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Can Anything Good Come to Cleveland?

Yes, absolutely. Go to Cleveland and experience the Lake Effect — from Gennesaret, that is. The Maltz Jewish Museum is hosting an exhibit titled “Cradle of Christianity: Treasures from the Holy Land.” Visit the museum’s website, and you’ll see samples of the artifacts on display. An online reviewer tells us that those artifacts include Caiaphas’s burial vault and an inscription of Pontius Pilate’s name. (Tip: In hushed museum galleries, hissing biblical villains is always in bad taste.) The exhibit originated at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.

Cradle of Christianity . . . sheds light on Christianity’s earliest days: from its emergence against the background of Jewish society in the land of Israel during the 1st century CE, to its development alongside Jewish communities over the following six centuries. Ancient writings and archaeological finds from the Holy Land are woven together to recreate moving images of the past.

Moving indeed. I plan to go with my kids. Hope to see you there!

It’s too bad the Cleveland Museum of Art is closed for renovation. Its collection of Christian antiquities is exquisite. I don’t know when CMA plans to resume its normal business. But if it opens before the Maltz exhibit closes, you could plan a patristic-era festival for the eyes.

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Fly Me to New York

Today’s Wall Street Journal informs us of an exhibit of large-scale photos of Byzantium’s great churches and Cappadocia’s frescoed cave churches. Here’s info from the World Monuments Fund’s website:

Vaults of Heaven: Sanctuaries of Byzantium
April 26-July 28, 2006
Stunning large-scale photographs reinterpret the extraordinary achievements of Byzantium — and WMF’s efforts to conserve these fragile treasures. Hagia Sophia and other Turkish sites come alive in the work of photographer and architect Ahmet Ertuğ.

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Bread of Life: The First-Century Recipe

Jesus, A.D. 30
“This is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. . . . This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Lk 22;19-21).

St. Paul, A.D. 51
“As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:26-27).

The Didache, A.D. 48 (?)
“On the Lord’s own day, gather together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure . . . for this is the sacrifice that was spoken of by the Lord.”

St. Ignatius of Antioch, A.D. 107
“Have but one faith, one preaching and one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of the Lord Jesus Christ; and His blood which was shed for us is one; one loaf also is broken for all, and one cup is distributed among them all. There is but one altar for the whole Church, and one bishop, with the priests and deacons, my fellow-servants.”

Pliny the Younger (a pagan Roman governor), A.D. 111
[The Christians] “were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath [in Latin, sacramentum]. . . . When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food — but ordinary and innocent food.”

St. Justin Martyr, A.D. 150
“On the day we call the day of the sun, all . . . gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . . and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: ‘Amen.’ When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the ‘eucharisted’ bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent.”

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Lessons of Mass Instruction

My last post draws, of course, from my book The Mass of the Early Christians. That book provides the paper trail for eucharistic doctrine from generation to generation in the first three centuries of Christianity.

For a more systematic treatment of the subject, with applications to daily life, I recommend my colleague Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper. For a deeper and more demanding study, try Hahn’s Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy and his Swear to God: The Promise and Power of the Sacraments. All of his books draw deeply from the Fathers.

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Mass Mobilization

Getting ready for Sunday Mass? Think about what you’re doing. Think for a moment: What did it mean to be a Christian in the time of the Fathers?

What set those first believers apart from their neighbors? What was the single act that best defined their life in Jesus Christ?

For the first Christians, to be a believer meant to go to Mass. The Eucharist was then, as it is now, the source and summit of Christian life.

We see this clearly in the Church’s earliest history, the Acts of the Apostles. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” “Day by day,” the author goes on, the Jerusalem Christians shared a common life of worship, “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:42,46).

In Troas with Paul, Luke recounts, “On the first day of the week . . . we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7).

Wherever the first Christians assembled, they “broke bread.”

This was no ordinary meal. It was, rather, the fulfillment of the command of Jesus Christ at His Last Supper. “He took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ ”

Jesus himself performed the first “remembrance” on the day of His resurrection. After His famous walk to Emmaus with two incredulous disciples, “When He was at table with them, He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished out of their sight. . . . He was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:30-31,35).

To be faithful to Jesus, then, was to follow His command and His example. To keep faith was to give thanks and break bread in His memory. These actions, collectively, took their name from Jesus’ own words, “giving thanks,” in Greek, eucharistia — Eucharist.

