My first semester at seminary is over and now that I'm in the Christmas break, perhaps I can find more time to write out some thoughts about this last semester. It was a good semester, by the way, rigorous in all the right ways. I found myself enjoying all my classes, even as I was challenged academically unlike I ever had been before.
I should say that my semester isn't completely over. My Church History class still has some reading requirements to make up and I'm finishing a book of stories about early figures from early Christian monasticism. Some of these stories are pretty crazy. For instance, there's St. Anthony who, it was claimed, would fight with legions of devils and bore the marks of the battles on his body. Another story about St. Anthony by a different author relates how he sought out a certain monk and, in the process of the journey, happens upon a real live centaur and, not too long after that, a satyr as well. All of the stories of these early monks relate particularly their great humility, their extremes of poverty, their devotion to Jesus, the fantastic spiritual warfare they engaged in, and the numerous miracles that followed them.
On another note, I have also had in my mind lately an article written by leading evangelical John MacArthur who challenges Christians to stand up against so-called faith healers and boldly calls some of them out. His point was that many of these men and women use God's name largely for their own gain, accruing large amounts of lucre for themselves, all the while promising wealth and healing for their followers in the name of Jesus but in the end do not really proclaim Jesus' Gospel at all.
As I read the stories from more than 1600 years ago, I began to see a connection between these desert monks and the men and women John MacArther decries today, primarily in the sensational aspect of their careers: miracles. Both the monks and the modern day miracle workers claimed exorcisms and many healings and both lived in a world defined by their battle with spiritual forces. I have no problems believing in a God who can do miracles (if you assume a God who created this world, how can you not assume a God who continues to do with Creation as He wishes?), but even I find myself feeling a bit incredulous at the claims of either party.
But that was were the similarities end. As I continue to read about the monks of the desert I don't find my credulity growing, but I do find myself growing in respect for their personal lives. Whatever I believe about their miracles, these men were humble to a fault. Jerome wrote of the monk Hilarion that he spent most of his life fleeing the effects of the miracles worked through himself. From one place to another, he would have compassion on the various ills of people who came to him asking for prayer, and when word spread of the ensuing miracles he would speed away as fast as he could to avoid the accolades and offers of recompense that would follow. Jerome said of him that "he grieved that although his tongue kept silent about himself, his miracles would not keep silent." In the end, Hilarion wanted only to be by himself in the presence of his God, and from that his power derived.
It grieves my heart that I cannot find such humility from the many people today who claim to work miracles. Far from pushing away any offered reward for these miracles, the whole theology of these false prophets revolves around getting what they want from God, showing a greed covered in false piety. Instead of a life of almost ridiculous discipline and absolute dedication to purity, this group of miracle workers is marked by a string of scandals that seem to never end.
I still think some of the miracles I read attributed to the old monks are a little weird. But I cannot deny that I wish the current crop of miracle workers looked more like them.