One of our stops on the tour de force through Turkey was Kapadokya, or ancient Cappadocia. Admittedly, this area is one of the strangest landscapes I have ever visited and boasts terribly unique landforms. It has an arid climate and would probably be classified as a desert region. The region is pocked with valleys, and each valley is littered with dozens of large rock towers shooting up into the air. The resulting impression is a desert valley full of rock trees.
What is even more intriguing is the ancient use of this remarkable landscape. The cliff walls and even the rock towers themselves were carved out and fashioned into dwellings places. High rock cliffs full of little, black windows fill the eyesight. In these caves, much of Christianity’s early monastic tradition was conceived. Small stone doorways lead into vast cathedral caverns, covered floor to ceiling with Byzantine-era religious frescos.
For better of worse, the monastic tradition is a large part of Christian history. Some of its earliest adherents were women living in little, celibate groups that focused on their piety. Others were men who trudged off into the Egyptian desert alone to live as hermits. Even still, some made giant towers up into the air and lived on these columns to seclude themselves from a sinful world and live closer to the heavenly ideal. And in Cappadocia, men and women would separate into fellowships under the head of an abbot (abba for “father”) and live in these cave dwellings.
Whether it was the rise of secular influence in the church as the Roman empire became increasingly friendly, or brushing elbows with other world philosophies that sought asceticism as the ideal, the idea of the monk became widely popular in the developing Christian communities of the fourth and fifth centuries.
At best, this lifestyle was a pious means of refusing the “good life” and seeking a higher end, deeper fellowship with God. At worst, it was a means of punishing oneself for their depravity or running from the “evils of the world” and sometimes even the church. Nevertheless, the result was a seclusion of sorts from the society around them for reasons of sanctification.
I think there are times when this approach sounds good. Sometimes I want to get away from the wickedness around me. Sometimes I need to remove the distractions and set my mind on God’s Word and His goodness. The world can be a distracting place. Jesus himself would occasionally retreat from civilization in order to focus on oneness with the Father, or fast from the world. He would go up the mountain to pray, or would fast in the wilderness.
So, is seclusion the right approach? We are truly not of this world, and it seems the more I surround myself with it, the harder it is to separate myself from it. Much of the time it seems Western culture is sinking its tentacles further and further into the life of the church. When we look at the average church culture and compare it to secular culture, they do not seem too different anymore. At least, that is what the statistics on divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, premarital sex, and a whole list of moral failures would say.
In response, it seems we often try to “hole up” inside the walls of our church buildings. We retreat inside and make sure we have plenty of activities to occupy ourselves. We spend all of our time in book studies, Bible schools, youth activities (many of which are just Christianized versions of what our kids would be doing outside the walls of the church), and an endless supply of things that make us feel like we are working real hard on our sanctification. In the last 25 years or so, hundreds of churches across America have even pulled themselves out of downtown areas where sin and vice are the worst and built themselves new compounds, complete with athletic courts, activities centers, and a Starbucks, in the newer suburbs of major metropolitan areas.
Before I make some of you irate at my suggestion that these activities are wrong, please let me say that is not my intention. Indeed, I feel most of the activities mentioned above are essential to discipleship. (See my posts on Bible study.) However, is it possible that if we focus on these things with the wrong intentions we can lose sight of a bigger kingdom mission? My ultimate end as a follower of Christ is not to become “Super Christian.” My highest achievement on this earth will not be what I have become. Instead, I become this so that Christ’s name may be known. I am to work on myself (truly, submit to God’s work in me), so that God will be glorified and his kingdom advanced. Why sharpen a knife that will never cut anything?
In the fourth century, as secular culture made its way into the church, the temptation was to retreat. In an attempt to hold back the tide of nominalism, groups began to seclude themselves. In order to stay pure, cave monasteries popped up in cliffs. Communities developed around rigorous moralism. No sin, no sex, no worldliness was the rule. Disciplined Christian life at its finest was the goal. They began to sharpen themselves.
But something interesting happened. A tradition had grown up in the church that martyrdom was the ideal life of sacrifice and allowed you to identify with Christ’s own suffering for us. Martyrs became saints and it was the way to ensure your name in the Christian hall of fame. To boldly refuse apostasy and publicly proclaim Christ in the face of your murderers was the mark of the true Super Christian.
However, when persecution by the state stopped, so did the killing of Christian martyrs. No longer able to sacrifice their physical life in the face of paganism, people began to sacrifice in other ways. For many, monasticism became the new martyrdom. It was the new way to be a Super Christian. What started out as a means of removing oneself from a world of sin, created a world of pride and exclusivity. They removed themselves from the world and became full of themselves.
Trying to figure out the Christian’s relationship with culture was not a new development in the fourth century. This monastic tradition had not found the answer to a new social problem in the church.
Jesus would retreat. Jesus would spend time alone, focused on his relationship. He would disappear and seclude himself from the world around him, but he always came back. He would roll up his sleeves and step back off into the crowds that were surrounding him. He would heal the sick and he would cast out demons. He would confront sin and he would stand as an example.
This is why I am not a monk. We are called to be the best Christians we can. Indeed, we are commanded by God’s Word to live a life above reproach. We are to be disciplined and pious. However, the reason we do this is to point to one greater. Truly, it is God’s work in us. First Corinthians talks about how God chose the foolish of us to shame the wise. I think Paul was talking about me when he wrote that.
And despite being wholly unimpressive, if I am not careful, I will still become puffed up and proud of myself. If our churches are not careful, we will wall ourselves up, and become quite proud of the fact that we have nothing to do with the world.
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