A REALLY Old-time Religion

When we say something is Manichean, or someone has a Manichean view, we mean “black and white,” a very sharp distinction between good and evil, with no gray area.  But where does the term Manichean come from?

The Manicheans were a sect contemporaneous with early Christianity.  My portrayal of Saint Augustine as an adherent of Manicheism as a young adult was based on his own admission in his Confessions.

Mani (a term of respect meaning Light King, probably not his real name) was executed in Persia in 276.  Similar to Christianity, his evangelists wasted no time in spreading his story throughout the Mediterranean, and Manichean missionaries were active in Carthage by 297. By Augustine’s time, the cult had adherents in Africa, Spain, France, Italy and the Balkans.  It was known as far east as India, China and Tibet, and lasted for almost 1000 years in parts of the Middle East.  Unlike Christianity, the Manichean cult remained illegal under the Roman Empire, and was hated and feared by Christians and Pagans alike.

Also unlike Christianity, whose central tenet is salvation by the Grace of Jesus Christ, the Manicheans believed that the enlightened elect could obtain godlike status by virtue of their own knowledge and actions.  In this respect, the cult was a form of Gnosticism (the belief that salvation is obtained by acquiring special knowledge; some Christian heresies were also Gnostic in nature).  The Manichean elect knew complicated secret prayers, practiced extreme fasting and were forbidden to own property, eat meat, drink wine, gratify any sexual desire, engage in trade, or engage in any servile occupation.  “Hearers” like Aurelius Augustine had only to obey the Manichean Ten Commandments (similar to the Commandments familiar to Christians), pray 4 times each day and serve the elect.

The Manicheans were prolific writers, and we know the titles of many of their writings, but almost nothing has survived.  From what little we do know, the Manichean theology seems like a confusing mess of demiurges, light particles, multiple creations, and a fire that will burn for exactly 1486 years to separate the light from the darkness.  Yet, the Manicheans claimed to offer absolute rational proof of their theories, and insisted that phenomena in the physical world were demonstrations of the truth of their theology.

It’s easy to see why a bright young man like Aurelius Augustine, a passionate seeker of truth, would be initially attracted to such a cult.

Another central tenet of Manicheism was the notion that spiritual world is completely good (light) and the physical world is corrupt and evil (dark).  This is the source of our current use of the term “Manichean” to mean a very black-and-white view.  In the Manichean theology, Man can only hope to attain any goodness at all because a few light particles leaked into humanity at the time of the third creation.  These light particles of our good selves are helplessly trapped in our corrupt physical bodies.   This notion may also have appealed to young Augustine, who was so morally serious and having such a difficult time controlling his natural sexual urges.

Later in life, Augustine wrote a whole book entitled Concerning the Nature of Good:  Against the Manicheans.   Like Zoroastrianism and the temple religions of the ancient world, Manicheism failed the test of time.  It lives on only in the descriptive term that is reminiscent of its strictly dual view of the natural and spiritual worlds.


Meet Saint Ambrose

st-ambrose-1Do you enjoy singing hymns in church?  Then thank Saint Ambrose; he is generally credited with introducing hymnody into the Western church from the East.  And that was only one of his many accomplishments.

Ambrose was born around 340 and raised in Trier in present-day Germany.  His father was a praetorian prefect (an administrator of justice), and his mother was known for her intellect and her piety. Like his later protege, Augustine, Ambrose showed intellectual promise early in life.  He was educated in Rome and was elected Bishop of Milan at age 34.  He had to be hastily baptized before he could take the job.  Late-life baptism was common in early Christianity and Ambrose hadn’t gotten around to being baptized yet when he was elected bishop!

I selected the above image of Ambrose from among many choices, because it seemed the closest to descriptions of what he looked like.  He is said to have been small and frail, with very large eyes and a melancholy face.

Ambrose may have been physically small and weak, but his character was mighty.  In 386, the emperor’s mother demanded that Ambrose cede control of two Milan churches to followers of the Arian heresy (short version:  Arians denied that the Son was co-eternal with the father; people got very excited about these things in the 4th century). Ambrose refused, barricaded himself in one of the churches, and got most of the Christians of Milan on his side – including the emperor’s own troops, who surrounded the church protectively.  Ambrose prevailed over the imperial family, and the churches remained in the hands of the Catholics.

