If you think about it, being “extreme” is a very fluid concept, having a lot to do with local, cultural and temporal factors. As someone has said: “A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” So, for 21st century Western minds, the idea of hair shirts, heavy penances and dangerous levels of self-denial seems weird and wholly unnecessary. Yet in a more Eastern context, and in the 5th century, such ‘extreme holiness‘ was not only accepted, but praised.
One who took it to new heights (literally, see below) was Simeon Stylites (sty-ly-tees). Born c. 388 in what is now Kozan, Turkey, he showed great hunger for God as a child, and at 16 entered a monastery. However, his superiors found his asceticism so intense and exaggerated that they asked him to leave. So Simeon found a hut and lived there as a hermit, fasting for weeks at a time. Then he moved to a rocky outcrop on a mountain. Local people, seeing him as a holy man, brought him food. As his fame spread, people came from further afield seeking counsel and prayer.
This led Simeon to the decision for which he is remembered today (and for which he qualifies as one of God’s oddballs). In order to get away from distraction and celebrity, he found a pillar in an old ruin, about 9 feet (3m) high and constructed a platform on top of it. This became his home, but also a powerful visual symbol: unable to be separate from the world horizontally, he was doing so vertically!
As crowds and sightseers increased, Simeon simply found a higher pillar, his final dwelling being one c. 50 feet (16m) high at Afrin, 60 miles from Aleppo in Syria. His living-platform had a baluster around it and Simeon wore a chain, partly for self-abnegation, partly for health and safety! Wellwishers used a ladder to bring him food and milk. Some climbed up for a word of wisdom or prophecy from the holy man. The bishop of Antioch came and celebrated Communion with Simeon on the platform. Theodosius II, emperor of Byzantium, came to consult with Simeon. And certain clerics, jealous of his fame, challenged him to come down from his pillar as proof of his humility. As he began to climb down, they relented and let him stay.
Simeon’s platform being only 3 feet (1m) or so in diameter, he developed an unusual way of praying. He bowed until his head almost touched his knees, then straightened again. One onlooker records counting Simeon doing this 1,244 times in one session, at which point the counter gave up, exhausted. And when Simeon died, in September 459, after 37 years on his pillar, his body was found bent double in this posture of prayer. Simeon was buried at Antioch with great ceremony, while back in the wilderness, his disciples continued pillar-dwelling for another generation. In time, a great cathedral was built around the pillar itself, the ruins of which can be seen today.
Eusebius was a 4th century bishop of Caesarea who wrote a history of early Christianity based on a number of sources, some of which no longer exist. He quotes Philo, a 1st century Jewish historian, who made mention of Christian all-night vigils and the hymns which they recite, and how while one man sings in regular rhythm, the others listen and join in the refrain.
The phrase “hymns which they recite” is particularly interesting. The pagan official Pliny used the same phrase (Latin carmen dicere). Does it suggest that hymns were spoken rather than sung? Philo suggests that singing happened but still uses “recite”. Historian Ralph Martin has studied this phrase in a number of historical contexts and you can find his article here.
We could usefully bring in Augustine of Hippo here, who in the 4th century described church singing in Alexandria as more like speaking than singing. Augustine himself, incidentally, was in favour of liberated praise and wrote some beautiful lines in praise of dancing (though with no mention of instruments).
Perhaps there was a specific reason for the general mistrust of musical accompaniment. In those days, pipe, harp and drum were intimately linked to the pagan cults, e.g. of Pan, with their sensuous worship and often shameless revelries. Christians, mindful of the apostolic direction that everything should be done decently and in order [1 Corinthians 14:40], avoided musical instruments. Jerome, also 4th century, wrote that a Christian maiden ought not even to know what a flute is, or what it is used for.
Liturgy (an order of service with fixed elements) came in early to Christian worship. There is evidence of a ‘Jerusalem’ liturgy, instituted by the Apostle James, and an ‘Alexandrian’ liturgy attributed to Paul’s fellow-labourer John Mark. Singing was a key element, but in the stylised manner of Jewish psalmody and response singing. As John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, put it: David formerly sang in psalms, and we also sing today with him. He had a lyre with lifeless strings; the Church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, certainly, but with a more seemly piety.
One of the reasons why music did not take a central place in early Christian worship is that the central element of their meetings was the sharing of the bread and wine, the Communion or Eucharist, whether in the context of a church service or in the agapé, the ‘love feast’ in homes. Ignatius, who was made bishop of Antioch in AD 67, when many of the apostles were still alive and active, describes the Christian church as “a Eucharistic community” which realised its true nature when it celebrated Communion.
