Last semester I had the opportunity to study the monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Judea and Syria between the third and the seventh century. I enjoyed stepping into the fascinating world of desert monastics. Although I have no desire to run off into the desert forsaking everything, I did come to appreciate how thoroughly monastic theology permeated every aspect of their life. For the monastics, theology was inextricably connected with the physically tangible. Today, even fifteen hundred years later, they continue to teach us about the importance of this connection.
Allowing theology to bleed into our surroundings is not merely artistic or aesthetic. It is a practical application of our faith. Our head knowledge is already so intertwined with the work of our hands, with the places our feet go, and with what our mouths say. James talks about the necessity of this connection, saying that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). Furthermore, action is never detached from physical space. For example, if you want to work out, then you need to alter your physical space by going to a gym or buying equipment to work out at home. At some point, our physical space must change if we are to fully carry theology into action.
Monks took great steps to apply their theology in tangible ways. For them, this meant a primary focus on the relationship between the spiritual and the physical. Monastics leaned into the tension between pursuing the spiritual and how this pursuit was intrinsically tied to the physical world.
The monastic men and women surrendered all ties to civilization, giving up money, possessions, family, and more. In a time when family and community were the keys to survival, the monks renounced them all in favor of pursuing God alone. Many times, monks received gifts from their families while in the monasteries. Others kept up intensive letter-writing campaigns with the nearby community (Hevelone-Harper 21). The monks desired to dedicate themselves fully to God and also interact with the world, which manifested itself in the cities, roads, churches, wells, homes, and gardens they built.
An important goal for monkish architecture was to orient the physical realm to serve the spiritual. This relationship was explored in their sleeping quarters, churches, and refectories (just to name a few). The physical was often oriented towards the spiritual practice of prayer.
Despite their many ascetic practices, monks still had to do things like sleep and seek protection from the weather. Their cells were thusly “designed for quiet and prayer” (Gabra 21). Generally, the monastic cell had two rooms, one for prayer and one for sleeping, with the door attached to the prayer room (Magad and Moussa 163). The room was not fundamentally special in decor. Instead, it was special because of its greater purpose. Regardless of the type of community, as “the center of monastic life,” the cell was always present (Gabra 31). Anytime a monk wanted to interact with the outside world, by either leaving the cell or by welcoming a visitor in, they had to go through their prayer room. This simple layout reflected a prioritization of the spiritual but also an orientation of the physical towards the spiritual. In an extremely practical space, the monks prioritized rest and connection to God. By using the prayer room as the room which the outside world would enter into, the monks used space to reflect their theology.
What should one take away from the desert monks? I do not think it should necessarily be to build a prayer room. We should take their example as an encouragement to apply our theology to our own physical spaces. More specifically, their example of placing a room dedicated to prayer between them and the outside world is something to consider. Spending time with God is essential for the Christian. It is good practice to set aside space to meet with God. For me, this looks like keeping my Bible by the end of my bed, as most of my time with God happens there. It has not guaranteed my faithfulness, but it has allowed me to fall into a rhythm of spending time with God.
The monks desired a deeper relationship with God, and so they journeyed into the desert. They longed to spend time with Him and Him alone. If we profess God as true and holy, then we should desire to have the same fervency as the monks.