More than a memorial

What did this thanksgiving mean to those founders of the Christian Church? It was a memorial, but it was more than that. The passage from Acts uses the Greek word “koinonia,” which can be translated “fellowship,” “sharing,” or “participation,” but “communion” is the preferred English term. The “thanksgiving” of the early Christians was a communion of persons — a communion of the believers with Christ and with one another.

St. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, around A.D. 51: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16-17).

The first Christians knew holy Communion as something more than symbolic. It was a mingling of bodies and souls. The closest analogy they could find was in the union of a married couple. Thus, the Book of Revelation refers to the Mass, mystically, as “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rv 19:9).

Jesus himself had foretold His Eucharist in the most graphic, physical terms. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh” (Jn 6:51).

The early Church took Jesus at His word and always spoke of the Eucharist with the same flesh-and-blood realism. Belief in Jesus’ Real Presence was essential to a Christian’s profession of faith. To hold a different doctrine was an act of infidelity. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body,” wrote St. Paul, “eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29).

That judgment held in the subsequent generations. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, wrote around A.D. 107 that a distinguishing mark of a heretic was the denial of the Real Presence. “From the Eucharist and prayer they hold aloof, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”

Eucharist fed the faith

All of this was the faith of the Church, before there were New Testament Scriptures, long before there were church buildings. The books of the New Testament were likely not completed until A.D. 90-100. The official list of the books of the Bible was not approved for the universal Church until 419. But the earliest liturgical manual we have, The Didache, was probably set to parchment around 48 A.D. (I follow Enrico Mazza in the dating of The Didache. His arguments are very persuasive.)

Moreover, Christianity arose long before the printing press. Few people had access to books of the various Gospels and letters that were in circulation.

Few people could read them anyway, as literacy was rare in many parts of the world.

Yet the faith endured because Christians received the Word and the sacrament within their eucharistic assemblies. Indeed, Word and sacrament were inseparable realities. As the early Christians read the books of the New Testament, they found not just isolated references to the Eucharist, but a sacramental motif pervasive from the very beginning of Jesus’ life. He was born, after all, in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “House of Bread.”

When Jesus multiplied the loaves, believers saw a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. When Jesus changed water into wine, He prefigured the transformation of wine into His blood. It is the overwhelming judgment of the Fathers of the Church that when Jesus instructed us to pray for “our daily bread,” He taught us to pray for the Eucharist. In third-century Africa, St. Cyprian wrote: “We ask that this bread should be given to us daily, that we who are in Christ and daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation, may not, by the obstacle of some heinous sin, be kept back from receiving Communion, from partaking of the heavenly bread, that we may not be separated from Christ’s body.”

St. Cyprian, like his scriptural forebears, spoke with precision here. For to be “excommunicated” meant literally to be excluded from Communion, which for believers is a sentence of death (see 1 Cor 11:30).

Indeed, the Eucharist was life itself for the Church, and believers preferred death to missing Mass. The martyrs of Abitina, in third-century Africa, told their accusers, “Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper, because it cannot be missed. . . . We cannot live without the Lord’s Supper.”

Those martyrs had drawn deeply from three centuries of devotion — and more. For Christ did not invent the Eucharist whole cloth, but rather presented it as a fulfillment of the Old Covenant sacrifices. His Last Supper took place, after all, at a sacrificial meal, the Passover. Over time, many of the prayers of ancient Israel would be taken up into the Mass. Hear, for example, the cup blessing of the Passover liturgy: “Blessed are you, Lord God, creator of the fruit of the vine.”

The service of the synagogue repeats the words from Ezekiel (which appear again in Revelation): “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The Dead Sea Scrolls hint at other Jewish sources of Christian ritual: “When the table has been prepared for eating, and the new wine for drinking, the priest shall be the first to stretch out his hand to bless the first-fruits of the bread and new wine.”

Household churches

The early Christians must have had a vivid experience of the close communion of the Church. For, until the legalization of Christianity in 313, the Church owned no buildings. As we saw in the Acts of the Apostles, the faithful assembled for the Eucharist in family homes. Sometimes, when wealthy families converted, they turned over substantial estates for liturgical use. The Basilica of San Clemente in Rome may have been built upon just such a household. Another “house-church” was excavated, somewhat intact, in Syria. Late last year, a construction crew dug up yet another in Megiddo, near Jerusalem.

Still, though the first Christians were “at home” with the Eucharist, they were never casual in their practice. Their reverence was profound. In the third century, the Scripture scholar Origen of Alexandria wrote: “You who are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries know, when you receive the body of the Lord, how you protect it with all caution and veneration lest any small part fall from it, lest anything of the consecrated gift be lost.”

