The monks of Palestine throughout the 400’s and beyond played a critical role in guiding the early church in Jerusalem and the surrounding region. While these monks valued solitude and contemplative practices, they also traveled throughout the desert, converted bedouins, and ministered to anyone they encountered.
While some of these monks lived in solitude as hermits, many began to welcome guests who came to them for advice. They also began small communities who gathered for worship together from time to time. Two of these monks were particularly sought out for advice and took up writing letters to the neighboring churches. From Christian History:
“By the sixth century, monasticism in Gaza was thriving, primarily due to the reputation of two elders, Barsanuphius the Great (“the great old man”) and John the Prophet (“the other old man”). The first was from Egypt; the latter was possibly from the region of Beersheba. From the seclusion of their cells, these two elders communicated with visitors only by letters dictated through secretaries. Barsanuphius and John were not eccentric miracle-workers, extreme ascetics, or charming visionaries, but practical advisers. They offered teaching, encouragement, and hope to people in their day-to-day struggles: “Simple advice according to God is one thing; a command is another. Advice is counsel without compulsion.”
Some 850 examples of their remarkable correspondence survive, written in response to questions from church leaders, monks, and laypeople about issues ranging from personal temptation to interpersonal relations, from employment to property, from spirituality to superstition, from dealing with heretics to taking a bath! The letters were filled with encouragement: “Rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord!”
Is there a wilderness that you’re facing today?
Where have you found joy this week?