When our Lord was about to begin his ministry, he went into the desert. Our Lord had options but he selected—or rather, "was lead by the Spirit," into the desert. It is obviously not a meaningless action, not a selection of type of place without significance. And there—in the desert—our Lord engages in spiritual combat, for he "fasted forty days and forty nights." TheGospel of St. Mark adds that our Lord "was with the wild beasts." Our Lord, the God-Man, was truly God and truly man. Exclusive of our Lord’s redemptive work, unique to our Lord alone, he calls us to follow him. "Following" our Lord is not exclusionary; it is not selecting certain psychologically pleasing aspects of our Lord’s life and teachings to follow. Rather it is all-embracing. We are to follow our Lord in every way possible. "To go into the desert" is "to follow" our Lord. It is interesting that our Lord returns to the desert after the death of St. John the Baptist. There is an obvious reason for this. "And hearing [of John the Baptist’s death] Jesus departed from there in a ship to a desert place privately" When St. Antony goes to the desert, he is "following" the example of our Lord—indeed, he is "following" our Lord. This in no way diminishes the unique, salvific work of our Lord, this in no way makes of our Lord God, the God-Man, a mere example. But in addition to his redemptive work, which could be accomplished only by our Lord, our Lord taught and set examples.
And by "following" our Lord into the desert, St. Antony was entering a terrain already targeted and stamped by our Lord as a specific place for spiritual warfare. There is both specificity and "type" in the "desert." In those geographical regions where there a no deserts, there are places which are similar to or approach that type of place symbolized by the "desert." It is that type of place which allows the human heart solace, isolation. It is the type of place which puts the human heart in a state of aloneness, a state in which to meditate, to pray, to fast, to reflect upon one’s inner existence and one’s relationship to ultimate reality—God.
And more. It is a place where spiritual reality is intensified, a place where spiritual life can intensify and simultaneously where the opposing forces to spiritual life can become more dominant. It is the terrain of a battlefield but a spiritual one. And it is our Lord, not St. Antony, who as set precedent. Our Lord says that "as for what is sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceit of riches choke(s) the word, and it becomes unfruitful." The desert, or a place similar, precisely cuts off the cares or anxieties of the world and the deception, the deceit of earthly riches. It cuts one off precisely from "this worldliness" and precisely as such it contains within itself a powerful spiritual reason for existing within the spiritual paths of the Church. Not as the only path, not as the path for everyone, but as one, fully authentic path of Christian life.
PERFECTION, ALMSGIVING, PRAYER, FASTING, AND CHASTITY
In monastic and ascetical literature from the earliest Christian times the word and idea of "perfect" are often confronted. The monk seeks perfection, the monk wants to begin to become established on the path that may lead to perfection. But is this the result of monasticism? Is it the monastic and ascetical tendencies in early Christianity which bring forth the idea of perfection, which bring forth the idea of spiritual struggle and striving? It is our Lord, not the monks, who injects the goal of perfection into the very fabric of early Christian thought. In theGospel of St. Matthew (5:48) our Lord commands: "Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"
Traditional monastic and ascetical life has included among its activities almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Were these practices imposed upon an authentic Christianity by monasticism or were they incorporated into monastic and ascetical life from original Christianity? In the Gospel of St. Matthew it is once again our Lord and Redeemer who has initiated almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Our Lord could very easily have abolished such practices. But rather than abolish them, our Lord purifies them, gives them their correct status within the spiritual life which is to do them but to attach no show, no hypocrisy, no glory to the doing of them. It is proper spiritual perspective that our Lord commands. "Take heed that you do not your righteousness before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward with your Father in heaven" (6:1). Therefore, when you do alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be glorified by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you are doing alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who is seeing in secret will reward you" (6:2-4). And prayer is commanded to be done in a similar manner to ensure its spiritual nature. At this juncture our Lord instructs his followers to use the "Lord’s Prayer," a prayer that is so simple yet so profound, a prayer that contains within it the glorification of the name of God, a prayer that contains within it the invoking of the coming of the kingdom of God, a prayer that acknowledges that the will of God initiates everything and that without the will of God man is lost. It is a prayer of humility in that it asks for nothing beyond daily sustenance. It is a prayer of human solidarity in forgiveness, for it asks God to forgive us only as we forgive others, and in this a profound reality of spiritual life is portrayed, a life that unites man with God only as man is also united with other persons, with mankind, in forgiveness. And then there is the prayer to be protected from temptation and, if one falls into temptation, the prayer to be delivered from it. So short, so simple, yet so profound both personally and cosmically.
Is monasticism a distortion of authentic Christianity because the monks recite the Lord’s Prayer at the instruction of and command of our Lord? If monasticism used free, spontaneous prayer, then it could be faulted for not having "followed" our Lord’s command. But that is not the case. Is monasticism a deviation because of the frequent use of the Lord’s Prayer? Our Lord was specific: when praying, pray this. It does not preclude other prayers but prominence and priority is to be given to the Lord’s Prayer. Indeed, it is certainly foreign to our Lord to restrict the frequency of prayer. The "vain repetitions," or more accurately in the Greek, the prohibition of "do not utter empty words as the gentiles, for they think that in their much speaking they will be heard." This is in essence different than our Lord’s intention. And our Lord says more on this subject, a subject considered of importance to him. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (9:15) our Lord makes the point that when he is taken way, then his disciples will fast. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (17:21) our Lord explains to his disciples that they were unable to cast out the devil because" this kind goes out only by prayer and fasting." This verse, it is true, is not in all the ancient manuscripts. It is, however, in sufficient ancient manuscripts and, moreover, it is contained in theGospel of St. Mark (9:29). It is obvious that our Lord assigns a special spiritual efficacy to prayer and fasting.
Chastity is a monastic and ascetic goal. Not only an external celibacy but an inner chastity of thought. Is this too something imposed upon authentic, original Christianity by a Hellenistic type of thinking or is it contained within the original deposit of apostolic and Biblical Christianity? Again it is our Lord who lays down the path of celibacy and chastity. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (19:10-12) the disciples ask our Lord whether it is expedient to marry. "Not all men can receive this saying but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to grasp it, let him grasp it." The monastic and ascetical goal merely "follows" the teaching of our Lord. Original Christianity never imposed celibacy. It was, precisely as our Lord has stated, only for those to whom it was given, only to those who might be able to accept such a path. But the path was an authentically Christian path of spirituality laid down by our Lord. In early Christianity not even priests and bishops were required to be celibate. It was a matter of choice. Later the Church thought it wise to require celibacy of the bishops. But in Eastern Christianity celibacy has never been required of one becoming a priest. The choice to marry or to remain celibate had to be made before ordination. If one married before ordination, then one was required to remain married, albeit the ancient Church witnessed exceptions to this. If one was not married when one was ordained, then one was required to remain celibate. The Roman Church, not the Eastern Orthodox Church, extended the requirement of celibacy to priests and had a very difficult time attempting to enforce it throughout the ages. One can never force forms of spirituality upon a person and expect a spiritually fruitful result. The words of our Lord resound with wisdom—to those to whom it is given, to those who can live in this form of spirituality.
(THE ASCETIC IDEAL AND THE NEW TESTAMENT -F. George Florovsky)