In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts his people to take the same care: “Tell me, if anyone gave you grains of gold wouldn’t you hold them with all care, on your guard against losing any? Won’t you keep watch more carefully, then, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and jewels?”

Just a few years later, St. Jerome — the greatest biblical scholar of the ancient Church — would write of the need “to instruct by the authority of Scripture ignorant people in all the churches concerning the reverence with which they must handle holy things and minister at Christ’s altar; and to impress upon them that the sacred chalices, veils and other accessories used in the celebration of the Lord’s passion are not mere lifeless and senseless objects devoid of holiness, but that rather, from their association with the body and blood of the Lord, they are to be venerated with the same awe as the body and the blood themselves.”

This is the reverence the early Christians gave to the sacrament they received. It was not reverence for the sake of ceremony. It arose naturally because they knew that here, under the appearance of bread and wine, was Emmanuel, God-with-us. It welled up within them because the Lord’s Supper was a meal they could not live without. They loved the sacrament as true lovers — because they were at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

And this reverence was more than a sometime thrill, the emotional response to beautiful liturgy. Reverence for the Eucharist was the foundation of a culture — a kingdom — that was thoroughly Christian.

According to one of the most ancient liturgical texts, our reverence for the Eucharist must be extended to the poorest of the poor: “Let widows and orphans be revered like the altar.”

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Grail Expectations

I promised you some thoughts on the patristic roots of the Holy Grail legends. As I said before, if Arthur existed, he was a contemporary of the Fathers. And if vestiges of his history survive in the legends, they are likely preserved among relics of the piety of his times.

Chalice piety was widespread and profound during this period. Several generations before Arthur’s Battle of Mount Badon, St. Jerome urged Pope Damasus to promote not only reverence for the Eucharist, but reverence for the Eucharistic vessels as well. In the pre-Constantinian Acts of the Martyrs, we find catalogs of chalices confiscated by the pagan authorities — chalices made of precious metals. In the late second century, Tertullian reports the use of richly decorated chalices. And ritual abuses of the eucharistic chalice brought down the wrath of Fathers as early (and as far-flung) as Irenaeus (second-century Gaul) and Cyprian (third-century Africa).

The ancients revered the chalice and worshipped its Contents. From earliest times the chalice was emblematic of the mystery it held — the mystery of Christ and of salvation by His blood (see Lk 22:20). The chalice came to stand also for the true doctrine of the mystery.

In my new book, The Grail Code, my co-author and I examine the patristic material in some detail, and we trace its trajectory in literature well into the Middle Ages.

Ancient chalice piety isn’t the only source of the Grail legends. There’s much more. In fact, it involves a conSpiracy wilder and vaster than Dan Brown ever imagined.

My co-author Chris Bailey is hosting an ongoing Grail discussion in the room next to his Grail library at our website,

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Take the High Road

Last night, Mark, an Orthodox friend, handed me a copy of Road to Emmaus, a little magazine I had never seen before. It’s an attractive publication, well illustrated and meticulously edited, with a keen sense of the enduring relevance (and living presence) of the Fathers. The articles range from the devotional to the theological, with some good, sound advice on family life thrown in.

Mark had read my post “But Syriously, Folks,” and so he knew of my interest in the Syriac Fathers. And he knew that the editors of Road to Emmaus share this interest — and many others! In my hand right now are RTE’s fascinating articles on the saints and scholars of ancient Antioch, on the Stylite movement in Christian antiquity, on the dispersion of ancient manuscripts in libraries throughout the world, and on the patristic interpretations of the Lord’s Descent into Hell.

The articles are intelligent, but accessible to non-specialists (like me). What’s very cool is that they’re sumptuously illustrated, with up-close photographs of inscriptions, archeological sites, icons, manuscripts, pottery, church interiors, monasteries. Now, this is living.

The editors apparently travel the world to interview top scholars in various fields related to Orthodoxy. Their authors write with intelligence and real academic rigor, suffused with a faith reminiscent of the Fathers themselves. They also show extraordinary ecumenical sensitivity — hospitality is perhaps a better word. This Roman felt right at home in their pages.

RTE posts some sample articles on the website (though, unfortunately, few that deal primarily with the Fathers!). They also sell their back issues, which are well indexed on the site. Start with 2005. It was a very good year. Happy shopping!

