Christianity: Its Sojourn in the Desert

by Moya K. Mason


In many ways, it is difficult to comprehend the lives of the ancient desert hermits, anchorites, and monks of Egypt. Currently, the world most of us live in is fast-paced and engulfed with noise and people. Life has become so secularized, industrialized, and materially-driven, that an austere, quiet life devoted to the contemplation of God seems surreal and is beyond our comprehension. Throughout world history, many individuals decided that a life of seclusion had more merit and greater possibilities for peace and freedom. People like Buddha and his followers. Hundreds of years before Christians sequestered themselves in the Egyptian deserts, the young Buddha fled his family and kingdom to find peace in the forest. He dismissed the inequities of the Indian caste system and proposed a religion based on asceticism, poverty, and democracy. He believed that a life of simpler needs would help in the search for oneself and peace. The Hindu Brahmins also lived in the solitude of forests, existing on leaves and roots, in a solitary quest for deliverance. The Old Testament tells the story of Moses meeting God in the desert. For ever after, the desert had a sacred quality for Christians. Centuries later, St. John the Baptist became a hermit in the wilderness around Jerusalem, as did Jesus, who went in solitary prayer or took friends and disciples to find peace and pray to God. As Peter F. Anson writes in The Call of the Desert:

The solitary life led by John the Baptist in the desert of Judea [and Jesus' sojourns into the wilderness] served as the inspiration for countless Christian hermits in after ages. But what must be stressed is that there was nothing novel about this way of life: it merely carried on the traditions of some of the Old Testament prophets who fled into the wilderness. History repeats itself.(1)

During the third and fourth centuries A.D. both men and women left cities and towns to live in the deserts of Egypt. They based their new existence on freedom, peace, and simplicity. They gave away everything they owned and put their lives in God's hands. These Christians were a completely different phenomenon because many spent thirty, forty, fifty years or more living in an extremely hostile environment with scarce amounts to eat or drink. Who were some of these early exiles and what were they searching for? How did they survive living in the desert? Were there any social, political, and economic factors, which made these Christians take flight from society? And most importantly, this essay will try to present their intense spirituality and religious convictions, and the impact these had on Christianity.

St. Paul and St. Antony

St. Paul is considered the first hermit. He was born in the Lower Thebaid into a rich family, which made sure he was given a good education. St. Jerome describes him as being "gentle tempered, and loving God much."(2) He was fifteen years old when his parents died and he began to live with his sister and her husband, but Emperor Decius' empire-wide persecutions of Christians were well underway and his brother-in-law was ready to turn him in to the authorities. He ran away into the desert and found a large cave to live in.(3) St. Paul was the first, but he was certainly not the last to do so.

Beginning in 30 B.C. when the Princeps Augustus made Egypt a Roman province, it had been under the jurisdiction of the empire. In 204 A.D., Septimius Severus prohibited Roman subjects from becoming Christians. It was under his reign that the imprisonment and martyrdom of St. Perpetua and her fellow Christians occurred. The Roman Empire had its roots in the tradition of mos maiorum, which had made its people great. Long before they had an empire the Roman people were hard-working, respectful of family, and believed that good morals were very important. As the Republic grew and the Empire was consolidated, the greatness of the Roman people was on the wane: greed escalated and a moral decadence seemed to pervade the lives of many Romans.

Cities throughout the Empire were filled with Roman citizens whose lawlessness and immorality could be seen in the streets, bathhouses, and in the numerous brothels. Reading Trimalchio's Dinner Party by Petronius will give you a taste of what could occur at a party among the rich. Among the local populations, many had very little respect for Roman culture and the Romans, and disliked handing over the money they demanded in the form of taxes. These taxes could be extremely high and unfair. The publicans who were contracted to collect them were unrelenting. After Caracalla's Edict of 212, all Roman subjects were given the status of citizen, which did provide some privileges. It also made all men in the empire eligible for military service.

The Romans could be flexible on some accounts. They certainly made no attempt to eradicate every cultural nuance, which differed from theirs. What they could not tolerate was an empire growing in strength within their boundaries. They were afraid of the vitality and power the Christian religion seemed to be acquiring, and feared for the survival of their own supremacy. Christians had been persecuted from the time of Nero, but by the third century A.D. the widespread persecutions put them in an extremely precarious situation. The violence and cruelty of the Romans was overwhelming and despair engulfed many people. The taxes were so high that people could barely take care of their families, and they knew that by practicing their religion, their lives were in danger.

