In the fourth century after Christ, nearly everyone of importance either was a monk, spent some time as a monk, or at least wanted to be a monk.
Were serious Christians wary of the nominal masses after the conversion of Emperor Constantine around 312 AD? No, though that is a common enough story: there is much evidence of monastic life prior to the fourth century.
Isn’t this a sign of Christianity’s decline after the death of the apostles, a turn to “works-righteousness” and the abandonment of salvation by grace? Weren’t the Protestant Reformers rightly disgusted with the rank abuses among monks in the late middle ages?
There were undoubtedly abuses, and an asceticism that tried to finish in the flesh what was begun by the Spirit (Gal 3:3). But I suggest that overall the desire to be a nun or monk in the fourth century betokens two very positive things: a deep awareness of one’s own sinfulness, and a consuming quest for holiness. We see this especially in those early souls who fled to the deserts, the so-called Desert Fathers.
Jesus himself “withdrew” to “solitary,” wilderness places to pray (Luke 5:16). Thousands of fourth-century Christians followed him there. They gave up all their possessions, and spent their days in prayer and reciting the Psalms, labouring at simple tasks, like plaiting ropes they sold to sustain themselves, that would not distract from their attention to God.
They tried to obey Jesus’ injunction to “keep watch” (Matt 25:13), often literally: one monk reportedly spent fourteen days and nights without sleeping (Bessarion §6).
God, have mercy on me, a sinner
Yet in all this time alone with God they learned just how sinful they were; they did not escape temptation by fleeing into the desert, for sin lives in our own hearts. One nun connected Jesus’ saying to be “wise as serpents” (Matt 10:16) to recognizing the “attacks and wiles of the devil” (Syncletica §18).
For the serpent is “more crafty” than all others (Gen 3:1). Through a lifetime of observing and fending off tempting thoughts in themselves, monks and nuns gained great wisdom in naming their deceitful patterns. They learned, for instance, that gluttony and lust often go hand-in-hand: overindulging food makes overindulging sexual desire more tempting.
They also learned that only Christ could deliver them. Even at the very end of their lives, with decades spent before the face of God, they knew themselves to be sinners still. Abba Matoes said, “The nearer a man draws to God, the more he sees himself a sinner. It was when Isaiah the prophet saw God, that he declared himself ‘a man of unclean lips’” (§2).
Their deep awareness of their own sinfulness led them to show great mercy to others. The following is one of my favourite stories from the desert monks:
There was at that time a meeting at Scetis about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but Abba Pior kept silence. Later, he got up and went out; he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried on his shoulder. He put a little sand also into a small bag which he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, “In this sack which contains much sand, are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brothers which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them. This is not right, I ought rather to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me for them.” The Fathers stood up and said, “Truly, this is the way of salvation.” (Pior §3)
The story is, of course, a paraphrase of Jesus’ teaching to take the log out of our own eye before we go for the speck of dust in our brother’s (Matt 7:5). We must know ourselves as sinners; humility was the chief virtue for the Desert Fathers. In an important sense, their whole monastic life was one long prayer, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Sell everything you have, then come, follow me
Despite the fact that their desire could never be fulfilled in this life, those who fled to the desert sought God with all their hearts, and because they sought God, they sought holiness. The seriousness—and, indeed, severity—of their pursuit of holiness is a challenge to the laxity and comfort of so much modern Christian life.
Like Paul, they spoke of disciplining their bodies (1 Cor 9:27). Like Jesus himself, they warred with demons of temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-10).
It was typical for a monk to live on one meal a day, a meagre meal of bread and vegetables; eating meat was rare, wine likewise. Keeping silent was valued even over complimenting others (Poemen §47), and certainly over defending one’s own name. Someone like Abba Arsenius would lift up his hands in prayer at sundown Saturday, not resting them until “the glory of Sunday” had shone on him (§30).
All these were efforts to resist temptation by controlling the desires of one’s body and soul, and, at the same time, to place oneself before God; all asceticism was, done properly, a severe asking, seeking and knocking for God’s grace.
These feats undoubtedly strike us as excessive. We might quickly object, thinking of Paul’s instruction to let each person be fully convinced in their own mind about indifferent things like special days or fasts (Rom 14:5) or his warnings against those who would forbid food or marriage (1 Tim 4:3)—and we would be right to do so.
But I suggest we do not let ourselves off the hook so easily. The monks themselves realized that “everything that goes to excess comes from the demons” (Poemen §129).
Instead, we should let ourselves be challenged to a more committed following of Jesus by these early Christians. When was the last time we fasted so as to be hungrier for God’s Word? or stayed up all night in prayer, seeking the face of God?
As Benedicta Ward, an expert on the Desert Fathers, says, “The aim of the monks’ lives was not asceticism, but God…. The monks went without sleep because they were watching for the Lord; they did not speak because they were listening to God; they fasted because they were fed by the Word of God.”
I close with a justly famous story:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (§7)
The sayings of the Desert Fathers should be read with discernment—as, indeed, all writings outside the Scriptures should. To Protestants, these early nuns and monks can seem like they come from an ancient and foreign world. But if we do listen to their wisdom, we will hear a potent call to recognize the depths of our sin and the heights of God’s transforming grace.
If I am honest, most of the time I would rather relax than seek the face of God; my weak and fickle heart inclines to ease, not holiness. The desert monks and nuns remind me that I am called to something far greater: becoming aflame with the Spirit of God.
 For a start, see Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 2012), ch. 10.
 All references are from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, SLG (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1975).
 Indeed, this prayer became very important in the history of monasticism, especially in the form addressed to Christ himself and known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, xxiv-xxv.