In turn, this emphasis might be due to the belief among first generation Christians that the sharing of the bread and wine was to be done “until Jesus returns”, which they believed would be soon, perhaps in their own lifetime. When this did not materialise, a Christian liturgy for worship began to develop, described for us by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Hippolytus. It involved greeting, reading from scripture, responsive (antiphonal) singing, baptisms, a sermon, prayers, the offertory, the communion and a blessing. Here is an extract from Justin, c. AD 150:
‘On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.’
The first hymn with actual musical notation which we possess, the “Oxyrhynchus hymn“, is from the 3rd century. At the same point, the Apostolic Tradition, attributed to the theologian Hippolytus, shows that the singing of psalms with Alleluia as the refrain was a feature of early Christian agape feasts.
It wasn’t until around 375 that antiphonal singing of psalms became popular in the Christian East; in 386, Ambrose of Milan introduced this practice to the West. Around 410, Augustine of Hippo described the responsive singing of a psalm at Mass. Sources are few and inconclusive regarding how Christian chant / song developed, but we do know that by 678, Western (Roman) chant was being taught at York. Distinctive regional traditions of Western plainsong (or plain chant) arose during this period, notably in the British Isles (Celtic chant), Spain (Mozarabic), Gaul (Gallican), and Italy (Old Roman and Ambrosian). It used a musical stave of four lines, not the five used today.
We can safely say that by this stage, sung worship was an established part of Christian services, albeit without instruments. For the arrival of the earliest church organs we must wait until the mid-11th century.
The Roman official Pliny the Younger held office as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia in Asia Minor for a period of fifteen months or so in AD 111-112. During that time he corresponded with the emperor Trajan about how to enforce legislation against the Christians. He relates information about Christian practices which he had received from certain Christian renegades.
They were in the habit of meeting before dawn on a stated day and singing alternately a hymn to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by an oath…that they would abstain from theft and robbery and adultery, that they would not break their word, and that they would not withhold a deposit when reclaimed. This done, it was their practice, so they said, to separate, and then to meet together again for a meal, which however was of the ordinary kind and quite harmless.
The reference to “singing hymns to Christ” shows that the Christians were singing more than texts from the Psalms. And we have examples. A gospel fragment of uncertain date, known as the Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus 1900, contains this:
Through whom will the last enemy be destroyed?
Through Christ. Amen.
Through whom is the sting of death destroyed?
Through the Only Begotten. Amen.
To whom belongs the rulership?
It belongs to the Son. Amen.
Through whom has everything come into being?
Through the Firstborn. Amen.
Here is the ‘statement and response’ singing familiar from Jewish worship using the Psalms, but now with overtly Christian text.
Biblical scholars generally agree that certain passages of the New Testament are likely renditions of early Christian hymns. They cite various textual criteria, for example that the passage exhibits rhythmical patterns and careful structure, contains vocabulary different from the surrounding context, and to some extent interrupts the context. It is common to refer to these passages as Canticles.
The classic examples have all passed into church liturgy: the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-75) and the “Nunc Dimittis” (Luke 2:29-32). But there are others, such as Ephesians 5:14, which some hold to have been a credal statement for baptism, and 1 Timothy 3:16:
He was manifest in flesh,
justified in spirit,
visible to angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up into glory.
Poetic refrains and doxologies are another feature inherited by Christian hymnody from Jewish liturgical singing:
For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever (Rom. 11:36),
Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end (Eph. 3:21),
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever (1 Tim. 1:17).
For further examples, see Ruth Ellis Messenger’s Christian Hymns of the First Three Centuries (available courtesy of Project Gutenberg).
The 1st century traveller and writer, Philo of Alexandria, describes the singing of a contemplative Jewish sect called the Therapeutae:
“They rise up together and … form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally.”
Jewish liturgical singing took two forms: antiphonal and responsorial. The first is what Philo is describing: the division of singers into two groups in such a way that they are separated from each other; for example, to the right and left sides of the central aisle in the building. They then sing alternate parts, one side starting, the other responding.
This has continued in Christian worship ever since, not so much in congregational worship, but rather by the choir. Many a well-loved anthem has the two parts marked decani and cantores, indicating that, in the past, a group of church deacons would have sung one part, and a group of chosen cantors (singers) the other.
Responsorial singing is similar, involving the priest or a perhaps a solo cantor singing an opening line and the congregation in unison singing the reply. Anyone who has been to a traditional sung service, for example in the Anglican church, will be familiar with this.
Priest: O Lord, open thou our lips.
Answer: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Priest: O God, make speed to save us.
Answer: O Lord, make haste to help us.