Christian Knight
Christian Knight

The only thing they could look forward to was dying in a foreign land, fighting battles that had nothing to do with them. Their religion called for universal love, but as James Wellard writes in Desert Pilgrimage, that had turned into "an obsessive hatred of the pagan world."(4) The edict of Emperor Decius in 249 A.D. required all citizens to sacrifice to the official Roman gods, telling them they would receive a certificate in exchange. The Christians had the following alternatives: to refuse to sacrifice and accept the consequences; to renounce their religion by making the sacrifice; to obtain a certificate through bribing an official; or, of course, to run for their lives.(5) As James Wellard remarks, "it is with the last group that we are primarily concerned, since these were the Christians who shaped the future of Christianity,"(6) men like St. Paul, the Theban.

Inside his desert cave, St. Paul discovered a large hall, open to the sky but protected by the branches of an old palm tree. There was also a spring of clear water he needed for survival. St. Jerome writes that Paul never ventured far from his dwelling and spent his entire life there in solitary prayer, eating dates from the palm tree and making clothes from its leaves. He died at the age of one hundred and thirteen, and was buried by St. Antony,(7) who is considered the most important hermit because his goodness and way of life attracted so many other people. The hermitage of St. Antony was transformed into the first desert monastery where many hundreds of men lived,(8) but St. Antony always lived alone at a distance from the others. This transition is explained in Desert Pilgrimage: Journeys to the Egyptian and Sinai Deserts:

The process was always the same: first the arrival of a hermit seeking solitude; then the coming of disciples who set up their hermitages nearby; then the visitation of pilgrims, some of whom stayed as admirers and converts of the original holy men; then the erection of a chapel, with refectory attached for the Sunday service and the agape to follow; then the development of hostels and other facilities for pilgrims; and eventually the emergence of a settled community centered around a monastery and its outlying hermitages.(9)

In his book, The Hermits, Charles Kingsley gives four reasons why The Life of Antony by Athanasius is such an important work. 1. Antony is considered to be the first great innovator in solitary living; 2. his biographer established the orthodox faith by his controversial writings; 3. the work established the solitary life as the Christian ideal; and 4. because, upon reading it, St. Augustine underwent his conversion.(10) Certainly any study of desert monasticism would be deficient without a discussion of St. Antony.

Athanasius wrote that St. Antony was an Egyptian by race, born at Coma in Middle Egypt in A.D. 251. His Christian parents were of noble birth and with a sufficient amount of wealth and prosperity. As he grew older he did not want to go to school, but preferred to spend his time at home. He is described as an obedient boy, who was content with very little, never bothering his parents for expensive things. When he was near twenty years of age, his mother and father died and he was left to care for the family home and his young sister. His parents had been dead for six months when he entered his local church and heard a part of the Gospel being read. The Lord said to a rich man,"If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell all thou hast, and give to the poor; and come follow me, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven."(11)

He immediately gave away his ancestral lands and upon selling his possessions, gave the money to the poor. He left his sister in the care of nuns and went to an old man in the next village who was living a life of solitude. He learned what he could from him and went further into the desert, where he was endlessly aggravated by the devil who hated to see one so young being so noble. His struggles with evil are reminiscent of what Jesus went through during his forty days in the wilderness. Many of Antony's friends and acquaintances would remain for days and nights outside his cell waiting for an opportunity to talk with him. They would hear a commotion going on inside and Antony telling his evil adversary to "depart from our ground."(12) On more than one occasion he alighted with signs of physical abuse.(13)

Beginning with St. Antony, "monastic spirituality understood contemplation and action as a seamless garment which the monk wove with his or her life."(14) Monks were known to continuously weave mats, plait rope, and spin wool. Antony ate very little and continually trained his body and mind. His fame spread quickly and before long many disciples went into the desert to be near him, but St. Antony often sequestered himself away for long periods, receiving bread occasionally through the roof. Years later, St. Antony felt so overwhelmed by the numbers who sat in vigil that he organized the colony of monks before he left them, leaving to find his own solitary peace with God. The community he left behind became the first monastery in Egypt and the prototype for Christian monastic colonies. Around A.D. 294, he set out to find a new dwelling and settled upon a mountain called Colzoum near the Red Sea, living off gifts of food he received from passing Bedouin. Many of his old disciples visited him and pilgrimages were a common occurrence, bringing the serious religious ascetics and also the curious sightseers.(15) Until the end of his life he was sought out by those who wanted to know what he had learned.

In that kind of world, run by greedy politicians, ambitious generals, avaricious tax-gatherers, and brutal thugs, Antony stood out as a symbol of peace and stability, and even more, as a sign of hope, virtue, and sanity in an otherwise vicious and mad system.(16)
St. Antony died in his cave at one hundred and five years of age. He became the spiritual father for some of the early Church's greatest thinkers: Athanasius, Jerome, Basil, and St. Augustine.(17)

Palladius, Macarius of Alexandria, and Melania

Christians continued to suffer under the authority of Rome and its emperors. The reign of Diocletian proved to be catastrophic for them. Empire-wide edicts were issued by Diocletian proclaiming that all churches and sacred books were to be destroyed. Most Christians who held an official position were stripped of their jobs and civil rights, while others were sold into slavery.(18) In Egypt, Diocletian's army destroyed parts of Alexandria in A.D. 292. Many died as martyrs according to Eusebius, who calculated that sixty Christians were killed every day during the five years of persecution in Egypt alone.(19) By the turn of the century, tens of thousands of Christians were living in the desert. Writers and historians went there to capture the essence of the desert communities and to chronicle the lives of the monks they met. One such man was Palladius, who wrote The Lausiac History, which proved to be a fascinating look at monastic life in Egypt, as well as Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor.

