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The Spirituality of the Early Church: Patristic Sources
BONIFACE RAMSEY, O. P.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
To understand any phenomenon fully, we must look to its origins. In the case of the spiritual theology and practice of Western Christendom, the quest for understanding must begin in the earliest centuries of the Church's existence, when the foundations for all future development were laid. No matter how specific and unique the various traditions surveyed in this volume may be, they all take, as a point of departure, some aspect of the common vision of the earliest Christian communities, and it is in precisely this elemental commonality that their authenticity and enduring value lies.
The early Church, as understood in this essay, includes the time when the earliest nonscriptural Christian writings were produced and -while excluding the Scriptures themselves—extends to about the middle of the eighth century. This period of nearly seven hundred years, known as the patristic era or the age of the Fathers of the Church --- as the great theologians of the time were called—runs from at least the late first-century so-called First Letter of Clement to the systematic works of John Damascene (d. ca. 750). It is, in fact, the longest relatively cohesive era in the history of Christian thought, given that complete cohesiveness does not exist in any arbitrarily designated historical period. The early Church took in too many discrete geographical areas (e.g., Italy, North Africa, Cappadocia, Palestine, and Persia) and too many different languages (Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Arabic, to name a few), with the different ways of thinking that they implied, for it to be legitimately perceived by us, in retrospect, as an unfragmented whole. Yet, despite this, there is a recognizable continuity in these seven centuries and, consequently, in their spirituality.
The Early Church and the World of Spirits
If we were to say that this continuity of conception and spiritual practice consisted in a general awareness of a spiritual world and a consciousness that this invisible world had a profound and unremitting impact upon the visible world of human activity, then we would be saying too little, although it would be abundantly true. Most people in every age of history—Christians and non-Christians alike—have been convinced of the existence of just such a spiritual realm, inhabited by gods and demons and angels or their near equivalents; and the current age is no exception, despite appearances to the contrary. But it is useful nonetheless to emphasize early Christianity's belief in this invisible world and to mention some of its peculiarities.
First, the sources suggest a greater sensitivity to the presence of demons than to that of good spirits. This is especially true in monastic literature, where demons show up in all sorts of guises and shapes and engage in activities ranging from the mildly mischievous to the utterly heinous—all with a view to diverting the monk or nun from the path to salvation. It is also true elsewhere than in monastic literature, however, even if to a slightly lesser degree. We are told in a treatise dating from the early third century, for example, that when a person was to be baptized, he was warned against taking any foreign object into the water with him, lest a demon somehow attach himself to the object and interfere with the baptism. So pervasive was the influence of demons felt to be in some circles that the great third-century theologian Origen had to insist that they were not responsible for all the sins that human beings committed.
But the good spirits—the angels—were not without an influence of their own, even if it seems to have been less remarked upon. They were known to make consoling appearances to people in distress, to steer endangered ships through stormy seas, and to provide food for hungry travelers. Sometimes, though, demons would masquerade as their angelic counterparts. The realization that this took place gave rise to the science of distinguishing between the two, otherwise known as the "discernment of spirits." Already referred to in I John 4:1-3 in an inchoate way, the practice of spiritual discernment was developed by later theologians with the sophistication that came with experience. It was agreed that a demonic visitation brought with it confusion and an upsurge of disturbing, unwholesome thoughts, whereas an angelic one brought peace and a yearning for divine things.
But, as has been said, this belief in an invisible albeit extremely populous and active world was not peculiar to early Christianity. If we wish to distinguish the spirituality of the early Church from that of subsequent generations, we must focus upon three other areas: Christology, liturgy, and martyrdom.
Salvation in Christ: The Basis of the Spiritual Life
The early Church was preoccupied, to a degree unparalleled in later eras, with the mystery of Christ. We can see this in the major christological heresies that dominate the seven centuries with which we are concerned: docetism, which denied that Christ had a real body; adoptionism, which asserted that he was the adopted and not the natural son of God; Arianism, which made Christ at best a minor divinity, inferior to the Father; Apollinarianism, which negated Christ's human soul or mind; Nestorianism, which drastically divided the human and the divine natures in Christ; monophysitism, which denied Christ's human nature; and monothelitism, which claimed that Christ had only one will. Even heresies not specifically christological, like Pelagianism and iconoclasm, had in them significant aspects touching upon the person of Christ. The former saw him as a model for human behavior rather than as the source of grace, whereas the latter, which forbade the use of images in worship, implied a terrible misunderstanding of the Incarnation.
