This month, we will be reading the book of Revelation during worship. It’s a text that has been interpreted in some pretty wild ways over the years, but if you keep in mind that it was written by an experienced preacher to congregations facing persecution, the imagery is much less scary and more fascinating. But today, I was captivated more by the setting of the book than its content.
The island of Patmos, off the coast of Greece, is a naturally beautiful place, in part because it is rather remote, even by modern standards. A beautiful monastery, still in use, was built by the very early Christians (300-500 CE). There, the tradition tells us that an elderly bishop was exiled, and had a series of visions in a cave, which he wrote down for the instruction of the congregations from which he was separated.
I’ve been thinking about islands this week. I have a friend who is getting ready to start a new call to a parish on an island. There is something that we all find alluring about islands. Their distance from the main body of land, the difficulty of reaching them, the challenges they pose, serve to make them a little magical. Who has not, in a fit of frustration with community living, wished that they could find a desert island and run away?
This island, with its blue sky and jagged coast, was not a fantasy vacation for the good bishop. But his isolation did prompt him to re-think his faith. Who was Jesus to these saints who lived in fear for their lives? What could he say about their oppressors to a community of martyrs? Was God really present to the faithful in their time of need? Out of those concerns, John crafted a narrative, based on his visions, of what God intended for the world. Those lonely, windswept hills birthed images that survive to this day: The Whore of Babylon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Angel and the Seven Seals, and the New Jerusalem. Could he have imagined all this in a busy urban center? We’ll never know for sure.
Certainly, the monastery honoring his scholarship is a reminder of the faith of the early church; a window into their world and the images that brought them teaching and comfort. (To see more, click this: http://www.patmos-island.com/en/monasteries/info/monastery-of-st-john#.Vv6I3aQrLtQ)
In my own journey of faith, lonely places lift my sights beyond my daily round and invite me to look at the big picture. Alone with my thoughts and the Holy Spirit, I see things differently. All around the world, people are being persecuted for not believing the same way as the holders of power believe. God is present to them; as surely as God held the little band of third century Christians in the everlasting arms.
I’m sorry that a faithful servant of the church was exiled to a place that held no comfort for him. But I’m glad that he wrote down his visions, that we might imagine the world where God “wipes away every tear”.