Ambrose was also known as a powerful and persuasive speaker, with a voice out of proportion to his small stature.  His sermons were sensational entertainment.  During her time in Milan, Saint Augustine’s mother, Saint Monica, befriended Ambrose, and Ambrose is generally given a lot of credit for finally converting Augustine to the Christian faith.  Augustine admired Ambrose’s wisdom and learning.  He was awed by Ambrose’s ability to read silently.  This was unusual in the 4th century.  Most people who could read, read aloud, even when they were alone.  It was Ambrose who persuaded Augustine to accept the Christian Bible, by explaining that it should not always be taken literally but should instead be read for deeper truth. Thus, we may owe to Saint Ambrose, a great man himself, the conversion of one of the greatest fathers of the Church.

Saint Ambrose’s body was preserved and can still be viewed at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan.  My husband and I saw it there in 2009, when I was doing my research for The Saint’s Mistress – along with the remains of Gervasius and Protasius, of whose authenticity Augustine is initially skeptical in my book.

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Mother’s Victory

monica-iconLately, I find myself as fascinated by Saint Monica as by her famous son.  I’m planning on doing some more reading and research on her, and posting more about her in the near future.  But, meanwhile, here are the basics of what is know of her biography.

Almost everything that we know about Saint Monica comes from Saint Augustine’s description of his mother in his Confessions.  He says she was “in her 56th year” when she died in 387, and her birth date is variously reported as 331, 332 and 333. She was somewhere between age 20 and 22 when she married Augustine’s father Patricius – a curiously late marriage in an era when  girls were betrothed as early as age 7 and married at an average age of 16.

Monica was a devout Christian at the time of her marriage.  By Augustine’s account, her Christian faith was influenced as much by an elderly family servant as by her parents.  Patricius was a pagan, a philanderer, and a man easily aroused to rage.  His mother, who lived with the couple until her death, was a gossip who shared her son’s hot temper.  In Augustine’s telling, Monica bore her husband’s and her mother-in-law’s wrath so patiently that she earned their respect.  Her mother-in-law eventually became her defender against the servants’ and neighbors’ gossip (it would be interesting to know what they were gossiping about, but on that her son is silent).  And, her husband never beat her, which was apparently an unusual situation in the 4th century.

Monica’s two younger children, Navigus and Perpetua, never gave her a moment’s trouble that we hear about. Aurelius Augustine was another matter.  Monica wanted him for the Church, but he continually disappointed her by choosing rowdy boys as companions, turning to Manicheism rather than Christianity and, of course, by taking a lower-class mistress in Carthage.  When her heart was breaking over Augustine’s Manicheism, Monica had a dream in which a beautiful young man assured her, “Where you are, he will be.”  Like many early Christians, Monica believed that dreams foretold the future and was reassured.

There are intriguing signs that her family background may have been Donatist.  The Donatists were a Christian sect, later vigorously resisted by Augustine, who revered the martyrs of the Diocletan persecution and refused to reconcile with anyone who had compromised during the persecution.  They fasted on Saturday nights and took food to the graves of the revered dead.  Both are habits that that Augustine describes Monica as practicing. When Monica followed her son to Milan in 385, she befriended the Bishop of Milan, the future Saint Ambrose, and expressed to him her puzzlement about differences between North African and Italian religious practices.  This was the occasion of the famous quote by Saint Ambrose that is often abbreviated to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Monica is revered by Christians for having “prayed” her son into the Church.  When she followed him to Milan, he had already rejected Manicheism and was a neo-Platonist professor of rhetoric who often read the Christian Bible. Augustine’s friendship with Ambrose, facilitated by Monica, is often credited as final step in bringing him to the Church.

Augustine and Monica spent two more years in Milan, along with Augustine’s son Adeodonatus, and some friends.     In the fall of 387, they traveled to Ostia, to find passage back to North Africa.  There, Monica caught a fever and died on November 13, 387, her son’s 33rd birthday.  Shortly before her illness, she and Augustine discussed the afterlife and he quotes her as saying, “One thing there was for which I desired to linger for a while in this life, that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died.”  This faithful, patient mother saw her wish granted more abundantly than she could have imagined.  Her wayward son became a Father of the Church and devoted the second half of Book IX of his Confessions to describing her virtue, her death and his grief.


Augustine and His World (Part One)

I wrote in an earlier post about the similarities I saw between life 21st-century America and the late Roman Empire.  People living in cities in the late Empire enjoyed many modern-ish conveniences and were surprisingly cosmopolitan.

