- Disciples of the Desert: Monks, Laity, and Spiritual Authority in Sixth-Century Gaza
Sixth-century Gaza was a thriving commercial center, a crossroads between Palestine and Egypt. On its outskirts, in the desert, the important monastery of Tawatha also flourished, largely as a result of its unusual leadership. The correspondence of Barsanuphius (who was known as the Great Old Man), John (who became known as the Other Old Man), and Seridos the Abbot allows a glimpse into how the institution came to function so well. Barsanuphius and John were anchorites who lived in almost total seclusion. They communicated by letter with a large number of correspondents in the monastery and in the surrounding lay community as well as in the larger religious and political world. Abbot Seridos was the active head of the community and a conduit for the messages of the Old Men. The correspondence shows three wise men becoming wiser as they overcome their differences and allow a working system to develop. They carefully bring forward the clever but oversensitive young monk Dorotheos, skate around religious controversy consequent upon the Council of Chalcedon, decide which visitors come only for the food and which for spiritual guidance, welcome women visitors to public readings but are less enthusiastic about mere sightseers, and toward the end make dispositions for their own eventual succession. These patient and humane men, two of whom considered themselves to have retired from the world, held together a community that worked. Their correspondence tells us something about the world of late antiquity and something about all institutions.
Isabel Colegate is the author of A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries, and Recluses as well as several best-selling novels, including The Shooting Party, Winter Journey, The Summer of the Royal Visit, and The Orlando Trilogy.