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CHAPTER XXI.

ROMAN PIETISM—THE SHEPHERD OF HERMAS.

One book had in this fashion a durable success, and served during several centuries for the nourishment of Christian piety. It had as its author a brother of Pius, the bishop of Rome. This personage, who doubtless occupied a considerable place in the Church, conceived the project of striking a great blow, sufficient to awaken the saints. He pretended that, fifty or sixty years before, in the time of the persecution of Domitian, a certain Hermas, an elder of the Church of Rome, had had a revelation. Clement, the guarantee for all the pious frauds of Roman Ebionism, covered the book with his authority, and was believed to have it addressed to the churches of the whole world.

Hermas, a foundling born in slavery, had been sold, by the proprietor of slaves who had brought him up, to a Roman lady named Rhoda. He had doubtless succeeded in buying his liberty, and setting himself up in life; for at the opening of the work, he is under the blow of annoyances which his wife, his children, and his affairs have caused him, as these last, in consequence of the disagreement of his family, proceed very badly. His sons had even committed the greatest crime of which a Christian could be culpable; they had blasphemed Christ to escape persecution, and had denounced their parents. In the midst of these sorrows, poor Hermas found out Rhoda, whom he had not seen for many years. The small consolation he had in her household rendered his heart sensitive, it would appear; he began to love his old mistress like a sister. One day, seeing her bathe in the Tiber, he presented his hand to her to help her out of the river, and said to her, “How217happy should I be if I had a wife as beautiful and accomplished!” His thought did not go further, and such a reflection was all the more excusable that his wife was bitter, disagreeable, and full of defects. But the severity of Christian morals was so great that the quiet Platonic love of Hermas was remarked in heaven by the jealous watcher of pure souls; and he was to be convicted of it as of a crime.

Some time after—in fact, as he was going to his country house, situated at Cuma, ten stadia from the Campanian Way, and while he admired the beauty of God’s works, he slept when travelling. In spirit he traversed rivers, ravines, mountain crevasses, and, returning to the plain, began to pray to the Lord and to confess his sin.

Now, while he prayed, the heaven was opened, and he saw the woman he had desired saying to him, “Good day, Hermas.” Having looked at her, “Mistress, what are you doing here?” asked he. And she replied, “I have been brought here to accuse you of your sins before the Lord.” “What! are you my accuser?” “No; but listen to the words I am speaking to you. God, who dwells in heaven, who has created all things that exist out of nothing, and has made them great for the holy Church, is angry with you, because you have sinned in regard to me.” “I have sinned in regard to you!” replied Hermas; “and in what way? Have I ever said an improper word to you? Have I not always treated you as my mistress? Have I not always respected you as my sister? Why do you represent me falsely, oh, woman, for wicked and impure acts?” And then, smiling, she said to him, “For a righteous man like you desire alone is a great sin; but pray to God and he will pardon your sins and those of all your household and those of all the saints.” After she had said these words, the heavens were closed, and Hermas was afraid. “If this is to be looked on as sin, how is it possible to be saved?”

As he was plunged in these reflections, he saw before him a great armchair covered with white cloth. An aged female, richly dressed, having a book in her hand, came and sat down in it. Having saluted Hermas by name, “Why are you sad, Hermas—you who are usually so patient, equable, and always 218smiling?” “I am,” said Hermas, “under the stroke of reproaches from a very virtuous woman, who has told me that I have sinned regarding her.” “Ah, fie!” said she to me, “that this evil should be on the part of one of God’s servants—a man respectable and well tried, the chaste, simple, and innocent Hermas! Perhaps, indeed, there has some sentiment taken possession of your heart on the subject. But that is not the reason God is angry with you.” The good Hermas breathed hard while the old woman informed him that the true cause of God’s anger was his weakness as the father of a family. He did not restrain his wife and children with sufficient severity; this was the cause of the ruin of his temporal affairs. The old woman then read out of her book some terrible words which Hernias did not remember, and finished by some good words which he recollected.

