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Monday, March 15, 2010

Ancient Truths Rediscovered

by Dina Sleiman

I was raised in a very contemporary, non-denominational sort of church that was birthed out of the Jesus movement of the early 1970’s. We never looked to traditions or saints or ancient writings to enrich our faith. We looked to the Bible as a final authority, and the Holy Spirit as a source of fresh inspiration. Anything else was “dead religion,” and “dead religion” was bad. So, it wasn’t until much later in life that I began truly discovering and appreciating the history of our faith and the great believers who have gone before us.

My experience with the ancients began when I attended a seminar in 1999 on the subject of Spirit-Led Teaching. Although the speaker came from a similar background to mine, he had discovered much about tapping into God through studying ancient Catholic traditions. Something about the seminar began to open up whole new realms of awareness for me.

That fall, although I already held a Master’s degree in writing from a Christian university, I decided to take additional MFA classes in poetry at my local secular state school. It was there that God continued to show me a whole new side of himself. Several of my classes were taught by a born-again believer who had converted to the Eastern Orthodox faith. And if that were not enough to make God’s point clear, I found myself surrounded by devout Catholics students.

I brought my poems into class expecting them to be torn to shreds due to their spiritual content. Instead, the other students pointed me towards the poetry of the medieval mystics such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Catherine of Sienna as examples of the finest writing about intimacy with Christ. A sweet gray-haired lady in the class brought me a CD of music written by one of the poets named Hildegard von Bingen.

I still wasn’t quite sure how a felt about nuns who worshipped Mary and used gem stones for medicinal purposes, but I appreciated Hildegard’s poetry, so I decided to give her music a try. As I listened to the first song, I sensed something real, something important floating toward me between the lyrical tones.

I prayed this simple prayer. “God, if Hildegard von Bingen discovered something about you that I need to know, then show me.” Almost instantly, I felt myself transported to a different sphere. Hildegard did know something. She understood that the spiritual world was alive and active all around her, that the kingdom of God resided within her, and she knew how to tap into that place. She knew how to meet with God and truly see and feel him. The medievals called this an “ecstatic” experience.

Here are just some of the words I wrote about the ecstatic experience I had as I listened to that music.

“I feel myself float, move past, and dive deep into that clear pool. Sun shimmers in the water, as if I swim through sparkling, translucent gems. I am enraptured by the cool, silken liquid. I feel nothing but the swirling cocoon molding to my bare skin. I glide effortlessly, set free from earthly weights, from gravity, from sound. My ears are filled with the sweet, gentle swish that washes away memory and desire. I am now. My hair streams behind me, dancing in ribbons of praise…”

That was over ten years ago. However, recently, I’ve been noticing more and more Christian books on the subject of rediscovering our ancient roots. It seems I was not the only person God was speaking to on this issue. In his book, Jesus Brand Spirituality, Ken Wilson explains why this is happening.

"The recent interest in these practices isn’t accidental. It’s not simply that we’re tired of contemporary prayer and are now trying older methods. Or that 'ancient is the new future.' It’s that recent shifts in our worldview correspond to an earlier, premodern worldview in which God’s nearness made sense."

He explains that the ancients believed they lived in a spiritual world. They approached the universe with wonder and awe. They didn’t presume to know all the answers. However, the modern world of the past 500 years or so assumed that everything worth knowing could be discovered through the five senses. Mankind desired to research, pull apart, and systematize the universe, including theology. The scientific method ruled supreme.

Today in our postmodern world, that same scientific method is returning us to wonder and awe and an awareness of factors we may never understand. Today scientists see “the physical world as being foamy and cloudy, popping in and out of existence, impossible to pin down exactly, impossible to predict precisely, mathematical, and almost mystical.” They now suspect that there are at least two more dimensions outside of our time/space four. We are a generation that grew up with Star Trek: time warps, wormholes, beam me up Scotty.

Like the ancients, we are better capable of understanding the spiritual universe than the generations in between. Here is an excellent example that Wilson offers. We understand that through the portal of our computer, while we sit in our living room, we can simultaneously enter another dimension, another sphere, another place, called the internet. We can be “online.” And there we can even meet with people.

This is precisely how prayer works. Through the portal of prayer, we can enter spiritual realm, the kingdom of God within us. We can literally go to another place, and meet with God face to face. Prayer no longer needs to be a practice of “simply uttering (or thinking) words aimed at God.” Going to a different sphere makes perfect sense to us. In fact, I write these words at this very moment to my community of virtual friends, many of whom I’m closer with than the people living next door to me.

