This making a City of the Wilderness was no mere flight, nor a rejection of matter as evil (else why did they show such aesthetic sense in placing their retreats, and such love for all God’s animal creation?). It was rooted in a stark realism of faith in God and acceptance of the battle which is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual things of wickedness in the heavenly places.
His it not its challenge for today?
Derwas J. Chitty’s The Desert a City presents the history of desert monasticism from Antony to the fall of the Roman Empire. I found it incredibly helpful for providing orientation (the who? what? where? when? why?) to the various contemporary-written histories of the monks. Chitty begins with Athanasius, Antony, and Pachomius — theologian bishop, solitary monk, and communal monk respectively — and shows how their stories set the scene for the rest of the history he will present.
He follows the lives of the three saints mentioned above and continues with the lives of the next generation: the two Macarii, Palladius, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, Epiphanius, et al. Along the way he chronicles the development of Alexandria, Scetis, Nitria, the Cells, and Tebennesis as monastic centers.
As various outside forces shift centers of monastic power, dogma becomes an issue, especially after Chalcedon. Jerusalem and the Judean desert had much to say about how that debate played out.
Finally, Chitty shows how monasticism, built upon the Rock, managed to survive raids and invasions and devastations — the ultimate of which was the fall of Jerusalem.
He closes his book with the poignant observation:
The by-products of monasticism have been many, and full of life and interest. But one thread alone can give our story its true meaning — the search for personal holiness, the following of the Lord Jesus, whether in the solitary cell or on the abbot’s seat, or in all the menial works of the monastery.
Clearly, my synopsis of Chitty’s fine book is inadequate. He includes many stories from the various histories, making them fit in the overall story of desert spirituality. His narrative presents the chronology ever so clearly and, with the help of the included maps, he makes the stories fit geographically. Thus, he brings the desert to life and provides much needed context for the primary sources.
And he writes as a learned person of faith; I imagine hearing him lecture in his classroom would have been as uplifting as it would have been enlightening.