The desert monk's guide to holiday gift buying

Let's say you live in the fourth century in one of the desert monastic communities. What would your Christmas shopping look like? And what might the desert monks have to say about our gift buying today? Whose side would Jesus be on?

First off, let's get hold of the desert monk's attitude toward creature comforts. They lived in small one-room quarters that were often carved out of rock. They wore skins and simple clothing. They ate little and fasted often. What would they ask for at Christmastime? Probably a book, since books cost a fortune and many monastic communities shared just a handful of them. Other than that, the desert monk's attitude at Christmas would be starkly different from ours.

It all depends on one's perspective and priorities.

Historian John Chryssavgis notes that the whole point of life in the desert was for people to free themselves of the trappings of the world so they could pursue God wholeheartedly. To go from our lifestyle to theirs would cause convulsions of withdrawal because we overload our bodies and our systems with far too much. Speaking of St. Antony, the most famous of the desert dwellers, Chryssavgis writes,
Our culture teaches us that the more we have, the better we are; Antony's taught him that the less he had, the more he was! We are carrying so much baggage, so many preoccupations and concerns, such great loads that walking freely with God looks frightening, unfamiliar, and painful. And our natural response is to resist change; it simply seems crazy to us. "Abba Antony said: A time is coming when people will go insane. And when they see someone who is not insane, they will attack that person saying: 'You are crazy; you are not like us.'"
As I write this, I am grieving the extra sponginess in my belt line that comes from overloading my body with too much. Someone like Antony would warn me to ruthlessly root out anything that pulls me to make life revolve around myself instead of God. Lest we rule out someone like Antony as a misguided ascetic, Jesus said similar things.

The desert monks would tell us we are crazy if our Christmas gift-giving causes our loved ones to become more self-centered or materialistic. They would warn us that possessions weigh down one who is seeking God all-out. Maybe they are crazy.

All I know is this: If it is true that the less we have, the more we are, then I want to rethink Christmas.


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