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In Search of Authentic Faith

Why did so many thousands flee the Church of the fourth century?

The Church Captive (3)

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. 
Romans 12.2

“This [flight to the deserts] was given a further impetus with the end of persecution at the beginning of the fourth century under the first Christian emperor, Constantine, when the church, as a recognized and legal institution, began to turn world-forsaking Christians into respectable citizens of this world. Many who found the new ways of Christian life alien knew themselves called to continue to live in an eschatological dimension that they could now only find outside the cities.”

 - Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers

Loss of reality
Toward the middle of the third century, the sense began to be widespread among many Christians that the Church was drifting from the reality of authentic faith. It was becoming too structured and formal; the simple life of love for God and neighbor was being replaced by protocols and rituals; and competing theological camps gave a political aspect to the Christian movement that many found distasteful.

Slowly, believers began retreating from what had become a normal Christian life, to the deserts, where they pursued simple lives individually and in small groups. They followed rigid disciplines, and concentrated on seeking the Lord in prayer and service to others. After the peace granted by Constantine, the trickle became a steady flow, as the sense of unreality about the faith spread and became more distinct. By the end of the fourth century, tens of thousands of devoted believers had walked away from the established churches to seek the authentic faith of Christ in the deserts of the Roman world.

Among these were some of the greatest thinkers of Christian history, including Cassian, Jerome, and Augustine. This movement toward an authentic faith was celebrated by leaders in the established Church, as we see in Athanasius’ Life of Anthony. So highly were these believers esteemed by those in the Church, that their sayings were collected and distributed throughout Christendom, where believers adopted many of their ways.

The loss of reality in Christian faith and life came about like the proverbial frog in the pan of eventually boiling water – gradually, comfortably, and unrecognized. The great creeds of the third and fourth century professed the orthodox faith in clear and undeniable forms; but the reality of the simple, disciplined life of loving God and neighbor eluded many. 

The loss of Christian reality had come about as the ways of the pagan world crept into the Church, unrecognized. The desert fathers – and mothers – wanted something more. They wanted to escape what they regarded as an increasingly trivialized Christianity, to seek God and serve their neighbors out of a simple life of prayer, meditation, austere living, good works, and ready witness.

At least three motivations incited believers to retreat to the desert, and in samples from their many sayings, we may discern a perception that the churches of the Roman world had fallen into a form of captivity.[1]

The seduction of the world
For many of those who fled to the desert, remaining in the Church meant giving in to the seductions of the world, in particular, to the allure of things and prestige. An observation from the hermit Sisosis illustrates the temptation to worldliness presented which was increasing in certain churches: “A brother asked Sisosis, ‘What am I to do? When I go to church, love for the brothers often makes me stay to the meal afterwards.’ Sisosis said to him, ‘That is burdensome.’ Abraham his disciple said to him, ‘If in the meeting after church on Saturday and Sunday, a brother drinks three cups of wine, is it a lot?’ The hermit said, ‘If there were no Satan, it would not be much.’” Fleeing to the desert was a way of avoiding the lusts of the flesh, which, according to Theonas, could take a believer captive.

The nun Syncletica counseled, “The pleasures and riches of the world must not attract you as if they were of any use to you.” Cassian said of the former senator Syncleticus that he “renounced the world, and divided his property among the poor. But he kept some for his own use, and so he showed that he was unwilling to accept either the poverty of those who renounce everything or the normal rule of monasteries. Basil of blessed memory said to him, ‘You have stopped being a senator, but you have not become a monk.’” “Evagrius said, “Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind being dispersed and your stillness lost.”

The desire for fame or recognition was also to be avoided. “Poemen said, ‘If a monk hates two things, he can be free of this world.’ A brother inquired, ‘What are they?’ He said, ‘Bodily comfort and conceit.’” Monks typically refused to see visitors who had come merely to shower them with praise. It was said of Arsenius and Theodore of Pherme that “they hated fame and praise more than anything.” 

Spiritual laxity
The desert fathers also sought to be free of the many distractions of everyday life in the Christian world. In the minds of many of them, the Church had become active in many things, but deficient in the disciplines which train the soul and bring the body into captivity to Christ, rather than to the world. The desert fathers were renowned for the austerity of their lives and the zeal with which they practiced spiritual disciplines. They saw the practice of spiritual disciplines in an eschatological sense, as Benedicta Ward observed in the opening quote, and as we can see here: “In the desert some people came to a great hermit and said, ‘How can you be content here with this severe way of life?’ The hermit replied, ‘All the severity of my life here cannot compare with a day of the torment prepared for sinners in the next world.’” 

The desert fathers were greatly admired for their practice of such disciplines as fasting, solitude, and extended prayer. Many of them could not read; still, they committed large sections of Scripture to memory, and reflected on them often. They understood the importance of shaping their minds for Christ: “Evagrius said, ‘A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody and long-suffering and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run.’

Seeking the Lord
Finally, the desert fathers became concerned that churches were so busy seeking orthodox doctrine and legal and liturgical exactness, that they had lost sight of the need to seek God above all. Agatho denied the charge that he was a heretic because that would mean that he was separated from God, and, he said, “I don’t want to be separated from God.” “A brother asked Arsenius to give him advice. He said to him, ‘As far as possible, try hard to make your inner progress as God would have it, and by this overcome the passions of the body.’ He also said, ‘If we seek God, He will appear to us; if we grasp Him, He will stay with us.’”

The desert fathers of the third and fourth centuries believed that they could be helped on their way in loving God and their neighbors by fleeing from churches that had become too materialistic, competitive, routinized, comfortable, and lax in spiritual life. They would have said that the Church of their day had become captive to the ways of the world, with which an easy peace had been forged.

Searching for reality?
Some would say the same today, and a call for recovering the austere and renewing life of monastic retreat has received widespread notice. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Optioncalls the Church to wake up to its worldly captivity and look to the ancient paths for renewal in the reality of faith. His book has been widely reviewed, and discussed and debated in many Christian circles. Dreher explains his motivation: “Over the last decade, I have been writing on and off about the Benedict Option, but it never took off outside a relatively small circle of Christian conservatives. Meanwhile the Millennial generation began to abandon the church in numbers unprecedented in U.S. history. And they almost certainly did not know what they were discarding: new social science research indicated that young adults are almost entirely ignorant of the teachings and practices of the historical Christian faith.”[2]

Does all the buzz around the Benedict Option indicate that the Church today is captive? Are we in need of some key to unlock the shackles of worldliness that are keeping us from the simplicity and reality that are in Christ?

The fashion of this world is groveling and worthless, and temporal as well. It has nothing noble or uplifting about it but is wholly perverted. The second part [of the verse] may mean either that we should be renewed, in order to learn what is expedient for us, or that if we learn what is expedient for us we shall be renewed.

  - John Chrysostom (344-407 AD), Homilies on Romans 20

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).

[1]All quotes from Benedicta Ward,  The Desert Fathers (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[2]Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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