I have been reading “Water from a Deep Well” by Gerald Sittser. He takes a walk through church history looking at the early church martyrs, the life of the early church, the desert saints, the monastic movement, the use of icons and saints, the Gothic church as the place of the Eucharist, the mystics seeking union with God, the new spirituality of the Medieval laity, the Reformation and the Word of God, the power of personal conversion and finally the thrust of missionaries throughout the world.
Martyrs: most of us will never be martyrs. But, each one of us are to die daily to the lusts of the flesh, the gods of this world and our own egos. Perpetua, a daughter of an influential family in North Africa, refused to renounce Jesus as Lord. This was the Roman fear that people would stop partaking of the the Roman religion, the worship of Rome. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was described as the “destroyer of gods”. This explains how Christianity was seen as a threat to Rome. All religions and gods were tolerated in the empire; but Christianity rejected all gods and said that the only way to know God was through Jesus Christ.
The early church was distinct in the Roman Empire from the very beginning. They shared a love meal together and welcomed all who came. The church grew not because of giant intellect, but it grew because of accepting love as each member lived out their faith in the larger community. This was a time in history when plagues would sweep through cities taking lives. The church reached out to help those affected by the plagues; thus strengthening their immune systems so that they were not as affected by the plagues. When people needed help in desperate times the church was always welcoming. As the church attended the physical needs of the community pastors began to focus on the healing of the soul in pastoral teaching.
The desert saints were those believers who seeing the degradation of the church that happened when Constantine made it the religion of the empire sought to escape the world by removing themselves to the desert where they sought God through prayer, fasting, study and a minimalist lifestyle. They were not fighting against a persecuting empire but a worldly, privileged church. Saint Antony, whose biography was written by the bishop of Alexandria, led the way to a life of isolation in the desert. His journey attracted followers as well as those who respected his stand and sought his spiritual wisdom and counsel. This pattern would be repeated over and over again with the most well known being Simeon the Stylite who lived on a column; who is the midst of his following of the “discipline” became mentor and advisor to the wealthy and the powerful.
The solitary desert saints gave way to organized attempts to get closer to God through communities dedicated to God. The fall of the Roman Empire reminded these outposts of Christian life that this world was truly passing away. The monastery became a place of prayer and work set to a rhythm of life that allowed for spiritual fulfillment. The founder of monasticism was Pachomius. He had a vision that led him to: “fashion the souls of men so as to present them pure to God”. Till this day, young men and women submit themselves to an abbey as they follow the rhythms of the monastery as they seek to make themselves presentable to God.
The icons of Eastern Orthodoxy seem inhumanly painted to our western eyes. They are designed to be a picture of the effect of God’s spirit upon a life lived here on earth. Thus, they are a representation of God’s power to transform and mold our lives. The point being that we can, as those pictured in the icons or described as saints, take on the image of Christ in the life we live. The icon of Chrysostom reminds us of the wisdom of his preaching and the depth of his pastoral care. He was so sought after, that the emperor had him kidnapped to be made bishop of Constantinople.
The monastery was fine for those who were pursuing heaven with all of their might, but for the rest of the church they needed something else. What were given to them were beautiful Gothic cathedrals that captured the light outside bringing it into the building. Here the centerpiece of Christianity became the celebration of the Eucharist. The service was in Latin and the sermons were short; people came in need of the grace of God and that was bestowed upon them through the sacraments.
Within this formal Christianizing of Europe rose many looking for something more. The sacraments were an earthly representation of the hope of being one with Christ that appealed to the senses; the mystic was trying to discover that reality. These mystics were seeking a staircase to heaven and the freeing of their souls. John Climacus gave us “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. Step one: purgation; overcoming the flesh. Step two: illumination; combining knowledge with insight into the Word with meditation. Step three: union; the perfect place of communing with God is found.
The leaders of the Monastery at Cluny around the year 1000 believed that only those in Monasteries could be assured of salvation, in fact they were not even sure if anyone else could be saved; but all would be dependent upon the prayers of the saints who had separated themselves from the world. That thinking pattern was changing. People were moving to the cities, taking up trades and starting to make money. They did the sacraments, respected the relics and went on pilgrimages; but they wanted more. What they got were scores of itinerant preachers, usually Franciscans or Dominicans who believed that they could glorify God with their lives. This was all happening within a church culture that was surrendering to worldliness despite being dressed up in the clothes of poverty and sacrifice. They opened the door to the Reformation where true faith would be made available to everyone.
Everything would change. Calvin described every believer as one stationed at his own “sentry” post for the kingdom. The vehicle of the Reformation was the printing, reading and understanding of the Bible. Preaching became the highest duty of all of the reformers. The Catholic Church would eventually respond to the reformation and try and get its house in order, but not until the reformation gave us Protestantism in all of its thousands of varieties. Luther discovered God’s righteousness bestowed upon us and salvation through faith.
With the flood gates of liberty opened to all of us men began to wrestle with the issue of conversion. In the past you were born a Christian. The foreigner or Muslim or Jew who wanted to renounce their religion and become a Christian did so through Baptism. That was all about to change. Now you could be raised in church but you still needed to be converted. John Newton became the postcard of conversion. The immoral, drunken, God-hating slaver who comes to Christ is described in his own story of his conversion called: An Authentic Narrative. The Puritans all believed in the power of a personal testimony of conversion. The famous Jonathon Edwards had to grapple with the issue of conversion when God broke into his church services at the beginning of the first “Great Awakening”. Conversion combines repentance and a being born again. “Pilgrim’s Progress” gave us the picture of conversion as a process. Whitfield and the Wesley’s brought the possibility of conversion and salvation as a possibility to everyone who attended their sermons. There was a “method” to salvation and the revivalist intended to teach people that method.
When the early church decided that Gentiles did not have to follow the cultural dictates of the majority Jewish believers they set up a liberty for the gospel to preached and lived in any culture without having to surrender to the majority culture. With the power of personal conversion the missionaries began to take off for all of the corners of the world. The missionary would stand outside of his own culture as he tried to imbibe a foreign culture so as to relate the gospel to that culture. These early missionaries took on the task of translating the bible. They lived day by day believing God as they labored to bring the gospel to people.
I was given this book by a man I greatly admire, Jerry Perkins, of the Wickenburg church. The writer comes from an evangelical background, yet he was able to find meaning in all of the traditions that I have mentioned. I enjoyed this quote: “None of these traditions are without fault. I could just as easily written a book about their weaknesses. The history of Christian spirituality does not always tell a happy story. Every person, movement and tradition I have introduced have left an ambiguous legacy. I have chosen to dwell on the good part of the story, though I could have done the opposite. But I believe the failures and abuses do not nullify the value of these traditions…Abusus non tollit usus.”
He concludes with some scriptures: 1 Tim 4:7-8 exercise yourself toward godliness.
Phil 2:12 work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
2 Cor 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,
Phil 3:12-13 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.
As I read the section of the mystics and their attempts to achieve union with God, I wanted to shout out: “You are already in union with God”.
And so it is…”He will never leave us nor forsake us”.
Rom 12:1-2 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
That works for every living soul at any time in world history and at any location and under any circumstances.