Somehow I have a feeling Hildegard Von Bingen understood this truth without aid of the internet example. And thus, the ancient and the postmodern worlds collide into something beautiful.

Have you felt drawn towards any ancient practices or the examples of ancient believers? What sort of church background did you come from and how did that affect your understanding of God? What do you think of all these crazy new scientific discoveries?

23 comments:

  1. I have a similar background as you, Dina, (with some Southern Baptist thrown in) but 16 years ago my husband and I attended a renewal retreat weekend that was based on a Catholic renewal movement. While this ministry was the spinoff from even the Methodist version of the weekend, it employed many of the readings and prayers of more liturgical traditions. And to my amazement, God showed up in a mighty way! We continued to be very involved in the planning and execution of these weekends for six or seven years after that. I learned two things from those experiences: 1) God can and will show up as long as there are people gathered who desire His presence, no matter what "forms" their worship takes and 2) there is value in both free worship and prescribed words prayed in unity. I think we limit our view of God when we completely disregard the past traditions and histories of the people of God as well as when we hold only to those in our worship of Christ. I continue to be amazed at the multifaceted nature of God.

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  2. That's cool that you've had a similar experience, D'Ann. It didn't really fit into the post, but the main thing I was taught at the seminar in 1999 was the idea of narrative theology and spending quite time envisioning scriptures and yourself in the scriptures.

    For me, learning how to use my "imagination" or inner vision or "the eyes of my heart" has made all the difference in my relationship with God. My imagination was always so unruly. I felt like I couldn't control it at all. I certianly couldn't turn it off. It was as if I learned that instead of turning it off, I could change the channel to picturing God and scripture and faith-filled imaginations.

    Yes, it made all the difference.

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  3. Beautiful post, Dina! I love how ancient and modern are lining up again, so to speak. I began to see it in college, too, as I studied the Ancients and realized how much we really have in common with them.

    In one of the lab classes I took that dealt with high-level physics and calculus, we were discussing the "magic" of that brand of math--no one knows why the formulas work, just that they do. I said something about "You do A, then B, then there's a wink and prayer, and you get C." My professor loved it and started calling it the "wink and a prayer" formula. =)

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  4. Yes, Roseanna, one of my secret passions is reading very high level science books, seriously. But when I try to talk about them everyone is like, huh????

    Actually, my kids are math and science whizzes, so sometimes they get the math part better than I do. I'm particularly fascinated with how time bends and is relative because the speed of light is a constant and never changes.

    I'm weird, I know. But, a lot of our newest scientific formulas have to involve unexplainable factors and variables, which I think tie to God and the unseen spiritual univers all around us.

    I'm glad to hear that there's a bit of "magic" involved in calculus. I was able to do the formulas, but I never understood them.

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  5. Thought-provoking post!

    My best friend recently Amazoned me a copy of "The Naked Now" by Richard Rohr. Can't wait to dig in.

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  6. I just looked it up, Patti. That sounds fascinating. "Contemplative" is one of my favorite words.

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  7. If I were to get the correct answer there would be magic in any calculus that I attempted.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Dina. I believe God will meet us where we are.

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  8. Lisa, an interesting aspect of the Ken Wilson book is that he uses a quadrant illustrations to look at different denominations and Christian traditions. His main point is that Jesus is somewhere in the middle and we all need to keeping moving toward him from wherever we currently are.

    This was certainly true for me.

    Dina

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  9. Dina, you've gone and done it again. This subject needs to settle in a bit. You've made us think.

    My short answer is tradition is a double-edge sword. Comforting and controlling at the same time.

    Working in a scientific field, I am amazed at the "magic" as I learn more of the intricacy of creation. God is a supernatural being after all. Meaning -- Beyond the realm of what is understood by our limited nature.

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  10. Deb, I agree about tradition. I don't think anyone should feel constrained by traditions, but that there are some beautiful expressions of worship within tradition that many of us have lost.

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  11. Dina,
    Good post. What you stated is exactly why I became an Anglo-Catholic and I'm on my way to becoming a married Roman Catholic priest due to Anglicanorum Coetibus. I found a full expression of the charismata in the Sacraments and in liturgy. I often look to the Carmelite monks & nuns, the Desert Fathers & Mothers, and St. Padre Pio who had an estactic expression of worship yet said the very tradition Tridentine mass everyday.

    I highly recommend the book "In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the the Desert Fathers and Mothers" by John Chryssavgis. It changed my life and worship.

