mount of Olives for the monk and theologian Rufinus of Aquileia.” She also inspired her granddaughter to become a nun.
Other stories included the brothers who entered the monastic life but with different ideas of how to live that life. Their followers quarreled as to which was best, but a wise, old monk (maybe Macarius?) told them that each was equally good.
Another, I think his name was Nathaniel, when into the desert as one of the early Christian monks and built a cell. He was tempted by — I think Palladius calls it — the demon who assaults everyone, and Nathaniel left that place for a cell closer to civilization. This is clearly the demon acedia, who Evagrius says tempts monks to leave their way of life. (Acedia is everywhere in the old literature!) Once he realizes the demons plot to get him to abandon monasticism altogether, he returns to his original cell and destroys the demon.
There are stories of scoundrels (e.g., Evagrius and Moses the Robber) who went out into the desert and became very holy people, which is encouraging to the modern ear — affirmation that no one is beyond redemption.
There are rather comedic stories of saintly monks acting as holy fools. For example, Macarius heard of a monastery where the monks kept strict rules, each as they were able. In his old age, he dressed as a common person and went to the monastery to seek to join it. The abbot would not allow him in because he was too old and because the abbot thought the rule of life too strict for the disguised Macarius. But every test that was given was passed by Macaruis, so much so that the monks of the monastery called him a “fleshless man” — i.e., supernatural. His identity was eventually revealed as Macarius, and the abbot was honored that he had visited them to teach them a lesson in humility.
There are some troubling stories, too. I was especially struck by how negatively marriage was viewed by the desert folks; indeed, they did not see it as a sacrament but as a hindrance to life with God. These stories highlight the “otherness” of the desert fathers and mothers and add complexity to their legacy.
All in all, these sorts of histories are important to read because they encourage us to labor toward holiness. But they must be read with discernment, considering what is good for the modern Christian reader and what is unhelpful.