Early Christianity: Weekly Summary

Early Christianity

Summary: Sunday, September 2-Friday, September 7, 2018

The very things the early Christians emphasized—such as the prayer of quiet, the Trinity, divinization, universal restoration, and the importance of practice—have been neglected, to our own detriment. (Sunday)

When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed. In a sense, Christianity almost became a different religion! (Monday)

The 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. —Barbara Holmes (Tuesday)

Today’s wilderness can be found in bustling suburban and urban centers, on death row, in homeless shelters in the middle of the night. . . . 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. —Barbara Holmes (Wednesday)

As an alternative to empire and its economy, the desert mothers and fathers emphasized lifestyle practice, psychologically astute methods of prayer, and a very simple spirituality of transformation into Christ. (Thursday)

The desert fathers and mothers believed that prayer was a disposition of wholeness, so that “prayer and our life must be all of a piece.” —Diana Butler Bass (Friday)

 

Practice: Prayer of the Heart
Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say what is in your heart.” [1] Many of the desert fathers and mothers, as well as the collected texts of the Philokalia in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, have described prayer as bringing your thinking down into your heart. It always seemed like soft piety to me until someone taught me how to do it, and I learned the immense benefits of the prayer of the heart. As a Catholic, I was often puzzled by the continued return to heart imagery, such as Jesus pointing to his “Sacred Heart” and Mary pointing to her “Immaculate Heart.” I often wonder what people actually do with these images. Are they mere sentiment? Are they objects of worship or objects of transformation? You must return their gaze and invitation for a long time to get the transformative message and healing. Such images keep recurring only because they are speaking something important from the unconscious, maybe even something necessary for the soul’s emergence.

Love lives and thrives in the heart space. It has kept me from wanting to hurt people who have hurt me. It keeps me every day from obsessive, repetitive, or compulsive head games. It can make the difference between being happy and being miserable and negative. Could this be what we are really doing when we say we are praying for someone? Yes, we are holding them in our heart space. Do this in an almost physical sense, and you will see how calmly and quickly it works.

Next time a resentment, negativity, or irritation comes into your mind, and you want to play it out or attach to it, move that thought or person literally into your heart space. Dualistic commentaries are lodged in your head; but in your heart, you can surround this negative thought with silence. There it is surrounded with blood, which will often feel warm like coals. In this place, it is almost impossible to comment, judge, create story lines, or remain antagonistic. You are in a place that does not create or feed on contraries but is the natural organ of life, embodiment, and love. Now the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart have been transferred to you. They are pointing for you to join them there. The “sacred heart” is then your heart too.

References:
[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Cistercian Publications: 1975), 159.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), Appendix D.

 

For Further Study:

Joan Chittister, In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics (Franciscan Media: 2015)

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

Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press: 1998)

Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014)

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Cistercian Publications: 1975)

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

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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