But, the world of Leona and Aurelius Augustine was also a unique culture, which inevitably formed the future saint.  In this post, I examine the state of Christianity in North Africa while Augustine was growing to maturity.

In general, the native North Africans had never adopted the Romans gods. The cult of Mithras had its adherents, but most North Africans of Augustine’s era were either Christian or still worshipped the old Berber high gods like Ammon or Dea Caelestis.

North African Christians were generally more legalistic and rigid than Christians elsewhere. They were warm, passionate argumentative people compared to the cool, self-controlled Romans.  This led to literal Biblical interpretation and to the bitterness of their schisms.

Augustine would later be instrumental in establishing Christian orthodoxy, but in his youth the rising church was anything but united.  In North Africa in particular, sects and heresies abounded.  As I portray in my book, Donatists and Caecelians clashed bitterly and often violently.  The schism between the two sects went back to the Diocletan persecution.  Certain priests compromised during the persecution; others went to their deaths defending the faith.  80 years later, North African Christians were still fighting about that.  And then there were the quasi-Christians.  Hoping to ride on the coattails of the rising Christian church, basically pagan sects like the Manicheans adopted some of the tenets and language of Christianity to gain adherents – including, for a short time, Augustine himself.

Faith-centered conflict infected even Augustine’s home.  His mother, the future Saint Monica, was a devout Christian.  Although his father, Patricius, accepted baptism on his deathbed, he was a casual pagan for most of his life.

I wonder if this over-heated atmosphere of conflict had a negative impact on Augustine’s opinion of Christianity.  Certainly, the literalism of the North African Church was a turnoff for him.  He could not accept Christianity until Ambrose and Simplicianus taught him to interpret the Old Testament allegorically.

People accepted Christianity for many complex reasons in the 4th century.  I tried to convey that my book.  Some joined the church as a path to power, or because all their friends had joined.  Augustine came under pressure from both his friends and his mother.  But, in my conception of him, he would never have accepted the faith unless he were truly convinced.  I think he had to escape the legalistic, bitterly conflicted atmosphere of North Africa to come to that conviction.

 


Augustine and His World (Part One)

I wrote in an earlier post about the similarities I saw between life 21st-century America and the late Roman Empire.  People living in cities in the late Empire enjoyed many modern-ish conveniences and were surprisingly cosmopolitan.

But, the world of Leona and Aurelius Augustine was also a unique culture, which inevitably formed the future saint.  In this post, I examine the state of Christianity in North Africa while Augustine was growing to maturity.

In general, the native North Africans had never adopted the Romans gods. The cult of Mithras had its adherents, but most North Africans of Augustine’s era were either Christian or still worshipped the old Berber high gods like Ammon or Dea Caelestis.

North African Christians were generally more legalistic and rigid than Christians elsewhere. They were warm, passionate argumentative people compared to the cool, self-controlled Romans.  This led to literal Biblical interpretation and to the bitterness of their schisms.

Augustine would later be instrumental in establishing Christian orthodoxy, but in his youth the rising church was anything but united.  In North Africa in particular, sects and heresies abounded.  As I portray in my book, Donatists and Caecelians clashed bitterly and often violently.  The schism between the two sects went back to the Diocletan persecution.  Certain priests compromised during the persecution; others went to their deaths defending the faith.  80 years later, North African Christians were still fighting about that.  And then there were the quasi-Christians.  Hoping to ride on the coattails of the rising Christian church, basically pagan sects like the Manicheans adopted some of the tenets and language of Christianity to gain adherents – including, for a short time, Augustine himself.

Faith-centered conflict infected even Augustine’s home.  His mother, the future Saint Monica, was a devout Christian.  Although his father, Patricius, accepted baptism on his deathbed, he was a casual pagan for most of his life.

I wonder if this over-heated atmosphere of conflict had a negative impact on Augustine’s opinion of Christianity.  Certainly, the literalism of the North African Church was a turnoff for him.  He could not accept Christianity until Ambrose and Simplicianus taught him to interpret the Old Testament allegorically.

People accepted Christianity for many complex reasons in the 4th century.  I tried to convey that my book.  Some joined the church as a path to power, or because all their friends had joined.  Augustine came under pressure from both his friends and his mother.  But, in my conception of him, he would never have accepted the faith unless he were truly convinced.  I think he had to escape the legalistic, bitterly conflicted atmosphere of North Africa to come to that conviction.


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