Palladius was a monk from Galatia, who spent many years in the Egyptian deserts compiling the history of Christian monasticism. He has been called the "Herodotus of the Deserts" since he traveled widely and spoke to everyone he met. He went to Egypt in 388 A.D., spending three years around Alexandria visiting countless hermitages. Wanting to learn more, he went inland to the Nitrian Desert where he stayed for another three years.(20) The Monks of Nitria were five thousand men strong; six hundred hermits also lived in the area. Palladius describes the monastery as having seven bakeries, three date palms, a church, a guesthouse, and many gardens.


Doctors, chefs, and winemakers lived there, but most of the monks made linen. Their spiritual father, Amoun, had already passed on, but Palladius met some old men there who still remembered him. Amoun was a contemporary of St. Antony's and had developed the monastic movement in Lower Egypt. As the settlement at Nitria continued to grow, some of the more serious ascetics found they needed more solitude and moved nine miles away into a desolate area of the desert, later called Cellia. Palladius spent nine years with the hermits there and recorded many stories about Macarius, the Alexandrian. For instance, one day he was stung by a gnat, which he killed. Believing that he had acted out of revenge, he sat in a marsh for six months, and was bitten so badly that his swollen body could only be identified by his voice.

Palladius collected many interesting stories and details concerning individual monks. They did share some commonalties, one of which was celibacy.(21) They lived a life based on charity, poverty, and asceticism, but the degrees to which they adhered to these conditions varied with the individual. Charity to the poor was practiced by all monks because the need was so great, but some gave more than others. As far as personal asceticism went, there were great differences, often based on friendly rivalries between the monks. For example, when Macarius of Alexandria heard of a monk who ate only a pound of bread a day, he vowed to eat only what he could reach from a narrow-necked jar. He did this for three years, consuming the equivalent of five ounces of bread and water a day.(22)

Ptolemy was one of the monks who left Cellia because it was over inhabited. Instead, he went to live beyond Scete in a very hostile place that was eighteen miles away from the nearest well. He was forced to collect dew from rocks with a sponge when he ran out of water. He lived there for fifteen years.(23) A Theban named Dorotheus collected stones for dwellings everyday in the desert heat, but ate only six ounces of bread and a small amount of vegetables, drinking little water. He would stay up all night weaving ropes to earn his food.(24) St. Antony would eat scare amounts every two days and sometimes only one meal in four days.(25) Most monks ate once a day at nine o'clock at night.(26) Many, such as Isidore, prided themselves on not bathing, since the baths, particularly in large cities, were thought to be places of immorality by the Christians. They heralded moral cleanliness above physical.(27) Another way they proved their asceticism was by sleeping as little as possible. Macarius decided to conquer his need for sleep and stayed awake outside for twenty days and nights.(28) Adobius would stay outside all night singing psalms and praying, even in the cold and rain.(29)

The performance of miracles was a common practice among these holy men. They regularly exercised demons from people who came long distances for help. Macarius of Alexandria was brought a young boy who was possessed. He put one hand on his head, the other on his heart, and prayed. Swelling up, the boy became suspended in air and began to spray water from all parts of his body. Eventually, the boy returned to his normal size and the monk anointed him with holy oil.(30) Many hermits, including St. Antony, were also known for their medical cures. Antony was visited by a man named Fronto, who had injured his own eyes and gnawed his tongue. After he had prayed for him, he told Fronto to depart and be healed; soon after, he was freed from his disease.(31) Macarius was asked to change a horse back into the woman it used to be. He blessed water and continually poured it on the horse's head. When he finally made the woman appear, he told her this had happened because she had not attended mass in five weeks.(32)