Priest: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
Answer: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
The Old Testament book of Psalms really came into its own here, as not only did it allow the congregation to take God’s word directly on its lips, but also the very verse form made for successful breaking down into statement and response (as in the above example). Even where it didn’t, a congregational reply of “Alleluia” or “We bless Thy name, O Lord” did just as well. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century, refers to response singing of psalms in the church at Rome.
One thing that surprises me with early Christian worship is that singing praises does not appear in the list of things the first believers devoted themselves to in Acts 2:42, namely the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayers. The First Apology of Justin Martyr, dated c.155, describes a Christian worship service. The emphasis is on ritual (baptism / ablution and Holy Communion), not singing.
This all seems oddly at variance with the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to address one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord [Ephesians 5:19]. A very musical response indeed! The context is primarily the believer’s personal devotional life. But not exclusively: “addressing one another” can only mean a context of corporate worship.
We know that Jesus and the Twelve, before they went out to the Mount of Olives, sang a hymn [Mark 14:26]. But what, and how? Many Biblical scholars believe it would have been one of the so-called Hallel series in the Book of Psalms, consisting of Psalms 113 – 118. It was common practice among the Jews to chant these holy songs at the Passover table. Did they sing it responsively, their ‘Rabbi’ leading and the disciples responding? We shall never know for sure, but in my next post, the early testimony of a Roman official gives us a few clues.
A subject that fascinates me is Christian hymns. In this post, I’ll start at the very beginning: why sing hymns at all? In today’s churches they have largely been supplanted by choruses, after all. Yet there has been a heavy price to pay.
In the introduction to his Exposition of the Psalms of David, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote this about hymn singing: A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.
It would seem that, for the first Christian centuries, believers sang their hymns without stopping to analyse the process. One of the first who did was John Chrysostom (347-407). In his ‘Exposition on Psalm 41’, he points out that music is an integral part of the human condition: To such an extent, indeed, is our nature delighted by chants and songs that even infants at the breast, if they be weeping or afflicted, are by reason of it lulled to sleep.
Mixing this innate sense of music with the power of words is, Chrysostom continues, a powerful vehicle, affecting the intellect and spiritual standing of the singer.
When God saw that the majority of men were slothful and that they approached spiritual reading with reluctance and submitted to the effort involved without pleasure – wishing to make the task more agreeable and to relieve the sense of laboriousness – He mixed melody with prophecy, so that, enticed by the rhythm and melody, all might raise sacred hymns to Him with great eagerness. For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.
In words very relevant to today’s i-pod culture, Chrysostom warns that there are bad words and bad music too, and these can similarly affect the human soul. “Those things that are lascivious and vicious in all songs settle in parts of the mind, making it softer and weaker.” That is why, he maintains, the devil is keen to fill the mind with dirty things through music.
From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.
Another early Church father who understood the ‘why’ of hymn-singing was Basil of Caesarea (†379). In his Discourse on Psalm 1, he writes:
The Spirit mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing. O the wise invention of the teacher who contrives that in our singing we learn what is profitable, and that thereby doctrine is somehow more deeply impressed upon our souls.
The first Christians understood the need to confess spiritual truth aloud: not just to ‘believe in your heart’, but also to ‘confess with your lips’ [Romans 10:9]. Or in Basil’s words, to impress doctrine more deeply on their souls. For this they had a clear and obvious model: the Jews. At first, Christianity was a Jewish sect. The early Christians continued to worship at the Temple and to attend synagogues. It was therefore inevitable that Jewish methods of performing music were incorporated into Christian worship.
In particular, the church continued to use the book of Psalms. Basil again:
Now the prophets teach certain things, the historians and the Law teach other, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorialises history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings.
In other words, if it is important to confess God’s truth aloud, then how better than to sing scripture. Not only is there no risk of emotionalism or error, but also the addition of music aids the memorising of the words.
In the next post, I’ll be looking more at the Jewish roots of Christian spiritual song and choral worship.
I am putting on the love of the Lord…
I have been united to Him, because the lover has found the Beloved.
Because I love Him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed, whoever is joined to Him who is immortal, shall truly be immortal.
These striking words come from what has been hailed as the earliest Christian hymn book. Prior to 1909, nothing was known of the Odes of Solomon except one quotation by Lactantius (died 320). Then a Syriac manuscript was found containing, among other writings, 40 odes. Subsequent finds have shown that there were originally 42, though because of the fragmentary nature of the papyri, Ode 2 and part of Ode 3 have not survived.
An ode is simply a piece of lyrical poetry written for a particular occasion, which in Greek at least had a fixed form. Scholars quickly established, however, that the Odes of Solomon are not from a Greek stable but a Jewish one. Dating evidence suggests late 1st – early 2nd century, at any event before the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132-135, when Christian Jews were evicted from synagogues.