However we may look upon such unorthodox ideas, we must at least concede that they were attempts to take Christ very seriously and to understand the meaning that he had for humankind; for none of those who held these heterodox views would have denied that Christ was the Savior. Quite the contrary, they believed passionately that their view of him was more in keeping with his saving role than was the view of the majority of Christians. If they overemphasized either his humanity or his divinity, it was because they were convinced that either a "more human" or a "more divine" Christ would be a better savior. In other words, it was the issue of human salvation that propelled their speculations, just as, for that matter, it did the speculations of the orthodox. We can see this overriding consideration clearly in the famous lines of Gregory Nazianzen, written in the late fourth century, in which he attacks the Apollinarian heresy, which erred on the side of the divine. In denying his human soul, the Apollinarians had invented a Christ who could not save our souls:
Whatever [Christ] has not taken upon himself he has not healed, but whatever is united to his divinity is also saved. If only half of Adam fell, then what Christ takes upon himself and saves may also be half. But if his whole nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of him who was begotten and so be wholly saved. Let them not, therefore, deny us our complete salvation, clothing the Savior only with bones and nerves and the appearance of humanity.
Cyril of Alexandria, on the other hand, pointed out some fifty years later that Nestorianism, which erred on the side of the human by separating the human from the divine in Christ, had the effect of removing the element of the divine from the Eucharist and making it the flesh and blood of an ordinary man. This would of course nullify the Eucharist's saving power. The orthodox, in a Christology that was canonized at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, affirmed that Christ was both completely human and completely divine.
This intense interest in the person of Christ, born of a preoccupation with salvation and so evident in the struggle between orthodoxy and heresy, is then necessarily apparent in what we refer to as "spirituality." In short, Christ was the measure, the model, and the goal of the spiritual life. He was the measure in that he defined the nature of that life by who he himself was. We may see this suggested in some beautiful words of Ambrose of Milan:
Christ is the beginning of our virtue. He is the beginning of chastity, he who taught virgins not to look for men's embraces but to dedicate the chastity of their mind and body to the Holy Spirit rather than to a husband. Christ is the beginning of poverty, he who became poor even though he was rich. Christ is the beginning of patience, he who did not revile in return when he was reviled and did not strike back when he was struck. Christ is the beginning of humility, he who took the form of a slave although he was equal to God the Father because of his majestic power. From him each virtue has taken its beginning.
Christ was the model in that his own life attracted imitation. Martyrdom, monasticism, virginity, and poverty—to name four of the great spiritual ideals that gripped the early Church—were all thought of as imitations of Christ. A particularly striking example of this notion is found in the immortal expression of Jerome, for whom poverty was the naked following of the naked Christ. Finally, Christ was the goal in that he was the focus of all longing; hence the numerous references to the beauty of Christ that are scattered throughout the literature of the period. John Chrysostom, for one, speaks of the glorious countenance of the human Christ and remarks that in heaven it will be still more attractive. Augustine, for another, describes Christ's beauty as being desirable to virgins, who have turned away from marriage and from the enjoyment of merely human beauty. Even the heretics looked to Christ in these ways, and their literature, like that of the orthodox, could breathe forth the most tender devotion to him.
Beyond all this, however, Christ was the very possibility of the spiritual life. And thus we return to the theme of salvation; for if Christ had not saved the human race and established the Church, which was his body and the mediator of his grace, there could of course have been no talk of a spiritual life at all.
Some words deserve to be said here about the Holy Spirit, lest the impression be given that the Christocentricism of the early Church in any way excludes the Spirit. There were varied opinions about this third person of the Trinity. They ranged from second-century Montanism, which seems to have glorified the Spirit at the expense of Christ and exalted the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, to fourth-century pneumatomachianism, which denied the divinity of the Spirit.
Orthodox belief tended to associate the inner workings of holiness with the Spirit, without implying by this that Christ was not crucially involved in this function as well. Cyril of Jerusalem is typical in this regard. He speaks in great detail of the gifts of the Spirit in his mid-fourth-century Catechesis, mentioning (in particular) inner enlightenment, virginity, and martyrdom, but he feels obliged to observe that
the Father through the Son with the Holy Spirit bestows all gifts. The gifts of the Father are not one thing, those of the Son another and those of the Holy Spirit something else. For there is one salvation, one power, one faith. There is one God, the Father; one Lord, his only-begotten Son; one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.
