In the fourth century, as Constantine’s policy of toleration allowed the Church to emerge from the catacombs and a growing number of people joined the ranks of what was becoming an increasingly influential institution, the perceived loss of fervor among rank and file believers led a few committed Christians in Egypt and Palestine to leave behind their lives in the world, withdrawing into the desert and pursuing a life of stillness and prayer. W. Harmless’ Desert Christians is one of a series of recent studies exploring the legacy of a movement, which left an indelible mark on the development of Christian spirituality, and whose radical countercultural nature continues to inspire and fascinate fifteen centuries after its apogee. More ambitious in scope than Chryssavgis’ similar venture In the Heart of the Desert, this work opens with an overview of the theological controversies of the time, surveying the history of the Arian crisis and the ancestry of the Christological settlement of Chalcedon, while also charting the emergence of the Alexandrian Patriarchate as the leading power in the Egyptian church (pp. 30-43). The reader is then introduced to the main themes of Athanasius’ Life of Antony, whose inspiring, albeit rather imaginative portrayal of the father of desert spirituality was imitated for centuries by Christian hagiographers in the East and in the West. Antony’s rigorous asceticism, modeled on the prophet Elijah (p. 70) is contrasted with the more communitarian approach to the spiritual life found in the Life of Pachomius, whose monastic koinonia constitutes one of the earliest examples of monastic coenobitism (pp. 122-124). Harmless’ narrative integrates excerpts from a variety of primary sources that include less known manuscripts and papyri, and the impact of recent path-breaking archeological discoveries is also carefully considered.
The central part of the work is devoted to the Apophthegmata Patrum, an arresting collection of sayings on the spiritual life as well as an extraordinary anthology of edifying tales and miracles. Its publication marked “an important milestone in the literature of late antiquity” (p. 169) and its approach to asceticism and spiritual discipleship have remained central to the Christian tradition until the present day. Harmless sensitively tackles a number of important questions, such as the effective authorship of individual sayings (p. 170), the centrality of Scripture in desert spirituality against claims to the contrary (p. 244), and the virtual absence of Christological references from the extant versions of the sayings (p. 250). He also notes how the personalities of different Abbas sketched in the Lausiac History dovetails with the different spiritual approaches present in the Apophthegmata (pp. 194-211, and again pp. 284-290). The author proceeds then to explore in greater detail the thought of Evagrios Pontikos, perhaps the greatest speculative thinker among the desert fathers, and of John Cassian, who more than any other was responsible for the transmission of their teaching to the Christian West. Without being overly technical, Harmless charts the impact of the Origenist controversy on the legacy of Evagrios (pp. 359-363) and absolves John Cassian from the accusation of Pelagianism (p. 396). Discussing the role of the desert mothers, Harmless distances himself from what the tendency of what he calls “creative” contemporary scholarship to overestimate their importance and their position in society, though he admits that the phenomenon of female monasticism was substantially underreported (p. 440). The last part of the volume surveys the different theories that account for the birth of monasticism in the Middle East, though Harmless warns us that “reconstructing early Christian monasticism” from surviving texts and archeological sites is “inescapably difficult and necessarily tentative” (p. 448).
Harmless’s study is admirable for its breadth and clarity, which make it an excellent resource for the non-specialist reader, but also for the scholars of theology and church history wishing to explore a period, whose influence on Christian spirituality is now being rediscovered. Antony, Pachomius and the Abbas who figure in the Apophthegmata can still move us after fifteen centuries with their uncanny ability to chart the mysterious movements of the human heart, and Harmless fully succeeds in showing us the enduring relevance of their insights. The material is arranged in short sections accompanied by very detailed sets of notes and ample bibliography, while the excellent graphs and maps scattered throughout the volume help readers find their way through the myriads of authors and texts. It might have been useful perhaps to include a section on the conflicting–Stoic and Aristotelian–approaches to the role of the passions in spiritual life, as well as a more extensive appraisal of Evagrian trichotomous anthropology; equally, the theme of deification–mentioned only once on p. 358–would have deserved a more detailed discussion. Despite these minor omissions, Harmless’s study is sure to become a classic work, and should be required reading for anyone studying the history of Christian spirituality.