It was not on the schedule. Other things were—a tour of an ancient Roman villa; a visit to the port of Antioch Seleucid Pieria, where Paul and his companions set out on their first missionary journey. But on our trek north to Cappadocia, our guide suggested we take a detour and stop at an ancient monastery. It is known as Gumusler Monastery. There are many in this region, given the remote geography and a vast number of caves, but this one was special. Here we could see evidence that early church fathers like Basil and Chrysostom and Gregory had come in search of a deeper presence. If the choice was between ecclesiastical responsibilities or spiritual retreat, the monastery won out every time.
There were good reasons for choosing a hermetic existence. It was more than seeking leisure with God or submitting the theological self to “be polished to beauty.” There was also the desire to be free of practical affairs and devote oneself to a contemplative life. But even more, these early church fathers were unnerved by the responsibilities that came with being physicians of the soul. Who can handle the weight of curing the soul? This unnatural work is not within a saint’s human compass and possibility. Hence, men like Gregory of nearby Nazianzus dreamed always of retiring to the silence of the hills. Ministry is “of all things most to be feared.” When it was insisted that he be set apart for the priesthood, he viewed it as “an arbitrary act of oppression” (Purves).
Back to Gumusler, it was clear on our arrival that few groups come to this out-of-the-way place. Once beyond the walls, we walked into the ancient chapel where men and women gathered to enter a monastic existence and pursue their ascetic practices. They were inspired by the likes of Elijah and John the Baptist, men who left the world for the desert. We entered into this sacred space and felt we had—for a moment–entered into their world. I wanted to pray and sing, but it was not to be.
Like every place once set aside for worship—and there are many—these former monasteries and churches serve as museums, all under the auspices of the Turkish government. Ironically, in a place created for the deepest of contemplation, activities like prayer and singing are now forbidden. We were met outside the walls with the blare of the Muslim call to prayer, but inside, there was no toleration for us to meet our God and celebrate our faith.
It amazes me that in a land where the early church got its footing, where churches like the one at Antioch (the NT poster church where congregants were led of the Spirit, were multicultural in composition, and intensely missional in orientation), once flourished, the church is largely absent. How could this be? Here in this place where Peter came and wrote his stirring letters to the persecuted church, where ancient apostles like Paul and John walked and preached and established churches, and where church fathers like Gregory of Nazianzus wrote their theologies, there is hardly any trace of faith. There are remnants of ancient crosses and Byzantine art, but much has been lost. How can this be? I ask this every time I come.
There are clues, especially in the early letters to the seven churches of Revelation. What was written to churches in Smyrna and Laodicea and Ephesus and other places in Turkey serve as warnings to the church past and present. Following Christ comes at a high cost. There are enemies within and without. Accommodation to the age, complacency, lukewarmness, self-sufficiency, and loss of one’s first love took their toll—and still do. God warned that their candles would be blown out. One by one it happened. The darkness is especially evident now. It all tells us that there is no guarantee that a flourishing church today will be a vibrant congregation tomorrow. The death of the church is only one generation away, and it happens when believers lose their passion and hesitate to pass on their convictions. The light goes out.
Still, yesterday we discovered another ancient site, another church carved into the rocks, one even further off the beaten path. It was closed and locked and filled with dust from disuse. Through the perseverance of our guide, it was opened up so that we could enter and worship. On the outskirts of Cappadocia, we gathered with our wine and bread. We sat in silence surrounded by walls where ancient symbols of faith were carved into the stones. With the help of light entering in from one side, we sang and prayed and came to the Lord’s table. The food is marvelous in Turkey, but on this afternoon, it could not compare with bread set apart to remember the Lord’s death. We read—appropriately—from Peter’s epistle. In this moment, we sensed we were being cheered on by the “crowd of witnesses” in heaven, the saints of this place who have gone on before us (Heb 12:1).
As ever—God has the last word.