• Maria Lectrix, the ubersource for audio of the works of the Fathers, has just posted the first installment of Tertullian’s On Patience. For Tertullian to write on patience is kind of like Jerome writing on meekness. Don’t miss it. And raise an Ave for Maureen, the blog’s hostess and narratrix-in-chief. She’s down sick this week.
• While you’re listening to Maureen’s best imitation of Tertullian, you can check her website for progress on her gradual transcription of Thomas Livius’s great work The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries. She’s not only typing it up; she’s also annotating it with a useful glossary. Once you’ve been suitably impressed, then raise another Ave for Maureen’s return to health.
Today is the Feast of All Souls, when Christians traditionally pray for the dead, that they may have eternal rest.
The early Church testifies to belief in purgatory, in both its literary and archeological remains. Many Christians commissioned gravestones with epitaphs begging prayers for their souls. The apocrypha sketch out the doctrine, and the Fathers expound it. The existence of purgatory is implicit in both the Old Testament and the New (including the Gospels). The early Church kept many graveside traditions that, in effect, made a habit of prayer for the dead. It was customary to mark the anniversary of a dead person’s passing (three days, one week, one year) with the celebration of the Mass. In the fourth century, St. Monica urged her priest-son Augustine to remember her soul in prayer when he said Mass. And, like a good boy, he did. “If we had no care for the dead,” Augustine said, “we would not be in the habit of praying for them.” Augustine held that there are “temporary punishments after death.” There is remedial pain as the soul undergoes its purification and preparation for heaven. St. Gregory the Great emphasized that this doctrine was not optional.
The earliest records in the paper trail are not to be missed, for they’re the most poetic. And you’ll find a sampling online here.
The best book on the subject is, without a doubt, Purgatory, by Michael Taylor, S.J. It presents the scriptural, patristic, and theological evidence in an accessible readable form. It’s a friendly treatment, good for handing to a skeptical friend.
“He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:43-45). “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46, Vulgate).
A few weeks back I groused that David Bercot’s Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs was deficient in its treatment of the cult of the saints in Christian antiquity. In fact, the only entries under “Should Christians pray to the dead?” are condemnations of necromancy by Tertullian and Lactantius! In an otherwise fine volume, this section grossly misrepresents the literary and archeological record of the early Church. For the early Christians practiced a lively and deep devotion to the saints.
Not to worry, though, because other books make up for the bit that is lacking in Bercot, and there’s always more room on the bookshelf. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press offers a nice anthology in its popular patristics series: The Cult of the Saints includes St. John Chrysostom’s homilies and letters related to the great men whom St. Paul refers to as the “saints in light” (Col 1:12). When you have Fathers praising Fathers — in this case, Chrysostom praising Ignatius (and many others) — you’ve got to listen up.
In his standard work on Early Christian Doctrines, J.N.D. Kelly notes how the earliest Christians reverently preserved the relics of the martyrs and every year celebrated their “birthdays” (into heaven, that is). Origen and Cyprian attest to the custom of seeking the intercession of the saints. And their literary remains find echo in graffiti throughout the ancient world. The ancient liturgies invoke the saints of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as the martyrs. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, st. Ambrose, St. Epiphanius, St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzen exhort their flocks to seek the help of the saints. And it’s a multimedia testimony. We can still look upon those early images of saints, painted on the walls of the catacombs, engraved on tombstones, and etched into the sides of pilgrim flasks and oil lamps. Everywhere the Gospel reached, the strain re-echoed: “Pray for us!”
There’s more evidence in Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (The Haskell Lectures on History of Religions). Though Brown does not write from a perspective of faith — perhaps because he doesn’t — he is a reliable witness. He has no dog in the Protestant-Catholic fight over the intercession of the saints. But Catholics will recognize a familiar devotion in some of their ancient forebears, as they appear in Brown’s book. (I like his description of the Mediterranean region after the rise of Christianity: “while it may not have become markedly more ‘otherworldly,’ it was most emphatically ‘upperworldly.'”)
Orthodox and Catholic Christianity still is. We profess belief in “life everlasting. We believe also that we live amid a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). We believe that Christians must “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). We believe that the dead cry out before the altar in heaven, pleading with God to right the wrongs upon earth (Rev 6:9-10).
In short, we believe in the faith of our Fathers. There’s good patristic material in the online Catholic Encyclopedia and at Catholic Answers. So celebrate the day with gusto. Celebrate with all the saints in heaven and on earth!