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CONTINUATION OF THE SECOND JOURNEY OF PAUL—FIRST EPISTLES—INTERIOR CONDITION OF THE NEW CHURCHES.
It was at Corinth that the apostolic life of Paul attained its highest degree of activity. To the cares of the grand Christianity which he was engaged in founding, he had just added the prepossessions of the communities that he had left behind him. A sort of jealousy, as he has told us himself, devoured him. He thought less at that moment of founding new Churches than of caring for those which he had created. Each of his Churches was to him as a bride which he had promised to Christ, and which he wished to preserve pure. The power that he claimed over these little corporations was absolute. A certain number of rules, which he regarded as having been laid down by Jesus himself, was the sole canonical law anterior to himself that he recognised. He was thought to have divine inspiration for adding to those rules all those which the new circumstances called for, and which had to be obeyed. But was not his example a supreme rule to which all his spiritual children might conform themselves?
Timothy, whom he employed to visit the Churches that were far away from him, could not, had he been indefatigable, satisfy the immense ardour of his master. It was then that Paul conceived the idea of supplying by correspondence what he was prevented from saying himself or through his principal disciples. There did not exist in the Roman Empire anything which resembled our postal establishment for private letters; all correspondence had to be 120forwarded incidentally, or by express. St Paul hence made it a point to take everywhere with him persons of a second order, who could be used as messengers. Correspondence between the synagogues already existed in Judaism. The envoy charged with bearing the letters was himself a dignitary drawn from the synagogues. The epistolary style formed amongst the Jews a species of literature which was continued amongst them down to the heart of the Middle Ages, as a consequence of their dispersion. Without doubt, from the period when Christianity was extended to the whole of Syria, Christian epistles existed; but in the hands of Paul these writings, which up till then had not, for the most part, been preserved, were, equally with his speaking, the instruments of progress in the Christian faith. It was held that the authority of the Epistles equalled that of the Apostle himself; they were all to be read before the Church assembled; some of them had even the character of circular letters, and were communicated successively to various Churches. The reading of the correspondence thus became an essential part of the offices of the Sabbath. And it was not merely at the moment of its reception that a letter served thus for the edification of the brethren; deposited in the Church archives, it was taken from there on days of assembling, and read as a sacred document, and as a perpetual source of instruction. The epistle was thus the form of primitive Christian literature. It was an admirable form, perfectly adapted to the conditions of the times, and to the natural aptitude of Paul.
The condition of the new sect, in fact, did not by any means permit of connected discourse. Infant Christianity was wholly disengaged from texts. The hymns even were composed by each for him-self, and were not written. People believed in watching for the final catastrophe. The sacred 121books, which we call the “Scriptures,” were the books of the ancient Law. Jesus had added no new book. He must return to fulfil the ancient Scriptures, and to open an age in which he himself would be the living book. Letters of consolation and of encouragement were the only means which could produce a similar state of mind. If already, about the time at which we are arrived, there had been more than a small booklet, designed to assist the memory in regard to “the sayings and doings” of Jesus, these booklets were of an entirely private character. They were not authentic, official writings, universally received in the community; they were notes of which persons au courant of events took little account, and were considered as altogether an inferior authority to tradition.
Paul, as regarded himself, had not a mind adapted to the composition of books. He had not the patience that is required for writing; he was incapable of system; the labour of the pen was disagreeable to him, and he preferred to delegate it to others. Correspondence, on the contrary, so obnoxious to those who are accustomed to employ art in putting forth their ideas, suited well his feverish activity, and the necessity of expressing on the spur of the moment his impressions. Now brisk, crude, polite, snarlish, sarcastic, then suddenly tender, delicate, almost roguish and coaxing; happily expressed and polished to the highest degree; skilful in sprinkling his language with reticences, reserves, infinite precautions, malignant allusions, and ironical dissimulations, he came to excel in a style which required above everything original impulses. The epistolary style of Paul is the most individual that we have ever had. Its language, if I may say so, is ground up (hoyēe), without a single consecutive phrase. It would be impossible to violate more audaciously, I do not say the genius of the Greek language, but the logic of 122human language. It might be described as a rapid conversation, stenographed and reproduced without corrections. Timothy was quickly trained to fulfil for his master the functions of secretary, and as his language came to resemble somewhat that of Paul, he replaced him frequently. It is probable that in the Epistles and perhaps in the Acts we have more than one page of Timothy; but such was the modesty of that singular man, that we have no certain marks by which to single them out.
