Picking up on the conversation about being in charge of your own spirituality, one of the books that keeps coming to mind for me is Frederica Mathewes-Green’s The Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians. In this short, pocket-sized book, Frederica uses realistic accounts of ancient Christian’s lives to illustrate the power and focus of ancient Christianity, and how it is sometimes so different than ours. Mathewes-Green makes it clear that she is not putting forth any new five step plan for spirituality or her own spin on an ancient concept. She is just a vessel for repeating the wisdom handed down by our Christian forefathers and foremothers, as she writes, “I hope not to say anything original. If I do, ignore it.”
The best example of this is the sheer fact that two whole chapters of the book are dedicated to returning to a pattern of repentance. Mathewes-Green is no poser: when she wants us to capture the spirituality of ancient Christians she really means it.
Community was a big deal for ancient Christians. Thankfully, it is becoming a big deal again through the use of small groups and other communal ways of organizing the modern church. We still have a long way to go in terms of understanding why we are gathering together. For many of us, myself included, I too often treat small groups like a communal experience: I am gathering together to experience something with other people, like going to the movies or a concert. We share what is going on in our lives and pray for each other, but we seldom take ownership of each other’s spirituality and actually journey together through spiritual darkness or common struggles. Lent and Advent are great teaching moments for our communities to learn how to do the heavy lifting of faith together, and Mathewes-Green spends the majority of the book going over the ways that worship, action and prayer can bind a church community together. Speaking about church communities, she writes:
“In communities, at work, and particularly in families, people are put together in something like a three legged race. God means us to cross the finish line together, and all the other people tied together with us play some part in our progress. They are there often times to rouse our stubborn sins to the surface, where we can deal with them and overcome them—striking them in the head and the chest, as St. Theophan says.” (84)
It is hard in our culture to let others play a part in our progress. We are taught in school and in old westerns that a rugged individual can do anything if he just puts his mind to it. What Christ calls us to is different. It’s a togetherness, a sharing of our responsibilities with one another. We are all brothers and sisters, sharpening each other into the persons God has called us to be.
Thomas Turner is an adjunct lecturer of English at Nyack College and the Senior Editor & Publisher of GENERATE Magazine. He writes frequently for The Curator, The Englewood Review of Books, The Master’s Artist and The Other Journal‘s Meditation blog.