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Light on the Dark Ages

No sooner had Christians “made it” in the ancient world than “it” collapsed all around them.

The Emperor Constantine declared his Edict of Toleration in 313, putting an end to Christian persecution by making Christianity an officially recognized religion in the Roman Empire. But it was evident, even then, that the Empire was beginning to totter. Constantine, who gave Christianity its license to operate, built up Byzantium as his capital, for more efficient administration of the East.

Still, the Empire continued to lose control, beset by rebellions within and attacks from barbarians at the frontiers. Religious squabbles, too, were no small matter, causing civil disturbances in the urban centers under Roman control. In 380, the Emperor Theodosius decided it was necessary to unify the Empire spiritually, and he declared Christianity, which had already won perhaps a majority of the people, as the official religion of the Empire. From then on, heresy and sacrilege became civil crimes. Citizens would be baptized — or lose their civil rights.

Yet these measures could not revitalize an Empire in decline. Early in the 5th century, Germanic tribes swept through the Roman province of Gaul (modern France). The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. In 455, Vandals seized the city. The last emperor of the West died in 476. Rome, once synonymous with world order, descended into anarchy.

And, to a great degree, so did western Europe. With the fall of Rome, came a gradual collapse of civil order. The law had no force. The military dissolved. Travel, communications and trade could no longer proceed peaceably as under Roman rule.

Christians might have worried that all their work would be undone. With the collapse of the Empire, wouldn’t the Empire’s official religion also collapse? Other practical problems presented themselves. How could evangelization proceed without safe travel? The early Church had been spread significantly by merchants following the trade routes. How, too, would bishops in outlying lands keep up communication with Rome?

Remarkably, the Christian faith continued to spread amid the chaotic aftermath of the Empire’s collapse. In a few centuries, almost all the barbarian tribes would, in one way or another, accept the Gospel.

Who were the barbarians? The word conjures up images of mobs of hairy, primitives bearing clubs. But that wasn’t quite the case. In the Roman view, barbarians were those who lived outside the Empire. The barbarian tribes — the Vandals, Goths, Bulgars, Saxons, Alamans and Lombards, among others — occupied lands in what are today’s Germany, France, Eastern Europe, the British Isles and North Africa. Many of the tribes had advanced cultures. Barbarians traded with Rome and served as mercenaries in the Roman military.

Many barbarians were Christians, of a sort. Members of the Germanic tribes had, in the fourth century, been evangelized by followers of Arianism, a then-popular Christian heresy that denied Jesus was God or co-eternal with the Father. Arianism found a stronghold among the barbarians, even after it had been fairly thoroughly rooted out in the lands of the Empire.

Though the heretics were, in a sense, political victors now, their victory had little effect on Catholic Christians. The Arians tended toward tolerance and rarely persecuted their opponents. But, at the same time, the Arian bishops were a weak cultural force, exerting minimal influence on the barbarian tribes.

Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops emerged as leaders in the cities of the former Empire. Most of the bishops were educated men, chosen for their sound judgment. In the absence of law and order, citizens tended to look to the bishops for civic leadership. In some cities, the bishop served as mayor and magistrate. The bishops of Spain and France set up vast networks for social welfare, so that the poor did not free-fall now that Rome’s safety net had disappeared.

Perhaps the archetype of this learned leader was Pope St. Gregory I — Gregory “the Great” — who reigned 590-604. He saw Rome in its ruin and looked with hope to the mission fields to the North and West, where he sent an increasing number of his monks. Gregory also urged the local nobility and landowners in these countries to actively evangelize their tenants — even if it meant raising their rent until they accepted baptism.

Yet, according to Richard Fletcher’s history of the period, “The Barbarian Conversion” (Henry Holt), the conversions proceeded steadily, peacefully and, for the most part, without coercion.

Fletcher does, however, question whether the conversions were sincere or very deep. The missionaries faced a motley mix of pagans, Arian heretics, and backslidden and badly catechized Christians. Most of the local pagan beliefs were informal and non-exclusive in their demands. Thus, some people thought of Christianity as another round of rituals to add to their accumulated pagan practices. A substantial number of homilies from the period condemn worship at pagan shrines and sacrifices to idols.

Fletcher multiplies examples of barbarians mixing religions: an East Anglian king erected a Christian altar in his pagan temple; a Spaniard consults both his Christian priest and the local pagan shaman, just to be safe.
The bishops took dramatic measures to make their point. St. Martin of Tours’ favored method of eradicating pagan worship was setting fire to shrines. In southern Italy, St. Barbatus melted down a golden image of a snake-god and used the gold to make a paten and chalice for Mass.

