A Rhythm of Retreat and Return
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
As Christianity rose to a position of power, rational thinking and individuals’ needs took priority over embodied, nondual consciousness and relationships. One of our CONSPIRE 2018 teachers, Barbara Holmes, recalls the early church’s commitment to contemplation and community and how, even when mainstream Christianity lost these threads, groups in Africa and the Middle East continued to cultivate them.
From the beginning, Jesus’s ministry modeled the interplay between prophetic utterance, public theology, and intense spiritual renewal. He launches his three-year ministry from the desert wilderness, a place that will be the home of latter-day desert mothers and fathers. After an intense time of fasting, testing, and submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returns ready to fulfill his calling. These rhythms of activism and contemplation, engagement and withdrawal resonate throughout his life.
As for the early church, its origins are steeped in the intimacy of close communal groups in house churches and catacombs. During the first century, Paul refers to the knowledge of God as an understanding that exceeds rational and objective thought. This knowledge can be experienced as presence. The prophets and wisdom literature celebrate the accessibility of this presence and extol the mysteries of the human/divine relationship. Theological contemplation usually assumes the tangible reality of God’s love, our shortcomings, and the inexplicable possibility of reunion. Accordingly, relationship is a primary goal of Christian life.
This willingness to engage God through a devout community of committed individuals is a theme repeated in many religious communities. However, the specific Christian mandate to “be in but not of the world” seems to be the necessary orientation that fosters and encourages connections to the multiple realities of faith. Persecution only strengthened the tendency toward a life that emphasized interiority as well as liberation. The first era of persecution, during the formative years of the Christian church, also spurred the development of contemplative practices.
We are familiar with the story of persecution and martyrdom in early Christianity. However, we are not as familiar with the history of persecution and martyrdom . . . in the African Christian church at the hands of Emperor Diocletian [244-311]. Those who went silently to their deaths include Saint Sophia, Saint Catherine (martyred by Maximus), and Saint Damiana, who was killed with the other devotees in the monastery that she founded [in Egypt]. As most historians note, the end of public persecution marked the shift in Christian status from a beleaguered sect to the state religion of Rome.
When Christianity began, it was small and intense, communal and set apart, until it found favor with the state. Those adherents who witnessed Rome’s public affirmation of Christianity in the fourth century realized that the contemplative aspects of the faith could not be nurtured under the largesse of the state. And so, in the fifth century, monasticism flourished in the [African and Middle Eastern] desert as Christian converts retreated for respite and spiritual clarity. Although the desert mothers and fathers sought harsh and isolated sites, they soon found that they were not alone. The decision to retreat drew others to them. Communities formed as city dwellers came out to seek advice and solace. The historical model of contemplation offers the rhythm of retreat and return. It was in the wilderness that African contemplatives carved out unique spiritual boundaries.
Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 9-10.