Even when Paul corresponded directly, he did not write with his own hand; he dictated; sometimes when the letter was finished he re-read it. His impetuous soul carried him away at such moments; he made marginal additions to it, at the risk of injuring the context, and of producing suspended and entangled sentences. He transmitted the letter thus effaced, regardless of the numberless repetitions of words and of ideas which it contained. With his marvellous fervour of soul, Paul has yet a singular poverty of expression. A phrase besets him, he recurs to it in a page at every turn. It was not sterility, it was contentiousness of mind and complete indifference to the requirements of a correct style. In order to avoid the numerous frauds to which the passions of the times gave rise, the authority of the Apostle and the material conditions of antique epistolography, Paul was in the habit of sending to the Churches a specimen of his writing, which was easily recognisable; this done, it was sufficient for him, according to a usage then general, to put at the end of his letters some words in his own hand as a guarantee of their authenticity.
There is no doubt that the correspondence of Paul was considerable, and that what is remaining of if to us constitutes only a small portion. The religion of the primitive Churches was so detached in every way, so purely idealistic, that people did not realise 123the immense value of such writings. Faith was everything: each one carried it in one’s heart, and cared little for stray leaves of papyrus, which, besides, were not holograph. These epistles were for the majority mere occasional pieces; nobody suspected that one day they would become sacred books. It was only towards the end of the life of the Apostle that people bethought themselves of retaining his letters because of their intrinsic merit,—of passing them on and of preserving them. Then each Church guarded preciously its own, consulted them often, had regular lectures on them, allowed copies to be taken of them; still, a multitude of letters of the first period were irrecoverably lost. As for the letters in response to those of the Churches, all have disappeared; and it could not be otherwise; Paul in his wandering existence never had any other archives than his memory and his heart.
Two letters only of the second mission remain with us: they are the two epistles to the Church at Thessalonica. Paul wrote them from Corinth, and joined with his own name in the superscription those of Silas and Timothy. They have the appearance of being composed at a short interval from one another. They are two productions full of unction, tenderness, emotion, and charm. In them the Apostle does not conceal his preference for the Churches of Macedonia: He made use of the latter to give utterance to that love for glowing expressions, for images the most endearing; he represents himself as the kind nurse cherishing her children in her bosom, as a father charging his children. This was indeed what Paul was for the Churches he had established. He was an admirable missionary, and, what was more, an admirable director of consciences. Never did he appear to better advantage than in having the charge of souls; never did any one take up the problem of the education of 124man in a more enthusiastic and thorough manner. But it must not be thought that he acquired that ascendency through fawning and flattery. No; Paul was blunt, disagreeable, and sometimes ill-tempered. In no respect did he resemble Jesus; he had not his charming indulgence, his habit of excusing everybody, his divine incapacity of seeing evil. He was often imperious, and made his authority to be felt with a haughtiness which shocks us. He commanded, he blamed severely, he spoke of himself with assurance, and unhesitatingly held himself up as a model. But what haughtiness! what purity! what disinterestedness! Upon the last point he is painfully minute. Ten times he reverts with pride to the apparently puerile fact that he had cost no man anything, that he had never eaten gratis the bread of any one, that he had laboured day and night with his hands, although he might well have done like the other Apostles, and lived by religion. The bent of his zeal was, in a manner infinite, a love of souls.
The kindness, the innocence, the fraternal spirit, the unlimited charity of the primitive Churches, are a spectacle which will never again be seen. It was wholly spontaneous, unconstrained, and yet these little associations were as solid as iron. Not only could they resist the perpetual bickerings of the Jews, but their interior organisation possessed surprising force. In order to understand them, it is necessary to think, not of our grand churches open to all, but of religious orders endowed with a most intense individual life,—of confraternities firmly consolidated, in which the members by turns embraced, animated, quarrelled with, loved, hated one another. These Churches had a kind of hierarchy: the oldest members, the most active, those who were en rapport with the Apostle, enjoyed a precedence! But the Apostle himself was the first to repress everything 125which had the appearance of domineering; he held himself to be only “the promoter of the common joy.”
The “elders” were sometimes elected by the common voice,—that is to say, by a show of hands,—sometimes installed by the Apostle, but always considered as chosen by the Holy Spirit, that is to say, by that superior instinct which directed the Church in all its acts. People began already to call them “deacons” (episcopi, a word which in the language of politics had passed into the eranes), and to consider them as “pastors” charged with the conduct of the Church. Certain of them, moreover, were regarded as having a sort of speciality for teaching; these were catechists, going from house to house, and imparting the word of God in private admonitions. Paul made it a rule, at least in particular cases, that the catechumen, during his instruction, was to share all that he possessed in common with his catechist.
