“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Devout Christians fled the ancient cities of Palestine to take up residence in the most remote of desert locations. These faithful individuals wanted to live lives that were unpolluted by the vices and temptations of urban life. For these faithful sojourners, sin was a disease--a sickness. It was something to avoid at all costs. To be holy and set-apart as God had directed them, they would need a change of scenery.
So they took to the wild. And the dangers and perils of the wild took to them. And people marveled at their faith, and at their courage, and at their resiliency.
These pilgrims of the third and fourth centuries would later become known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. More commonly described as hermits and monks, these faithful Christians lived solitary lives. Their accommodations were crude at best, and their sustenance was provided by God’s provisions. Stories of these desert pilgrims would grow in popularity, and it was widely believed that these hermits represented the pinnacle of faithfulness and wisdom.
Very little about this movement in Christian history sounds appealing. In fact, the lifestyles of the desert monks seem especially hard, if not outright impossible. But it is hard to deny the impression this made on other Christians of the day. Just as we get worked into a frenzy by the latest crazes in our own day and age, Christians in the early days of the church marveled in awe at the level of sincerity that these desert pilgrims exhibited.
You’ll not be surprised, then, to learn that those who were impressed by these desert monks and hermits raced out to join them. But would they be welcomed? From our vantage point, and from what we’ve been able to gather historically, these desert monks had set up shop in the wilderness to be alone and to live in solitude.
In a fun twist, however, these desert monks valued community as much as they did the solitude that they sought. In fact, it became widely understood that these desert hermits were particularly skilled at friendship. Although they spent the overwhelming majority of their time in the desert alone, they were prized for the ability to be good friends to one another. We can attribute, therefore, the growth of these desert monastic communities to the founding hermit’s giftedness for developing and nurturing friendship. The communities were assemblies of friends.
And these were not just any friendships. These friendships had depth and intimacy. Identified simply as soul friendships, these relationships between hermit and student, monk and monk, student and student became defined by their ability to hold one’s deepest secrets and inner-most thoughts and struggles. But more than that, these relationships were crucibles for transformation. These desert soul friends spoke honestly and plainly to one another. They helped one another to grow. They spoke God’s wisdom to one another and helped the other to see Christ’s gracious presence in their lives.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that kind of fellowship?
Not surprisingly, the moniker of Desert Father and Mother stuck because the leaders of these communities helped to parent and midwife the souls of others.
No, I’m not ready to suggest that we should head deeper into the mountains, eschewing our current lifestyles for the rugged simplicity of the wilderness. But I do wonder if we can learn a lesson from these ancient pioneers of the faith. They took their faith seriously and were willing to sacrifice their modern-day comforts to dedicate themselves to God. But they also became skilled community builders by developing soul friendships that would change the trajectory of other’s lives.
What would it look like if we became so good at practicing friendship that others would want to be a part of our faith community?
I think it would look like Church.