skull Food for Thought

The Catacombs

OPEN LIBRARY: Thanks, in part, to the folks at Open Library, I have a virtually endless supply of Summer (And Fall, and Winter, and Spring) reading material for my e-book. Yes, I know nothing can surpass the sensation of the creamy and comforting page with its lingering scent of vanilla and milk—when I die, I wish to be pressed, like a rose, between two pages of St. John’s Gospel—but there’s good to be found in almost everything—even e-books. (E-books, for those who don’t know, are Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s I-Pad. You can also read e-book files on your desktop PC, about which more below.)

What these books lack in sensual appeal they make up for in price (many are free, better than which nothing is) and, especially, subject matter: obscure, or out-of-print, gems on many fascinating subjects, including Ecclesiastical Latin, Illuminated Manuscripts, and the history of the early Church.

One such gem is Early Christians in Rome by the Very Rev. H. D. M. Spence-Jones [1836-1917]. Among the interesting facts to be learnt are these:

Of the equality of its members:

“It [the Cemetery of Domatilla] was the burying-place of certain Christian members of the imperial house of Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian in the days of their power, and it tells us with no uncertain voice that in the ranks of the Christian congregation of Rome in the very first days were members drawn from the highest ranks of the proudest aristocracy of the world, and who did not shrink from sharing the same seats in the Christian prayer homes with the slave and the little trader. “

Spence-Jones has a particularly interesting, and relevant, discussion of early Christian practices as they relate to almsgiving, hospitality and private acts of charity in the infant church, and it supports my belief that a society is much more moral when based on the charity of the heart rather than the compulsion of the state. God alone—not man—is capable of transforming the human heart.

If the experiment of “communism” in the early Christian Church was ever tried, it was in the congregation of Jerusalem, and there it is clear that the results were simply disastrous; very soon the Church of Jerusalem was reduced to the direst straits. There are very many allusions to this state of things in S. Paul’s Epistles, where collections for the ” poor saints in Jerusalem ” are constantly mentioned ; yet even in that Church, where apparently some attempt at a community of goods was evidently made, entire renunciation was evidently, as we see in the case of Ananias and Sappliira, never obligatory, but was ever purely voluntary.

And the obligation to give—to place others before self—was universal, regardless of one’s means:

…to the collections made in the assembly for the poor and needy, even the poorest artisan and slave contributed, and positively fasted for two or three days that they might save the necessary few coins to help those poorer and more sorrowful than themselves.

Modern man takes for granted the solemn and respectful disposal of a dead human body but, to my great surprise,  it was not always so. The sanctity of the human body was an early theme:

” We will not suffer the image and workmanship of God to lie exposed as a prey to beasts and birds, but we will restore it to earth from which it was taken ; and although it be in the case of an unknown person, we will supply the place of relatives, whose place, since they are wanting, let benevolence take.” — Lactantius, Inst. vi. 12.

All this loving care for the remains of the deceased went home to numberless hearts among the survivors of the loved, and evidently ranked high among the reasons which attracted many into the ranks of the Christian Brotherhood.

Spence-Jones also provides some surprising insight into the status of slaves (Apparently, almost half the population consisted in slaves.):

In the assemblies of the Christians of the first days on which we have been dwelling, the social difference between master and slave was quite unknown. They knelt side by side when they received the Holy Eucharist. They sat side by side as the instructions were given and the words of the Lord Jesus were expounded. Their prayers ascended to gether to the mercy-seat of the Eternal. While not unfrequently a slave was promoted to be the teacher; the highest offices in the congregation  were now and again filled by chosen members of the slave class [emphasis, mine]. They suffered with their masters, and shared with them the glory of martyrdom.

Again and again, one is impressed by the deeply democratic nature of the original church as compared to the rest of pagan society. Pagans could not readily comprehend the Christian ideals of brotherhood, abnegation, charity, and love the original Church embraced. In fact, the Church’s origins are so far removed from us in time that it is easy for us to lose sight of its revolutionary nature, because its effect on the pagan mind was no less than that—a revolution. It should be a comfort to us, therefore, to realize that if Christianity could revolutionize pagan society once, it can do so again.

The Reverend Spence-Jones is quite a clear, learned and entertaining writer, and his other books—Dreamland in History, The White Robe of Churches, The Church of England: A History for the People (in Four Volumes), Cloister Life in the Days of Cceur-de-Lion, and The Golden Age of the Church are of great interest to fans of early Church history. Despite the steep prices these e-books command at Amazon and B&N, they are available for free from Open Library, and you can easily download them to your computer. If you are tech-savvy, you can even use the free programs Calibre and Sigil to format the files to your own taste.

OTHER AVAILABLE E-BOOK READERS: Free e-books come in several common formats (pdf, epub, txt, and html), most of which can be read using the following free programs:

Adobe Digital Editions, Epub-Reader (for Firefox browser), Epub Reader for Windows, Calibre, and  Stanza (for Mac). There are many others.

LAST BITE:

“… sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often necessary to resist a tyranny before it exists.” ~ G.K. Chesterton