Full authority belonged to the Church assembled. This authority was extended to the minutest details of private life. All the brethren watched one another, corrected one another. The Church assembled, or at at least those who were called “the devout,” reprimanded those who were in fault, consoled the cast-down, and undertook the office of skilled directors, versed in the knowledge of the heart. Public penitences had not yet been instituted; but they no doubt already existed in embryo. As no exterior force restrained the faithful, nor prevented them from splitting or abandoning the Church, we should have thought that such an organisation, which appears to us insupportable, in which is only to be seen a system of espionage and of accusation, would speedily have come to an end. But nothing of the kind. We do not find, at the period at which we have now arrived, a single example of apostacy. Every one submitted 126humbly to the sentence of the Church. He whose conduct was irregular, or who had strayed from the traditions of the Apostles, or who was not attentive to his duties, was marked; he was avoided; no one would hold communion with him. He was treated as an enemy, though he was at the same time admonished as a brother. This isolation covered him with shame, and he repented. The gaiety in these little companies of good people living together, always sprightly, occupied, eager, loving and hating much, the gaiety, I say, was very great. Verily the words of Jesus had been fulfilled; the reign of the meek and lowly had come, and had been manifested by the extreme felicity which flowed from every heart.
People had a perfect horror of Paganism, but were very tolerant in their treatment of Pagans. Far from fleeing from them, people sought to attract them and to gain them over. Many of the faithful had been idolaters, or had parents who were; they knew with what good faith one might be in error. They recalled their honest ancestors, who had died without having known saving truth. A touching custom, baptism for the dead, was the consequence of that sentiment. People believed that in being baptised for those of their ancestors who had not received holy water, they conferred on them the merits of the sacrament; thus the hope of not being separated from those that they loved was not frustrated. A profound idea of solidarity dominated every one; the son was saved through his parents, the father through the son, the husband through the wife. People could not be brought to condemn a man of good intentions, or who through any side way whatever clung to the saints.
Manners were severe, though not sad. That virtuous gloom which the rigorists of modern times (Janissaries, Methodists, etc.) preach as a Christian virtue, had no existence then. The relations between 127men and women, far from being interdicted, were multiplied. One of the scoffs of the Pagans was to represent the Christians as effeminate, deserting common society for the conventicles of young women, old women, and children. Pagan nakednesses were severely condemned. The women, in general, were closely veiled: not a single precaution for protecting timid chastity was omitted; but the bashful woman is also a voluptuous woman, and the ideal dream which is in man is susceptible of a thousand applications. When we read the Acts of St Perpetue, the legend of St Dorothy, we see that they are the heroines of an absolute purity; but how little do they resemble a Port Royal female religionist! Here, one-half of the instincts of humanity is suppressed; there, these instincts, which later on came to be regarded as Satanic suggestions, had received only a new direction. It may be said that primitive Christianity was a sort of moral romanticism, a powerful revulsion of the faculty of loving. Christianity did not diminish that faculty; it took no precautions against it; it did not place it under suspicion—it nourished it with air and with light. The danger of these liberties was not yet manifest. In the Church, the bad was, in some sort, impossible, for the root of evil, which is wicked desire, was taken away.
The position of catechist was often filled by women. Virginity was regarded as a state of sanctity. This preference accorded to the celibate was not a negation of love and of beauty, like that which found place in the barren and unintelligible asceticism of later centuries. It was, in a woman, that just and true sentiment which virtue and beauty prize so much the more the more it is concealed; so that she who has not found that rare peril of strong love, guards, by a sort of pride and of reserve, its beauty and moral perfection for God alone, for God 128conceived as jealous, as the co-partner of close secrets. Second marriages, though not forbidden, were regarded as a mark against one. The popular sentiment of the century ran in that groove. The beautiful and touching expression of σύμβιος became the ordinary word for “spouse.” The words Virginius, Virginia, Παρθενιχός, indicating the husbands who had not formed other alliances, became terms of eulogy and of tenderness. The spirit of the family, the union of husband and wife, their reciprocal esteem, the recognition by the husband of the cares and the foresight of his wife, permeated in a touching manner the Jewish inscriptions, which in this only reflected the sentiment of the humble classes amongst which the Christian propaganda recruited converts. It is a singular thing that the most elevated ideas on the sanctity of marriage have been spread in the world by a people amongst whom polygamy had never been universally interdicted. But it required, in the fraction of Jewish society in which Christianity was formed, that polygamy should actually be abolished, since the Church did not seem to think that such an enormity needed to be condemned.
