Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Cappadocia: Thanksgiving in great company

This year we took Thanksgiving, that most meaningful of American feast days, on the road. Back home in Turkey just three weeks, we were still a little foot-loose. The season felt lonely. A movable feast, a portable holiday, suited our community of two. Just at dawn on Saturday morning we set off on the 11-hour journey to Cappadocia, that region in central Turkey rich with the dual attractions of whimsical and extravagant geology and a rich Christian history. We booked a room with a view and loaded the car with Curt’s cameras, my books and writing stuff, and our hiking boots.

I went in search of thin space, of a blurring of the distance between this five-senses, fallen world and that other place where God’s presence, His mind, His way of seeing is full-blown, all out, every day completely realized.

 “Thin space.” I had never heard the term when I first experienced it. We were playing tourist in Cappadocia with several dear ones when my brother called to tell me that Dad’s death was imminent. A tumult of feelings: that longing to be with him, to walk with him to the threshold; that uncertainty about what to do in the moment. Mingled with soul-piercing hope that he would pass into the presence of Jesus. That evening I found myself literally walking through a remote valley, through green grass and the evening shade of trees beside a gentle stream. There, as I cried out to the Lord, my heart walked with Dad through the Psalm 23 valley of death, and I was caught up into the interface between this temporal world and eternity that pervaded the ancient wadi with its mystical rock formations, ancient cave dwellings and litter of church ruins. My effort to capture those moments can be found at: Your old man will dream dreams....

Later a guest told me that she experienced Spa for the Soul as a “thin space.” Since then the idea occasionally makes tiny explosions into my awareness. Celtic Christians of the middle ages conceived a thin space as a place where the boundary between heaven and earth grows fuzzy. The experience is not unique to believers, but derives from pre-Christian mysticism to describe those places where the supernatural is sensed as very near. Think Stonehenge. For me, “thin space” came to be associated not with places that are inherently mystical, but with those geographic locations where the people of God have returned again and again to listen, to pray their longing to walk with God and to be transformed ever more into the likeness of Jesus. It is as though, by returning to those places over years and generations, by dedicating those spaces to companionship with the Living Christ, the pathway wears smooth and the ground becomes holy.
The man who lent us the key called this the Hidden Church. Over 3,000 tiny cave-church ruins testify to the long presence of praying believers.

A thin space. A space where other believers have gone before me and left the way smooth, left markers, returned again and again to refill their lamps with the oil of readiness to meet the Bridegroom.

So about Cappadocia, and about thin space deep in Muslim Turkey, in a country where the tiniest fraction of one percent of people follow Jesus. In this era of easy tourism, people from all over the world flock to Cappadocia for its strange geology and ancient cave dwellings. On calm mornings dawn comes with hundreds of hot air balloons full of those who pay a couple hundred dollars for an hour adrift in whimsy. The region is arid and the rock is soft. Over eons deep wadis have formed and wind and water have carved other-worldly fairy chimneys and hoodoos, along with cones and cliffs that could be hollowed and shaped into dwellings.
A bit of landscape just off our cliffside terrace in Uçhisar
Tourists flock today, but Cappadocia was never an easy place to live. Arable land is scarce, and so is water and wood for a fire. Hot in summer, and winter brings ice and snow. It is remote. Even in our day, as we drove east past Konya the road was empty. Cappadocia is a land best suited to refuge, to isolation and withdrawal.

Acts 2 tells us that devout Jews from Cappadocia were present at Pentecost. Peter addresses his letter to the Christian diaspora and includes the “elect exiles” (ESV) of Cappadocia. We see that from earliest days believers inhabited these remote wadis, then part of the Roman Empire.

Early on the Church was persecuted. By the third century, under Constantine, it became mainstream as Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire. Soon the Church was deeply engaged in politics, gradually gaining an authority and credibility that surpassed that of Rome in decline.

During those first four centuries of Christianity a couple of movements populated Cappadocia: first, persecution so intense that believers fled to remote places of relative safety; later, disenchantment with a safe church grown soft, decadent, and deeply aligned with political powers.  As more famously happened in the deserts of Egypt, some believers were drawn to solitary, separated places where they could pursue purity separated from the distractions of the world. Egypt produced the Desert Fathers and Mothers whose lives and experiences resurge today with a wisdom that resonates again in the decadent and over-stimulated Western Church. Though less celebrated, Cappadocia produced the same sort of early monastic communities, deep thinkers, and intensely prayerful men and women. Egypt and Cappadocia were friends, linked by letters, writings, and those who traveled between one and the other as they steeped themselves in scripture, prayed and hammered out doctrine around the fully-God/fully-human nature of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Personhood and role of the Holy Spirit, and the canon of the Bible.
Those ancients left us their self-portrait. Here they gather, watching and praying in the company of angels.

Early monasticism: in one way it was a withdrawal from the world. Early monastics included men, and more women than men. Celibacy was common, but some of the monastics were married couples with families. Both men and women, known today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, were sought after as teachers because of their wisdom. The movement was counter-culture, a refusal of what was expected: monastics parted with their wealth, left home and family and business interests, and walked away from all their world expected of them.

In one way, monasticism was a withdrawal, a disengagement from politics, family, pursuit of career, and cultural understandings of pleasure and success. Solitude and prayer, and a simple life lived among like-minded community: these pursuits might appear as flight from engagement with a broken world. Yet as their wilderness existence of simplicity, prayer, and lives lived intensely conscious of the presence of God shaped and transformed them, people came. The poor and marginalized came because among the monastics they found generosity and dignity; the puzzled and the lost came because from the monastics they received truth and wisdom; the existing community came because the monks could be counted on for extra hands for the harvest. And the leaders, the powers, of the day came, time and again, to draw one or another of the monastics back into action in the centers of power.

But enough of the history lesson. Following on from the 4th century Christians continued in Cappadocia. During the Crusades, it again became refuge. After the 11th century, its importance faded, and its population became more mixed when the Selcuks, fathers of modern day Turkey, moved in conquest from the east. But until the early 1920’s, when all Christians were forcibly removed at the founding of modern-day Turkey, the area remained markedly Christian. Today more than 3,000 ruined churches, and monasteries bear witness to a life of separation, solitude, communal living, discipleship and prayer. They bear witness to a set-apart way of life marked by counter-cultural choices and by suffering, and known for its generosity, wisdom, and constancy in prayer.

Last week, as we walked miles and miles through wadis and over cliff tops, with the occasional scramble and the exertions of climbing and descending, my heart turned time and again to those who had walked those paths not as hikers staying in a cozy cliffside cottage, but as contemplatives who chose a solitary, harsh shelter in order to pursue holiness. And then turned around and welcomed the world. As to my prayer, it was a week without any profound sense of mystery. But it was companionable. A great cloud of witnesses whose ways of prayer and hospitality, wisdom and teaching, wore down and smoothed the path I walk today.

So much more could be said about the Fathers and Mothers of Cappadocia: about Basil, and the Gregories, about men and women who learned and led together, about the communities and industry that grew around the early monastics, about the grappling to understand and express the nature of God as Trinity and Jesus as fully-human yet fully-God, and about the theology and creeds that form their legacy to us who seek to know Christ today. This post is informed by a number of sources. Among them, I highly recommend the relatively recent When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers by Marcellino D’Ambrosio, a Catholic scholar; as well as the short and more devotional The Desert Mothers: Spiritual Practices from the Women of the Wilderness, by Mary C. Earle.

For more in the way of visuals and impressions I posted a bit about the journey on Facebook: Facebook journal; and Curt's video of one wadi can be seen here.

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