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~ Christ-Centered or Self-Centered? ~

A reader wrote us a question, whether we thought the contemplative philosophies are more self-centered than Christ-centered. I immediately thought of the monastic tradition which is deeply contemplative and prolific in its contribution to spiritual literature. Of course, there are many specifics works that can be identified as definitively Christ-centered, the most notable being The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. (This classic is available on the Christian Links section of this web site.) But because the question was general, the response is best presented generally, since there are always exceptions to specifics.

Antony of Egypt (251-356) is known as the first "desert father," having given away his considerable inheritance to live ascetically as a solitary contemplative. "Ascetic" is the English derivative of the Greek word, "Askesis." The famous Greek athletes devoted themselves to askesis, or training. Although part of training was abstaining from food and physical pleasures, its essence meant training both body and spirit, which required discipline and austerity, not merely giving up things. Too often Christians are urged by some in leadership to mark their Christian devotion in terms of "abstaining," as from "worldly" pleasures. Since many "worldly" people, including atheists, also abstain from sins such as adultery, gluttony, gossip, slander, bearing false witness, hatred, vindictiveness or homosexual engagement, and practice commendable ethics in their family and work life, these are not hallmarks of Christianity. The desert fathers practiced askesis physically and spiritually. This practice is worth reviewing.

Antony kept moving further into the desert, finally taking refuge in an old abandoned Roman fort. The year was 305, close to the end of the final persecution of Christians living in the Roman Empire. Hearing of this brutal persecution from devotees who would occasionally visit him for spiritual guidance and to bring him food and water, Antony left his self-imposed confinement and reentered the city. He was happy, mentally astute and extremely healthy, the epitomy of the Greek ideal and goal of apatheia, mental and emotional equanimity.

In this emotional and spiritual state of being, Antony voluntarily joined other Christians in the city's Roman court hoping to be sentenced to death along with them as a martyr for Christ. Being denied this honor, Antony returned to his desert abode. Many Christians who were themselves preparing for martyrdom, and many who were trying to escape it under intense persecution, followed Antony into the desert. His fame for attending to them with wise guidance and miraculous healings grew, and so did the number of his devotees and those seeking to imitate him. Antony's biographer and contemporary, Athanasius, wrote "the desert became a city."

As many like him, Antony longed for spiritual solitude again. He retreated deeper in the desert, but multitudes still found him. He lived there until his 105th birthday. Antony's ways established a guiding principal for future monastic development: That of a synthesis of the training of self through self-analysis and asceticism and a surrendering of the self to the grace and strength of God through the Christ. This way echoed St. James' epistle wherein he eloquently described the need for integrating faith and works, prayer and deeds. "Faith without works is a dead faith" merges with what is written in the psalms, "Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborer works in vain." This integration is a guiding principal for all of us, not just those devoted to a monastic life style.

Athanasius was not only Antony's biographer, but his dear friend. Soon after Athanasius' book, Life of Saint Antony, was completed and published in 357, people as far as what is now France knew of and studied Antony's ways and his synthesis of contemplation and service. During the medieval times, monasticism developed from the solitary to the communal. Herein we approach the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this reflection. The establishment of these monastic communities naturally required the writing of "rules of the order" to which the monks would adhere. The rules were necessary to define the community's purpose and modus operandi, which varied from order to order. These were not necessarily "Christ-centered" but community centered. The rules were punctuated with underlying philosophies, some of which were biblically based and some a matter of practice and logistics applicable to that order alone.

A modern counterpart to this are the charters that many churches formulate as do corporations. These charters and the philosophies that underlie them are not necessarily Christ-like. Some churches prohibit dancing, card playing, movie-going and other secular "worldly" pursuits. Some say congregates are obligated to tithe. Others dismiss these and institute other "rules" of the order, so to speak.

The monastic tradition has taught us that a Christ-centered life is taught by imitation of the Christ, not by following rules of order. Imitation is something we do, not philosophically muse about. To imitate the Christ we need to know Him. Generally observing, the literature written by monastics about imitating Him are indeed Christ-centered. That's because they were Christ-centered themselves in practice, willing and wanting to be martyrs in the true meaning of that word, "witnesses," in life or in death. We have much to learn from them.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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Spiritual Resource Services  © October 5, 2006

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