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ABUSES AND PENITENCE—NEW PROPHECIES.
The Church was like the pious Israel at the time when it built its new temple; with the one hand they fought, with the other they built. The philosophic prepossessions were the act of a very small number. The great Christian work was moral and popular. The Church of Rome especially showed Itself more and more indifferent to these extravagant speculations which delighted minds full of the intellectual activity of the Greeks, but corrupted by the reveries of the East. The disciplinary organisation was the principal work at Rome; that extra-ordinary city applied to that its thoroughly practical genius and its strong energy.
Penitence had always been a fundamental institution of Christianity. The elect of the future city of God should be absolutely pure. To avoid sin was impossible; it was therefore necessary that means should be found for recovering lost grace. The Church accordingly at an early period erected itself into a tribunal, and transformed repentance into public penitence, imposed by authority and accepted by the delinquent. A mass of questions which were to trouble the Church for a century and a half date 211from that time. How could people, after having fallen often, become penitent again? Do those means of reconciliation apply to all time? The hypothesis of murder was scarcely thought of; the gentle and timid manners of the sect forbade the idea of a Christian assassin; but adultery in a little congregation of brethren and sisters was common enough. Apostacy, indeed, seeing the bitterness of the persecutions, was not rare. Some, to avoid punishment, went even so far as to curse Christ; some became the denouncers of their brethren; while others contented themselves with a simple denial, “I am not a Christian.” They were ashamed of Christ without exactly blaspheming him.
It was this last category of persons who caused the greatest embarrassment. The Church was a source of such gentleness, that the day after their fall, the apostates, the denouncers of their brethren, experienced cruel remorse. They would have desired to re-enter the assembly they had betrayed. The situation of those unfortunates was distressing. Despairing of their salvation, they became the prey of frightful terrors. They could be seen prowling around the Church where they had tasted so many spiritual joys. There was no connection between them and the faithful. With a severity which Jesus would not have approved, but which the gravity of the circumstances excused, they were treated as people infected by the itch, and were called by a cruel pleasantry “the savages, the solitary ones.” Many went to see the confessors in prison and found a sort of austere joy in the hard words which those addressed to them. The larger portion of the faithful considered them as totally dead to the Church, and would not admit that there could be any place of penitence for them there. Some, less harsh, distinguished between those who had blasphemed Christ or denounced their brethren and those who had 212simply denied their faith; these latter could be admitted to repentance. Others, more indulgent still, accorded penitence to those who had denied with the mouth and not with the heart. There was a danger of pushing rigour too far, for the Jews sought to gain to the synagogue those the Church had thus expelled.
Besides those great culprits, there were the weak, the uncertain, the worldly—Christians in some sense ashamed, and who dissembled as to their faith, and were thus led unceasingly into semi-apostacies. The Christian profession was something so strict that, if the Christian did not live in the society of his brethren, he was exposed to continual mockery. As he existed only with the end of the world before his mind, the Christian of that time was quite sequestered from public life. Those who were obliged to mix themselves in temporal affairs were led more and more to forsake the society of the saints, and soon to disdain them, to blush for them as brethren, to hear them laughed at without replying. Half-dead to the spiritual life, they fell into doubt. They became rich; they made a separate company, in virtue of the principle that man is led almost necessarily to cultivate the society of persons who have the same fortune as himself. They shunned meeting with the servants of God, fearing that they would ask for alms. The company of the faithful appeared humble; those quitted it in order to lead a more brilliant life with the Gentiles. These worldlings did not abandon God, but they deserted the Church; they kept the faith, but ceased to practise it. Some became repentant, and gave themselves up to works of charity; others, brought into the society of the Pagans, became like them, and abandoned themselves to pleasure. This equivocal middle course did not dispose them to martyrdom. At the least sound of persecution they made an appearance of returning to idols, to escape being disturbed.213
In the very bosom of the Church what imperfection! Such were constantly associated with the congregation, and did not cease to be slanderous, envious, blundering, bold, and presumptuous. The administration of the funds of the Church gave place to such abuses; certain deacons took the supplies of the widows and orphans for themselves. Then the teachers of strange doctrines abounded and seduced the faithful. Placed as judges in the midst of all these troubles, the saints inclined sometimes to indulgence and sometimes to severity. What was serious was that certain sectarian doctors flattered those who had sinned, in the view of personal interest. They sold them indulgence, after a fashion; and in the hope of being recompensed for their casuistry, they told them that they had no need of penitence, and that the pastors were people of an exaggerated severity.
