Persecutions marked the beginnings of Christianity. But by the 4th century Christianity had received a most favored religion status in the Byzantine Empire leading many men and women to leave for the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia to try to radically live out the Gospel. These early monks were not going out to the deserts to be profitable or successful. Their work had nothing to do with numbers or results. They did not gather committees or councils around themselves to try and track trends that would lead to more converts or more income. There were no bake sales, raffles, banquets or golf tournaments. They went to the desert to pray and to worship. They would not have understood the adage, “One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work.” (Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958). These first monks were about the business of “considering things in a celebrating spirit.” They had it figured out. They didn’t plan vacations in order to come to work ready to work harder. They just lived their lives whole and complete and full of worship. And it came to be said that the deserts were littered with people living this life, wanting what they saw in men like Anthony the Great.
Anthony the Great, called “the Father of Monks,” was born in central Egypt around A.D. 251, the son of peasant farmers who were Christian. In 269 he heard the Gospel read in church and applied it to himself the words: “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor and come…” He devoted his life to asceticism and went to live in solitude. If one were to have asked Anthony why he had chosen this difficult road. I imagine he would answered, ‘for me,this is the good life.’
A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. The old man said again, “Shoot another,” and he did so. Then the old man said again, “Shoot yet again.” The hunter replied, “If I bend my bow so much it will break it.” Then the old man said to him, “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.” When he heard these words the hunter was pierced with compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened. (Ward, Benedicta SLG. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: the Alphabetical Collection, London and Oxford: Mowbray, 1975).
It has been over 60 years ago that the German thinker and author of Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper, rightly discerned, “We have a leisureless society of total work.”