I made two side trips, both unplanned, to alternative faith communities that were not on the schedule when my Sabbatical began, but both of which have since become very much a part of the grist for my mill as I have been thinking about the ways that faith communities embrace and then express their own “evangelistic” mandates – the Vedanta Society Monastery of North Texas and the Saint Anthony the Great Monastery in Arizona. Last week I wrote about what I learned from the Vedanta Society; this week I want to write about what I learned at Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona.
My reflections here should not be taken as endorsements of what these two faith communities teach. I fully understand that they hold to beliefs and practices that are at wide variance with what we would regard to be New Testament Christianity. We could have that conversation, but this blog is not it.
What I am doing here is reflecting on how these alternate faith communities have gone about promoting their particular messages without getting into the validity of their messages. Last week I focused on the way that the Vedanta Society appeals to the spiritual hunger of people without putting the focus on trying to “corral people into its corridors of membership.” These are two distinct things for them, and they are quite clear about which one has the priority. This raises important questions for us about the connection between evangelism and church growth. This week I want to focus on how the Saint Anthony the Great Greek Orthodox Monastery uses beauty to draw people to their message.
In the book of the Prophet Isaiah the image of the desert wilderness springing to life is used to describe the Divine future when God’s promises to His people are finally fulfilled.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)
No matter how desolate things might seem to be at the moment, God is not finished. The desert will blossom and the glory of the Lord will be seen, and it’s this connection that you see immediately when you drive up to the Saint Anthony’s Monastery in the desert between Tucson and Phoenix. It sits out in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere. You drive through miles and miles of barrenness to get there. And suddenly there it is, a lush oasis in a dry wilderness. It is a veritable picture of Isaiah 35, and the contrast between the surrounding terrain and the monastic compound is striking. Saint Anthony the Great Monastery is a cluster of Orthodox sanctuaries, each with its own regional architectural flavor (Russian, Greek, Slavic, Byzantine), surrounded by gardens, fountains and fruit orchards. It’s the last thing that you would expect to find in the desert, but there it is in glory.
Alan Jones in his book Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (Harper San Francisco 1985) wrote about his experience of visiting the Coptic Monastery of St. Macarius in Egypt. He had to make a long hard journey through the desert to get there. Upon his arrival, Alan was greeted by a member of the community, a Father Jeremiah, who proceeded to bestow on him three gifts. Alan said that they “came as a complete surprise.”
First, Father Jeremiah led me towards the refectory and stopped in front of a large trough filled with flowering shrubs. Without a word, he gave me a piece of jasmine, a carnation, a rose and a sprig of mint. It was as if he were saying, “We human beings need things that will lift the spirit and enlarge the heart.” …It reminded me of the Chinese proverb about wisdom: “If you have two loaves, go and sell one and buy a lily.”
The second gift was no less important than the flowers. I was very hungry, and was taken into the refectory for a meal. …I need beauty in my life, but I also need food and shelter. There was no danger here of hospitality being so “spiritualized” that basic necessities were ignored.
The third gift was handed to me so naturallyand spontaneoulsy that it took me a while to appreciate its full significance. Father Jeremiah gave me three phials of oil for healing the sick. The unspoken assumption was simply that we are all frail and suffer from all kinds of sickness of body asnd soul. This is a brute fact and we need all the help we can get. It was as if Fatherr Jeremiah has siad: “There, brother, take these for your wounds and for the healing of other’s hurts. We all need the saving and healing power of Christ.” (14-15)
Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a Catholic theologian, wrote about the way of beauty as the neglected spiritual path for most Western Christians. We are big on the way of truth. So much of what we do is designed to speak logically to the mind of people. Close behind in the way of good. We put high stock in our convictions finding expression in ethical action and moral behavior. But the way of beauty has been largely ignored by us, and Von Balthasar said that we and our Christianity have been impoverished as a result. The Good, the True and the Beautiful are known as the “transcendentals” in philosophy and theology, and have been regarded as three equally valid and reliable ways of getting at spiritual reality. But in practice, we have tended to limit ourselves to just two – the True and the Good. Alan’s experience at the monastery in the Egyptian desert just like mine at the monastery in the Arizonan desert was a matter of the Beautiful grapping our souls by their lapels and giving them a good shake.
I talked about beauty with a minister whose church I visited early on my Sabbatical journey. Of all the churches I visited in my time away, his was the most appealing to me. The architecture, liturgy and music were all familiar and comfortable; they resonated with me deeply. And when I asked him about this, he talked about how so much of what passes for worship these days lacks depth, mystery and majesty. He told me that when the “junk food” that so many Christians are consuming these days starts to run thin, that they will be there with the alternative that will truly nourish and satisfy their souls. He was making the case for the Beautiful as a “main artery” (Von Balthasar) for the spiritual life. And it was while I was pondering what he said, and before I visited to Saint Anthony the Great’s Monastery that I came across a provocative essay by a Roman Catholic priest entitled, “How to Convert the Entire World to Christianity.”
There is a way to convert the entire world to Christianity, and it is by way of beauty… Beauty finds its source in God. And thus any display of beauty focuses the heart towards Him, whether the heart would have it or no…
Speak on Christ, by all means, but speak beautifully. Paint beautifully. Sing beautifully. In a thing as small as a blog post or as groundbreaking as the next Great American Novel, strive to write beautifully. Are you aware that, by creating beauty, you are an ambassador for the infinite? Why is Flannery O’Connor read on secular campuses around the world? Why do public high-school choirs sing Mass Parts? Why do atheists and Catholics flock to Mumford and Sons’ concerts? Why is Gregorian Chant praised by atheistic liberals? Because beauty pierces through all the layers of crap we build up around us, and demands that we recognize that greater than ourselves.
So instead of bemoaning the lack of conversion, let us create beauty. Instead of freaking out over the empty pews at our church, let’s get rid of the modern cubist depictions of Christ and make our churches beautiful. Instead of getting grumpy that no one reads your story where “you find out at the end that the old man is actually Jesus, OMG,” write something as beautiful as The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Instead of being bitter and disappointed that no one seems to be praising God when we bust out “Give Us Clean Hands” at Mass, let’s play truly beautiful music, gorgeous music like “What Wond’rous Love Is This? In our writing, drawing, filming, building, organizing, singing, playing, dancing, acting, speaking, expressing, and in our very act of living each day, let us be beautiful. Then truly, every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, if only to join in the song. http://www.ignitumtoday.com
There is a famous story told about how it was finally determined that Orthodoxy would be the official religion of Russia. Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent emissaries to study the different religious options that were open to them and when they returned they gave this report –
When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque… The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither… and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow… Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. (The Russian Primary Chronicle – 987 – 6495)
Such is the spiritual power and the potential of beauty that I experienced in Arizona. I cannot forget it. DBS+