But, according to Fletcher, Gregory the Great suggested “adaptation,” rather than destruction, of pagan temples. The pontiff wrote to his English mission in 601: “The idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them.” Gregory tells the missionaries to encourage the locals to continue slaughtering their animals, as if for sacrifice, but now for celebration and praise of God instead. “Thus while some outward rejoicings are preserved, they will be able more easily to share in inward rejoicings.”

“It is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds,” Gregory said. “Just as the man who is attempting to climb to the highest place, rises by steps and degrees and not by leaps.”
Gregory was right, of course. The old habits died hard. And, as Christianity became the norm in more barbarian territories — especially among the ruling classes — there were more material reasons for converting. Indeed, many missionaries tried to work a tribe from the “top down,” persuading the chief and other leaders first.

It worked — sort of — in Denmark, where each convert would receive a new suit of clothes after baptism. Fletcher quotes a ninth-century monk’s tale of a soldier who went through the water only to find that the clerics had run out of new suits. Handed a ragged old tunic, the soldier was so outraged that he confronted the emperor himself: “Look here! I’ve gone through this ablutions business about twenty times already, and I’ve always been rigged out before with a splendid white suit; but this old sack makes me feel more like a pig farmer than a soldier!” The monk lamented that more Danes came each year, “not for the sake of Christ but for mundane advantages.”

But there are worse incentives than bribery. The first Holy Roman emperor, Charlemagne, used coercion when he conquered the stubborn Saxons in 782, slaughtering 4,500 prisoners, then inviting the remaining barbarians to baptism. In Charlemagne’s Saxony, refusal to be baptized was punishable by death, as were eating meat in Lent, cremation of the dead and attending pagan rites. Charlemagne’s method would serve as a model for later forced mass conversions, such as those of the conquistadors in Spanish America. And, into the 20th century, the forced conversion of the Saxons has been blamed for historical disasters from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of Nazism. (The latter diagnosis came from no less than Sigmund Freud.)

Still, Charlemagne’s slaughter was the exception. We can better see the norm in missionaries such as the Irish monk St. Columbanus, who Christianized and tribes through France, across the Alps and into Italy. His colleagues and successors in Irish monasteries would spend the centuries of the Dark Ages carefully preserving classical learning by copying out manuscripts, then returning this heritage, with the Gospel, to the peoples of Europe. Their achievement was memorialized in Thomas Cahill’s bestseller, “How the Irish Saved Civilization” (Anchor).

Both Fletcher and Cahill’s books gained favorable notice and good sales. Both are reconsiderations of an age whose history has too often been distorted by anti-Catholic prejudice. Yet neither Fletcher nor Cahill is immune to this. Fletcher rarely misses an opportunity to question the motives of an act of charity or apostolic impulse in any saint, bishop, missionary or martyr. His book is heavy on sarcasm. Cahill, for his part, casts St. Augustine as the great villain in Church history, bequeathing Christians a legacy of sexual hangups and self-loathing, over against the fun-loving leprechaun St. Patrick, who, Cahill suggests, was something of a pagan at heart.

Yet Fletcher clearly understands that the barbarian conversion was not merely a matter of bowing to this shrine rather than that one. With Christianity, came a worldview and a moral code often widely at variance with those the barbarians had known. Some tribes had been polygamous; Christianity would put an end to that. Some practiced infanticide and marriage to near kin. As Christians, they would not.

And we can’t underestimate the radical shift that each convert had to undergo, from worshiping many fickle gods to worshiping just one jealous Lover.

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Virgin Territory

(The following is based on an interview I conducted with Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., some years ago.)

“Why all this fuss about virginity?”

Modern Christians, looking at early Church documents, might well ask the same question a theology student recently put to Dominican Father Benedict Ashley.

The Christian Church, from the time of St. Paul through the eighth century, did place a particular emphasis on the life and conduct of virgins. “Consecrated virgins” were those Christians (especially women) who chose to live celibate lives of prayer, work, intensive study and service, all the while remaining “in the world.” Most, it seems, continued to live in their family homes. The homilies, tracts and legislation of the early Church Fathers discuss consecrated virgins about as often as they mention the clergy.

Why all the fuss about virginity? Because the way Christians esteemed virgins was revolutionary in its time, and it spoke volumes about the greater rights women would win through Christianity’s triumph.

