Most of us have forgotten, or never knew, that Christianity has been the binding agent of Western civilization since the beginning of the Middle Ages when Roman emperor Constantine legalized the faith in 314 AD. Gerald Simons wrote in 1968 in a book called Barbarian Europe:
The foundations of medieval civilization were laid by a unique political revolution… The new (formative) entity was Christendom, a mystical commonwealth that united all believers across the shifting boundaries of barbarian kingdoms. …No other agency in the West, during or long after the (Roman) empire’s collapse, could have filled the political vacuum left by weak Roman emperors and unequipped Germanic kings. Moved to serve the general welfare by an unshakeable conviction of its own mission to all mankind, the Church took the lead in the West… The Church provided and worked to instill social ideals and moral values… These and other achievements proved so decisive that it is almost impossible to imagine what course Western history might have taken if the Church had fallen along with the Roman empire.”
Eastern Orthodoxy did the same in places like Byzantium, Russia and in Syria where Christians were first called ‘Christians’.
Consider the role that thousands of Christian monasteries played in undeveloped, rural Europe during the Middle Ages. We may think of monasteries as silent, prayerful places full of monks making wine and bread and seeking an exalted state for themselves. But monasteries also were garrisons of worldly tranquility and civility that were utterly crucial to Western social and economic progress.
They served not only as Christian bastions but as centers of education, scholarship and preservation of knowledge of the ancient world. Monks were often erudite scholars and monasteries sometimes had rare libraries and were the basis for universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Monasteries acted as banks and trading centers, as hospitals, orphanages and shelters for the poor, as manufacturing centers, as inns and conference centers, and as laboratories for advancing technologies in agriculture, food preservation, animal husbandry and even metallurgy that all served the common good.
It was those devout monks, separated from the temptations and snares of the outside world and devoted to the perfection of God, who had the discipline and faith to lay with perseverance and patience the foundation for a new world order out of the dust of war, backwardness and poverty. None of us would be here today without Christianity. And thus if you ever wonder, “Why should I go to church?” you have the answer.
Christianity not only assimilated the European people but converted the barbarians and made them good in some of the darkest hours imaginable. But then again Christianity brought its own light. Because infinitely more significant than its temporal success Christianity is about the individual spirit. It is something that has to be worked on over time, person by person, thought by thought, action by action. Eternal salvation in the timeless eschaton is just the end point of an incomparable human journey that starts, and has started, with a simple walk through the doors of a church.
Of course we all have seen nonbelievers confronting death and crying out “Please God, save me! I promise I will be a better person if you will help me just this time!”
Well, that may work once but don’t push your luck. We must not see God as an abstraction to be called up when convenient like a website but as a way of life that requires prayer, study, contemplation and church attendance. It all adds up, step by step. There are no shortcuts.
The language of Christianity is like no other in history with timeless wisdom that has dominated Western civilization for millennia like “love thy neighbor” and “let not your heart be troubled” and “put not your trust in princes, in sons of men” and “may you live to see your children’s children” and “trampling down death” and “every city or house divided against itself shall not stand” and “the truth will set you free” and “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move” and “forgive and you will be forgiven”. And on and on. This is not mere literary phraseology. This is art of a supreme order.
So next time you are feeling uncertain, anxious or unhappy and don’t know why, put down the IPad and go to church. It may take time to feel the power but it is well worth the wait because the power is awesome. Talk to a priest or pastor directly with your questions. Do not feel embarrassed or intimidated. He wants very much to help you even if you know nothing about the faith, as the barbarians did not.
All are welcome in the Christian faith whether coming at the first hour or the 11th. It is never too late to embrace our guiding faith, as Christianity will continue to guide us for the next 1,000 years on a ray of light.
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