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History of Religious Life
Christian Perfection in the First Two Centuries after Christ - Part 2

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

St. Justin, in the middle of the second century, lists as one of the features of Christianity - listen - that many men and women age of fifty and sixty instructed since childhood in the teaching of Christ, have kept their virginity. That good to hear? He was writing in the year 150A.D.

Virginity Was Held in Highest Honor from the Earliest Times

This esteem for virginity is found throughout the whole Church, so it is not, you might say, consistent with any particular culture; you might say, well maybe that’s the way people were in Palestine. No: Rome, North Africa, Spain, India, wherever we have record of the Church’s life, virginity was held in the highest honor and from the earliest times, virgins were given a special status in the Church. We might say, however, mainly because we have so much literature on the subject that in the groups most affected by Judeo-Christianity, it assumed a very striking aspect. What are we saying? There were from the beginning, two kinds, you might say, two branches of converts to Christianity: those from Judaism, those from paganism. We would expect converts from Judaism to be different because of their background from those who had never been Jews, never had the Old Testament, never heard of Abraham or Moses. On the one hand among, especially, those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, virginity appears as almost the principal virtue for a Christian to practice. A great deal is made of Mary’s virginity, of Christ’s virginity.

It is also, unfortunately, among these people when they went off base that they wrote some of the most vitriolic diatribes against marriage. The expression “bitter grass” is a phrase often used by the heretical critics of marriage that marriage is called “bitter grass.” Virginity is compared to things of the spirit, marriage to things of the body. The Marcionites, for example, would baptize only virgins or married people who had taken a vow of celibacy. The Montanists claimed that sexual abstinence is an obligation for all Christians. So much for that.

Grace Alone Enables Anyone to Practice Chastity

No doubt one reason, which I dare say, is becoming equally important in our day. Whatever else the paganism of the Roman Empire of those early centuries was, it was in the most complete sense unchaste, lascivious, immoral, obscene, and partly, I suppose, as a reaction against the extreme obscenity whereas you know they had god and goddesses glorifying their vices. In any case, virginity was held in a high esteem and perhaps we can say this; that God permitted even the errors of such people as these to bring out the importance of the witness of virginity if ever Christianity is going to make an impact on a society. Because whatever else I have found out in my priesthood is true; whatever other virtue a person may think he or she can practice without grace - this is one that nobody cheats on - you either get oceans of grace or you don’t remain chaste. PERIOD. Grace alone enables anyone to practice chastity. And, therefore, the evidence of God’s presence in persons is dramatically shown especially by contrast; for example, I’m living in polo graphic New York and it is, unless you have lived in New York it’s beyond description: public, open, flaunted and I’ve seen, I’ve come to know souls for example, women I have come to know twenty-one, twenty-two, in their twenties, my students at the University; chaste, as though they were living on another planet. So it can be done. But if I’ve told them whether you realize it or not let me tell – you your very existence is a proof of God’s presence. You just couldn’t remain chaste, not living, say, in Manhattan or Times Square.

Young man, a college graduate came to see me the other day. He’s organized; he’s working with another group - some thirty young men that are working with him. They’re taking care of the youngsters and there are thousands of them; runaways, drug addicts. These thirty fellows, I’d say most of them in their twenties living a chaste life. Listen to this! They’re not religious; they spend an average of two and a half hours a day in prayer. How’s that? In Times Square, which is the hell of America. Mass, Divine Office, meditation; isn’t that great? So it can be done. It’s grace that does it. But, then, the need for some kind of community living to protect one’s chastity makes sense. See?

Manichaeism: A Heresy That Has Tormented the Church from the Beginning

There are few others, the Ebionites, the Millenarianists and, in general, the Gnostics. Now what is important to know about some of these, by the way they appear, not sure all of them do but a number at least appear in the writings especially of St. John, of course, who you know was writing at the end of the first century. That even as the Church exalts virginity, She does not make the error of claiming that marriage is wrong, or is bad or displeasing to God. Now behind all of this and especially with this heresy of Gnosticism was the more devastating error of Manichaeism. Manichaeism is that heresy which has tormented the Church from the beginning, today, and I’m sure will till the end of time which claims ultimately there are two gods, two creators; one of spirit, one of body and that since marriage or marital intercourse involves the union of the body that, as a consequence, it is really the devil’s work which we would use: or the work of the evil deity, so that insofar as a person experiences less and less, well, of the pleasures or the joys of the body, he is becoming more and more perfect. Do you follow the logic? So that asceticism is redefined on these terms as so mortifying the flesh until a person is totally, you might say, indifferent to any pleasure because all pleasure of the body is somehow a manifestation of and a concession to the evil spirit who stands behind the body. Now that is not the Church’s teaching on asceticism.

