Tipi…a structure of coming together…beams standing in strength because they lean on each other. It’s time to begin our journey into the details, the heart and soul of our Christian Mystic and Church History. So says Grandpa White Feather.
Much of my study of church history has come from a book written by a Norbertine priest by the name of Alfred McBride, O. Praem. At the time of the writing of the book he taught theology at Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts. Book Title: “The Story of the Church” – Peak Moments from Pentecost to the year 2000. (There has also been much internet research.)
Our journey has been perfectly timed. As I left the modern church in search of our forefathers, one of my first revelations was the shift Jesus made in his ministry away from “Temple”, to a strong emphasis on the “Table”. We wrote a line that has become near and dear to my heart: Jesus focused on the Tables in people’s homes so he could create Temples in their hearts. (This is also what I want to be the heart and soul of Tumble Pigeon Retreat.)
So with this revelation of “Temple to Table” in mind, as set forth by Christ, let me give you a quote from McBride concerning church history: “In the beginning liturgies were celebrated at home. House Eucharists were the norm for over three centuries, until the move to basilicas in the fourth century.” (Page 174 of book.)
It appears the shift back to Temples began around 340 A.D., with the help of a Roman Emperor named Constantine. Constantine made things a lot better for the Christian when he brought about religious tolerance. This meant Christians no longer had to live in such fear for their lives. This was a very good thing. But for some reason this worldly Emperor took a liking to Christianity, (I think his mom was Christian), he claimed to be Christian in spite of many actions seeming otherwise, and began giving great favor to the Christian church. Even to the point that heathens wanted to become Christians just so they could get the political benefits!
Well, you can imagine trying to navigate the murky waters of such temptations and conditions. So…for at least 200 years our early church fathers were very content with home type churches and the closeness developed in those settings. They saw no need to pursue large buildings with high overhead, entangling the priesthood with a need for money, which might be connected to a worldly government. But slowly, that is what happened, until the home Tables were once again forgotten, and the Lord’s very simple Last Supper had been turned into much ceremony and pomp. It’s very hard to compare the two.
Like fire slowly being turned up on a pot of water, the frogs suddenly looked around one day at all the bubbling, and couldn’t understand why they were unable to jump out? How did we get here, some of them were asking, while others seemed to delight in it.
According to McBride, there were those who questioned and warned against leaving the home setting to enter the largeness of Temples, but they lost the argument as Constantine continued influencing the church leaders at that time.
Very slowly the wheels of time worked its way. Western Rome began to have a power vacuum. Constantine had not done a very good job of taking care of Western Rome. The church felt they had a duty to step in and fill the vacuum and take care of the people, but this led to them gaining more and more power. (Please understand, I’m giving you the short-form synopsis here.)
So the church is convinced they are doing the right thing in assuming all this power in order to care for all concerned. But around 770 AD., a man by name of Charlemagne (Charles the Great) came along, he was king of the Franks and became the first recognized emperor in western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. The church had been filling this void all this time, and growing more and more dark!
Charlemagne offered to take the political power back into the secular, allowing the church to fully focus on the spiritual again, but when all was said and done, the church decided it was not meant to release this power. The church now chose to keep control of the secular without any apparent logical reason. And it’s not long after this the church really begins to go dark, to the point of committing actions no one would dream a Christian could justify doing in the name of Jesus! We’re talking the Inquisitions, burning people at a stake, Knights of the Templar, Crusades, holy wars, confiscation of properties, torture, and etc.
It got so bad, there was a huge split in the church around 1054 AD., some 500 years before Marten Luther even came along! The East split from the West! This became the Orthodox church, and they rejected the Pope and his Papal system. But still the church pressed on into more and more darkness which 500 years later does result in the Protestant uprising. Even then they would still be slow to learn.
It is important we have some idea of the downward spiral of Temple over Table. In the process of all this there were those bright spots where a special person rose up and reached upward to the simple Table of Christ. Someone like a Francis of Assisi. It is so hard to understand how such contradictory visions of all the grandeur of the Pope was able to be accepted by monks and friars? Many of them even wrote letters to the Pope speaking of badly needed changes, and even though nothing changed, they stayed connected for the sake of a unity of the church body, understanding our Lord also taught against division. This whole time period can be very hard to wrap your brain around, but Marten Luther was actually the second explosion, the Orthodox were the first.
I have come to the conclusion that if being Catholic was all about the monks, friars, Jesuits, and so on, I’d probably be a Catholic! I love their simple Gospel and example of Christ, and many Mystics come from their ranks. Thomas Merton is an example of one whom we will be looking at his lectures concerning Christian Mystics. But we would all do very well to consider how it was that after at least 200 years of following the example of Christ, the church at that time began to go down a primrose path leading to much darkness, even unto evils and extravagance; luxury, pomp, and power that no message of Christ could ever support! Too bad for Marguerite Porete who just happened to be a victim of those dark days. Those who burned her at the stake lived on in their luxury and power while they sacrificed another helpless lamb. Wolves were at home in the hen house! I send you forth as sheep amongst wolves!
Hopefully, this is enough historical perspective to enable us to now examine closely the Christian Mystic, starting with the Gospel of John, and learning more of it even unto our current day.
In a quick review: At least the first 200 years of church history was faithful to a “Table Ministry”, a Welcoming Table it was called. During those times there were points of great Christian persecution, which also lent to small home type ministry. But even with the persecution over, there were many reasons to consider maintaining that same format, if only for the reason that Christ himself gave such example.
However, a Roman Emperor finally comes along who is favorable to Christianity. He begins offering large buildings and positions of political power to the clergy. Soon it even becomes popular to be a Christian! The church takes the bait and heads down that path. Those opposed are out voted.
The water gets a little hotter, as Constantine leaves Western Rome poorly prepared for current rising challenges. The church more and more steps in, believing it is the right thing to do, but 300 years later, when they are given the chance to let the power return to the secular government, they refuse to do so. (Charlemagne)
Soon comes the first major split in the church. The East and West divide, and the East becomes the Orthodox church, separated from the Pope of Rome. Very dark deeds descend upon the church. People burned at stakes, accused of being a heretic because they don’t see things exactly the same way as the church in power. Some are even tortured. Holy wars are declared and soldiers do horrible things to infidels all in the name of God. The Pope declares their sins are automatically forgiven if they die in battle. Over the next 500 years many atrocities are committed, (the sale of Indulgences for instance), until Marten Luther becomes the voice of the next huge split. Some years after that second split, after the church wanted to kill Marten Luther, and the church was bleeding people profusely to the Protestants, some reforms finally began to be made.
It is true that early America, especially the Puritans, did not want anything Catholic in this country. The bad taste left in everyone’s mouth has lasted for many many years. We seem to finally be past all that now, as much change has slowly taken place.
One more quote from McBride: “Who knows but that the counsel Fathers at Trent (1563) did look wistfully at the Protestants, but could not bring themselves to imitate them because that was tantamount to admitting their revolt was legitimate. What could one say then about their heretical teachings?” (Page 174)
Surely it is a heavy thing to look upon such darkness and know that you caused two major splits in the body of Christ. We shake our head and ask how? I look back on what we did to the native Indians, and I shake my head and ask how does a Christian nation rationalize their actions at the time it is happening? And what might we be doing today? But Christian Mystics have been among those who seem to have more clear vision even in the times of such gross darkness. May we learn to hear God’s voice when it is spoken, and rather than burning the messenger at a stake, or nailing Him to a cross; we listen and change. Amen.
A structure of coming together.
Beams that are stronger because they lean on each other.