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Seeking Spiritual Freedom

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Early Christianity

Seeking Spiritual Freedom
Thursday, September 6, 2018

A brother was restless in the community and often moved to anger. So he said: “I will go, and live somewhere by myself. And since I shall be able to talk or listen to no one, I shall be tranquil, and my passionate anger will cease.” He went out and lived alone in a cave. But one day he filled his jug with water and put it on the ground. It happened suddenly to fall over. He filled it again, and again it fell. And this happened a third time. And in a rage he snatched up the jug and broke it. Returning to his right mind, he knew that the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said: “Here am I by myself, and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live, you need effort and patience and above all God’s help.” —Story of a desert father [1]

As the Christian church moved from bottom to top, protected and pampered by the Roman Empire, people like Anthony of the Desert (c. 250-c. 356), John Cassian (c. 360-c. 435), Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399), Syncletica (c. 270-c. 350) and other early Christians went off to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to find spiritual freedom, live out Jesus’ teachings, and continue growing in the Spirit. It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was taught.

As an alternative to empire and its economy, these men and women emphasized lifestyle practice, psychologically astute methods of prayer, and a very simple spirituality of transformation into Christ. The desert communities grew out of informal gatherings of monks or nuns, functioning much like families. A good number also became hermits to mine the deep mystery of their inner experience. This movement paralleled the monastic pattern in Hinduism and Buddhism.

The desert tradition preceded the emergence of systematic theology and formal doctrine. Christian faith was first a lifestyle before it was a belief system. Since the desert dwellers were often formally uneducated, they told stories, much like Jesus did, to teach about essential issues of ego, love, virtue, surrender, peace, divine union, and inner freedom.

Thomas Merton described those early Christians in the wilderness as people “who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state,” who didn’t wish to be ruled or to rule. He continues, saying that they primarily sought their “true self, in Christ”; to do so, they had to reject “the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion ‘in the world.’ They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.” [2] Can you see why we might need to learn from them?

[1] Western Asceticism, ed., trans. Owen Chadwick (Westminster John Knox Press: 2006, ©1958), 92.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions: 1960), 5-6.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 51; and
“Desert Christianity and the Eastern Fathers of the Church,” The Mendicant, vol. 5, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: April 2015), 1.

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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