Late in the fourth century, St. Augustine compared the conversion of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity to a fishing expedition in which “both good and bad fishes” were caught in the net of Church. He was referring, of course, to the inevitable decline of general Christian piety as a result of the new worldly freedoms that Christians everywhere were experiencing.
Before Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 314 A.D., confessing the Christian faith was nothing less than social, cultural, religious and literal suicide. You certainly did not “get ahead in life” by becoming a Christian. On the contrary, you pretty much guaranteed that your property and goods would be confiscated, and that you would meet a painful end through a variety of gruesome means.
With the conversion to Christianity of the highest authority in the known world, the situation took an abrupt about-face. Now, conversion to Christianity was fashionable, the thing to do if you wanted to rise in the social and political ranks of the Empire. It was expedient and convenient for everyone to become a Christian.
As a result, not everyone who converted to Christianity did so out of a whole-hearted desire to “take up his Cross” and follow Christ. The martyr’s spirit, which had sustained the Church in the early decades and centuries, was now threatened by a strong tendency to laxity and nominalism (paying lip-service to Christianity, rather than demonstrating one’s faith through one’s life and actions).
Faced with its new challenge to baptize the Empire, how could the Church maintain the fervency of its commitment to Christ? The answer lay with a group of ordinary Christians, who literally walked away from their lives and went to seek Christ in isolation—monastics. By no means the first, the most influential of these radical Christians is undoubtedly Anthony, who along with Pachomius and Athanasius, is widely credited with founding, establishing and promoting monastic Christian culture.
Anthony at first dwelt in the cowshed at the bottom of the garden of his home in Alexandria. As his reputation for piety and prayerfulness grew, however, the constant stream of visitors seeking to inject new fire into their waning faith overwhelmed him, and he retreated into the desert as a hermit. Pachomius later established coenobitic monasticism: like-minded individuals, each following Anthony’s example, living in community under the authority of a “Papa” or “Abba” (from which we get the word “Abbot”).
Desert monasticism was just what the Church needed, adding a powerful new dimension to a faith that was facing greater and greater temptations to worldliness. It has been referred to as “standing challenge” to the Church in the world, a continual reminder of Jesus’ words: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21)
The spiritual witness of these early monks has been compiled and is available in books such as The Lives of the Desert Fathers and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. These texts are easy to read and powerful in their directness. Just a few examples: “When asked a question, answer. Otherwise, keep silent,” says Abba Poemen. Abba Moses says, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” And Abba Pastor says, “Any trial that comes to us can be conquered by silence.”
Today, Christians face many of the same challenges and temptations as they have since they first acquired the State’s stamp of approval. Whether or not we believe that the legalization of Christianity utterly corrupted the Church, the fact remains that all Christians must fight to detach themselves from their possessions (materialism); to make their faith something more than “Sunday only” (secularism); to demonstrate their faith in deeds and not just words (nominalism).
For those of us who have chosen to undertake such struggles in the world, the ancient tradition of desert monasticism challenges us with a radical solution to a worldly threat that seeks to overcome us an any moment. Eastern Orthodox tradition sums up this solution, evolved over centuries of monastic life and practices, in a single word: Hesychia—the Way of Inner Stillness.
Through the practice of short, silent prayers like the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!”), Hesychia allows Christians living in the world to accomplish inwardly and spiritually what Saints Anthony and Pachomius did outwardly and literally: “walk away” from our slavery to worldly life; go alone into the room of our hearts and close the door; pray to our Father who is in secret (Matt 6:6), so that He who sees in secret can reward us with the one thing needful: His Spirit, His life, His power—and Himself.
Next time: fighting over pictures? The Church works out its confession of Christ in the struggle over icons.