mountain caves, steps away from my desert retreat house
Caves, carved into stony rock mountains, surround my desert retreat house. As I walk along the desert trails, I can look up and see these mountain caves.
I am grateful for these caves because they are a constant reminder of my spiritual ancestors who lived in caves like these back in the 4th century - The Desert Mothers and Fathers.
I often refer to these ancient desert dwellers because I hold them in such high regard and look to them as examples to be emulated in our own time.
By the 4th century the church had become an established institution, replete with a well-defined hierarchy, along with a well-established code of laws, dogma, customs, and rituals. Much of the core teaching of Jesus had become obscured - peripheral to the life of the established institution.
Jesus taught: be merciful, be compassionate, live simply, include everyone, build a world of justice. The institution of the church was heading in the opposite direction - keeping people out, judging rule- breakers, focusing on accumulating wealth and wielding power.
Determined not to slide down that slippery slope where the formal church was heading, a group of faithful Christian disciples left the cities, and moved out into the remote deserts of Syria and Egypt. They established core communities of faith true to the original teachings of the Christ in whose footsteps they desired to walk.
They didn't leave the church, but instead went out to the fringes of the church. They were mostly lay persons. Their homes were tiny caves and they lived simply. They worked together and prayed together. Hospitality was their primary rule. They practiced reconciliation and cared for those who were sick or in need.
They went out to the fringes and found the core.
I think that the religious institutions of our own day would do well to look at these ancient desert dwellers.
I have a pet phrase that I use from time to time "Be sure to make the main thing, the main thing." As I see it, religious institutions today seem to be living in a bubble with their core identity lost or obscured - failing to make the main thing the main thing
In my own tradition, I have seen example after example of parishes that have lost sight of who they are and what their mission is. Their main focus is on fundraising and getting new members. Compassion is often obscured by judgment, and mutual support is substituted with political intrigue. And, the color of the vestments takes precedence over the mission of mercy to which the church is called.
Religion is being widely abandoned in our own day. Maybe if religious institutions got out of their bubbles and took a hard look at making the main thing the main thing, people would take religion a lot more seriously.
Sometimes you have to go to the fringes to find the core.