Charity, brotherly love, was the supreme law, and common to all the churches and all the schools. Charity and chastity were par excellence Christian virtues,—virtues which made a success of the new gospel, and converted the entire world. One was commanded to do good to all: nevertheless, co-religionists were regarded as being worthy of preference. A taste for work was held to be a virtue. Paul, a good workman, vigorously reproved indolence and idleness, and repeated often that naïf proverb of a man of the people: “He that would not work, neither should he eat.” The model that he conceived was a punctual artisan, peaceable, applying himself to his work, eating tranquilly—his mind at ease—the bread 129that he earned. But how far are we from the primitive ideal of the Church at Jerusalem, wholly communistic and monastical, or even from that of Antioch, wholly preoccupied with prophecies, with supernatural gifts, with apostleship! Here the Church is an association of honest workmen, cheerful, content, not jealous of the rich, for they are more happy than the latter, for they know that God does not judge like the worldly, and prefers the honest soiled hand to the white and intriguing hand. One of his principal virtues was to conduct his affairs orderly; “that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.” There were some members of the Church, of whom St Paul had heard tell, who worked not at all, but were busy-bodies, and who are severely reprimanded. That combination of practical good sense and of delusion ought not to surprise. Does not the English race in Europe and in America present to us the same contrast, so full of good sense as regards things of this world, so absurd as regards things pertaining to heaven? Quakerism, even, commenced with a tissue of absurdities, and retained them until the day, thanks to the influence of William Penn, it became something practical, great, and fruitful.
The supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as prophecy, were not neglected. But we can well see that in the Churches of Greece, composed of Jews, these fantastic exercises possessed no longer much meaning, and we can believe that they soon fell into desuetude. Christian discipline turned on a kind of deistic piety, which consisted in serving the true God, in praying and in doing good. A powerful hope gave to these precepts of pure religion the efficacy that they of themselves never could possess. The dream that had been the soul of the movement inaugurated by Jesus, continued still to be the fundamental dogma of Christianity; everybody believed 130in the near future of the kingdom of God, in the unseen manifestation of a great glory, from the midst of which the Son of Man would appear. The idea that people had of that marvellous phenomena was the same as in the times of Jesus. A great storm—that is to say, a terrible catastrophe—was near at hand: that catastrophe would strike all those whom Jesus would not have saved. Jesus was to show himself in the heavens as “king of glory, surrounded by angels.” Then the judgment was to take place. The saints, the persecuted, were to go and range themselves about Jesus, in order to enjoy with him eternal rest. The unbelievers who had persecuted them (the Jews especially) were to be the prey of fire; their punishment was to be eternal death. Chased from before the face of Jesus, they were to be hurried away to the abyss of destruction. A destroying fire, in short, was to be lighted and was to consume the world and all those who had rejected the gospel of Jesus. That final catastrophe was to be a kind of great and glorious manifestation of Jesus and his saints, an act of supreme justice, a tardy reparation for the iniquities which had been up to that time the rule of the world.
Objections were naturally raised against this strange doctrine. One of the principal of them arose from the difficulty of conceiving what should be the portion of the dead at the moment of the advent of Jesus. Since the visit of Paul, there had been several deaths in the Church at Thessalonica, and these first deaths had made, on all sides, a very deep impression. Was it necessary to compassionate, and to regard as excluded from the kingdom of God, those who had thus disappeared before the solemn hour? The ideas upon individual immortality and a special judgment were yet too little developed to enable people to sustain auy such objection. Paul responded with remarkable clearness:—131
“That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing. But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
People sought to discover the day of that grand appearance. St Paul condemned these inquisitive speculations, and made use of them in order to show the almost worthlessness of the words themselves which people had attributed to Jesus.
“But of the times and the season, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day; we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.”
The preoccupation of that near catastrophe was extreme. The enthusiasts believed that they had discovered the date by means of special revelations. There existed already several apocalypses; people went even the length of causing forged letters of the Apostle to be circulated, in which this end of things was announced,—
“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means; for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition. Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, 132I told you these things! And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work; only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall the Wicked be revealed, whom that Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming; even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.”
