Archeologists may have found the site of a sixth-century miracle recorded by Procopius in his account of The Buildings of Justinian. The story broke in Haaretz, but is told more fully at Patheos. Out of the stone at the miraculous quarry Justinian built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary — twice the size of Jerusalem’s Temple.
My book Mothers of the Church: The Witness of Early Christian Women, co-authored with my friend Christopher Bailey, has been getting some great press. Here are the two most recent notices.
Brian Caulfield interviewed me for the Knights of Columbus’s Fathers for Good site. He led off with the rather provocative question: “You did a book on the Fathers of the Church, and now on Mothers. Is there real substance to the lives of early Christian women?” He got my Irish up. It turned into a great conversation.
Kathleen Manning reviewed the book in the pages of U.S. Catholic magazine.
I’ve also been doing a lot of radio on this topic. Nothing I’ve done has drawn so many callers. When you think about the great women of the early Church — Thecla, Perpetua, Agnes, Macrina, Marcella, Paula, Eustochium, Monica, Olympias — it’s easy to see why.
All you holy women, pray for us.
The past is more present than it’s been in ages. Archeological discoveries have been piling up in my basket. Here’s a great one that’s very patristic.
Bulgarian archaeologists have uncovered what they believe is the oldest Christian monastery in Europe near the village of Zlatna Livada in southern Bulgaria.
According to latest archaeological research, the St. Athanasius monastery, still functioning near the village, has been founded in 344 by St. Athanasius himself, reports the BGNES agency.
Until now, the Candida Casa monastery, founded in 371 AD in Galloway, Scotland, was believed to be the oldest Christian monastery in Europe, followed by the St. Martin monastery in the Pyrénées-Orientales, France (373 AD).
Archaeologists have examined objects in a hermit’s cave and shrine located near the present St. Athanasius monastery in Bulgaria, and found evidence that the great saint might have resided there.
Additional studies in archives at the Vatican have confirmed that St. Athanasius was present at the Church Council in Serdica (modern Sofia) in 343 AD.
He then travelled on to Constantinople and is believed to have stopped in the area of present Zlatna Livada, which is located in Thrace on the ancient way between Serdica and Constantinople.
Some others, too:
Some years back I collaborated with the Czech artist Lea Ravotti on the book Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols. Readers of that book might be interested in this title just out by Anastasia Lazaridou: Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd-7th Century AD.
If you don’t know Signs and Mysteries, though, do check it out, if only for Lea’s artwork! (If I hadn’t given up punning for Lent, I would have said czech it out. Isn’t that prague-ress? … Oh, there I go again, back to Ash Wednesday.)
BMCR reviews To Train His Soul in Books: Syriac Asceticism in Early Christianity, edited by Robin Darling Young and Monica Blanchard. This is going right to my wish list.
To Train His Soul in Books is a volume of essays written in honor of Sidney H. Griffith. Most scholars of late antiquity have encountered at least one arm of Griffith’s scholarship. He is well-known for his translations and exposition of Syriac texts, which have given Syriac Christianity the attention it deserves to stand alongside Greek and Latin Christianities. Specifically, within this field, he has contributed ground-breaking scholarship on Ephrem the Syrian and on Syriac asceticism. Griffith is known too for his studies in Arabic Christianity and Christian-Muslim dialogue from the ancient to the contemporary period. The reach of his scholarship has been as wide as it has been deep…
The essays in the volume represent extensions of Griffith’s work on Ephrem the Syrian and on subsequent traditions of Syriac-speaking Christianity. Like the scholarship of Griffith himself, some essays make available new translations of Syriac texts. In chapter one, Joseph P. Amar provides readers with an English translation of the Vespers liturgy for the feast of the Announcement to the Bearer of God, Mary. The translation is accompanied by a nice discussion of intercalated psalmody in the liturgical tradition of the Syriac Maronite church. In chapter two, Francisco Javier Martínez translates into Spanish three of Ephrem’s Hymns On Virginity, introducing his translations with a discussion of extant manuscripts and of the hymns’ relation to Syriac ascetic and liturgical traditions. Finally, in chapter nine, Monica Blanchard translates into English selections from a yet-to-be-published Syriac manuscript by East Syrian monk Beh Isho’ Kamulaya, selections in which the author focuses on “purity of heart.”
First in a series of three posts.Reprinted from 2007.
How do you know it’s Lent?
It’s not so much by the ash mark on your forehead or fish marks on the calendar. Tradition tells us that Lent has three distinguishing marks: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
This three-part series will examine those practices. Prayer is surely the best place to begin, because it’s the one that unites them all. Fasting and almsgiving are themselves just forms of prayer.
There are two classic definitions of prayer. The one in most catechisms comes from St. John of Damascus (eighth century): “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God.” The other comes from St. Clement of Alexandria (third century). He defined prayer as “conversation with God.”
In prayer we talk to God, and He talks to us. As in any relationship, this conversation takes many forms. Think of all the ways a husband and wife communicate: formal marriage vows, casual chat, winks across a crowded room, affectionate caresses, and phrases they never tire of repeating.
