What’s Up With the Desert Monks?

by | Oct 29, 2006 | The Great American Desert

One of my test readers suggests that it might be a good idea to write up a brief history of the desert monk movement, and tack it onto the end of the novel: something to help out my readers who’ve somehow managed to muddle through their lives so far without a thorough understanding of this odd chapter of religious history.  Not a bad idea.  Maybe that’ll be part of the ‘director’s cut’ version, or maybe I’ll take it up as a blog topic one of these days.  For now, I’d like to talk about how the monks got so involved in the story in the first place, but the truth is that I really can’t remember.

As a student of history and philosophy in college, I read more than my fair share of religious history and thought.  When you study the Middle Ages, you can’t help but learn something about the monks and monasteries that preserved the intellectual legacy of Greece and Rome.  I managed to miss out, though, on the early Christian ascetic tradition.  When it came to that sort of thing, I was much more interested in what was going on in India, China, and Japan.  But somehow or other, after college, I picked up either Elaine Pagels’ book The Gnostic Gospels or Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers.  I don’t recall now which one I read first, but whichever one it was got me intrigued with the early history of Christianity, before the bureaucrats turned a creative ferment into dogma.

What got me hooked was that I was finding, in the writings of the desert monks, some of the very same ideas that had attracted me to characters like Lao-tzu and to my personal favorite among religious traditions, Zen Buddhism.  So I got ever more involved in the study of the Christian monks, and somewhere along the way they became a part of the story that eventually became The Great American Desert.

Now that I’ve written that down, I realize that I do know more about how that happened.  It was Saint Antony’s fault.  The more I read about Saint Antony, the more parallels I saw between his story and that of my protagonist: the most obvious ones being that both grew up on farms and that both were traumatized by the deaths of their parents.  My protagonist was already obsessed with history to the point of not being able to participate fully in the here and now, and I saw that giving him the puzzle of his name’s origin would help to focus that obsession.