The following year, at the same period, as he went to his country house at Cuma, Hermas saw the same old woman walking and reading a little book. She explained to him the object of the book, which was to exhort all men to repentance, for the times of persecution were drawing very near. A handsome young man appeared. “Who, do you think, is that old woman from whom you have received the book?” “The sibyl perhaps,” answered Hermas, his mind pre-occupied by the neighbourhood of Cuma. “No; she is the Church.” “Why then is she old?” “Because she has been first created, and the world has been made for her.” The old woman enjoined Hermas to send two copies of the book—the one to Clement, the other to the Deaconess Grapte. “Clement,” said she, “will address the book to the cities without, for there is in that his special work. Grapte will send it to the widows and orphans, and you will read it in the city for the elders who preside over the Church. This little book is naturally the work of 219the pretended Hermas. The heavenly origin of it is thus attested.”

The third vision is more mysterious. The old woman appeared again to Hermas, after some fasts and prayers. They arranged to meet in the country. Hermas arrived first; to his great astonishment he found himself in front of an ivory bench; on the bench was placed a linen pillow, covered with very fine gauze. He began to pray and confess his sins. The old woman arrived with six young people. She made Hermas sit at her left (the right being reserved for those who have suffered for God the lash, the prison, tortures, the cross, the wild beasts). Hermas then saw the six young men build a square tower, emerging from the bosom of the water. Some thousands of men served them, and brought the stones to them. Among the stones, those drawn from the channel of the water were hewn. Those were the most perfect; they joined so well that the tower appeared a monolith. Among the others, the young men made a selection. Around the tower was a pile of rubbishy materials, either because they had defects, or because they were not cut as they should have been.

“The tower,” said the old woman, “is the Church—that is, I, who have appeared to you, and who shall appear to you again. . . The six young men are the angels created first, to whom the Lord has entrusted the care of developing and governing his creation; those who carry the stones are the inferior angels. The beautiful white stones, which are dressed no finely, are the apostles, bishops, doctors, deacons, living or dead, who have been chaste, and who have lived on a good understanding with the faithful. The stones which are drawn from the channel of the water, represent those who have suffered death for the name of the Lord. Those which have been rejected, and remain near the tower, represent those who have sinned, and who wish to repent. If they did this while the building was going on they might be employed in it; but once the building is completed, they are of no more use. The stones which are broken and rejected are the wicked there is no more place for them. Those which are thrown to a distance from the 220tower, which roll into the road, and from thence into the wilderness, are the unsteady, who, after they have believed, have quitted the true path. Those which fall near the water and cannot enter it, are the souls who desire baptism, but recoil before the holiness of religion and the necessity of renouncing their lusts. As to the beautiful white but round stones, and which cannot in consequence be used in a square building, these are the rich who have embraced the faith. When persecution comes, their riches and business make them renounce the Lord. They will be useless to the building except when their riches are curtailed, just as to make a round stone enter into a square construction, it would be necessary to cut off a large portion. Judge this by yourself, Hermas; when you were rich you were useless, now that you are ruined, you are useful and fit to live.”

Hermas asks his informant as to the proximity more or less of the consummation of the times. “Fool,” replies the old woman, “do you not see that the tower is yet being built? When it shall be finished, the end will be; now it advances towards completion. Ask no more!”

The fourth vision is again on the Campanian Way. The Church, which has appeared up till now throwing aside all the signs of old age, and with all the marks of rejuvenation, now appears in the style of a girl wonderfully arrayed. A frightful monster (perhaps Nero) would have devoured her, but for the help of the angel Thegri, who presides over the fierce beasts. This monster is the herald of a fearful persecution which is at hand. Some tortures shall be passed through which nothing but purity of heart can enable one to escape. The world shall perish in fire and blood.