We see that in these texts, written twenty years after the death of Jesus, only a single essential element has been added to the description of the day of the Lord such as Jesus had conceived it, namely, the character of an Anti-Christ, or false Christ, which was to spring up before the grand appearance of Jesus himself—a sort of Satanic Messiah, who was to work miracles, and desire to be worshipped. Apropos of Simon the Magician, we have already met with the singular idea that the false prophets worked miracles exactly like the true prophets. The opinion that the judgment of God would be preceded by a terrible catastrophe, by the spread of impiety and abominations, by the passing triumph of idolatry, by the advent of a sacrilegious king, was, however, very ancient, going back as far as the first origins of the apocalyptic doctrines. Gradually that ephemeral reign of evil, the precursor of the final victory of the good, which would happen to the Christians, would be personified in a man who was conceived to be the exact converse of Jesus, a sort of Christ of the infernal regions.
The type of that future misleader was composed in part out of recollections of Antiochus Epiphanes, such as he is presented in the book of Daniel, combined with the reminiscences of Balaam, of Gog and Magog, of Nebuchadnezzar, and partly from ideas borrowed from the circumstances of the times. The ghastly tragedy that was being enacted at Rome at that 133moment, in face of the world, could not fail but excite greatly the imaginations of men. Caligula, the anti-deity, the first emperor who sought to be worshipped during his life, suggested in all probability the circumstance to Paul, when the aforesaid person exalted himself above all the pretended gods, all the idols, and took his seat in the temple of Jerusalem, desirous of being regarded as God himself. The Anti-Christ was thus conceived in the year 54 as a continuer of the foolish sacrilege of Caligula. Reality affords but too many opportunities to explain away such presages. A few months after Paul wrote that strange passage, Nero came to the throne. It was in him that the Christian conscience should see later on the hideous precursor of the coming of Christ. What was the cause, or rather who was the personage, that alone, in the year 54, still prevented, according to Saint Paul, the appearance of Anti-Christ? This has been left in obscurity. The question’s here asked may perhaps have been a mysterious secret, no strange thing in politics, which the faithful discussed among themselves, but which they did not commit to paper, for fear of compromising one another. The mere seizure of a letter would have sufficed to bring about the most atrocious persecutions. Here, as in other points, the habit which the early Christians had of not writing down certain things, has created for us irremediable obscurities. It has been supposed that the personage in question was the Emperor Claudius, and we have seen in the language of Paul a play of words on his name,—Claudius = qui claudit = ὁ χατέχωυ. At the date when that letter was written, in fact, the death of poor Claudius—circumvented by fatal snares laid by the villainous Agrippa—seemed only to be a question of time; everybody expected it; the Emperor himself spoke of it; dark presentiments showed themselves at every turn; natural prodigies like those which, 134fourteen years later, struck so forcibly the author of the Apocalypse, tormented the popular imagination. People spoke in terror of the monstrous fœtus,—of a son which had the long claws of a sparrow-hawk; all this made people tremble for the future. The Christians, like ordinary people, participated in these terrors; the prognostications, and the superstitious fears of natural calamities, were the essential cause of the Apocalyptic fears.
That which is clear; that which still is revealed for us in these inestimable documents; that which explains the wonderful success of the Christian propaganda, is the spirit of devotion, the high morality which reigned in those little Churches. They might be compared to the reunions of the Moravian brothers, or to pious Protestants addicted to the extremest devotion, or, again, to a sort of third order of a Catholic congregation. Prayer and the name of Jesus were constantly on the lips of the faithful. Before each act, before partaking of food, for example, they pronounced a short benediction or short act of grace. It was looked upon as an injury done to the Church, to bring an action before the civil judges. The belief in the near destruction of the world raised a revolutionary ferment which carried into every mind a great portion of its sourness. The invariable rule of the Apostle was, that it was necessary for one to abide in the state to which one had been called. “Is any person called (being) circumcised, let him not dissimulate circumcision; is any person called uncircumcised, let him not be circumcised; is any one a virgin, let her remain a virgin; is any one married, let such remain married; is any one a slave, seek not to be made free; and even if one can obtain one’s freedom, let such a one remain in slavery. The slave who is called, is the free servant of Christ; the free man who is called, is the slave of Christ.” A marvellous 135resignation had taken possession of souls, which rendered everything indifferent, and shed over all the weariness of that world, extinct and forgotten.
