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'Christ in the Desert'--A Response

In a recent issue of The American Benedictine Review, David N. Bell offered a searching critique of early Christian monasticism and found it severely deficient in a number of ways. He points out that the monks of the fourth and fifth century were not perfect and warns those of us who admire the early monastic mothers and fathers not to succumb either to William of Saint Thierry"s “nostalgic” vision of the desert which, Bell believes, was only “a desert of his dreams,” or to the “hyperbole” of some modern authors who view the Christianity of the desert ammas and abbas as “true” or “optimum” Christianity (394, 382). Bell is quite right; these are salutary warnings. The myth of a golden age has been with us probably as long as we have had historical consciousness (examples may be found in Homer and Hesiod; Americans have mythologized the “founding fathers” of the United States) and most of us tend to idealize the past. Christians are no exception to this tendency, as witnessed in the wide belief in an ahistorical, and non-existent, “New Testament Christianity.” Scholars and monks, too, Bell rightly reminds us, are not immune from nostalgia.

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