Whenever I return to a stint of reading the early fathers, that is, those before and just after the peace of the Church wrought by Constantine, I’m always struck by their modernity and the freshness that leaps out at me as I read. It makes me wonder just what ‘modern’ means.
I’ve read somewhere that the beginning of ‘modern’ times occurred in different centuries in different places. Some say in Europe they began in AD 1300 with Dante, others that Francis of Assisi is the first ‘modern’ man in the West: it all depends on when the writer thinks the medieval age ended. In the Far East, modern times are said to have begun during the Northern Sung dynasty, around the year AD 1000, and the criteria are such things as the appearance of printing, paper money, and machinery.
In my view, what I mean as ‘modern’ has to do with machinery definitely, but even more with the frank and unafraid willingness to question everything to get at the root of truth. This is something that I think we lost during the ‘Church Age’ in the West, when other priorities were substituted for it. The religiosity of medieval Christianity did not even make room for real questions to be asked, hence, the stagnation that took centuries to overcome.
Back to my topic, the written testimonies of the early Christians.
I read for a long while about the Church Father Origen of Alexandria who escaped being canonized as Saint Origen for some of his eccentricities of belief or at least of expression. One of his funnier speculations was that our resurrection bodies would be perfect spheres, but he also speculated on pre-existence of the soul and other ideas bordering on pagan philosophy. This speculation, in spite of his sufferings in the Decian persecution, earned him the indignity of being a suspect of heresy. Looking at him through the ‘modern’ approach that one finds in Eusebius’ history, I’d say that Origen deserves better from his ‘carping critics’ as Eusebius calls them. I guess Origen will just have to be classed with Martin Luther, who also falls under the axe of true piety, as he cries out, ‘Let the saints canonize themselves!’
Now, for the real topic, a story that I found both exciting and interesting, written in History of the Church, Book 6, Chapter 40, entitled What happened to Dionysius. The account itself was written in a letter by Dionysius, and it is quoted in the book.
I speak as in the presence of God, who knows whether I am lying. I did not act on my own judgement or without God when I made my escape; but even before that, when Decius announced his persecution, Sabinus then and there dispatched a frumentarius to hunt me out, and I stayed at home for four days waiting for him to arrive. But though he went round searching every spot—roads, rivers, fields—where he guessed I was hiding or walking, he was smitten with blindness and did not find the house; he never imagined that when an object of persecution I should stay at home! It was only after four days, when God commanded me to go elsewhere, and by a miracle made it possible, that I set out along with the boys and many of the brethren. That this was indeed a work of divine providence was proved by what followed, when perhaps we were of use to some.
Let me interject two observations:
Dionysius tells, almost casually as if it were nothing remarkable, that God commanded him to go elsewhere. These early Christians like us had, and knew they had, direct access to God, without having to resort to a chain of command as later develops in the Church, eventually making it unimaginable in the Dark Ages that anyone but a perfect saint could actually talk to God and get His personal attention, as does Dionysius. This, to me, is a sign of modernity.
The other thing I want to notice is his use of the word miracle. As he continues to tell his story, the miraculous aspect reveals itself to be the acknowledgment that God was personally and intimately directing the flow of events. This too strikes me as modern, that is, frank and honest, not given to exaggeration or tale-spinning.
Now, to finish the story, Dionysius continues…
About sunset, my companions and I were caught by the soldiers and taken to Taposiris; but by the purpose of God it happened that Timothy was absent and was not caught. When he arrived later, he found the house empty except for a guard of servants, and learnt that we had been captured without hope of release…
And how was God’s wonderful mercy shown? You shall hear the truth. As Timothy fled distracted, he was met by one of the villagers on his way to attend a wedding-feast—which in those parts meant an all-night celebration—who asked why he was in such a hurry. He told the truth without hesitation, whereupon the other went in and informed the guests as they reclined at table. With one accord, as if at a signal, they all sprang to their feet, came as fast as their legs could carry them, and burst in where we were with such terrifying shouts that the soldiers guarding us instantly took to their heels. Then, they stood over us, as we lay on bare mattresses.
At first, God knows, I thought they were bandits who had come to plunder and steal, so I stayed on the bed. I had nothing on but a linen shirt; my other clothes that were lying near I held out to them. But they told me to get up and make a bolt for it. Then I realised what they had come for, and called out, begging and beseeching them to go away and let us be. If they wanted to do me a good turn, they had better forestall my captors and cut off my head themselves. While I shouted like this, they pulled me up by force, as my companions who shared all my adventures know. I let myself fall on my back to the floor, but they grasped me by hands and feet and dragged me out, followed by those who witnessed the whole scene, Gaius, Faustus, Peter, and Paul, who picked me up and carried me out of the village, set me on a donkey bareback, and led me away.
Now, in conclusion I ask you, brethren, isn’t this a great story? Doesn’t it ring true, and even entertain us in a way that doesn’t offend true piety, by the candid artlessness of the author? Here we have an example of what a Christian was like in the third century, before the beginning of the Church Age. There’s a lot here to be learned, and also to help us examine ourselves, to make sure that the faith that we have is the same as that of these early Christians. Reading books like these makes me think that what we have known as the ‘modern’ age has not so much to do with an era of chrónos time, but rather with moments of kairós time scattered through human history.
If this be true, what of those who call the present ‘post-modern’? Must we, like Dionysius, have to be yanked out of our resignation by Christ’s wedding guests, flung bareback on an ass, and set free?