The Church was a permanent source of edification and of consolation. It must not be imagined that the Christian gatherings of those times were modelled after the cold assemblies of our days, in which the unforeseen, the individual initiative, had no part. It is rather of the English Quakers, the American Shakers, and the French Spiritualists, that one must think. During the meeting all were seated, and each spoke when he felt inspired. The inspired one would then rise up, and deliver, through the impulse of the Spirit, discourses of various forms, which it is difficult for us to distinguish to-day—psalms, canticles of acts of grace, eulogies, prophecies, revelations, lessons, exhortations, consolations, and treatises on language. These improvisations, considered as divine oracles, were sometimes chanted, sometimes delivered in a speaking tone of voice. Each invited his neighbour to do this; each excited the enthusiasm of others: it was what was called singing to God. The women remained silent. As every one believed oneself to be constantly visited by the Spirit, every image, every throb which crossed the brain of the believers, seemed to contain a deep meaning, and, with the most perfect good faith in the world, they drew a real nourishment of soul from pure illusions. After each eulogy, each prayer thus improvised, the multitude had a collective inspiration through the word Amen. In order to mark the diverse acts of the mystic seance, the president interposed, either by the invitation Oremus; or by a sigh directed towards heaven—Sursum Corda! or in recalling that Jesus, according to his promise, was in the midst of the assembled—Dominus Vobiscum. The cry Kyrie Eleison was also repeated frequently in a suppliant and plaintive tone.136
Prophecy was esteemed a high gift: some women were endowed with it. In many cases, especially when the matter in hand had reference to philology, people hesitated; people sometimes even believed themselves to be dupes of a cunning device of the evil spirits. A particular class of the inspired, or, as was said, of the “spiritual,” was charged with the interpretation of these fantastic outbursts,—to find sense in them, to discern the minds from which they proceeded. These phenomena had great efficacy in the conversion of Pagans, and were regarded as the most demonstrative miracles. The Pagans, in fact—at least those of them who were supposed benevolent—were drawn into the assemblies. Then there would often follow strange spectacles. One or several of the inspired would address the intruder, address him alternately with rudeness or with gentleness, reveal to him inner secrets which he believed he himself only knew, and unfold to him the sins of his past life. The wicked were astonished, confounded. The shame of that public manifestation, which in that assembly had been exposed in a state of spiritual nudity, created between him and the brethren a strong bond, which was not again to be broken. A sort of confession was sometimes the first act which was done in entering the sect. The intimacy, the affection which such exercises established between the brothers and the sisters, was without reserve: all became indeed as one person. It required nothing less than a perfect spirituality to hinder such relations from springing up, and to check abuse.
We can conceive the immense attraction that a soul-movement so active would exercise amongst a society freed from moral bonds, especially amongst the common classes, who were neglected equally by the state and by religion. Hence the grand lesson which is to be derived from that history for our 137century; the times resemble each other; the future belonged to the party who took up the masses and educated them. But, in our days, the difficulty is indeed greater than it has ever been. In antiquity, upon the coasts of the Mediterranean, material life could be simple: the wants of the body were secondary, and easily satisfied. With us, these wants are numerous and imperative; popular associations are weighed to the earth as with a weight of lead. It was the sacred feast, “the Lord’s Supper” especially, that had an immense moral efficacy; it was considered as a mystic act by which all were incorporated with Christ, and as a consequence united in the same body. There was hence a perpetual lesson of equality, of fraternity. The sacramental words which were connected with the last supper of Jesus were present to all. It was believed that that bread, that wine, that water, were the body and blood of Jesus himself. Those who partook of it were accounted to eat Jesus, were united to him, and bound to him by an ineffable mystery. The prelude to it was the giving of “the holy kiss,” or “kiss of love,” without any of the scruples which came to trouble the innocence of another golden age. Ordinarily the men gave it to one another, and the women gave it amongst themselves. Some Churches, however, pressed the holy liberty to the point of not making any distinction of sexes in the kiss of love. Profane society, little capable of comprehending such purity, made this the occasion of divers calumnies. The chaste Christian kiss awakened the suspicions of the libertines, and soon the Church was constrained to the point of taking severe precautions; but in the beginning it was an essential rite inseparable from the Eucharist, and completing the high signification of the symbol of peace and love. Some abstained from it in youth, and in the time of mourning and of fasting.138
The first monastic Church at Jerusalem broke bread every day. Twenty or thirty years after, people had come to celebrate the holy feast only once a week. This celebration took place in the evening, and, according to the Jewish usage, by the light of numerous lamps. The day chosen for this was the day following the Sabbath, the first day of the week. This day was called “the day of the Lord,” in rememberance of the “resurrection,” and also because it was believed that on the same day God had created the world. Alms were done, and collections made on this day. The Sabbath, which all Christians probably celebrate still in a manner not equally scrupulous, was distinct from the day of the Lord. But without doubt the day of rest tended more and more to be confounded with the day of the Lord, and it is permissible to suppose that in the Churches of the Gentiles, who had no reason to prefer the Saturday, that change was already made. The ébonim of the East, on the contrary, rested on Saturday.
