Living “off the grid” seems to be a growing movement and somewhat ironically, there are several websites dedicated to it. The degrees of isolation vary greatly, from completely self-sustaining to seeking after a simpler lifestyle, but the idea holds some attraction, whether it is turning our backs on the mess that is our modern society or merely a Thoreau-inspired desire to live deliberately.
As I read about the Desert Fathers and the early monastics, I wonder if there are any parallels with our current desire to retreat into the wilderness. When the first Desert Fathers wandered into the deserts of Egypt and Israel, the Roman Empire was still ruling most of the known world. Anthony the Great—the first Desert Father and the father of monasticism—and others were not fleeing barbarian invasions from the north. In fact, Anthony was contemporary with Constantine.
Yet few would argue that Rome at that time was a city shining on a hill in terms of virtue. The empire had been ruled by a series of totalitarian caesars for a few hundred years and Rome’s decadence was well-known and largely unopposed by most of society. We are not given clear evidence, though, that Anthony and the others were fleeing from a particular societal issue. Instead, they sought to flee from mankind in general. They wanted to minimize distraction and focus their energy on seeking God. They sought purity of heart through isolation, repentance, and asceticism.
The off-the-grid movement seems to seek its own purity through isolation and forms of asceticism as well. Many in this movement do not profess religious motivations, but hold up some sort of ideal they are seeking to be faithful to—family, health, economics, conspiracy, or any number of things.
One common thread between the two phenomena seems to be rejection of the prevailing prescribed path. These are all individuals who sought to strike out on their own in order to follow their vision. If a few others want to come along, so be it. The off-the-grid movement is a rejection of the idea that one has to be connected with all the latest technology and conveniences and with the costs associated with them. For the Desert Fathers, it was a rejection of everything unnecessary. These are similar, but there are differences; the core motivation being the most obvious.
Nobody would want Anthony the Great or most off-gridders as “neighbors” (excuse the incongruity). By society’s standards, they are weird, probably subversive, and possibly dangerous. They strike out on their own to find a new way of doing life, largely free of the considerations and prescriptions of mainstream society. The fact that anyone can do that is subversive and even threatening to some.
That both the Desert Fathers and the new off-gridders attract interest from so many others seems to indicate that they hit a nerve. This is something that interests more and more. People want to see how it is possible and what the results are. Some want to see it to convince themselves they can’t do it, others to consider if they can.
If we are going to need modern hermits to preserve western civilization through a second dark age, then they need more books in their homes; they need community; and above all, they need religion. I don’t know where this is headed, but it is interesting to contemplate from the suburbs.