Our communication with God includes a similar range of expressions — set phrases, quiet conversation, gestures such as the Sign of the Cross, and the intimate embrace of the sacraments. Just as a man and woman grow in love by repeating “I love you,” so we Christians grow in love by repeating the Church’s prayers.
Prayer comes in many forms and styles. These are usually divided into “vocal” and “mental” prayer. The categories are helpful, but not watertight. All prayer, after all, should involve our mind; so, in a sense, all prayer is mental prayer. Modern writers sometimes speak of the two types as formal prayer and spontaneous prayer.
Again, such distinctions are useful; we should, however, step beyond them for a moment. When we look at all prayer as conversation, it can change the way we go about it. Thinking of prayer as conversation can help us also to overcome obstacles — such as distractions, dryness, inability to focus — because all these things also come up in human conversation.
Prayer is a conversation that never ends. In the Scriptures, St. Paul says: “Pray at all times” (Eph 6:18); “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:1); and “be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12). He saw prayer as endless conversation.
That seems to be asking a lot, but it’s really the best way to think about it. If we are to pray this way, we have to form the habit of prayer. And, like any good habit or skill, prayer requires a sustained effort, over time, with much repetition.
Many people bristle when they hear about discipline in prayer. They think prayer should always be spontaneous. And sometimes prayer does come spontaneously, as when we experience some great joy or great sorrow. But spontaneity is most often the fruit of discipline. It is usually the best-trained musicians who are able to improvise freely. To do anything well takes time, dedication and patient endurance through sometimes-tedious exercises.
The most effective way to discipline our prayer life is by following a program, a schedule of sorts — what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called “a game plan for the Christian.” The best time to set up such a plan is during Lent.
A “plan of life” is a firm but flexible program that schedules our prayer amid the ordinary duties of work, family life and social activity. A daily plan should include some vocal prayers, such as the Rosary or other devotions; plus reading of the Bible and some spiritual book (the writings of the saints are best); attendance at Mass (at least on Sundays and holy days, but more often if possible); and quiet time for more focused conversation with God in mental prayer. The best place for this prayer is in church, before Jesus in the tabernacle.
“Prayer first means God is speaking to us and not the other way around,” says Father Kenneth Myers, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “That requires silence — the art of listening carefully to the Lord. And the best place to do that is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament requires real effort and commitment, but even when our hearts are dry and it seems fruitless to keep on praying, being before the Eucharistic Lord is like being in the sunlight — even by doing nothing we still absorb those powerful rays of light.”
Our plan should also include weekly or monthly practices, such as confession, fasting, almsgiving and so on.
It helps to set standard times, or to key each practice to other activities, so that we never forget. We can keep our spiritual book by the coffee pot and read while the java is brewing every morning. We can use the beginning of our lunch hour as a reminder to say the Angelus. We can pray the Rosary while waiting for the bus home in the evening. We can listen to ten minutes of the Bible on tape as we drive.
We should plant prayers throughout the day like vines. Put one here, one there — and pretty soon, like ivy on a wall, our prayer will cover our day.
This is how Jesus modeled prayer for us. His own prayer life was rich and varied. Sometimes He offered formal prayers (Mk 12:29, 15:34). He kept holy days, made pilgrimages and attended the rich liturgy of the Jews (Jn 7:10-14). He also prayed spontaneously (Jn 11:41-42). He made time to pray alone in silence (Lk 3:21-22). Yet He also prayed together with His friends (Lk 9:18). He fasted, and He studied the Scriptures.
The first Christians followed their Lord in all these practices, and so do we.
Not that it’s always easy to do. But the formal quality of prayer helps us know what to do when we meet with obstacles. “Never, Never, never, never give up!” says my friend Steve Galvanek. A systems analyst, husband and dad, Steve says his plan sustains him even when he’s tired and preoccupied. “If in my feeble attempts to say a Rosary, I manage just one or two heartfelt Hail Marys, that’s far better than if I hadn’t tried at all”
Even the more unpleasant and difficult things in life can become reminders to pray. The key is to think of them as opportunities rather than obstacles. Another friend of mine, Sarah Scott, admits that it’s hard to find time to pray. She’s a mother of five, owner of a home-based business and volunteer at her children’s Catholic school. “It helps to offer everything up all the little things that you don’t like to do,” she says. “I hate folding laundry. But, instead of getting annoyed about it, I try to offer it up and think about what other people have to deal with. Efforts like this keep me talking with God throughout the day.”
Sounds like a plan.
The Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”), in his drive to re-paganize the empire, tried to weaken Christian opposition by dividing it, setting one faction against another. He restored heretical bishops who had been deposed, so that major cities would have two competing bishops. He offered prominent Catholics high positions, so that he could neutralize them while claiming their support. Meanwhile, he made the requirements for schoolteachers so stringently pagan that no Christian could fulfill them. Banished from the public square, Christianity could be minimized as a cultural force. According to a recent biographer, Julian “marginalised Christianity to the point where it could potentially have vanished within a generation or two, and without the need for physical coercion.” Said Julian: “If they want to learn literature, they have Luke and Mark: Let them go back to their churches and expound on them.” Julian wished to remove Christians from public discourse – drive them into a cultural ghetto.
