Volume 10, Issue 1, Spring 1988
Susan Power Bratton
The Original Desert Solitaire
Early Christian Monasticism and Wilderness
Roderick Nash’s conc1usion in Wilderness and the American Mind that St. Francis “stood alone in a posture of humility and respect before the natural world” is not supported by thorough analysis of monastic literature. Rather St. Francis stands at the end of a thousand-year monastic tradition. Investigation of the “histories” and sayings of the desert fathers produces frequent references to the environment, particularly to wildlife. In stories about lions, wolves, antelopes, and other animals, the monks sometimes exercise spiritual powers over the animals, but frequently the relationship is reciprocal: the monks provide for the animals and the animals provide for the monks. This literature personifies wild animals and portrays them as possessing Christian virtues. The desert monk is portrayed as the “new Adam” living at peace with creation. Some of the literature is anti-urban, with the city treated as a place of sin, the desert a place of purification. The wildemess functions much as a monk’s cell, providing freedom from worldly concems and a solitary place for prayer and contemplation. The monks’ relationship to the desert is evidence of their spiritual progress.