We must admit, however, that the Spirit did not occupy the position in early Christian thought, at least in the Greek and Latin-speaking Church, that Christ did. At the risk of oversimplifying, the reason for this seems to be that the operations of the Spirit were hidden and discernible only with difficulty. Who, after all, can measure—or even define—holiness? Consequently, the Spirit was an elusive figure. The workings of Christ, on the other hand, were at least in part those of a historical figure who had lived a life recorded in the Gospels and who had founded a visible organization, the Church. Yet the discrepancy in the attention paid to each of these persons by early Christians should not disturb us. It is no different today, and the respective emphases appear to be natural to Christianity.
The Preeminence of the Liturgy
The second area upon which to focus is the liturgy. Although noteworthy developments occurred here over the course of the Church's first seven hundred years, such that the austere Roman Eucharist that Justin Martyr describes in the mid-second century hardly seems comparable to the elaborate ceremonies in Constantinople and elsewhere in the fifth and later centuries, one thing remained unchanged: The early Christians were a "liturgical" people in the sense that they were formed by and aware of the liturgy in a way that Christians in subsequent ages were not. To be sure, we must not idealize the situation of the early Church. Christians then could be as slack, for example, in their attendance at and attention to the Eucharist as they were in the Middle Ages or still are in modern times. Nonetheless, the liturgy loomed larger than it has since; and this was true for several reasons.
First, the ancient Church was, by and large, a Church of relatively small congregations; this was especially the case in its earliest period, before the changes effected by Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century. Initially, a town or city normally had only one place where its Christians gathered together, and the consequences of this were significant. Greater mutuality and more direct access to the celebration itself, as well as to the bishops and priests who performed the liturgy, must have contributed to the sense of active participation that fairly leaps out at us from the pages of early texts touching on the liturgy.
We know that preaching was taken very seriously, for it was a time when rhetorical skill was a much-esteemed gift. The greatest preachers, men like Augustine and John Chrysostom, were highly attuned to the moods of their congregations and were thus in something of a dialogue with them. One cannot read ancient sermons without the feeling that most of the preachers knew their audiences intimately. The urgency of the preaching of the time is reflected in a long passage at the end of one of Chrysostom's homilies. Lamenting his congregation's lack of spiritual progress, he says he is so taken up with their sins that he has no leisure to weep over his own, for "you are indeed everything to me." The same degree of passionate—and personal—involvement with his listeners is reflected in the words of Peter Chrysologus, who also preached in the first half of the fifth century: "You are my life, you are my salvation, you are my glory, and therefore I cannot bear that you should be ignorant of the knowledge that God has imparted to me."
We have every reason to believe that each Eucharist celebrated was accompanied by a homily. However, as the period we are considering drew to a close, preaching became less and less central to the liturgy. For example, by the beginning of the sixth century, preachers in the West were often reading homilies prepared by another person, in some cases relying on those composed earlier by Augustine and other Fathers. By the beginning of the eighth century it is clear from the Ordo primus romanus—the earliest work describing the sequence of events in the Roman liturgy—that Roman bishops no longer preached at every Eucharist, for there is no mention at all of a homily.
The importance of the liturgy in Christian antiquity was also a consequence of the fact that the participants, who were closer to the sources of its symbolism, were therefore more alert to its full significance. Liturgical gestures and words were not yet largely incomprehensible or subject to misinterpretation, as unfortunately seems to have been the case by the Middle Ages. The medieval penchant for intricate and complex elaboration and the distance that separated the Middle Ages from the sources were partly responsible for this. Early liturgy could be elaborate, too, as has been remarked, but it was still within the grasp, one suspects, of most ordinary men and women.
It should be noted, too, that the liturgy's preeminent place in early Christianity stemmed from its relatively exclusive claim on the believer's attention. When Christians gathered, it was for no other purpose, as a rule, than to celebrate Baptism or the Eucharist, to pray the psalms, or to hear an instruction of some sort. There was none of what a later age would refer to as "public devotions," such as novenas, holy hours, and the like. This is not to say that people did not pray privately: Numerous private prayers (as well as accounts of superstitious practices) have come down to us from antiquity. But public prayer was liturgical prayer.
Excerpted from Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church by Robin Maas, Gabriel O'Donnell. Copyright © 1990 Robin Maas and Gabriel O'Donnell. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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