Mike’s note: This is part of a guest series by Alexander John Shaia, sharing his insights gleaned from a lifetime of studying (and living) personal transformation, closely based on his explosive book Heart and Mind. Want to meet him in person? Join Alexander, Mona Haydar, Jasmin Morrell, Bushi Yamato Damashii, myself and others at Wisdom Camp this July 12th! Details and registration here. In the meantime, enjoy this reflection!
Early believers in Jesus the Christ called themselves Followers of The Way. We have tended to understand this identification as generic: simply people who followed Jesus. But I suggest something entirely different. I suggest that they knew that a Christian life was not a static reality; it was rather, a process continually unfolding before them as they walked their truth. I further posit that the Followers of The Way were guided by a clearly-understood journey that, while not precise, was laid out in an ever-repeating cycle of four steps or paths. While the evidence for these benefits comes in part from my background in anthropology and in part from much intuitive logic as opposed to a trail of written documents, I believe it is nonetheless clear.
The explanation for its beginnings comes from Christianity’s deep Jewish roots. My anthropological studies tell me that indigenous cultures worldwide have consistently had fourfold maturation rituals, so, first of all it is likely that the tribal predecessors of Judaic culture provided the structural underpinning for subsequent, more sophisticated Jewish practices. Both Jewish and Christian scholars have made significant discoveries about the way the ritual of Passover was celebrated in first-century Jewish life¾including Jesus’ lifetime¾and until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
Many people today assume that the lengthy Passover ritual as described in the Haggadah has “always been that way.” But it hasn’t. The Haggadah was not written down until many years after the Great Temple was destroyed. Prior to that, the Passover celebration was a more informal home event with ritual words passed down for centuries from person to person. Over the two centuries before Jesus, the celebration had taken on quite a bit of Greek Socratic (Hellenistic) influence, which suited Jewish social tradition quite nicely, so what had begun as the recitation of a story had morphed into almost a question and response ritual.
On the morning of Preparation Day for the celebration, the head of the household took a lamb to The Temple for slaughter. Then, he would bring the meat home so that it, together with the other prescribed ritual foodstuffs, could be properly prepared. Eventually, when it was time for the meal, those gathered would be called to table for a joyous repast. But, the feast included an important ritual. Someone at table would query those gathered, following an informal script that revolved around four questions that not only told the great Story of Exodus, but also applied it to the participants’ present lives. So, we might imagine: “This is the story of our slavery, and today we are enslaved…” “We wandered for forty years in the arid desert, and today we find that we are wandering, unable to make a decision…” “But at last we arrived in the Promised Land, and we’re planning … this year, God-willing.” Followed by, “Since then we have been committed to making ourselves and our people thrive in God’s promise of this Land—and look around this table and see the kernel of the community that needs our love, every day.”
From this deep annual ritual and the understandings flowing from it, we can well imagine how this core metaphor became a spiritual springboard for every Hebrew’s journey with God—a journey of freedom and liberation, one with four sequential paths that continually repeated in the lives of every individual and in the life of the community.
So there is the key—and it is a far-reaching link, indeed. The explanation for early Christians’ natural comfort with being Followers of The Way was specifically and profoundly rooted in their Jewish traditions and almost certainly, the principal of four-ness, found in ancient rituals from prehistory. The sequence was well-known to them, and the road well-marked.
Yet, as Christians did in so many other ways, they expanded the journey from that of their mother tradition pushing beyond a focus on tribe and bloodline. Christians took their strong, familiar framework of family and community relationships and of freedom and melded to it an identifiable, cyclical inner journey of transformation available to everyone, incorporating the living reality of Jesus the Christ. Soon, The Way came to be understood by early Christians as an ongoing gradual process of maturation into an image of the eternal Christ in whom they believed they were already made.
Within just a few years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, understandings of the journey were seen in practices incorporated into Christian symbols and rituals. The cross began to be drawn with four equidistant points instead the three-pointed shape onto which Jesus was nailed. By early second century, Sunday worship was regularly conducted in four parts: gathering together, chanting scripture, breaking bread and sending forth.
And most significantly, baptism, the initiation ritual for becoming a Christian, became a four-step process, equipping new members for their like journey with Jesus the Christ. In these early centuries, an individual emerged from the waters, a deep pool in the shape of a four-pointed equidistant cross, to hear the entire assembly cry out their name followed either by “a Christ” or “in Christ.” Imagine what that felt like—coming up from near-drowning—to hear everyone assembled calling your name — “Rachel, a Christ!” “Michael, in Christ!” It must have been an extraordinary experience. Christians were certain that the Christ lives—and lives in them.
As time passed, The Way—the on-going, fourfold journey of living with Jesus the Christ—gradually came to have formal names. Within two centuries the word “sanctification” was sometimes being used. Or—as a process of transformation into an actual part of Christ—the process was called “divinization” or “deification.” Finally, the word “theosis” often came to be used for both cases, and was especially used in Eastern Christianity to refer to a process of spiritual transformation. Today, the word “theosis” is being recaptured as a meaningful shorthand that refers to a gradual and ongoing spiritual journey to be ever more one with God/the Christ.
Join us tomorrow as we examine the final key to understanding this ancient Christian path of transformation. And please leave any reflections in the comments below!
Alexander John Shaia, PhD,is a thoughtful and poetic man, living the ancient rhythms of his Lebanese and Aramaic heritage. With deep conviction, he invites us into a practice of spirituality (and Christianity) for the twenty-first century—one that crosses traditional boundaries, encourages vital thinking and inhabits a genuine community of the heart. As a spiritual director, educator, anthropologist, psychologist, ritualist and Sandplay therapist, Alexander is a holistic, cross-discipline visionary and passionate professional speaker. He founded The Journey of Quadratos, as well as the Blue Door Retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now he travels internationally, speaking, leading seminars and conducting retreats on Quadratos, the Four-Gospel Journey and Gateway to Oneness (The 72 Hours of Easter). Each autumn Alexander guides an intimate band of pilgrims on the Camino, the West’s most ancient path of transformation. He’s just released the updated edition of Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, which this post is based on. See Quadratos.com for more about his work and offerings.