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CHRISTIANITY AMONGST THE GAULS—THE CHURCH OF LYONS.
For a short time it was believed that the death of Polycarpus had put an end to persecution, and it would seem that there was in fact an interval of calm. The zeal of the Smyrniotes was but redoubled; and it is about this time that must be placed the departure of a Christian colony, which, setting out probably from Smyrna, carried the Gospel with a bound into distant countries, where the name of Jesus had not yet penetrated. Pothinus, an old man of seventy, probably a Smyrniote and a disciple of Polycarpus, was, it seems, the chief of this new departure.
For a long time a course of reciprocal communication had been established between the ports of Asia Minor and the shores of the Mediterranean of Gaul. The ancient traces of the Phœnicians were not yet wholly effaced. These populations of Asia and Syria, for whom emigration to the East possessed a great attraction, were fond of ascending the Rhone and the Saone, carrying with them a portable bazaar of divers merchandise, or else stopping on the banks of these great rivers, at spots which held out to them the hope of making a living. Vienne and Lyons, the two principal towns of the country, were mostly the points aimed at by the emigrants, who went into Gaul as merchants, servants, workmen, and even as 252physicians, whom the peasants amongst the Allobroges and Segusiavii did not possess to the same extent. The laborious and industrial population of the great towns on the banks of the Rhone was in a great part composed of those Orientals, who are more gentle, more intelligent, less superstitious than the indigenous population, and, by reason of their insinuating and amiable manners, capable of exercising upon the former a profound influence. The Roman Empire had broken down the barriers of national sentiment, which prevented different peoples from coming into contact. Certain propaganda which the ancient Gaulish institutions, for example, had laid down from the beginning, had become possible. Rome persecuted, but did not use preventive means, so that, far from being hurtful to the development of an opinion aspiring to be universal, she aided it. These Syrians and Asiatics arrived in the East not knowing any tongue except the Greek. Among themselves they did not cast aside that language; they made use of it in their writings, and in all their personal relations; but they quickly acquired Latin, and even Celtic. Greek, moreover, which continued to be spoken in the region of the lower Rhone, was known to a great extent in Vienne and in Lyons.
These Christians of Lyons and Vienne, in setting out from a very limited region, Asia and Phrygia, being almost all compatriots, and having been instructed by the same books and by the same teachings, afford an instance of rare unity. Their intercourse with the Churches of Asia and Phrygia was frequent: in grave circumstances it was to these Churches that they wrote. Like Phrygians generally, they were ardent pietists; but they had not that sectarian tinge which soon made the Montanists a danger, almost a plague, in the Church. Pothinus, who was at first recognised as the head of the 253Church of Lyons, was a respectable old man, and moderate even in his enthusiasm.
Attains of Pergamos, who like him was a very old man, appears to have been, after the former, the pillar of the Church and the principal authority. He was a Roman citizen and a rather important personage: he knew Latin, and was recognised in every city as the principal representative of the little community. A Phrygian named Alexander, practising the medical profession, was loved and known by all. Initiated into the pious secrets of the saints of Phrygia, he possessed some of the graces, that is to say, the supernatural gifts, of the apostolic age, which had been revived in his native land. Like Polycarpus, he had reached the highest state of the internal spiritual communion. It was, as we see, a corner of Phrygia which chance had transported bodily into Gaul. The continual accessions coming from Asia maintained that first hold and conserved there the spirit of mysticism which had been its primitive character. As soon as he was able, Irenæus, wearied out perhaps by his struggles with Florimus and Blastus, quitted Rome for this Church, composed entirely of the countrymen, disciples, and the friends of Polycarpus.
Communication between Lyons and Vienne was constant: the two Churches, in reality, were but one, and in both the Greek dominated; but in both likewise there existed between the emigrants of Asia and the indigenous population, who spoke Latin or Celtic, the closest relations. The effect of this familiar preaching in the house and in the workshop was rapid and profound. The women especially felt themselves vehemently carried away by it. The Gaulish nature, naturally sympathetic and religious, promptly embraced the new ideas brought by the strangers. Their religion, at once most idealistic and most materialistic, their belief in perpetual visions, their habit of transforming lively and delicate sensations 254into supernatural intuitions, suited those races very well which were carried away by religious dreams, and which the insufficient worships of Gaul and Rome could not satisfy. The evangelic ministry was sometimes exercised in the Celtic tongue. It is remarkable that amongst the new converts a great number were Roman citizens.
One of the most important conquests was that of a certain Vettius Epagathus, a young noble Lyonese, who, when he had hardly been affiliated to the Church, excelled everybody in piety and in charity, and became one of the most distinguished amongst them. He led so chaste and so austere a life that he was, in spite of his youth, compared to the aged Zacharias, an ascetic who was constantly visited by the Holy Spirit. Devoted to works of mercy, he became the servant of all, and employed his life to the succour of his neighbours with admirable zeal and fervour. It was believed that the Paraclete dwelt in him, and that he acted in all circumstances under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The recollection left by the virtues of Vettius became a popular tradition, which pretended to ascribe to his family the evangelisation of the neighbouring countries. He was in truth the first-fruits of Christ in Gaul. Sanctus, the deacon of Vienne, and especially the maid-servant Blandina, who was much inferior to him in social dignity, equalled him in earnestness. Blandina, above all, worked miracles. She was so slender of body that it was feared she had not the physical strength sufficient to confess Christ. She displayed, on the contrary, the day when the struggle came, an unexampled nervous force; she wearied out the torturers for a whole day; and it might be said that at each torment she experienced a recrudescence of faith and of life.