    BTW, no orthodox believing Catholic Christian "worships" Mary. She's venerated.

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  12. Hey, Joe. Thanks for stopping by. And I do know now that the "worship" thing is not exactly correct, but of course that's what I grew up thinking.

    I've heard of that book before. I'm going to have a whole list I need to check out after this post.

    That'll be pretty cool if you become a married Catholic priest. Jennifer will be a pretty unique priest's wife, huh. But she's cute enough to pull if off :)

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  13. C.S. Lewis would be proud of this post :). I had a discussion just today with a friend about the need, as Christians, to discuss faith in a tangible way for others to understand.

    As it turns out, this month is the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Charismatic Renewal Movement (I noticed the first post talk about renewal) ... Francis McNutt, a well known Catholic renewalist, spoke at Regent at chapel and as part of a symposium.

    My biggest nugget of wisdom from there (and also found in this post) is that the teachings/faith of yesterday ought to not be watered down for tomorrow's generation ... The analogy came up of water in bucket: How each time its passed to the next guy in line, some water pours out. The question becomes, "how can we transfer this passion (such as we find in the ancient poem) to our children's children without 'losing something?'"

    I suppose part of that means not to fall into an ill-devoted relationship with God. And to learn from the ancients ;)

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  14. Dina, fascinating post! We can learn a lot from the way the Ancients viewed the world and spiritual matters. I liked your prayer analogy :-)

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  15. Sarah, thanks for sharing so many great thoughts. Wow. I would be thrilled to make C.S. Lewis proud.

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  16. I love that prayer analogy too, Narelle. After I read it I immediately shared it with my whole family.

    This is also why I am writing books set in the medieval time period. The period predates the "modern" worldview, and so I'm able to explore this sort of thinking and poetry.

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  17. Dina, I did not grow up in the Catholic church, but rather in a protestant church. Now I attend a non-denominational church. But I have always had a fascination for the nuns and their committment and the life they lead. A few years ago, I had an interesting experience with nuns and healing. My mom had cancer and it just happened that they sent her to a Catholic hospital to have her surgery. That first day after surgery, she was so weak and in so much pain. The next morning a nun came to visit her. She asked my mom if she could pray over her. Of course we both said yes. Well, while she prayed, she ran her hands over my mom's entire body. Not touching her. Her hands were about an inch or two above her body as she prayed. My mother never took more than a tylenol from that morning forward for that cancer surgery. It truly was a shining example of Christ's healing power.

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  18. Wow, that's amazing, Suzie. Many of the medieval mystics were known for healing ministries and miracles. They had such close communion with God that it only seems natural.

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  19. Hi Dina,
    I'm catching up as I went on a field trip yesterday. Intriguing post! As you know, we're Anglicans, and in our house, we've also noted an increase in publications on the subject of "rediscovering" ancient roots and practices, many of which liturgical churches never lost. While I did not grow up in this tradition (and came to Christ through a parachurch ministry, InterVarsity, and then worshipped at an Assembly of God church), I've gained so much through learning about the saints who've gone before me. Fascinating post. Thanks.

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  20. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Susanne. I'll be looking forward to your saint post on Thursday.

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  21. Interesting thoughts. i do believe we canlearn from the past. heavens, I'm an historian, of course I believe this, and it carries on to spiritual teachings, too.

    On the other hand, having grown up in a church that was traditional until I was a tween, then, later in life hanging out with many persons who were of traditional backgrounds, including cCatholic, what I've found is a sad lack of kknowledge of Scirputere and too much knowledge of secondary sources because theyw ere taught to follow the lives of the saints, not the life of Jesus.

    Likewise, corporate prayer, though definitely powerful, is too often a formulaic substitute for one on one honest worship. I've had more experiences of spiritual ecstasy from reading Isaiah, the Psalms, or romans than I have from reading any work of someone else. Primary sources are the best.

    Just tossing this out there because I think people glom onto a new idea like following the old and forget what is the real old, the real truth.

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  22. Excellent thoughts, Laurie Alice. It's all about finding balance. I should mention that the ancient practices that touched me the most were those that encouraged true initimacy with Christ like narrative theology and contemplative prayer. Not traditions.

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  23. Dina this was such an eye opener to me because I tend to blend the ancient and modern when it comes to Worship Music. I like to find old songs and jazz them up or listen to old songs that others have jazzed up. I know that is a totally different direction then what this post is refering too. However, I truely do love how the blend is starting to come to the surface in our culture.

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