I find it very interesting that I was always taught in my Christian education that monks were people who wanted to separate themselves from the world. They were constantly degraded as worthless Christians who wanted nothing to do with people (which would clearly be the antithesis of the great commission). I have since learned that was never the intention, at least not for separation’s sake. Of course there were those who tried to do it as escapism but there are many stories of abotts who turned them out once they discovered their true motives. They separated themselves and held fast to ascetic practices because only by exercising this kind of self-control over the body can the spirit grow so strong as to fight off demons and Satan. They separated themselves and went to great lengths to remove the flesh from their souls so that they could truly pray for the world as Christ did.
We want a short-cut and so much of what I see today in our Christian world is short-cuts. But that is not the picture that we see in the past (and they were much closer to Christ’s time and surely had better insight into the gospels in 250 than we do now). Why would we expect to have the same results by putting in 1/1000th of the work?
Lent was originally celebrated as a time for catechumens (those who were preparing for baptism) to really prepare themselves for entrance into the Church. Through time, it developed into an opportunity for all Christians to remind themselves of how far we have fallen and continue to fall from the new birth we entered into at baptism. In her wisdom, the Church encourages us to separate ourselves from the world for a time, to return to the desire for God that has been buried by the cares of this world, to reflect on our need for continual repentance (continual turning back to God’s path from our own crooked one), and to prepare to celebrate our new life that was given to us at Christ’s death and resurrection. We are invited, for just a few short weeks, into that life that the desert fathers embraced on a daily basis.