While my wife and I lived in Egypt, I sometimes visited the monastic settlements of Wadi Natrun in the Western Desert. And once, with a friend, I traveled for hours into the Eastern Desert to visit the isolated Monastery of St. Anthony, which can be considered the birthplace of Christian monasticism.
I've never had much desire to be a monk, but, coming from the noise, chaos, pollution, traffic, crowding and sheer stress of Cairo — the population of which, today, is somewhere in the vicinity of 17 million — I could better understand why someone might flee to the stillness of the desert. In a certain mood, I could even partially envy the monks.
"The world is too much with us," wrote William Wordsworth (who himself withdrew to concentrate on his poetry in the quiet solitude of Dove Cottage, on Grasmere in the beautiful English Lake District). "Late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."
There's much to be said for simplicity.
"Pray without ceasing," counseled the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. But doing so is terribly hard. We're easily distracted, and there are many things to distract us. "Purity of heart," the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard explained, "is to will one thing." But it's awfully hard to focus on one thing — or, for that matter, on much of anything — amidst project deadlines, clamoring children, demanding customers, dirty diapers, endless errands and all of the other clutter that constitutes what's often called "the thick of thin things."
We find ourselves juggling multiple obligations and responsibilities, including difficult church callings. We try to find a bit of time for leisure and recreation while, all too often, feeling guilty about the many important things that we're leaving undone. And, on those rare occasions when we imagine that we're finally getting matters under control, we suddenly remember that we haven't been doing our genealogy, or reading our scriptures regularly, or going to the temple enough, or keeping in contact with ailing Aunt Margaret the way we should. We sometimes call it "multitasking," but, almost always, it could also be called, at least in part, "failure."
Fortunately, "we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). For those who sincerely try to be his disciples in deed as well as in word, the atoning grace of Christ will cover the gap that always exists between what we want to be, and should be, and what we are.
This is, apparently, the way the Lord wants it. It's the test, and the school, that he designed for us.
"Talent develops in silence," wrote the German playwright and poet Goethe, "but character only in the stream of life." We're not to be of the world, but, apparently, we're to be in the world (see John 17:14-16).
The Lord could presumably have granted Abraham a "promised land" where his posterity had peace and security without predators, no tempting or rival religions in the neighborhood, and fruit that practically plucked itself. Instead, he gave them parched Palestine, always threatened (and often overrun) by more powerful states in the region and in the eastern Mediterranean, where they struggled to remain faithful among pagan Canaanites, Philistines, Hellenizers and Romans.
There are far easier places to live than the arid Great Basin, but the Lord didn't lead Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints to any of them. "The place which God for us prepared, far away, in the West," needed irrigation, cooperation and strenuous pioneering. "This is a good place to make saints," Brigham concluded.
Most of us today lead easier lives. We needn't worry about Assyrian invaders, nor even about Mormon crickets. But we still face challenges, and our often frantic pursuit of entertainment and excitement can be among them. That's why God gives us responsibilities.
A former Augustinian monk, the great Reformer Martin Luther, eventually married a former nun, Kathryn von Bora. Together, they had six children and raised four orphans, and numerous accounts indicate that the adjustment wasn't always smooth, that the children weren't always easy or orderly. Accordingly, Luther, having known both, concluded that "marriage is a far better school for character than any monastery."
Confronting multiple and often conflicting tasks, constantly distracted, and learning (sometimes painfully, after resistance) to subordinate our preferences to the needs of others, we grow in ways that simpler, easier lives could never afford us.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.