“Vowed virgins were Christians who had consecrated their entire life, including all the energy and intimacy of love, to Christ, with whom they hoped to live for all eternity on the great wedding day,” explained Father Ashley, who discussed the ancient role of consecrated virgins in his recent book on gender issues, Justice in the Church (Catholic University of America, 1996).

The Church esteemed these women, viewing them as prophets, teachers, role models and leaders. In the fourth century, St. Jerome wrote, in his letter of praise for the Roman virgin Asella, that priests and bishops “should look up to her.” In the liturgy in the third century, consecrated virgins were given a place of honor at the liturgy, receiving Communion before the laity.

Perhaps the modern Christian cannot fully appreciate how revolutionary this was — not only for WOMEN to be so esteemed, but for VIRGINAL women to be esteemed at all.

In ancient cultures, a woman’s value was almost exclusively derived from the males with whom she was in relation: her husband, her sons or her father. If a woman never married (and so never bore sons), she was almost certainly destined to poverty and obscurity. This was true in pagan cultures as well as in Israel, where marriage was considered a duty and virginity a curse.

Yet Christianity — with its cult of two prominent virgins, Jesus and Mary — turned that value system on its head. This is evident in Scripture, in the Acts of the Apostles (see, for example, 21:9) as well as in St. Paul’s lengthy treatment of consecrated virginity in his first Letter to the Corinthians (see all of chapter 7).

Now, not only was the “curse” lifted from virginity; virgins (and widows) were seen as meriting the direct support of the Christian community.

Not too long after St. Paul, St. Justin praised Christian virgins, as did St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch and, later, Tertullian and St. Cyprian. By the fourth century, consecrated virgins were probably relatively numerous. At any rate, the writings about virginity had multiplied by then, with Saints Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine weighing in with praise and good counsel.

A recent anthology of ancient texts illuminates the life of consecrated virgins. In Handmaids of the Lord: Holy Women in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cistercian Publications, 1996), scholar Joan M. Petersen drew together biographies and correspondence of consecrated virgins from the fourth through sixth centuries.

Reading these texts and knowing the place of women in pagan Rome, a modern can only marvel at the decision of Christian virgins to remain in the world. After all, by the fourth century, Christian women could fairly easily opt for a cloistered life removed from the culture. But many consecrated virgins discerned a vocation to stay put. Jerome wrote of Asella that “she found herself a monastic hermitage amidst the hurly-burly of the city.” It was in Rome, at the same time, that the virgin Lea lived a quiet life of renunciation and fasting. “In all that she did, she shunned any display of individual peculiarities,” Jerome wrote, “in order that she might not receive her reward in this world.”

Yet another Roman, Marcella, was widowed in the first year of marriage. Beautiful and wealthy, she decided to live as if she had neither money nor prospects for marriage. She consecrated her life. Afterward, Jerome wrote, Marcella “used her clothes to keep out the cold and not to show off her figure. Of gold she would not wear so much as a signet-ring, choosing to store her money in the stomachs of the poor rather than keep it in her purse.” Jerome wrote of still other virgins who lived in the world, yet used their inheritances to support monastic communities of women or men.

Jerome’s voluminous correspondence with consecrated virgins shows that many of these women were engaged in study at a level attained by few women (or men, for that matter) of their time (or our own time). One casually quotes Plato. Most show an easy familiarity with the Bible and even the most technical works of biblical exegesis. Jerome sets out a daunting curriculum in a letter to Laeta, a mother who wanted to raise her daughters to be consecrated virgins, The girls were to read the Scriptures, of course, but also the theological works of Saints Cyprian, Athanasius and Hilary.

But great learning was not the primary goal of the virgin’s life. It was a means to the end of holiness. More to the point, in a letter to Demetrias, a young virgin of North Africa, Jerome advised a daily plan of prayer woven with study and work: “In addition to the rule of psalmody and prayer, which you must always observe at . . . evening, at midnight and at dawn, decide how many hours you ought to give to memorizing holy Scripture, and how much time you should spend in reading, not as a burden, but for delight and instruction of your soul. When you have spent your allotted time in these studies, often kneeling down to pray, … have some wool always in your hands, and spinning out the threads of the weft with your thumb, attach them to the shuttle and then throw this to weave a web … If you busy yourself with these numerous and varied occupations, you will never find your days long.”