There is here only the mise en scene, in some sense preliminary. The essential part of the book commences with the appearance of a venerable personage in shepherd dress, clothed with a white beast’s skin, with a scrip hung on his shoulders, and a crook in his hand. It is the guardian angel of Hermas, clothed as the angel of penitence, who is sent by the venerable 221angel to be his companion all the rest of his life. This shepherd, who now takes speech till the end of the book, recites a little treatise on Christian morals, embellished with symbols and apologues. Chastity is the favourite virtue of the author. To think of another woman than one’s own wife is a crime. A man ought to take back his wife after her first act of adultery, expiated by repentance, but not after her second. Second marriages are permissible, but it is better not to involve oneself in them. The good conscience of Hermas shows in his taste for gaiety. Gaiety is a virtue, sadness distresses the Holy Spirit, and chases him from a soul, for the spirit is given joyfully to man. The continually sad prayer of a man does not go up to God. Sadness is like the drop of vinegar, which spoils the good wine. God is good, and the commandments impossible without him are easy with him. The devil is powerful, but he has no power over the true believer.

An affecting asceticism filled up the entire life of the Christian. The cares of business hindered from the service of God: it was necessary to withdraw from these. Fasting is recommended: now fasting consists in withdrawing every morning to one’s retreat; in purifying one’s thoughts from the remembrances of the world; in not eating all day anything but bread and water; in saving what you might have spent, and giving it to the widows and orphans, who will pray for you. Repentance is necessary even to the righteous for their venial sins. Certain severe angels are charged with over-looking them, and with punishing not only their sins but even those of their family. All the misfortunes of life were held to be chastisements inflicted by these angels on “penitenital pastors.” The penitent should afflict himself voluntarily, should humble himself, seek adversities and sorrows, or at least accept those which come upon him, as expiations. 222It would seem, according to this view, that penitence imposes on God—forces his hand. No, penitence is a gift of God. To those whom God foresees to be going to sin still, he does not accord the favour.

In the weighty questions relating to public penitence, Hermas avoids exaggerated severity; he has comparisons which shall irritate Tertullian, and give him, on the part of that fanatic, the name of “the friend of adulterers.” He explains the delay in the appearing of Christ by a decree of the mercy of God which allows sinners the chance of a last and definitive appeal. He who has blasphemed Christ to escape punishment, those who have denounced their brethren, are dead for ever: they resemble dry branches into which the sap can no longer ascend; but yet is their lot irrevocable? In certain cases, mercy is brought into the author’s mind; for the sons of Hermas, who were blasphemers of Christ and traitors to the Church, were admitted to pardon, for their father’s sake. Those who have simply denied Jesus can repent. “As to him who has denied from the heart,” says Hermas, “I do not know if he can live.” It is necessary also to distinguish the past from the future. To those who henceforth would deny Christ, there is no pardon; but those who had this misfortune before may be admitted to penitence. Sinners who have not blasphemed God nor betrayed his servants may return to penitence; but they hasten onwards; death threatens; the tower is about to be finished, and then the stones which have not been employed would be irrevocably rejected. For great crimes, there is but one repentance; for the lesser faults, it is allowable to repent more than once; but he who is constantly falling is a suspected penitent, and penitence will serve him in no wise.

A perfume of chastity, somewhat unhealthy, is breathed from the vision of the mountain of Arcadia, and the twelve virgins. The fêtes which are given 223in the dream, one would say, were the imagination of a poor faster. Twelve beautiful girls, fine and strong as caryatides, stand at the gate of the future temple, and pass the stones for the construction with their open arms.