Little by little the supper tended to become purely symbolical in form. At the first it was a real supper, at which one ate as much as one wanted, only with an elevated mystic intention. The supper was prefaced by a prayer. As at the dinners of the Pagan fraternities, each brought his basket and consumed what he brought: the Church, no doubt, furnishing the accessories, such as hot water, pilchards, that which was called the ministerium. People loved to think of two invisible servants, Irene (Peace) and Agapæ (Love), the one pouring out the wine, the other mixing it with hot water; and, perhaps, at certain moments during the repast, one would be heard to say, with a sweet smile, to the deaconesses (ministræ), that from which they derived their names: Irene, da calda (hot water)—Agape, misce me (pour me out). A spirit of delicate reserve and of discreet sobriety presided at the feast. The table 139at which people sat was in the form of a hollow semi-circle, or of a crescent, sigma (a symbol); the elder was placed in the centre; the cups or saucers which were used for drinking out of were the objects of particular care. The bread and the wine, which were blessed, were carried to the absent by the minister of the diocese.
In time the supper came to be no more than a ceremony. People ate at home to appease hunger; at the assembly people eat only a few mouthfuls; drank only a few sups, in view of the symbol. People were led by a kind of logic to distinguish the common fraternal repast from the mystical act which consisted solely of a fraction of bread. The fraction of bread became each day more sacramental; the supper, on the contrary, in proportion as the Church increased, became more profane. Sometimes the supper was reduced almost to nothing, and in being thus reduced, lost all the importance of a sacramental act. Sometimes the two things subsisted, but separately; the supper was a prelude or a sequel to the Eucharist; people dined together before or after the communion. Then the two ceremonies were separated entirely; the pious repasts were acts of charity towards the poor, sometimes the remnants of Pagan usages, and had no longer any connection with the Eucharist. As such, they were in general suppressed in the fifth century. The “eulogia” or “consecrated bread” remained, then, the sole souvenir of a golden age in which the Eucharist was invested with the more complex and less purely analytic forms. For a long time, still, however, the custom was preserved of invoking the name of Jesus in drinking, and people continued to consider as a eulogy the act of breaking bread and of drinking together, which were the last traces, and the traces well-nigh effaced, of the admirable institutions of Jesus.140
The name which, at the first, the eucharistic feast bore, expressed admirably all that there was in that excellent rite of divine efficacy and of salutary morality. They were called agapæ, that is to say, “loves” or “charities.” The Jews—the Essenians especially—had already attached a moral sense to the religious feasts; but in passing into the hands of another race, these Oriental usages took an almost mythological significance. The Mythriatic mysteries which began soon to be developed in the Roman world had as their principal rite the offering of bread and of the cup, over which were pronounced certain words. The resemblance was such, that the Christians explained it as a ruse of the devil, who wished by this means to have the infernal pleasure of counterfeiting their most holy ceremonies. The secret bonds between all these things are very obscure. It was easy to foresee that grave abuses would so quickly be mixed up with such practices, that one day the feast (the agapæ, properly speaking) would fall into desuetude, and that there would only remain the eucharistic wafer, the sign and memorial of the primitive institution. One could no longer be surprised to learn that strange mysteries should be made the pretext for calumnies, and that the sect which pretended to eat, under the form of bread and wine, the body and the blood of its founder, should be accused of renewing the feasts of Thyestes, of eating infants covered with pastry, and of anthropophagistic practices.
The annual feasts were always the Jewish feasts, especially Easter and Pentecost. The Christian Easter was generally celebrated on the same day as the Jewish Passover. Nevertheless, the cause which had transferred the holy-day of each week from the Saturday to the Sunday regulated also Easter, not from usage and Jewish souvenirs, but from the souvenirs of the passion and of the resurrection of Jesus. 141It is not impossible that, from the time of Paul, in the Churches of Greece and Macedonia, that change had already been effected. In any case, the thought of that fundamental feast was profoundly modified. The passage of the Red Sea became a thing of little account after the resurrection of Jesus; people no longer thought of it, except to find in it a figure of the triumph of Jesus over death. The true Paschal Lamb was henceforth Jesus, who had been offered up for all; the true unleavened breads were truth, justice; the old leaven had lost its power, and ought therefore to be rejected. For the rest, the feast of the Passover had indeed more anciently undergone with the Hebrews an analogous change of signification. It was certainly in its origin a feast of spring time, which was connected by an artificial etymology with the remembrance of the flight from Egypt.