These verses are not odes other than in a general sense, then, and there is nothing to link them to Solomon except by analogy of phrasing with the Song of Solomon in the Bible. For these Odes are clearly Christian (at one time scholars thought Gnostic, but the consensus today is that they are orthodox) and praise the person and attributes of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the titular use of Solomon’s name was a way of safeguarding the documents in a volatile political time when radical Jews were highly suspicious of Jewish followers of Christ.
What makes the Odes particularly exciting is that they clearly emanate from a community of Jewish disciples of Jesus, almost certainly from Syria. Church history from earliest times has majored on Gentile Christianity to the extent that the average reader can forget that Jewish believers continued at all beyond the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
It becomes clear that the writer was familiar with the biblical book of Psalms. It is nowhere exactly quoted, but in many places there are direct parallels. To give just one example, Psalm 84:10 reads: For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, and in Ode 4:5 we find: For one hour of Your faith is more excellent than all the days and all the years.
What is also clear is that the writer, almost certainly a Jewish Christian in Syria, was very familiar with the writings of the Apostle John. If, as is generally agreed, the Odes date from the very end of the 1st century, it is well possible that the writer was a disciple of John. The link is noteworthy, because other (fragmentary) Jewish Christian texts, like the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes‘ and the ‘Gospel of the Ebionites‘ lean heavily towards the more obviously Jewish slant of Matthew’s gospel (follow this link for a scholarly overview of early Jewish Christian writings).
Some of the odes are meditative expansions of Johannine themes like light and dark. John 1:1-18 presents Jesus Christ as “the light of the world”: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [v.3-4]. Ode 15:2 says: He is my Sun and His rays have lifted me up; His light has dismissed all darkness from my face.
The general tenor of the Odes is similar to John’s gospel in its meditative, worshipful response to the truths of Jesus. See, for example, the writer’s treatment of the incarnation [Odes 7,19], death [Ode 28], resurrection and ascension [Ode 42].
A fine example is Ode 27, which is only three verses long and which clearly grew out of worshipful contemplation of the Cross:
I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
For the stretching out of my hands is His sign,
And my stretching upward is the upright cross. Hallelujah.
In AD635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.
Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.
One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.
He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.
Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.
But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.
Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.
ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST
In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.
The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.
The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.
Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.
Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.
From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.
The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.
I continue to trawl through historical Christian writings on the subject of friendship. Next up is a fascinating piece with an obscure origin. It claims to be a letter to John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, from his mother, Anthusa, entitled On Ideal Friendship. It would date to the final quarter of the 4th century.
What complicates matters is that Anthusa is nowhere referred to by any other Early Church writers as an ancient authority. Meanwhile, the bulk of the text of the letter can be found, almost verbatim, in various of Chrysostom’s own works, especially his Homilies. So we are probably looking at “John Chrysostom on Ideal Friendship”.
The letter is not long and most of it is eminently quotable. In this post I’ll look at the introduction and opening section. It speaks for itself.
The letter opens with a verse from the Apocrypha: “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter,” [Ecclesiasticus 6:14a], and the comment: Though you were to name a thousand treasures, there is nothing comparable to a real friend. The first section is then devoted to the pleasure that true friendship brings.
A friend overflows when he sees his friend. He is united to him in a union that affords indescribable pleasure of the soul. If he merely thinks of him, he rises and is carried upwards in his mind. I speak of genuine friends, who are of one accord, of those who would choose to die for their friends, of those who love warmly.
A true friend is such that places and times are loved on his account. For, as shining objects shed a lustre upon the adjoining places, even so friends impart their own grace to the places they have been. And oftentimes, when standing in those places without our friends, we have wept and groaned, remembering the days when we were there together.
The writer notes that those who have known the beauty of such a depth of heart-friendship will instinctively understand this, but that such people are relatively few. “When (such friends) make a request of us, we are grateful to them, but when they are slow to ask, then we are sad. We have nothing which is not theirs. It would be better to live in darkness than to be without friends. And how can I say this? Because many who see the sun are in darkness.”
I speak of the spiritual friends who set nothing above friendship. Such was Paul, who would willingly have given his own soul, without having been asked, and would have willingly fallen into Hell for his brethren [Romans 9:3]. With so burning an affection is it proper to love. Take this as an example of friendship. Friends surpass fathers and sons, that is, friends according to Christ.
Of all the Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) pondered the most on human relationships in general, and heart-friendships in particular. What makes him so readable on this – and on so much else – is the sheer humanity and honesty with which he wrote. His autobiographical Confessions make no attempt to cover his colourful pre-conversion life, where “the madness of lust” made him live “a life in which I was seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving”.