Women were also known to live as hermits in the desert. Many wealthy women freed their slaves and ran away to live a monastic life because they hated their decadent lifestyles and were sick of staying in loveless marriages. St. Jerome is said to have convinced numerous women from the Roman nobility to enter a life of monasticism. In The Lausiac History, Palladius has a large number of anecdotes about women monks. An ascetic named Elias built a large monastery for women and provided them with all the necessities.(33) Pachomius founded a monastery at Tabennisi for men and later built one across the river for women that housed four hundred. The men supplied them with food and other staples.(34) Palladius mentions some women saints by name, including the Roman matrons Paula, Veneria, Theodora, Hosia, Adolia, and Basianilla, among others. Much is said of a woman named Melania. She was Spanish by birth and later became a Roman citizen. At twenty-two, she found herself a wealthy widow with a son. After finding her son a trustee, she sold her possessions and went to Mount Nitria. Melania traveled around Egypt and met many of the holy men, learning everything she could from them. Later, she built a monastery in Jerusalem and lived there for twenty-seven years with fifty other women.(35)

Like their fellow brethren, these women also practiced extreme asceticism. They saw themselves as "poor in spirit"(36) and in need of redemption. Although their disciples and neighbors viewed them as quintessential holy prophets with purity and goodness flowing out of them, that is not how they saw themselves. They believed that continuous spiritual cleansing would bring them closer to God; a God, who was a real entity, not just the third dimension of the Trinity. These monastic institutions were the "wellsprings of our faith"(37) because they took the doctrines of Jesus Christ to heart, believing that the existence he advocated was possible.

Concluding Remarks

These hermits, anchorites, and monks had access to many scriptures and gospels that are now lost or survive only in fragmentary form.(38) As the Christian Church established its hierarchy and its power continued to grow, it set up the boundaries of their faith in an attempt to eradicate the Gnostic tendencies of their religion. The Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. decided which books and religious works that were acceptable, and which ones weren't. The monks of the Egyptian deserts were so far away from the seat of Christian authority that they were in many ways exempt from the day-to-day decisions of the bishops. They continued to read the works that described Jesus in an unorthodox light and attributed a more human quality to him. He was seen as a mystical and spiritual man. By keeping these works in their canon, they retained a far more pure and down-to-earth view of Jesus Christ.

Around these desert communities, rich and lush landscapes took shape through the hard work and love the monks put in. Some cities actually sprang up around these "Gardens in the Sand."(39) They had entered a hostile environment with God as their only possession, and had proved themselves to be true believers in their religion. It was one thing to go to mass on Sunday and try to live a Christian life, but it was quite another to dedicate your life to God and believe in him so completely that your daily survival relied on his existence. They proved that a world of religion, peace, and love could exist and survive even when up against such powerful resistance (physical, political, economic, social, and emotional); one that was based on democracy and equality. These mystics took hope and the possibility that God existed and cemented it into a reality they continually demonstrated by their very survival. How else could they have lived so far past the average mortality rates of the time, with so few comforts and so much deprivation? Their comfort was God. Their grace, love, and spirituality influenced men like St. Augustine, Basil, and others, whose lives gave hope to humanity throughout the darkness of the Middle Ages.(40)

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1Peter F. Anson. The Call of the Desert. (London: S.P.C.K., 1973), p. 5.

2St. Jerome. Life of St. Paul, as translated by Charles Kingsley, in The Hermits. (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1905), p. 85.


4James Wellard. Desert Pilgrimage: Journeys to the Egyptian and Sinai Deserts. (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd.), 1970, p. 52.

5Ibid., p. 48.


7St. Jerome. Life of St. Paul, pp. 85-94.

8Charles Kingsley. The Hermits. (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1905), p. 30.

9Wellard, p. 12.

10Kingsley, p. 21.

11Athanasius of Alexandria. Life of St. Antony, as translated by Charles Kingsley, pp. 20-31.



14Tim Vivian. Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt. (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993), pp. 33.

15Athanasius, pp. 70-81.

16Wellard, p. 76.


18Ibid., p. 53.


20Anson, p. 11.

21Palladius. The Lausiac History, as translated by Robert T. Meyer in Ancient Christian Writers. (London: The Newman Press, 1965), pp. 1-19.

22Ibid., p. 59.

23Ibid., p. 89.

24Ibid., p. 90.

25Athanasius, p. 79.

26Ibid., p. 83.

27Palladius, p. 171.

28Ibid., p. 59.

29Ibid., p. 116.

30Ibid., p. 64.

31Athanasius, p. 58.

32Palladius, p. 59.

33Ibid., p. 133.

34Ibid., p. 92.

35Ibid., p. 123.

36Ibid., p. 10.

37Wellard, p. 205.

38Ibid., pp. 62-71.

39Vivian, p. 13.

40Wellard, p. 205.


Anson, Peter F. The Call of the Desert. London: S.P.C.K., 1973.

Athanasius of Alexandria. Life of St. Antony, translated by Charles Kingsley.

Kingsley, Charles. The Hermits. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1905.

Meyer, Robert T. Ancient Christian Writers. London: The Newman Press, 1965.

Palladius, as translated by Robert Meyer.

St. Jerome, translated by Charles Kingsley.

Vivian, Tim. Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993.

Wellard, James. Desert Pilgrimage. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1970.

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