Withdrawal is not the same as retreat

Several years ago I was sharing with a historian in our denomination my work on the monks of the 4th Century in Egypt and what I was learning about their “Pentecostal” experience. He dismissed it quickly, saying that he wasn’t interested in people who retreated from culture and the world instead of engaging it.

We really need to give up this “either/or” thinking, but when it’s embedded culturally over hundreds of years, it’s tough.

Not giving that up is what keeps this nation divided politically and culturally.

Not giving that thinking up also keeps us from learning the value of “both/and” when it comes to “engagement” with this world and particularly this culture. To withdraw is not necessarily the same as to retreat from this world.

Thomas Merton is the one who taught me this lesson. In Seven Storey Mountain he comes to a place where he is trying to understand vocation for his life and thinks he is not called to the monastic life. Nevertheless, he feels led to go off for a week to a monastery in Kentucky. As he enters the monastery he begins to see the life of sacrifice this particular order was called to, but it was not a retreat from the world.

This was 1941. The world was exploding in war and the U.S. was racing toward involvement. It would be easy to think these monks were retreating from the cause. They were ducking their responsibility. The Lord taught Merton another lesson.

“… these men are dying for Me. These monks are killing themselves for Me: and for you, for the world, for the people who do not know Me, for the millions that will never know them on this earth…”

Merton came to realize that their life of withdrawal from “culture” was a life entering into deep spiritual warfare, especially in that time period. He is fundamentally convinced that their prayers kept the world from destroying itself. He even ponders what would have happened if more people had heard that call to prayer…

To withdraw is not necessarily retreat from responsibility in this world. It may be the most responsible thing to do. The primary task is to hear the call of God and respond.

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