By 6:30 AM, we were in the bus. Our destination? A mountain peak made famous by Simon Stylite, also known as Simon the Younger. His dad had a similar “gig” in what’s now Syria. What “gig” am I speaking of? Well, Simon lived in the 300’s, and felt strongly called to pursue God intensely. His desire drove him from the city to the mountain, where he lived out what we typically call “desert spirituality”, the pursuit of a pure heart through solitude and silence. This whole stream of spirituality is very significant in the history of Christianity, though it receives petty attention in the West as compared to in the East. Frankly, I’ve always felt some sense of connection to these movements. I don’t know exactly why, and as I’m about to describe, they can appear downright odd. However, I see something powerful and beautiful there that I find absent from much of what my faith experiences hold.
So here’s where the oddness comes in.
Around Simon’s private pursuit of God gathered others with similar desires. A small community formed. Soon, other forms of seekers began to visit the mountain. Hearing of the “holy man” of the mountain, people came seeking words of wisdom, healing, and help. The crowds became so intense that Simon was forced to build a pillar on top of which he lived. The pillar stood 6 feet tall in the beginning and was added on to over time to become much higher. For this reason, such figures in church history are labeled as “pillarites” or stylites. They are typically understood by us in the West as psycho-ascetics whose approaches to spirituality make no sense and serve no purpose. This morning while atop the mountain, at the foot of Simon’s pillar, Charles gave us a very thoughtful presentation on desert spirituality and then allowed us time to wander the mountain top and its ruins (a building once surrounded the pillar to allow places for visitors to stay) in silence.
I must say that this was one of my favourite places so far. It’s not exactly a “Bible place”, but it reflects the fourth century believers having similar struggles to our own: They lived in a society that was not lacking churches, yet some intense seekers craved more. Church buildings with people meeting in them doesn’t necessarily equate to people bowing themselves before God in humility and eagerness for Him to do beautiful things in their lives. Men like Simon couldn’t bear the desire any longer and took their pursuits to new levels. What follows is a touch of what we discussed at the mountain this morning.
We speak often in our churches (and rightfully so) of the desire to reach the masses. A term like “missional” is hot right now in discussions because it speaks of “getting out there” and “being out there”. It’s focused on the world and expresses our desire to make a difference to them. Yet many churches feel a frustration. The crowds don’t really seem to want what we’re bringing. The necessary connections don’t seem to happen, and we wonder what we’re doing wrong.
Then you look at the pillar and see Simon. All he wants is God. He burns with desire to be united with the Divine. And in his seeking, he is driven up a pillar by the crowds that sense something where he is. In contrast to our struggle to draw people in, he can’t keep people out! So while our 21st-century Western minds struggle to know what to do with a guy living his life on top of a pillar, there’s another thing we best place our minds upon: Why don’t the crowds sense real power and true wisdom in the churches of today?
Another spin on the same question came at our second stop of the day. We visited an Orthodox church called the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Galatians 2:11 speaks of these two men having a sharp disagreement in Antioch. Whether it was resolved as peacefully as the artwork in this church suggests is up for debate. But they both got their names attached to the building regardless. This church is unique because it houses both Orthodox and Catholic communities of faith. That is nearly unheard of and speaks of how tough things are on the Christians in this region. They are a tiny minority, and when things are tough, you huddle together. Differences that used to matter a lot fall right off the charts, and names like “brother” and “sister” are handed out more acceptance.
The discussion from Simon’s mountain continued in the courtyard of this church as we remembered that the name “Christian” originated in Antioch. While some of today are tempted to escape from this name because of all the baggage it carries, it remains a beautiful nickname thrust upon the first believers in this city. The people around them couldn’t figure them out. They marched to a different beat and lived for another Lord. What do you do with such people? You give them a nickname: “Christians”—the ones who follow Christ. They are like him, and they are visibly “of him”. The simple thing about nicknames though is that they’re always given by someone else. You can’t pick your own nickname.
If the watching world were choosing a nickname for the believers they know, would they give us the nickname “Christian” today? We use this name ourselves to label things—we speak of Christian education, Christian books, Christian music, Christian whatever. But it is us who stick the label on. But how does the world around us see us? That is the question.
It’s not that we’re out to please men or seek human approval. It’s just that the crowds, even the unbelieving crowds, could tell that God was present and active on Simon’s mountain and in Simon’s life. The crowds aren’t as out to lunch as some might like to think. So to sit and think of what nicknames the crowds might give our churches—this exercise has the potential to be both humbling and telling.
The rest of the day included an afternoon hike through a Roman water tunnel near Seleucia (Acts 13:4). This tunnel was constructed by the Romans before 100 AD to direct a river’s flow away from the harbour, in the hopes of keeping the silt in the river from filling the harbour. It is basically a huge tunnel dug right through the rock, and to see it is to behold an astounding piece of engineering and construction. Trust the Romans to make your jaw drop two days in a row!
We followed up a sweaty hike with a quick swim in the Mediterranean Sea. I hadn’t planned to swim, but the extent of the aforementioned sweatiness made a swim irresistible to nearly all of us.
From the Sea, we hopped in the bus to get back to Adana. We didn’t arrive until 10:30 PM, at which time we had supper! It’s now past midnight, and we’ll depart tomorrow morning at 9:30 for Cappadocia.
The trip’s been wonderful thus far, and we’re just getting warmed up!