In addition to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, I particularly value the wisdom of the Greek-speaking theologians in early Christianity, the “Fathers” of the Eastern Church. These names would be known in a Western seminary and some church calendars, but they would not be familiar names for most lay Catholics or Protestants: Origen, Athanasius, Basil, the two Gregorys (of Nazianzen and Nyssa), Evagrius Ponticus, John Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysius, the two Cyrils (of Alexandria and Jerusalem), and others. Their writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology–some of which we’ve retained, and unfortunately, much of which we’ve forgotten or labeled heretical. (Following next week’s meditations on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we’ll learn from a few of these Eastern Christian teachers.)
Early Eastern Christianity set the foundation and ground for what we would now call contemplation. The term hesychasm (“resting” in God) applies to this primary concern in the Eastern Church. They are, as it were, the “Buddhists” of Christianity. The Western Church was always more missionary-oriented, more practical, and also focused on academic learning. That made a big difference in our two approaches, and obviously there are strengths and weaknesses to both. Our biggest loss was that we did not balance one another out.
Among many of the early Fathers there is also a common belief in apokatastasis (universal restoration) that has largely escaped the Western Church. Most Catholics and Protestants would be shocked at their early belief that salvation is cosmic and universal, and that this is the precise and perfect meaning of Christ’s victory. While this early belief is validated by Scripture and by the very Trinitarian nature of God, the Western church went down the road of a very limited victory for God, a reward/punishment understanding of salvation at which almost no one won, including God. (I’ll say more about this later in the meditations and you might also wish to listen to my talk, Hell, No!)
Both Desert Christianity and the Eastern Fathers of the Church are essential, yet almost lost pieces of the great Perennial Tradition. They are foundational to retrieving true orthodoxy (or “rightness,” a word not used by Jesus). The Early Church in its simplicity, non-liturgical emphasis, and non-hierarchy was itself an alternative to what was later called Orthodoxy! It focused on very different things than the Church did after both East and West aligned with power, money, and war. All streams of the Great Tradition have something to teach us; we exclude or neglect them to our own detriment. By reclaiming the many divergent roots of our faith tradition, we come closer to experiencing the wholeness and union that God surely desires for us and offers to us.