His conversion experience at age 33 took place in the company of a friend, Alypius, and for the rest of his life he lived in various forms of Christian community, surrounded by others, sharing his life with them. Some of these were particularly close to his heart. With hindsight, Augustine reassesses some earlier relationships which had seemed to be ‘the real thing’, but which proved not to be, as they were founded on two close but wrong ‘cousins’. Let us consider two of these: sex and infatuation (or co-dependency).
In Books 3-6 of the Confessions we find a young woman, whom he does not name, who became the mother of his child. “I loved the idea of love”, he writes, “but I muddied the clear spring of friendship with the dirt of lustful desire.” The couple remained together for 13 years and the bond clearly went deep. When his commitment to his faith led to them parting, “my heart, which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dripping blood.” He adds that the woman never took another man. In a culture where the term “friend” was usually only applied to men, Augustine says a lot about this relationship by referring to his ex-partner as his “friend”.
So, sexual union is not the fulfilment of the heart’s desire for friendship. In our day, when sex is billed as everything and leaves hearts broken and empty when it turns out not to be so, such a voice needs to be heard. But what does it offer instead?
In Book 4 we read of a childhood friend in his native Tagaste (in modern Algeria). They were the same age and had played and gone to school together. The friendship with this lad continued into manhood. It was “sweeter to me than anything I had ever known. My soul could not be without him.” Augustine was devastated when his friend died of a fever. “Tears took the place of my friend in my heart’s love. I was in misery, for I felt that my soul and my friend’s had been one soul in two bodies.”
At this point, a 21st century reader may already be thinking “gay”, even as the archetypal male heart-bond of David and Jonathan in the Bible is interpreted as “gay” in some circles today [1 Samuel 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26]. But we should remember that such a branding of all same-sex attraction is an invention of the 19th century; it was not thought about that way in previous times and we must avoid crude retro-projections of modern interpretations.
More useful to us is Augustine’s own judgement with the benefit of hindsight: “We depended too much on each other… He was not a friend in the true meaning of friendship.” Here, then, is the second ‘near miss’ on the road to deep heart-friendship: the persuasive but largely mythical idea of the “bosom buddy” who will meet all your emotional needs and where the relationship seems to require little real work.
We continue to look at what Augustine of Hippo (†430) expresses about human relationships, especially heart-friendship, in his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions.
Broken-hearted at the death of his childhood friend, Augustine relocated to Carthage in 376 as a tutor in rhetoric. Here, with students who in some cases were not much younger than he, he found solace from his grief.
[It was a joy to him] to talk and jest together, to do kindness to each other; to read pleasant books together; to play the fool or be earnest together; to dissent at times without discontent, as a man might with his own self. These and other similar expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those who love and are loved in return, [which are expressed] in the countenance, the tongue, the eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make us one.
Project this description forward sixteen centuries and you have today’s “soap opera” model of friendship. To anyone fed a diet of these programs, Augustine’s circle at Carthage was pretty high on the scale. Fun, arguments, horseplay, kindness – surely this is as good as it gets? And this is precisely where we see the alarming erosion of personal relationships today: people have to be guided by the media, and don’t even realise when they’re being sold short!
Augustine, however, was still not satisfied. Looking back later, he saw that his Carthage circle were chums, mates, buddies, but not friends of the heart. They were, if you like, the outer circle of relationships that everyone needs.
It was in Milan that things changed. He found a wise mentor in the bishop, Ambrose, and set his heart on becoming a Christian. He lodged with several young men, two of whom became lifelong friends: Alypius and Nebridius. Book 6 of the Confessions tells us more about them.
“Alypius was very fond of me because he saw me as good and learned, and I was very fond of him because of his natural tendency towards virtue which was remarkable in one so young.” The relationship went deeper because they opened up to each other their weaknesses, struggles and confusion. In later years Augustine called Alypius “the brother of my heart” and wrote to Jerome: Anyone who knows us both would say that he and I are distinct individuals but one in mind, in harmony and trusty friendship.
Nebridius, “a really good and pure young man, had come to Milan for no other reason than that he might live with me in a most ardent search after truth and wisdom.” Here too the relationship deepened through vulnerability and honesty: “Together we sighed and together we wavered.” Nebridius also watched over Augustine, reining in his intellectual curiosity and protecting him from heresies. “He set me before myself, forcing me to look into my own face.”
Here, then, is the inner circle of friendship – the relative few within our circle with whom we can drop our guard and let our true self be known. It is this that turns ‘chums’ into true heart-friends.