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Center for Action and Contemplation

Christianity in the Desert

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Early Christianity

Christianity in the Desert
Wednesday, September 5, 2018

For too long, little or no honor has been paid to those who have laid the foundations in Africa for the preservation of Christianity throughout the world. . . . [T]he roots and headwaters for this monastic flourishing had their source in African soil. Unfortunately, black saints have been depicted as white and African bishops have been portrayed as Europeans. The remembrance and acknowledgment of our historic spiritual foundations is long overdue. —Paisius Altschul [1]

Today Barbara Holmes continues exploring the forgotten gifts of early Christianity, particularly from its African legacies.

African participants in the early church remained in the shadows of the main theological discourse despite the scholarship of Tertullian [c. 155-c. 240], Augustine [354-430], Cyprian [c. 200-258], and others of African descent who were instrumental in the expansion and theological grounding of the early church. Although initially the spread of Islam limited the expansion of North African Christian practices to sub-Saharan Africa, the trajectories of today’s Christian contemplative practices can be traced to early Christian communities in the Middle East and Africa.

Some of these communities were led by women. . . . After Christianity became a state religion, the freedom that women found in Spirit-led Christian sects was foreclosed by an increasingly hierarchical religious structure. In response, many retreated to remote desert areas to continue their spiritual quests.

The desert may initially seem barren, dull, and colorless, but eventually our perceptions start to change. . . . Here we empty ourselves of our own obstacles to God. In the space of this emptiness, we encounter the enormity of God’s presence. . . . The aromas teach us that the desert becomes the place of a mature repentance and conversion toward transformation into true radical freedom. [2]

If the desert is a place of renewal, transformation, and freedom, and if the heat and isolation served as a nurturing incubator for nascent monastic movements, one wonders if a desert experience is necessary to reclaim this legacy.

One need not wonder long when there are so many deserts within reach. Today’s wilderness can be found in bustling suburban and urban centers, on death row, in homeless shelters in the middle of the night, in the eyes of a hospice patient, and in the desperation of AIDS orphans in Africa and around the world. Perhaps these are the postmodern desert mothers and fathers. Perhaps contemplative spaces can be found wherever people skirt the margins of inclusion. Perhaps those whom we value least have the most to teach.

We are in need of those values central to African monasticism and early Christian hospitality; they include communal relationships, humility, and compassion. Laura Swan sums up these virtues in the word apatheia, defined as “a mature mindfulness, a grounded sensitivity, and a keen attention to one’s inner world as well as to the world in which one has journeyed.” [3] Inevitably, the journey takes each of us in different directions; however, by virtue of circumstances or choice, each of us will at some point in our lives find ourselves on the outskirts of society listening to the silence coming from within. During these times, we realize that contemplation is a destination as well as a practice. The monastics knew this and valued both.

[1] Paisius Altschul, “African Monasticism: Its Influence on the Rest of the World,” An Unbroken Circle: Linking Ancient African Christianity to the African-American Experience, ed. Paisius Altshul (Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black: 1997), 42.

[2] Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women  (Paulist Press: 2001), 168.

[3] Ibid., 25.

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 10-12.

Image credit: Saint Catherine’s Monastery (detail), built between 548-565 near the town of Saint Catherine, the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: 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
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