A friend recently brought up the criticism of the Desert Fathers that their withdrawal from the city meant a withdrawal from addressing the social issues and needs of the city. If we consider, perhaps, their own idealised desert anchorite or hermit, this holds true. However, if we consider the actual history of the Desert Fathers as well as their situation within the ancient church, I think this is a criticism that does not fit the reality as it was enacted.
First, as far as the actual history of the Desert Fathers is concerned, the first point we must acknowledge is the fact that almost none of the hermits achieved their idealised withdrawal from the world. St Antony ended up with a community gathered around him. St Simeon the Stylite shared wisdom with those who gathered around the base of his pillar. St Hilarion (although his story was largely fictionalised by St Jerome) was found by people wherever he went — he was forced into giving spiritual wisdom and performing miracles, whether he liked it or not. St Simeon the Mountaineer (less famous — one of John of Ephesus’ monks) found the local people living near his monk’s cell to be a field for evangelism.
Simeon the Mountaineer, in fact, is but one of many monks/nuns/hermits who found himself engaged in evangelism, despite the alleged ‘seclusion’ of his monastic profession.
Indeed, any anchorite or hermit whose name is known is known because he was the agent of God in the lives of others, whether, like Sts Barsanuphius and John, that was writing letters, or, like St Daniel the Stylite, that was dispensing advice in person. Therefore, they fulfilled a calling that was of benefit to church and world in these spiritual ways.
The cenobites (monks living in community), on the other hand, had opportunities to fulfill the commands to serve one another and love your neighbour simply through daily life. Moreover, there was always a class of monk who was in community because it provided him with the means of survival. Sure, you only ate once or twice a day. But you ate. At the social level, then, the cenobium provided the ancient poor with a place of refuge.
Moreover, not only the Desert Fathers but many other monks, nuns, hermits, et al., throughout history have left us a wealth of spiritual writings that are well worth reading. This is part of their prophetic calling. For we who read the sayings of the Desert Fathers, or the writings of Evagrius and Cassian, or the mystical treatises of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, are spurred onward and strengthened in our journey into God’s love through the wisdom he gave them in their lives of solitude.
This, however, does not save them all from their abdication of social responsibility.
My thought on this point has to do with the nature of the church in Late Antiquity, and, indeed, the Middle Ages. Not only was this a pre-denominational age for the church, the local church community did not see the different paroikia (parishes) and communities as, well, different communities. In a given, small-scale church community, not everyone is called to volunteer in the food bank, to lead the music, to cook meals, to help out with the moms’ group, to lead Bible studies, to get bricked into a room to pray and never leave. Each of us must discern which tasks are our own in the wider functional of the ecclesial community.
So in the ancient and medieval church. While we rightly see something lopsided in the belief that a life of retreat from the world and city was better, I do not think we can rightly see it as a wrong choice. Shenoute of Atripe and his monks may have lived in the White Monastery and prayed for the salvation of the world (and beat up the odd tax collector or two), but Cyril was in Alexandria giving to the poor (when not bribing the imperial court).
A better example: The ancient church needed bishops like St John the Almsgiver, a Bishop of Alexandria who was ceaseless in his acts of mercy, and St Daniel the Stylite, a monk on a pillar outside Constantinople who gave spiritual counsel to people from all walks of life.
In fact, I believe that, whatever their excesses and possible errors, the Desert Fathers were part of a prophetic movement of the Spirit of God beginning in the decades after the Constantinian settlement, a prophetic movement that monasticism and its offspring (such as the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans) would continue so long as Christianity and power were united.
To a church that was seeing the large-scale conversion of aristocrats, as well as the syncretism of folk belief (as archaeology from Egypt shows), and which was perhaps getting doxologically and even morally lax in the comfort provided by favour from the state, the Desert Fathers served as a living embodiment of the full devotion Christ calls his disciples to make. They served as a reminder that Christianity is not a socially respectable institution but an encounter with the fully transcendent God (pictured below) who outstrips any purple-clad, bejewelled emperor in grace, holiness, and majesty (as pictured to the left). They served as a reminder that prayer is ultimately something we live, not simply something that we do when we turn up at a basilica for prayers before resuming ‘normal life’.
Whether in the desert or the city, whether monastic or cleric or layperson, each of us must realise that, for the Christian, there is no ‘normal life’, for the immanence of the transcendent God and the sacramentality of his good creation make that impossible.
And this is the prophetic role of the Desert Fathers.