Of all the treasures of the Egyptian Christian church, perhaps the greatest gift to the world is monasticism. This world-wide movement began here as a reform movement in the third century, when men and women fled to the desert to escape a church that had grown increasingly wealthy and corrupt.
In the stark environs of the desert, these holy fathers and mothers dedicated their lives to the worship of God, living lives of great hardship and humility. Though they sought solitude, many attracted followers who sought out their wisdom and teachings. Some of these seekers chose to stay permanently in the desert, and monastic communities grew up in hundreds of isolated locations.
Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert gives a window into the remarkable spirituality forged in the crucible of the desert. In addition to St. Catherine’s, these traditions live on in sites that include the Monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Sinai, the Monastery of St. Simeon near Aswan, and the four monasteries at Wadi Natrun near Cairo.