The Church has the ability to transform the world. This fact is patently obvious if one looks at the last 2,000 or so years of world history. What may be less obvious is that the Church has been at its most influential when it has been committed to and sustained by regular spiritual practices. Christians taking on habits of retreat, study, and service have transformed the world in the past and can continue to do so in the present.
As I’ve prepared for sabbatical, I’ve been immersing myself in a great deal of early church history. As I’ve read about 1st-3rd century Rome, 5th-8th century Ireland, 6th-8th century Britain, and 13th century Assisi, a very clear pattern has emerged. That is, a small group of committed Christians, bound together by shared spiritual practices, can turn the world on its head. A few examples:
In the year 500, Britain was in chaos. Rome had long since left the island and with it had gone both literacy and most of the Church. Then, in 563 a group of a dozen Irish monks, led by a fellow named Columba, arrived at the tiny island of Iona in western Scotland. There they established a place of prayer, learning, and outreach to the local population. Sustained by common worship and common work, Iona soon began spreading the faith across Scotland and into northern England while also serving as a center of art, study, and diplomacy.
In 597, the year Columba died, a fellow named Augustine arrived in Canterbury, England. He had been sent to spread the faith in that region by Pope Gregory the Great. Both Gregory and Augustine were monks as well; they followed the rule of St. Benedict. Both men were sustained by regular practices of prayer, work, rest, and study – all done in community. When he arrived in England with his fellow monks, the first thing Augustine did was build an Abbey where these practices could find a home. Within 75 years, the Christian faith would have spread across Britain and the learning of British monks would help transform the educational systems of the rest of Europe.
In 1205, a war veteran named Francis enlisted for the second time, still bearing the scars of his last enlistment. While on the way to battle, a vision stopped him in his tracks and he returned home. Thereafter, he began ordering his days around receiving the Eucharist, contemplation, caring for the sick, and living simply. Others quickly flocked to Francis’ company and habits, and before long, these Friars (or brothers) and their female counterparts, the Poor Clares, were turning the Church and the world on their heads, calling them away from their excesses and back to the heart of the Gospel.
Like our ancestors in the faith, we are at our best as Christians when our lives are ordered around worship, study, and charity. We are most effective at transforming the world, when we have devoted our- selves to the habits that transform us.
Next Wednesday, I will stand in front of the congregation and read those familiar words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination, and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Truly, this season of forty days before Easter is our opportunity to recommit to a rule of life – to spiritual habits and practices – that will empower us for ministry just as they did for our ancestors for centuries.
What practices will you take on this Lent? Maybe you’ll recommit to making Sunday worship a priority – both here in Greenwood and wherever you find yourself on Sunday morning. Maybe you’ll recommit to the Bible Challenge, giving up on the idea of catching up, and instead joining us where we are. Maybe you’ll commit to volunteering in a ministry whose mission you believe in. Maybe you’ll join other church members in a discipline of weekday Morning Prayer.
Who knows, perhaps the spiritual practices we take on this Lent can become our way of life far beyond Easter! And with these habits of worship, study, and service sustaining us, who knows? We just might transform the world!