Dr. Tom Neal recently hosted me for two days of nonstop talking in Des Moines, Iowa. I spoke to the clergy, to a group of catechetical professionals, at a parish, and with a men’s group. (Though at the last I mostly listened, enthralled.) Tom commemorated the event with this blog post — and with a great original poem about Tertullian, whom I quoted often in my talks. The poem is embedded in Tom’s post. Don’t miss it!
My friend Jason Stewart tells his very patristic conversion story. Check it out!
I think the Fathers would recognize America’s moral landscape for what it is. Our world is not so different from the world where they lived — the world they converted and healed.
But who belongs to our world? For the last generation, Americans have tried to place certain classes of humans beyond the protection of the law, outside the definition of personhood. It began with the fetus, the preborn child. Court decisions placed arbitrary limits — at the first trimester, or second, or birth. But does anyone take these seriously? What is it about a day of development — or a week — that changes the baby so radically as to make her a different sort of being? Which is the event that confers personhood?
Again, different ethicists propose different answers: self-consciousness, the ability to feel pain, sensitivity to light and sound, and so on. But these, too, fail. After all, we don’t (yet) kill older children who are blind or deaf. The most honest pro-choice thinkers put the matter baldly: what confers personhood is the will of the mother.
The Church Fathers were familiar with this line of thinking. In pagan Rome, a child did not achieve personhood until recognized by the head of the family, the father. When the mother had given birth, a midwife placed the child on the floor and summoned the father. He examined the child with his criteria of selection in mind.
Was the child his? If the man suspected his wife of adultery — ancient Rome’s favorite pastime — he might reject the child without so much as a glance.
If the child were an “odious daughter” (a common Roman phrase for female offspring), he would likely turn on his heel and leave the room.
If the child were “defective” in any way, he would do the same. As the philosopher Seneca said: “What is good must be set apart from what is good-for-nothing.”
Life or death? It all depended upon the will of a man. Human life began when the child was accepted into society. A man did not “have a child.” He “took a child.” The father “raised up” the child by picking it up from the floor.
Those non-persons who were left on the floor — while their mothers watched from a birthing chair — would be drowned immediately, or exposed to scavenging animals at the town dump.
Against these customs, the Church consistently taught that life begins at conception and should continue till natural death. In such matters, Christianity contradicted pagan mores on almost every point. What were virtuous acts to the Romans and Greeks — contraception, abortion, infanticide, suicide, euthanasia — were abominations to the Christians.
The papyrus trail is especially extensive for abortion, which is condemned by the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter; by Justin, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian. And that partial list takes us only to the middle of the third century.
The earliest extrabiblical document, the Didache, begins with these words: “Two Ways there are, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the Two Ways.” The Fathers converted their world from one Way to the other, and they were judged righteous.
Our last generations have perverted our world from one Way to another, and we too will be judged. But we can still do something, as our earliest Christian ancestors did, and we must.
As Egypt’s Christians face an uncertain future, their most ancient ancestors rise from the sand to remind them of the faith that withstood Decius and Diocletian … and remind us to pray for the Copts. Check out this recent discovery.
A Supreme Council of Antiquities mission has discovered a Coptic city dating back to the fourth century. The city is located in the Ain al-Sabil area of the New Valley Governorate.
In the middle of the city, a basilica church was found, surrounded by buildings that Council Secretary General Mostafa Amin said were service units for the priests.
“We never had an excavation in Ain al-Sabil before,” said Amin. “Maybe we’ll find other antiquities that would add to Egypt’s archaeological treasures.”
Mohsen Ali, the council’s director of Islamic and Coptic antiquities, said the mission also uncovered a house that consists of a big hall, living rooms, a main entrance, a kitchen with a built-in oven and an intact staircase, in addition to ancient bronze coins and clay jugs.
A Coptologist friend of mine writes, in joyful hope: “Where coins are left behind, fourth or third century papyrus may be found in the basilica!”
LiveScience reports on a curse tablet found in Antioch (Antakaya), near Turkey’s border with Syria. It calls upon Yahweh to visit his wrath upon a greengrocer named Babylas.
One of Antioch’s great martyr-bishops was named Babylas. His relics were evicted by Julian the Apostate, who worried that they were causing radio interference with the demons who fed the local pagan oracles.
There couldn’t be a connection.
Such cursing is a curious part of late-antique cultures. Some years ago I posted on the Church Fathers and the evil eye. Don’t try this at home. Or anywhere.
The passionate patrologist Dr. Jamie Blosser — who professes Church history, ecclesiology, and New Testament at Benedictine College in Kansas — has blogged a most excellent (and brief) essay on “How the Church Fathers Can Help Us Engage the Culture for Christ.”
As much as anything in the essay I loved his bio at the bottom, which includes this line: “He and his wife Danielle have five boys: Augustine, Ambrose, Cyprian, Basil and Cyril.”
He is, as I said, a passionate patrologist.