May I ask, is bodily pleasure wrong? For example, tonight I’m sure we’ll have, wherever we eat, a good meal. Is it wrong to enjoy our food? Is it wrong to enjoy, say, ah, well a warm bed or warm clothing in winter? Is it wrong for the married to enjoy their marital experience? Ok? It, therefore, is not true that a person is more spiritual as he less and less needs the body. So that behind the heresy, regarding the virginity that we talked about with these various heretical sects, is the more fundamental error of claiming the body is evil and only the spirit is good. That the Church condemns. It is not surprising in the light of what we’ve seen that both the virgins and the ascetics – now why the difference? Virgins was commonly at least at first applied only to women. And I think even today don’t you think it’s the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word virgin – that it’s a woman. Well, quite frankly men are supposed to be virgins too – those who live a life of consecrated chastity. The word ascetic was more commonly applied to men. It’s just a matter of vocabulary.

The State of Christian Perfection Included the Practice of Consecrated Chastity

Are women who are virgins to be ascetical? Yes or no? They better be or they’ll lose their virginity. Are men who were called to be ascetics, were they to be virginal? Yes. All right? It’s just to clarify words. It is not surprising, however, that from the very beginning both ascetics and virgins began to live a common life. And one reason, no doubt, for either forming or living in a community was to assist them to persevere in their life, both, of asceticism and their virginity.

We might say and this is where the language is a little uncertain but there are references to marriages between Christ and those who had, thus, consecrated themselves and the word is already used – St. Paul uses it, right? – espoused to Christ. Now, while the Church has made many clarifications since the foundation for the life of Christian Perfection as we now understand it, already from the first century, included the practice of Consecrated Chastity.

So that, though I’m not teaching that here; if you were here or would be here tomorrow you’ll see what I do. And it’s interesting to ah, you might just maybe come in for a few minutes just to see what I’m telling the lay people about holiness or Christian Perfection. But the States of Christian Perfection, as the Church now understands those States, involved Consecrated Chastity and the Tradition goes back to the first centuries. So much for chastity.

The Profession of Faith

Now, the Profession of the Faith. Just to keep ourselves in balance we were saying that the principal classifications of groups of organized persons among the early Christians up to the end of the third century, were organized on the practice of the practice of chastity, or, and of Faith. From the beginning already in the Apocalypse of St. John, martyrdom appears as the outstanding form of Christian sanctity. Whereas, the Apocalypse tells us; a person is wholly consecrated to the glory of God and in Heaven they are said to be those who had washed their robes white in the Blood of the Lamb. This is shown by the fact that in the early Church, the first saints who were venerated were the martyrs. There is belief that a person who dies in the Faith immediately enters Heaven. The bones of the martyrs were honored and miracles were often worked in the application of their relics.

For example, In the martyrdom of Polycarp second century we read,

“We gather his bones,” speaking of Polycarp, “more valuable than precious stones in order to place them in a suitable spot. There, whenever possible, we shall gather in joy to celebrate the anniversary of the day when Polycarp was born to God by martyrdom.”

The Eucharist, from the beginning, was offered on the tombs of the martyrs. And if any martyrs survived, they became, as we said earlier, confessors.

You might wonder what this has to do with religious life. Well, a great deal. Because if you were like me, more like, if you are like me, say, fifteen or twenty years ago though as I look at the group, I have to ask myself, when some of you were you born? When were you born? 57 What year? Do you hear that? 1957 (laughter) So some of you (laughter) who fifteen years ago were just starting grammar school; but, at least in general I suppose, we supposed that among the witnesses of virtue that a religious are heartily called upon to give is witness to the Faith, if need be martyrdom.

Martyrdom: A Supreme Conflict with the Evil Spirit

Well, if anyone has any doubts, still, let me quickly dissipate that doubt. The only religious that will survive this century are those that have the blood of martyrs in their veins. I mean that. I mean it! As I mentioned this morning to the sisters and I’ll repeat to you. I do not believe that Pope John Paul I died a natural death. The first three centuries, all the Popes were martyrs; did you know that? That’s right, all martyrs. Martyrdom is no longer a luxury. It is fast becoming a necessity. Martyrdom, in the first place, is considered a supreme conflict with the evil spirit. That’s the Church’s teaching.