“Thy shepherd will not come to-night,” they said “if he does not come thou wilt remain with us.” “No,” said I to them; “if he does not come, I shall return home, and to-morrow I will come back.” “Thou shouldst confide in us,” they replied; “thou canst not leave as!” “Where would you have me remain?” “Thou shalt sleep with us like a brother, and not as a man,” they answered; “for thou art our brother henceforth; we shall remain with you, for we love you very much” I blushed to remain in their company, but, lo! she who seemed to be their leader, began to embrace me; seeing which, the others imitated, causing me to make the tour of the building, and to play with me. And, as I was young, I began also to play with them. Some executed choruses, some danced, and others sang. As for me, I walked silently with them round the building, and was joyful with them. As it was late, I wished to return to the house, but they would not allow me, and I remained with them over night, sleeping by the side of the tower. The virgins had stretched out their linen tunics on the ground, and did nothing but pray. I prayed also with them incessantly, and the virgins rejoiced to see me pray thus: and I remained there till next morning at the second hour with the virgins. Then the shepherd arrived, and he addressed himself to them, “You have not done him any harm?” asked he, looking at them. “My lord,” I said to him, “I have only had the pleasure of abiding with them.” “Of what have you eaten? said he. “My lord,” said I to him; “I have lived all the night on the words of the Lord.” “Did they receive you well?” asked he. “Yes, my lord,” said I to him.

Those virgins are the “holy spirits,” the gifts of the Holy Ghost, the spiritual powers of the Son of God, and also the fundamental virtues of the Christian. A man cannot be saved except through these. The guardian angel of Hermas giving good testimony to the purity of his house—the twelve virgins who wish to have extreme propriety around them, and are repelled by the slightest defilement, consent to dwell there. Hermas promises that they shall always have with him a residence suited to their tastes.

224

The author of Hermas is a pure Ebionite. The only good use of a fortune is to redeem slaves—captives. The Christian, as to himself, is essentially a poor man; to practise hospitality towards the power, the servants of God, that washes out even great crimes. “One does not imagine,” says he, “what torment is in the punishment; it is worse than prison; so that we even see people committing suicide to escape it. When such a misfortune occurs, he who, knowing the unfortunate one, does not save him, is guilty of his death.” The antipathy of Hermas to people of the world is extreme. He is not pleased except when in a circle of simple people, not knowing what wickedness is, without differences among themselves, and looking on one another’s affairs, and mingling with each other; rejoicing in each other’s virtues, always ready to share with him who has nothing the result of their labours. God, seeing the simplicity of the holy child-likeness of these good workers, is pleased with their little charities. Childlikeness is that which, to Hermas as to Jesus, takes the first place in God’s sight.

The Christianity of the author of Hermas suggests Gnosticism. He never names Jesus in any other way than as Christ. He always calls him the Son of God, and makes him a being before the creatures, a counsellor of the plans on which God made his creation. At the same time as this Divine assessor has created all things, he maintains all things. His name is beyond comparison with every other name. Sometimes, in the style of the Elkasaites, Hermas would conceive Christ as a giant. Oftener still he identifies him with the Holy Spirit, the source of all the gifts. Like the Gnostics, Hermas plays with abstractions. At other times, the Son of God is the law preached throughout all the earth. The dead will receive the seal of the Son of God, baptism, when the apostles and the Christian preachers, after 225their death, descend into hell and baptise the dead.

A parable explains this singular Christology, and gives it much analogy with that which, later on, constituted Arianism. A master (God) plants in a certain corner of his property (the world) a vine (the circle of the Elect). Leaving for a journey, he has entrusted it to a servant (Jesus), who attends to it with wonderful care, roots out the weeds (blots out the sin of believers), and endures extreme pain (an allusion to the sufferings of Jesus). The master filled with joy at his return (on the day of judgment), calls his only Son and his friends (the Holy Spirit and the angels) and communicates to them the idea he has of associating this servant as an adopted son in the privileges of the only Son (the Holy Spirit). All consent to this by acclamation. Jesus is introduced by the resurrection into the divine circle; God sends him a part of the feast, and he, remembering his old fellow-servants, shares with them his heavenly gifts (the charisma). The divine rôle of Jesus is thus conceived as a sort of adoption and co-optation which places him beside a former Son of God. Moreover, Hermas sets forth a theology analogous to that which we have found among the Ebionites. The Holy Spirit pre-existed before all, and has created all. God chose him a body in which he could dwell in all purity, and realises for him a completed humanity: it is the life of Jesus. God takes counsel of his Son and of his angels, so that this flesh which has served the Spirit without reproach should have a place of rest, that this body without stain, in which the Holy Spirit dwells, would appear not to remain without reward.

