Rosenstock-Huessy recognizes Anthony, Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine as pioneers who created new pathways for their followers to track. Anthony was crucial, and if Rosenstock-Huessy is to be believed, we owe much of the world we know to his initiative ( Religion, Redemption and Revolution: The New Speech Thinking Revolution of Franz Rozenzweig and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy , 209-10).

Like many, Rosenstock examines Anthony’s contribution in the light of Constantine’s empire. As Cristaudo explains, it provided “a potential counterbalance to imperial corruption. By going into the desert, Anthony and ‘his successor monks served the same God in the desert as the Christians in Rome, or Byzantium.’ God live there , in the desert, not just in the empire.” Anthony and his disciples were thus a standing challenge to any notion that the empire was Christianity and Christianity the empire. The fact that the church embraced both Constantine (and his successors) and Anthony is crucial. The church was not identical to the empire, but neither was it limited to the desert hermits.

Rosenstock suggestively compares the monks with tribes:

“Like the peoples of tribes, the monks were free to wander unencumbered by the city’s protective walls. But . . . unlike tribal peoples, those monks were also off the track of the warpath . . . . The monks were unarmed and - again like the peoples of tribes, who are governed and guided by the spirits of the ancestors - they followed the precarious and unknown trails of the ‘Holy Spirit,’ driven by their faith in God’s love.” What is more astonishing is not simply the retreat but the fact that eventually “the most powerful people on earth would look to such people and the cells and wildernesses they inhabited for their own spiritual direction” (this is all Cristaudo’s summary).

The fact that the church embraced empire and wilderness meant that the distinctions between “habitat and bush, between the inhabitable land and Unland . . . progressively disappeared. Increasingly the tribal warriors learned to abandon the safety of the wilderness around their huts. Thus increasingly the settlements in what had hitherto been waste land became the norm; this ‘inner colonization’ thus wore down the borders and boundaries and transformed the no man’s land into the best land. The next centuries saw the disappearance of the great demarcations between one people and another.” Rosenstock gives an impressive list of borderland that became opened up for settlement by the high middle ages, inspired by monks for whom “Anthony’s faith was still alive.”

What might appear a retreat from history ends up as something quite other - the creation of new space and new history. This, Rosenstock thinks, is precisely the mission that the church has, and it’s a mission that it accomplishes only by embracing both the city and the wilderness.

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart