On more than one occasion in these posts, I have quoted Roberta Bondi from her book, To Love as God Loves. This thin volume is billed as a conversation with the early church. The conversation was a spiritual eye opener for me. C.S. Lewis once observed that reading only modern books is like joining a conversation at eleven o’clock which began at eight, leaving us to wonder about the real bearing of what is being said. To Love as God Loves is joining a conversation near its beginning.
Prior to the fourth century, the message of Christianity was clearly at odds with the pagan Roman Empire. The dichotomy was so severe that many careers were closed to believers because they somehow entailed supporting, teaching, or depicting pagan mythology. The distinction between being a Christian and being a good Roman citizen was striking and occurred at great cost to believers. Their allegiance was to Christ alone.
When Christianity became the favored religion under Emperor Constantine, the blessing was mixed. While persecution subsided, the result of a state religion was a loss of the Christian / citizen distinction and an influx of nominal Christians into the church. Rather than seek reformation from within, many serious-minded believers responded to Christ’s discipleship call by forming monastic communities in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.
One of the founders of this movement was Pachomius. While a pagan and young conscript in the Roman army, Pachomius and his company were trapped in a tower without supplies when he first encountered Christianity. A group of Christians reached the confined troops with food and drink, and Pachomius was so impressed that he inquired about the group’s identity. He was told, “They are people who bear the name of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and they do good to everyone, putting their hope on him who made heaven and earth and us.”¹ Pachomius became a believer and dedicated his life to expressing the Christian message in terms of how he first encountered it; by loving others and becoming their servant. He went on to start a series of what became the first of the desert communities up the Nile in Egypt.
The focus of these early monastic communities was learning to love as God loves. The idea that the goal of the Christian life is love; it is not to acquire a set of personal qualities was the eye opener for me and I believe is supported by the big picture message of the New Testament. Our modern bias often misses this point. We think the desert fathers and mothers were focused on the spiritual disciplines for the disciplines sake and we equate their asceticism with an unhealthy distaste for all things physical. When understood in context, their serious desire to reign in “the passions” was simply a pathway to loving as God loves. Professor Bradley Nassif summarized the journey from ascetic rigor to love in the May 2008 issue of Christianity Today magazine this way,
“When practiced in humility, ascetic rigor results in greater love. The monks fasted because they were hungry to love God more; they prayed because they wanted closer communion with God and neighbor; they contemplated so they could better fix their gaze on their divine spouse; they practiced silence because they wanted to hear God so they could speak and act more wisely to the people around them. The end goal of every spiritual practice employed by the monks was love.”
Our spiritual forefathers found that love and humility were powerful weapons against our self-centered and casual view of discipleship. We think of monks as isolationists, but these attributes were forged and practiced in a community setting. May we follow their example in our own communities – families, neighborhoods, and churches – by learning to love as God loves.
¹ Pachomian Koinonia. Vol. One: The Life of Saint Pachomius and His Disciples. Translation and introduction by Armand Veilleux. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1980.