Such was this Church, which in a bound attained to the highest privileges of the Christian Churches 255of Asia, and stood out in the centre of a still semi-barbarous country, like a shining beacon. The Christians of Lyons and Vienne, entrusted with the Gospel of John and of the Apocalypse, without having need of the stammering schools through which Christianity had passed, were carried at the very first to the summit of perfection. Nowhere was life more austere, enthusiasm more serious, the desire to create the kingdom of God more intense. Chilasmus, which had its home in Asia Minor, was not less loudly proclaimed in Lyons. Gaul hence entered the Church of Jesus through a triumph hitherto unequalled. Lyons was designated as the religious capital of that country. Fourvieres and Ainai are the two sacred points of our Christian origins. Fourvieres, at the time of the ecclesiastical annals of which we now speak, was still a city wholly Pagan; as for Ainai (Athanacum) it is allowable to suppose that the Christian souvenirs have some reason for attaching themselves to it. This suburb, situated on the islands at the confluence of the rivers, down the river from the Gaulish and Roman city, came to be the lower part of the town, the place where the Orientals disembarked, and where probably they made some sojourn before settling down. But this was undoubtedly the first Christian quarter, and the very ancient church which is to be seen there, is perhaps of all the edifices in France the one which those who love antique souvenirs ought to visit with the most respect. The Lyonese character from this time forth was sketched with all the features which distinguish it—need of the supernatural, fervour of soul, a taste for the irrational, perversity of judgment, ardent imagination, and a profound and sensual mysticism. With this passionate race, high moral instincts do not spring from reason, but from the heart and the bowels. The origin of the Lyonese school in art and literature 256was already fully traced in that admirable letter upon the frightful drama of 177. It is beautiful, odd touching, sickly. There is mixed up in it a slight aberration of the senses, a something resembling the nervous quivering of the saints of Pepuza.
The relations of Epagathus with the Paraclete savoured already of the city of spiritualism, the city in which, towards the end of the last century, Cagliostro had a temple. The anæstheses of Blandina, her familiar conversations with Christ, whilst the bull is tossing her into the air; the hallucination of the martyrs, believing that they saw Jesus in their sister, at the end of the arena bound naked to a stake—the whole of this legend which on the one hand transports you away from stoicism and where on the other one approaches the cataleptic state, and to the experiences of Salpetriere, seems a subject invented for those poets, painters, thinkers, wholly original and idealistic, who imagine themselves to paint only the soul, but in reality only dupes of the body. Epictetus deports himself better; he has shown in the battle of life as much heroism as Attalus and as Sanctus, but there is no legend concerning him. The hegemonikon alone says nothing to humanity. Man is a very complex being. One can never charm or arouse the multitude with pure truth: one has never made a great man out of a eunuch, nor a great romance without love.
We shall soon witness the most dangerous chimeras of Gnosticism Ending at Lyons a prompt reception, and almost by the side of Blandina the victims of the seductions of Marcus flee from the Church, or come there to confess their sin, in habits of mourning. The charm of the Lyonese, living in a sort of tender decency and of voluptuous chastity; her seductive reserve, implying the secret idea that beauty is a holy thing; her strange facility for letting herself be captivated by the appearances of mysticism and of 257pity, produced under Marcus Aurelius scenes which might lead one to think they had taken place in our own times. Marseilles, Arles, and the immediate environs received alike under Antonius a first Christian preaching; Nîmes, on the contrary, appeared to have resisted as long as possible the cult which came from the East.
It was about the same time that Africa witnessed the formation of stable Churches which were soon to constitute one of the most original parties of the new religion. Amongst the first founders of African Christianity, the mystic tinge which in a few years was denominated Montanist was no less strong than amongst the Christians of Lyons. It is probable, nevertheless, that the teaching of the kingdom of God was in this case brought from Rome and not from Asia. The Acts of St Perpetua, and in general the Acts of the Martyrs of Africa—Tertullian, and the other types of African Christianity—have an air of fraternity with Pastor Hermas. Assuredly the first bearers of the good news spoke Greek at Carthage, as they did everywhere else. Greek was almost as widespread in that city as Latin; the Christian community at first made use of both languages; soon, however, the language of Rome predominated. Africa thus gave the first example of a Latin Church. In a few years a brilliant Christian literature was produced in that eccentric idiom which the rude Punic genius had drawn, by the twofold influence of barbarism and rhetoric, from the language of Cicero and of Tacitus. A translation of the works of the Old and New Testaments in that energetic dialect responded to the requirements of the new converts, and was for a long time the Bible of the West.258
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