There were two ancient Near-Eastern customs that contributed to the development of Christian
One must remember that the distinction between the tilled and irrigated fields surrounding the
villages of Egypt and Syria was very clear. Beyond the fields was "the desert," rocky and
waterless land, with a sparse vegetation of brambles, nettles, and thornbushes, and incapable of
supporting human habitation. It was the site of caves and small springs of brackish or salty water,
abounding in poisonous snakes, lizards of all sorts, and watched over by vultures. From time
immemorial, however, men and women had left their villages to live nearby in these badlands
and to seek -- with the aid of solitude, exposure to the weather, and in hunger and thirst -- a
deeper knowledge of the universe and the role of human beings in it, and perhaps to experience a
mystic ecstacy in which they felt themselves united with the universe and its god.
Such people, hermits [a word that comes from
, or "desert," and meaning "desert
dwellers"], were regarded by the local villagers as holy men. They would take offerings of food
to the hermits near their village, and the hermits would give them wise advise. Some hermits
subjected themselves to rather extreme forms of self punishment to drive out cravings for
worldly things, and the villagers, admiring such conduct, would sometimes travel long distances
to see and offer sustenance.
Associated with this custom was the popular custom of going out into the desert to seek
enlightenment, particularly when confronted with some important decision or when dissatisfied
with life in general. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Muhammad, as well as the entire Israelite people,
among many others, retreated into the desert and found the reason for their lives there.
Many early Christians went into the desert to escape the persecutions of Diocletian's reign, and
some were hunted down and martyred there, thus enhancing the idea in the minds of the early
Christians that the desert was in some special way the place to seek communion with God. With
Constantine and the rise of the Christian Church to the status of official and sole religion of the
Roman Empire, there were some who felt that the flood of new converts and the new ease of
being Christian were somehow diluting the purity and zeal of the early faith. Then, too, disputes
soon arose among Christian leaders each attempting to establish his own understanding of the
faith as the One True Doctrine. Many devout believers were unwilling to accept a world in which
faith was contaminated with bitter disputes for the power to dictate the nature of the faith and the
proper form of its practice. Some of those believers abandoned this world and retreated into the
desert to seek the foundations of faith in a more elemental manner.
One of these was a young man named Anthony (251-356), a resident of Alexandria in Egypt. He