Monasticism within the desert began as a “reform” movement in reaction to Constantine’s peace. Some saw the Christianizing of the Roman Empire as a good thing whereas others disagreed. Justo Gonzalez summarizes saying, “How was one to be a true Christian in such circumstances? When the church joins the powers of the world, when luxury and ostentation take hold of Christian altars, when the whole of society is intent on turning the narrow path into a wide avenue, how is one to resist the enormous temptations of the times?…Many found an answer in the monastic life: to flee from human society, to leave everything behind, to dominate the body and its passions, which give way to temptation.” The desert fathers embraced asceticism and fled the world for Jesus. Asceticism is essentially denying yourself of the physical pleasures of this world in order to enhance your spiritual life (Col. 2:18, 23). Scripture calls all believers to a God-centered life of self-denial. It is not just for the monks. The roots of monasticism lie in the moderate asceticism found in the New Testament.
Classic Christian spirituality reflects the enduring influence of early desert spirituality most in the seriousness and structure of the endeavor. The desert fathers did not flee to the wilderness to avoid spiritual battle. They like their Lord were led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1). They went out to battle and knew that no struggle would lead to victory without a stout, well-ordered pursuit of God throughout the day. Much of Christian devotional writing is centered on the nurturing and developing of a real, mystical relationship with the Lord through his Spirit as we fight against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. We are “in Christ” and indwelled by his Spirit to commune with him and extend his kingdom. Such activities do not merely happen haphazardly but are the result of activity, deliberate moves toward God through prayer, meditation, Bible reading, contemplation, fasting, and other disciplines. Like the “Life on Anthony” was for Augustine, the practices of the desert fathers can encourage us onward to deeper faithfulness in the devoted life. The “rules” that much of the monastic orders were built around serve as paradigmatic manuals for individual pursuits of God. Form and structure are not adversative against a true walk with God but a part of it.
An aim of a lot of devotional literature is to dissolve the sacred/secular split in favor of seeing all of life (and daily activities associated with it) as being lived before the face of God. The work of the desert fathers in translating texts, feeding the poor, serving their brothers, and ministering to others through prayer is all done unto the Lord. Gonzalez writes, “Their [the desert monks] life was extremely simple. Some planted gardens, but most earned their living weaving baskets and mats that they then traded for bread and oil. Apart from the ready availability of reeds, this occupation had the advantage that while weaving once could pray, recite a psalm, or memorize a portion of Scripture.” All of work and all of life are and can be done with and for God. Such themes of simplicity and work done unto the Lord are prevalent throughout classic devotional writings (e.g. Brother Lawrence’s “Practice of the Presence of God”).
The influence of desert spirituality is far reaching. Mark Noll writes, “The breadth and depth of monastic influence in the church can be sketched quickly by observing the lineage of attitudes and actions that have been approved by almost all Christians everywhere. If we read the Scripture in our native languages, we benefit from a tradition of biblical translation inspired by the monk Jerome (ca. 342-420). If we sing together the praises of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we follow where the hymn-writing monks Gregory (ca. 540-604) and Bernard of Clairvaux led the way. If we pursue theology, we inevitably find ourselves indebted to the monks Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (ca.1225-74). If we pray for the success of Christian missions, we ask for blessing upon enterprises pioneered by the monks Patrick (ca. 390-ca. 460), Boniface (680-754), Cyril (826-69) and his brother Methodius (ca. 815-85), and Raymond Lull (ca.1233-ca. 1315). If we are interested in the past record of Christianity in English-speaking areas of the world, we cultivate a historical concern begun by a monk, the Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735). If we glory in the goodness that God imparted to the created world, we follow where the friar Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) blazed the trail.” Dispossession, solitude, and austerity were pillars of spirituality for the desert fathers. This kind of life is viewed as a constant struggle for self-knowledge and self-purification which is evident throughout the centuries in classic devotional literature.