Martyrdom: Highest Form of the Imitation of Christ

Writes Hermas again whom we’ve quoted; it’s one of the great books of the early Church. “Those who have been crowned are those who have struggled against the devil and conquered him.” Isn’t that a strange expression – overcoming the devil by dying? It is they who have suffered for the Law, of course, the Law of Christ. And again the devil used all his wiles against the martyrs but he could not conquer them. Martyrdom, being a victory over Satan, is the highest form of the imitation of Christ.

The Way to Be Totally Transformed into Jesus Christ

That’s why I had you read St. Ignatius. Did you notice the longing for martyrdom? It’s part of my Jesuit strategy but I didn’t have to, you know, cook this up; it’s right there. Right? It’s right there! It is the way, especially, in Ignatius but in the early Church: The way to become totally transformed into Jesus Christ.

The masterpiece on martyrdom for all times, I would almost recommend memorizing - Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans. It’s a fairly short letter. I haven’t yet and I don’t think I will ask you to do some memory work although if I have further thought and I pray over it, maybe I will as part of this course. (laughter) I did tell you didn’t I in teaching Mother Teresa’s sisters every two weeks an average of fifteen verses every two weeks and by now they’ve got, oh many pages memorized – the Superior along with everybody else. And after two weeks they all come to class with a clean sheet of paper ready with their ballpoints and paper and, ah, I look at the clock and I give them about ten minutes or twelve minutes so they don’t spend a lot of time; and when I see that most of them are finished, time is up and I grade them A,B,C, depending on how well or how much they memorized – Scriptures! Makes sense! I’ve done this over the years. Makes sense; this is the Word of God! We remember things we think are precious, right? And now with the World Series coming on, you know people that are interested in baseball; they’ll give you the batting average, right, of the most obscure member of some team.

In any case a Letter of Ignatius to the Romans a classic on martyrdom in the Catholic Church:

“It is good for me (this is Ignatius) to die in order to be united to Jesus Christ.
It is He I am seeking. He, who died for me: Him I want. Him who is risen for all.
My hour of birth approaches. (Isn’t that tremendous!) Let me receive the Pure Life.
When I am there, then I shall be a man. Allow me to be the imitator of the Passion of my God.”

All Genuine Mystics Desire Martyrdom: Love to Imitate Christ in His Passion

Martyrdom as we would expect, was often accompanied by, and God would reward it, with mystical phenomena. I’ve read enough of the mystics and in my day have had the privilege of dealing at least with some that, in my judgment, qualified. Let me tell you this: All genuine mystics desire martyrdom. I don’t mean in any dramatic sense, but they really love to imitate Christ in His Passion. A martyr, finally, doesn’t merely edify the Church which, of course, is one obvious function of a martyr because the word itself means witness. So anytime you shrink or tremble at the word martyr just remember; this is what Christ said we’re supposed to be – His martyrs. So that, indeed is the first function in the Church to witness to the strong faith testifying to God’s Presence and if so willing to die for what this person believes. But it is also an act of great redemptive value – a martyr doesn’t just die in witnessing to Christ – he or she dies to lay down their life for the people.

The Practice of True Charity: The One Who Is Willing to Lay Down His Life

Polycarp – this is a quotation from the Acts of St. Polycarp – Like the Lord Himself patiently waited to be delivered; thus wishing to teach us by His example, not to think only of our own interests but also of our neighbors. For the sign of a true and solid charity is to seek not only one’s own salvation, but that of one’s brethren, even to, and that’s what Christ meant - how many hundreds of times we’ve seen the passage - who has the highest love; what does Christ tell us? The one who is willing to lay down his life for the brethren. The practice of charity, exhaustively, wearing oneself out.

A Priest Must Allow the People to Use Him Up, to Wear Him Out

When I was in Rome last October, had dinner with priest-friend of mine. He was telling me – we were exchanging notes about what we are respectively doing – and he said, “you know before I was ordained a wise old priest took me aside and told me, “a priest must allow the people to use him up, to wear him out.” Does that make sense? So it is not merely as a single act, a symbolic gesture, so to speak, witnessing to a Faith and a moment over, after death of course it is finished.

The Martyrdom of Living with Others

This is why and with this we can close; why very early as religious life became organized, those who lived the religious life faithfully were spoken of as having undertaken a life of living martyrdom – to labor and exhaust themselves in the service of others. Where that service is not only physical exhaustion, it’s praying for others, suffering for others, mortifying one’s self for others: And the smaller the community - how well I know - the martyrdom of living with others. Does that sound strange? The martyrdom of living with others; and the graces that are thus gained for souls by that kind of generosity: Only in Heaven will we know when people we’ve never heard of before will come to thank us – thanks, it’s because of you that I got here. It’s a quarter to. Shall we close with a prayer?

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and
Blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us, who have recourse to thee.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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