Unchartered Territory: Sailing through the Early Church

During a recent personal retreat, I met a 65-year-old man from Connecticut who spends every winter in the Caribbean Islands. Each December he packs up and sails south for six months, returning when life up in the Northeast becomes inhabitable again. I’m not going to lie; there is a HUGE part of me that is extremely envious of him. Although I have considered how refreshing it would be to soak up rays instead of shoveling snow, it is also unbelievably overwhelming (on so many levels) and just not practical for me to pack my bags for half of the year.

UNCHARTERED TERRITORY?

For starters, my kids are all under 6 years old, so I can’t exactly just hit the road (or sea) for that long of a stretch. Not to mention how difficult it would be for me as a priest in the Coptic Church to work remotely on Sunday’s. However, the biggest fear I have is that I know nothing about sailing. A bit problematic, don’t you think?

My comfort of being at sea probably parallels most people’s comfort with sailing into the ocean of the early Church fathers. Although my sailing adventures are going to have to wait a few years, for those of you who have had any interest in discovering what the early Church fathers (and mothers…a topic that I will cover in a future post) have had to say on different subjects, you don’t have to wait.

GOOD NEWS

Here are a few questions I get: How much is it going to cost me? Won’t I need a thesaurus to understand? Is that old stuff even relevant anymore? Where would I even begin? Here is some good news for you!

  • EVERYONE CAN AFFORD IT: Since a lot of this stuff was written a while ago (like over fifteen hundred years), copyright laws do not really apply to these texts. Although you have some translations that are still under copyright protection, you can usually find a free, legal copy of the text on-line. Since free is everyone’s favorite price, this can become a really affordable habit.
  • NOT AS COMPLICATED AS YOU THINK: On some level there is going to be a certain level of adjustment to the type of words that the church fathers use. It is not exactly like reading the Cat in the Hat. But don’t forget what your High School English teacher told you. Keep a dictionary close by and when you don’t know a word, look it up. When I first started reading the fathers a few years ago, I had to do a lot more looking up then I do now.
  • THE SUBJECT MATTER IS VERY RELEVANT: It depends what you mean by relevant. Since “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9b) you will find that the same types of issues that we deal with today were dealt with back then. Obviously since the world looks a bit different today then it did centuries ago, the imagery and context differs but they speak about God, the Church, marriage, sex, life, money, prayer, spiritual growth, and so much more.
  • A GREAT PLACE TO START: One of my all time favorite early Christian writers is a Bishop from Alexandria who lived in the fourth century A.D. In his greatest masterpiece, “On the Incarnation,” St. Athanasius succinctly and profoundly communicates the Gospel message in a way that has deeply touched the lives of so many. Below are the thoughts of a close friend who recently began reading “On the Incarnation” for the first time.

A FRIEND’S EXPERIENCE

“I am currently reading ‘On the Incarnation’ and it is changing me and helping me understand Christianity in truth. Whenever I finish reading a part of this book, I go back to my Bible and finally understand the Holy Scriptures. I understand Jesus’ message to His disciples. The revelation is so overwhelming that I am often brought to tears. What God revealed to St. Athanasius is absolute truth. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about who my Savior is, but I was wrong. Six years into my walk with Christ and I am discovering Him all over again, as if for the first time. What a difference it makes in the way I stand before God in prayer now. What a difference it makes in how I view myself, and my very delicate nature, completely dependent upon Him as His child. What a difference it makes in every aspect of my life when I see clearly who He is. Everything comes into perspective and makes sense. He truly is the Great I AM and without Him I am nothing. All I want is for everyone to know this truth…Scream it from the mountaintops. Everyone needs to prayerfully read this book.”

As you begin your journey with the early church, I encourage you to do so prayerfully and with a heart that is prepared for a deeper experience of God.

Question: What do you believe is the greatest opportunity that awaits you as you dig into the Church fathers?

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