All the chimeras of the times came into collision with each other, we can see, without succeeding in coming into agreement in the head of poor Hermas. Some grotesque theories, such as the descent of the 226apostles into hell, are peculiar to him. He was an Ebionite in his fashion of comprehending the kingdom of God and the position of Jesus. He was a Gnostic in his tendency to multiply beings and to give angels even to one who has never existed. A guardian angel is not enough for him; each man has two angels—the one to care for his well-being, the other to seek his hurt. Indeed, in many points of view, he is a Montanist in advance. He has no trace of episcopacy about him. The elders of the Church are, in his eyes, all equal; he appears to have been of the number of those who made opposition to the growing institution which reversed the equality of the presbyteri. Hermas is an experienced pneumatist; he is an anchorite, an abstainer. He shows himself severe on the clergy. He complains of the general laxity. The name of Christian, according to him, is not enough to save one; a man is saved above all by the spiritual gifts. The Church is a body of saints, and it must be disembarrassed of all impure alliance. Martyrdom completes the Christian. Prophecy is a personal gift, free, and not subjected to the Church; those who receive it, communicate its revelation to the leaders; but they do not require their permission. Eldad and Modad were two prophets without mission, and beyond the authority of superiors. The great objection which the orthodox have to the Shepherd, as to the Montanist revelations, is that it comes too late,—“that the number of the prophets is complete already.”

The intention of the pseudo-Hermas has been, in fact, simply and well to introduce a new book into the body of the sacred writings. Perhaps his brother Pius lent himself as his support in this. The attempt of the pseudo-Hermas was very nearly the last of this kind; it did not succeed, for the author was known; the origin of the book was too clear. The writing pleased by what was edifying in it; 227the better minds advised that it should be specially read, but not permitted to be read in the Church, nor as an apostolic writing (it was too modern), nor as a prophetic writing (the number of these scriptures was closed). Rome especially never admitted it; the East was more easy, Alexandria especially. Many Churches held it to be canonical, and did it the honour of having it read from the pulpit. Some eminent men—Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria—gave it a place in their Bible, after the apostolic writings. The more reserved conceded to it an angelic revelation and an ecclesiastical authority of the first order. There had always been some doubts and protestations; some even went as far as scorn. At the beginning of the fourth century, the Shepherd was no longer looked on but as a book for edification, very useful for elementary instruction. Piety and art made considerable borrowings from it. The Roman council of 494, under Gelasus, placed it among the Apocrypha, but did not take it out of the hands of the believers, who found in it a help for their piety.

The work has in some parts a charm; but a certain want of taste and talent are to be felt in it. The symbolism so energetic and so just in the old apocalypses, is here feeble, ill-adjusted, and without precise adaptation. The vein of Christian prophecy is altogether weakened. The language, simple, and in some sense flat, is nearly that of modern Greek as to the syntax; the choice of expression, on the contrary, is happy enough. It is the eloquence of a country curé, simple and grumbling, mingled with the cares of a sacristan concerned as to gauzes, cushions, and everything which serves to ornament his church. Hermas, in spite of his temptations and his pecadilloes, is certainly chastity itself, although the way he insists on this point makes us smile a little. To the terrible images of the old apocalypses, 228to the gloomy visions of John, and the pseudo-Esdras, succeed the gentle imaginations of a little pious romance, at once affecting and simple, and whose childish style is not free from insipidity.

The prophetic attempt of pseudo-Hermas was not, moreover, an isolated fact; it belonged to the general state of the Christian conscience. In fifteen years the same causes will produce facts of the same order in the most remote districts of Asia Minor, against which the episcopacy will employ much greater severity.

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