Pentecost was also celebrated on the same day as with the Jews. Like Easter, that feast took a signification altogether new, which put into the shade the old Jewish idea. Right or wrong, people believed that the principal incident of the Holy Spirit upon the assembled Apostles had taken place on the day of Pentecost which followed the resurrection of Jesus; the ancient harvest festival of the Semites became thus in the new religion the feast of the Holy Ghost. About the same time that feast underwent an analogous transformation amongst the Jews; it became with them the anniversary of the promulgation of the law upon Mount Sinai.
No edifice had been built or any building rented expressly for the meetings;—no art, consequently no images. The assemblies took place in the houses of the brethren the best known, or who had a room well adapted for the purpose. People preferred for this the apartments which, in Oriental houses, formed the first floor, and corresponding to our 142drawing-room floor. These apartments are high, containing numerous windows, very fresh, very airy; it was here that one received one’s friends, where one held feasts, where one prayed, where one laid out the dead. The groups thus formed constituted “domestic churches,” or pious coteries full of moral activity, and resembling greatly those “domestic colleges,” examples of which were to be found about that time in the bosom of Pagan society. All great things are thus founded in inconsiderable centres, where one is tightly squeezed the one against the other, and where souls are warmed by a powerful love.
Up to this time Buddhism alone had elevated man to this degree of heroism and of purity. The triumph of Christianity is inexplicable, if it is studied only in the fourth century. It happened with Christianity as happens almost always in human things: it succeeded when it began to decline morally; it became official when it no longer had anything to rest upon except itself; it came into vogue when its true period of originality and of youth had passed away. But it did none the less merit its high recompense: it had merited this by its three centuries of virtue, or by the incomparable predilection for the good which it had inspired. When we think of that miracle, no hyperbole about the excellence of Jesus appears illegitimate. It was he, always he, who was the inspirer, the master, the principle of life in his Church. His divine mission grew each year, and this was but just. He was no longer only a man of God, a great prophet, a man approved and authorised of God, a man powerful in works and in speech; these expressions which suffice, which were sufficient for the faith and the love of the disciples of early times, passed now for silly fables. Jesus is the Lord, the Christ, a personage entirely superhuman, not yet God, but very near being it. One lives in him, one dies in him, 143one rises in him; almost everything that one says of God, one says of him. He was in truth already a divine personality, and when it is wished to identify him with God, it is only a question of words, a mere “communication of idioms” as the theologians say. We shall see that Paul himself attained to this: the most advanced formulas that are to be found in the Epistle to the Colossians existed already in germ in the older epistles. “For to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (1 Cor. viii. 6). Again, and Jesus shall be the logos, creator; the most exaggerated of the consubstantialists of the ninth century could already be foreshadowed.
The idea of the Christian redemption in the Churches of Paul underwent a similar transformation. People knew little of the parables or the moral teachings of Jesus: the Gospels did not yet exist. Christ, having lived, is not to the Churches something approaching a real personage: he is the image of God, a heavenly minister, having taken upon himself the sins of the world, charged with reconciling the world to God; he is a divine reformer, creating all things new, and abolishing the past. It is death for all; all are dead through him to the world, and ought no longer to live, except for him. He was rich in all the richness of divinity, and he became poor for us. All Christian life ought hence to be a contradiction of the human sense: weakness is the true strength, death is the true life; cardinal wisdom is folly. Happy he who carries in his body the dying of Jesus, he who is continually exposed to death for Jesus’ sake. He shall live again with Jesus; he shall see his glory face to face, and shall be transformed unto him, rising uninterruptedly from glory to glory. The Christian thus lives in the hope of death, and in a state of perpetual groaning. In 144proportion as the exterior man (the body) falls into ruin, the interior man (the soul) is renewed. One moment of tribulation is worth more to him than an eternity of glory. What matters it that his terrestrial house is dissolved? He has in Heaven an eternal house, not made with hands. Terrestrial life is exile; death is return to God, and equivalent to the absorption of all that is mortal in life, only the treasure of hope which the Christian carries in earthen vessels, and until the great day when all shall be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ, he must tremble.
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