The fact is that, in such an assembly of saints, there was scarcely room for lukewarmness. An enthusiastic piety made them believe everything. Prophecy and revelations flourished as in the palmiest days. There resulted serious abuses from this. The individual prophets became the plague of the Church. People went to interrogate them as to the future, even as to temporal affairs. These men received money, and gave the replies which were desired of them. The orthodox admitted that the devils sometimes revealed certain things to impostors, the better to try the righteous; but they maintained that they could always distinguish the prophets of God from frivolous prophets. Naturally this caused serious embarrassment, for he whom one called frivolous the other believed guided by “the angel of the prophetic spirit.”
The orthodox scrupled no more than the heterodox to provide as food for the pious public the most audaciously fabricated revelations, and these revelations 214were greedily received. Such especially was a prophecy whose title alone marked sufficiently its tendency of spirit. It is related in the book of Numbers that Eldad and Modad, clothed with a portion of the prophetic power of Moses, prophesied out of the ranks and in their entirely individual capacity. Joshua wished them to be silenced. Moses stopped him. “Are you jealous for me?” he asked. “Would to God that all the people of Jehovah were prophets, and that Jehovah sent his spirit upon all!” Eldad and Modad were thus the representatives, among the ancient people, of the individual prophet. They were credited with a book which made much impression on many, and was quoted as inspired Scripture.
The symbolism of these new prophets appears sometimes strange and in bad taste. The exhaustion of their species was visible. All these used-up machines produce on us nothing but a result of fatigue and disgust. But for the simple the effect was great; such prophecies fortified the hesitating and warmed the cool. They believed they heard admonitions directly from God.
An apocalypse attributed to Peter was a very great success; it was admitted into the canon, beside that of John, and read in the greater number of the Churches. Like all apocalypses, it told the faithful of terrors and future calamities; like the Shepherd, of which we shall soon speak, it insisted on the punishment of different sins; like the apocalypse of Esdras, it treated, it would seem, of the state of souls after death. A particular idea of the author is that abortions are entrusted to a guardian angel, who charges himself with their education and development. They suffer the share of sufferings they would have endured if they had lived, and they are saved. The milk that women lose, and which coagulates, is changed into little animalculæ, which 215devour them at once. From the beginning, the bizarre aspects of the book provoked a strong opposition, and many wished it not to be read in public. This opposition only increased with time. The gloomy images which were to be found in it, however, made them keep it for the readings of the holy week. Then the antipathy of the Greek orthodox Church against apocalypses—an antipathy which was powerless against the apocalypse of John—succeeded in expelling this, and even in destroying it altogether.
The habit of public reading of the apostolical and prophetical readings in the Churches consumed, if one may so express it, many books: the circle of received writings was quickly run through, and the readers were thrown with earnestness on the new books which appeared, even when their titles to theopneusty were not very correct. There resulted from this a certain style of habit which went on for ten or twenty years. Sometimes, when the book was out of vogue, they limited its reading to one fixed day yearly.
This may be seen clearly in a curious little writing of that time, which has been preserved to us. It is a sort of homily, evidently for the use of the Roman Church, which the anagnost read after the large readings drawn from the sacred pages. This homily is itself a tissue of quotations taken from the Gospels, the ancient prophecies, and writings which it is now impossible to determine. The most compromising passages of the Gospel of the Egyptians are there quoted side by side with Matthew and Luke, and framed in a style of language destined to excite the piety of the “brethren and sisters.” The writing was attached, as a Roman document, to the epistle of Clement, and, with it, was copied accordingly into a great number of Bibles.216
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