The daily work varied from person to person. Some virgins busied themselves with the care of their aging parents. Others managed the family household. Still others worked among the poor. Often, their witness would move other family members or neighbors to emulate their life. There are many examples of family homes that became “house monasteries” in this way.

Though pagan Rome was hostile to both their virginity and their life style, the empire’s law and order were indispensable to the security of consecrated women. With the decline of the empire comes a corresponding decline in historical evidence of women living as consecrated virgins in the world.

“The middle ages were a socially disruptive and dangerous time,” said Father Ashley. “People went around armed. It became dangerous for a woman to be out in public alone. Talk about sexual harassment! She was safer in the cloister.”

Indeed, by the eighth century, it seems that marriage and the cloister were, practically speaking, the only two Christian vocations open to women.

Yet Father Ashley sees something of a resurgence of the idea, in the last two centuries, with the rise of active religious orders that are not cloistered and are oriented toward service in the world. And he cites secular institutes and the personal prelature, Opus Dei, as giving further opportunities for vocational commitment in the secular realm. The Church restored the rite for consecrated virgins living in the world in 1970, and there is even a U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins.

This can be good ground regained for Catholic women, according to Father Ashley. “The male ascetic cannot fulfill the symbolic role in the Church that a vowed female virgin can,” he said. “Just as a woman cannot appropriately symbolize Christ by ordination to the priesthood, a man cannot symbolize Mary, the New Eve, the Mother of God. Nor can a man symbolize the Church as bride. Yet Mary in her contemplative role is superior to the priest in his active, ministerial role. Thus, as a sign, the consecrated virgin is superior to the priest.”

That’s why — from St. Paul onward — there’s “all that fuss” about consecrated virginity.

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Was King Arthur a Church Father?

Just wanted to see if you were paying attention … Well, that’s not all I was doing. I also wanted to place Arthur correctly in history, if indeed he was an historical figure. The best and most influential of the legends of the Holy Grail were written down in the Middle Ages, and their authors decked them out with all the trappings of a medieval court — medieval customs, armor, weaponry, and so on. Hollywood has picked up on this, and most of the Arthur flicks have dressed him in the mail of the medievals.

But if Arthur was, once upon a time, a real-life British warlord, as at least one early history indicates he was, then he lived not in the thirteenth century but in the fifth. It was in the age of the Fathers that he “bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders” in battle. He was a contemporary of Benedict, not Aquinas. And his piety would have had a style more accurately called patristic than medieval.

What does all that have to do with the Holy Grail? More than Dan Brown or Monty Python would have you believe. Buy The Grail Code to find out. You’re invited, too, to find out on your own, by visiting and immersing yourself in one of the best and best-organized online libraries of Arthurian lore. As I say this, I bow to my co-author, Chris Bailey, from whom so many of these good gifts come.

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The New Book Is Out!

A copy of my book The Grail Code is in my hands and so, I suppose, in the hands of Amazon and other booksellers as well. I hope you’ll have it in your kind hands before too long.

What does the Holy Grail have to do with the Church Fathers? I’m glad you asked. I’ll be blogging that over the next few days. My co-author Christopher Bailey, whom I’ve exalted in these pages before, is blogging on the Grail legends more specifically at, our website.

Chris and I wanted to rescue the Grail from its captivity by the wacko fringe. In our book, we track the history of the legends, their origins, and their ends. I hope you’ll join us for the Quest.

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Cassian Carry

Look at the ads in the daily papers and see the obsessions of the current generation. Pensions, IRAs, 401(k) plans — we live in chronic insecurity, worrying over years of tomorrows that may never come. Meanwhile, we make today miserable with our anxieties. St. John Cassian (c. 360-c. 435) saw these worries following monks even into the monastery, corrupting them, destroying their souls, and eventually destroying entire communities. In his “Institutes,” he analyzed eight vices and prescribed the cure for each. What follows is Cassian’s teaching on avarice, addressed to monks of the fifth century but full of wisdom for the pension-obsessed lay Christian in the twentieth. While the ancient monk may have shortchanged his monastic duties in order to shore up a cushy old age, the modern layperson might neglect charity to the poor or the blessing of additional children, just for the sake of fattening up a futures fund.

Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence, they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because it enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is “the root of all evil” (1Tim 6:10) …

When this sickness finds the soul lukewarm and lacking in faith at the start of the ascetic path, it suggests to us various apparently justifiable and sensible reasons for keeping back something of what we possess. It conjures up in a monk’s mind a picture of a lengthy old age and bodily illness; and it persuades him that the necessities of life provided by the monastery are insufficient to sustain a healthy man, much less an ill one; that in the monastery the sick, instead of receiving proper attention, are hardly cared for at all; and that unless he has some money tucked away, he will die a miserable death. Finally, it convinces him that he will not be able to remain long in the monastery because of the load of his work and the strictness of the abbot. When with thoughts like these it has seduced his mind with the idea of concealing any sum, however trifling, it persuades him to learn unknown to the abbot, some handicraft through which he can increase his cherished hoardings. Then it deceives the wretched monk with secret expectations, making him imagine what he will earn from his handicraft, and the comfort and security which will result from it. Now completely given over to the thought of gain, he notices none of the evil passions which attack him: his raging fury when he happens to sustain a loss, his gloom and dejection when he falls short of the gain he hoped for. Just as for other people the belly is a god, so for him is money. That is why the Apostle, knowing this, calls avarice not only “the root of all evil” but “idolatry” as well (Col 3:5).

How is it that this sickness can so pervert a man that he ends up as an idolater? It is because he now fixes hi intellect on the love, not of God, but of the images of men stamped on gold. A monk darkened by such thoughts and launched on the downward path can no longer be obedient. He is irritable and resentful, and grumbles about every task. He answers back and, having lost his sense of respect, behaves like a stubborn, uncontrollable horse. He is not satisfied wit the day’s ration of food and complains that he cannot put up with such conditions forever. Neither God’s presence, he says, nor the possibility of his own salvation is confined to the monastery; and, he concludes, he will perish if he does not leave it. He is so excited and encouraged in these perverse thoughts by his secret hoardings that he even plans to quit the monastery. Then he replies proudly and harshly no matter what he is told to do, and pays no heed if he sees something in the monastery that needs to be set right, considering himself a stranger and outsider and finding fault with all that takes place. Then he seeks excuses for being angry or injured, so that he will not appear to be leaving the monastery frivolously and without cause. He does not even shrink from trying through gossip and idle talk to seduce someone else into leaving with him, wishing to have an accomplice in his sinful action.

Because the avaricious monk is so fired with desire for private wealth he will never be able to live at peace in a monastery or under a rule. When like a wolf the demon has snatched him from the fold and separated him from the flock, he makes ready to devour him; he sets him to work day and night in his cell on the very tasks which he complained of doing at fixed times in the monastery. But the demon does not allow him to keep regular prayers or norms of fasting or orders of vigil. Having bound him fast in the madness of avarice, he persuades him to devote all his effort to his handicraft.

There are three forms of this sickness, all of which are equally condemned by the holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers. The first induces those who were poor to acquire and save the goods they lacked in the world. The second compels those who have renounced worldly goods by offering them to God, to have regrets and to seek after them again. A third infects a monk from the start with lack of faith and ardor, so preventing his complete detachment from worldly things, producing in him a fear of poverty and distrust in God’s providence and leading him to break the promises he made when he renounced the world.

Examples of these three forms of avarice are, as I have said, condemned in holy Scripture. Gehazi wanted to acquire property which he did not previously possess, and therefore never received the prophetic grace which his teacher had wished to leave him in the place of an inheritance. Because of the prophet’s curse he inherited incurable leprosy instead of a blessing (2 Kg 5:27). And Judas, who wished to acquire money which he had previously abandoned on following Christ, not only lapsed so far as to betray the Master and lose his place in the circle of the apostles; he also put an end to his life in the flesh through a violent death. Thirdly, Ananias and Sapphira were condemned to death by the Apostle’s word when they kept back something of what they had acquired (Ac 5:1-10). Again, in Deuteronomy Moses is indirectly exhorting those who promise to renounce the world, and who then retain their earthly possessions because of the fear that comes from lack of faith, when he says: “What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? He shall not go out to do battle; let him return to his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart” (Dt 20:8). Could anything be clearer or more certain than this testimony? …

With the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in mind, we should shudder at the thought of keeping to ourselves anything of our former possessions. Similarly, frightened by the example of Gehazi who was afflicted with incurable leprosy because of his avarice, let us guard against piling up money … Finally, recalling Judas’ death by hanging, let us beware of acquiring again any of the things which we have renounced. In all this we should remember how uncertain is the hour of our death, so that our Lord does not come unexpectedly and, finding our conscience soiled with avarice, say to us what God says to the rich man in the Gospel: “You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: who then will be the owner of what you have stored up?” (Lk 12:20).