In But Not of the Desert [From the Table #5]
What does it mean to be “in but not of the world”? Could it be possible that modern Christians could learn about cultural engagement from an ancient desert monk? Greg Peters, a theologian, historian, and Anglican priest (and professor in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute) gives a 40-second version of The Life of St. Anthony, and then reflects on the importance of this strange and holy man in light of the Church in modern society. Illustration by Matthew Sheean // MattSheean.Tumblr.com
I’m Greg Peters, and I basically study and write about monks and nuns. As a married man, that’s kind of ironic, but good friends who are monks and nuns they appreciate the fact that us protestants take an interest in what they do. All right, the life of Anthony. Parents die, leaves a guy some money and responsibilities for his sister, goes into church, hears the gospel go and sell all that you have.
So, he goes and sells almost all that he has. Puts his sister into a monastery. Goes back into church. It’s always dangerous to go back into church twice ’cause you never know what the gospel is gonna tell you to do. And the gospel says take no care for tomorrow, and so Anthony, although he had reserved some money, realized, uh oh, I made a mistake. Sells all that he has, puts himself under the discipleship of a local hermit, and after a training there, the flight to the desert where he spends, we’re told, 40 years, fighting against the demon.
Comes out unscathed, literally. Starts to interact with those in the outer desert again, making retreats back to the inner desert in order to return back to the world. Well, Anthony’s idiosyncrasies really come out in the fact that he lived in an abandoned fort for 40 years. By himself, I think if I remember the life correctly, It’s almost as like his disciples were throwing food over the walls just so he would have something to eat.
His shoes haven’t worn out. His clothes haven’t worn out, or anything. But, in that 40 years Anthony fights the demons, and so that’s paradigmatic of his life. And it’s the demons of loss, it’s the demons of pride. He’s boxing with these satanic figures. I mean the life reports that people could hear the screams, both of Anthony and these demons. We’re drawn to that I think, because the thought of that supernatural world being that tangible, is quite foreign to a lot of us, but I think at the main time too, it is, it’s teaching us something that these things are real.
And even though they might not manifest themselves, you know, stereotypically to the man, as a beautiful woman, the fact is, those temptations are there. And a lot of people talk as if the story stopped there. He moved to the desert, he wrestled with the demons, and that’s the life of Anthony. The thing is Anthony always had a vision for you go into the desert you, and in his case he has the inner and the outer desert.
You go into the inner desert to, sure, fight with the demons, and to face your own sinfulness and mortality. But, you do that for the purpose of coming back into, what’s called the outer desert, and interacting with people who would come to that location to learn from Anthony, and to be taught by him. And so, in this case, you know, its monastics, which would draw to the desert, for the purpose of returning, and helping people on the journey ’cause not everyone is called to [laughing] go to the desert. But yet the wisdom that’s learned in the desert is certainly applicable to all people.
It’s a common understanding from the gospel, that we should be in the world, but not of the world, and so when you read someone like Anthony, you think, oh he’s fleeing the world, he’s not really engaged in it. It could even be egotistical, self-centered, narcissistic. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think, first of all, culture extends to all places, so even in the desert there is some cultural aspect to that. But more importantly, Anthony does that again to get strength to come back to culture and interact with culture.
And I think that is a human sentiment, that if we’re gonna be in the world, but not of it, sometimes that means you have to retreat from it and take a break from it, to be rejuvenated, to get energy to return back to it again. Even as we think about our own interior life. I mean that interior life has to be nourished sometimes, by retreating and going deep into ourself, and finding the strength that god provides us, and then from that inner strength that god provides to come out in order to engage the world again and to be with people.
And, that’s a normal human sentiment. And the monks continue to model that for us today. And again, they’re not fleeing from the world, in fact they are actively engaged in it. I mean, for example, I have a monastic friend, who, when I get an email from him I can’t help but laugh, because it says sent from my iPhone at the bottom of the email and I have often thought you should change that Michael, it should say, sent from a public computer that I had to search for based on my poverty, but no, instead it’s sent from my iPhone.
And so again that’s the kind of culture that’s in the monastery, and I don’t think the monks would see that as divisive, but they would see that as, not even a condescension to culture, but instead a way to engage the culture and be active in the culture today. Flight from the world is a biblical concept, I mean we are told to flee from those things that tempt us, and from assenting sins. Now, Anthony may have fled for more than just those things, but let’s even grant the fact that his initial flight was one of rejection.
I think he came to see the need to, not reject those things in total, but to still be able to find a place to come back and reengage them. So, the Christian life probably should be a good balance of flight versus intentional retreat. ‘Cause that just seems necessary, and healthy. [rattling]