My students in Church History are well pleased with Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. I was please to revise and update the book furnishing its 4th edition. It serves, especially beginning students, very well. It gives the student stories of key events and persons in Shelley’s warm conversational style. Students also read Robert Louis Wilken’s The First One Thousand Years. As an avid Wilken reader, I knew I would admire it. Master level students have frequently enjoyed Wilken’s other works. But what about the undergraduates? They noted that the book is not as easy to read as Shelley’s, but the students sense that it is “well- written,” “deep,” and “it tells a good story.” I add “it is beautiful, artful.” It is artful because it helps the contemporary reader more fully appreciate the topic.
Two examples from the chapter on monasticism will illustrate. Wilken reviews some of the key figures of monasticism, including Anthony. Anthony and others sought to do battle in the wilderness with the demons. Wilken remembers another monk had taught that the demons “fight through people and things” when in the world, but “in the desert they assault us through our thoughts.” The desert is a place of frightening clarity. Here the demons exploit the weaknesses the monks have brought with them. Wilken reminds students it is not an easy victory. Suffering and loneliness persist. Only the slow, deliberate, and costly disciplines lead one nearer to tranquility. Wilken shows how even solitude had a dimension of service and connection with others (100-101).
Wilken also portrays Macrina, the older sister of Basil of Caesarea. Macrina influenced her brothers –three of which become bishops. She pioneered a new style of monasticism, which was inspired by her routines of prayer, a simple diet, and the work of making a home. This style seemed naturally suited for service to the community – such as the care of orphan girls. Basil’s considerable influence encouraged a more social vision for monks, which joined solitary prayer with a life engaged in service. Macrina illustrates the higher standing women enjoyed in the church. She precedes the famous women of the church, such as Catherine of Siena (104-105).
My students begin as strangers to the peculiar and distant world of monasticism. The student’s world is given to comfort needs – to embracing and enhancing pleasures. The monks’ deny themselves in order to enhance the clarity necessary for spiritual warfare. Students discern that it is the disciplined life of the monks that more naturally lead to love and service to others. They also recognize that the trendy new methods in mission are actually the manner of witness exhibited long ago by the monks; the monks pursue Christ in the life of discipline, they model a more noble community with respect for one another, kindness for the stranger and mercy for the sick and weak.