On a couple of occasions in a church service during our Deeper Still series (a contemplative look at the Lord’s Prayer) I have made the point that we, in the western world, often forget that Christianity was birthed and is rooted in the East.
Here is my best attempt at a short history:
The westernization of Christianity began with Paul planting and writing to churches throughout the Mediterranean region. The book of Acts ends with Paul imprisoned in Rome (about 64AD). Paul, by the way, was part of the early persecution of the Church (see Acts 8). After Paul’s conversion he experienced severe persecution throughout the remainder of his life – which is said to have ended with his beheading. The first large-scale persecution of the Jerusalem Church occurred in 70AD with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. This drove Christians (and Jews) out of the region and onto the vast system of roadways built by Rome and linking what is today western Europe, Turkey, and northern Africa resulting in an era of missionality. In his book, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, Alan Hirsch calculates that the early church grew from 25,000 in 100AD to about 20,000,000 by 310AD! This, no doubt, influenced Emperor Constantine, who, in 313AD, made Christianity the formal religion of the Empire (see map above). (There is still debate over whether or not Constantine was an active follower of Christ. Some maintain that in making Christianity the religion of the empire his goals were more political than theological.) Nevertheless, Constantine was uniquely a product of both the east and the west and this set the stage for Christianity to strengthen its flow into what is today Europe (and into N Africa).
Beginning around the third century Christian hermits, ascetics and monks fled to the desert of Egypt. They were seeking to escape the chaos and the Diocletian (predecessor of Constantine) persecution, abandoning the cities of the secular world to live in solitude. In Egypt, refugee communities formed at the edges of population centers, far enough away to assure safety. In 313, when Christianity was made legal, many continued to live in these marginal areas. The solitude of these places attracted them because the privations of the desert were a means of learning the ways of Jesus — fasting and seeking God. They believed that desert life would teach them to follow God’s call in a more focused and deliberate way. During the 4th century, these communities continued to attract others and as the lifestyle progressed, these men and women developed a reputation for holiness and wisdom. Today they are referred to as the Desert Fathers. Many individuals who spent part of their lives in the Egyptian desert went on to become important figures in the Church and society of the 4th and 5th centuries, among them Athanasius, Anthony, John Chrysostom, and John Cassian. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers deeply affected the Western Church (including Protestantism) and the Eastern Church – their role creates the opportunity for Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant believers to enjoy some common ground. For instance Augustine, who was converted through the writings of Anthony of the Desert, continues to be revered and respected by the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants alike. Additionally, the monastic institutions Cassian and Augustine helped spread into Europe are said to have kept learning and culture alive during the Early Middle Ages, and were often the only institutions that cared for the sick and poor. (It should be noted that while all this was going on in N Africa and S Europe, Saint Patrick was preaching the gospel and building communities of faith in Ireland – which spread south into Europe even as Cassian-Augustinian inspired communities spread north.) For this reason, the writings and spirituality of the Desert Fathers are still of interest to many people today.
When we hear the phrase “contemplative spirituality,” it is often a reference to the learning and teaching of these Desert Fathers.
“Contemplative spirituality” means the understanding that God wants to have a real relationship with us – this is not just religion – God longs to walk alongside us in our lives and speak into and guide our live. Our part in allowing this to happen is to learn the blessings of solitude, silence, and listening – this is especially helpful in our 21st century ADD culture. It’s a way of practicing our faith that can be foreign to many Christians, especially us Evangelicals who are trained to read Scripture more for information than formation. We can engage the Text with the intention to be formed by it, to deepen our relationship with God. In this process we are making ourselves available to God, positioning ourselves before him that he might have access to our lives. Studying and learning both the western and eastern constructs of our Christian faith will strengthen us to live as balanced and faithful Christ-followers.
Here are some practices of Scripture that have a more contemplative aspect to them:
- Meditation (Psalm 1:2; 4:4; 27:4; 39:3; 48:9; 63:6; 77:6, 12; 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 52, 78, 97, 99, 117, 148; 143:5; 145:5)
- Silence as a form of contemplation and listening (Psalm 46:10a; Isaiah 30:15; Matthew 6:6; Matthew 11:29; 1 Peter 3:4; 1 John 3:19)
- Fasting as a form of humble focus (Ps 35:13b, et al.)
J.I. Packer in his classic work, Knowing God says, meditation is a lost art today, and Christian people suffer grievously from their ignorance of the practice. Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God. It is the activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God. (pgs 18-19).