Postcards From a Pilgrim

EgeriaAs a Protestant, I knew next to nothing about the Church Fathers, and that suited me just fine. To me, the period between the death of the last apostle and the dawn of the Reformation was a vast religious wasteland. God only knows what the poor, benighted rabble of those centuries believed – I certainly didn’t care one way or the other. Indeed, whenever Catholics bring up the fact that ample documentation of the principle of something as important as, say, apostolic succession is found in the writings of the post-apostolic Christians, a Protestant such as I once was will dismiss this evidence out-of-hand. “Their writings weren’t inspired Holy Scripture.” To me, that made their writings worthless.

No one is claiming that the writings of the Church Fathers are infallible, or that they are Holy Scripture. They are, however, exceedingly valuable because they shed light on the beliefs and practices of the folks who, in the years after the apostles died, called themselves Christians. It’s as if Christian scholars living 900 years from now found a letter from the Reverend Billy Graham to the Reverend Jerry Falwell asking him to rethink his involvement in politics. Holy Scripture? Infallible? I don’t think so! But valuable nonetheless, because such a letter would serve to document the fact that (a) some 20th-century North American Baptists were involved in politics and that (b) other 20th-century North American Baptists felt that they shouldn’t be, and that (c) Billy Graham felt that he could offer Jerry Falwell fraternal correction. In the same manner, the writings of the Church Fathers don’t have to be inspired or infallible in order to be historically pertinent and therefore valuable. There is an exceeding great deal that we can glean from them.

One such writing of historical value is the Pilgrimage of St. Egeria. Thought by scholars to have been a French Catholic (though some say Spanish), Egeria (a religious sister or a laywoman – scholars remain divided on this as well) made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land before the end of the 4th century, most likely after the death of the emperor Valens in 378 A.D. In other words, her journey can be dated to the neighborhood of 350 years after the Resurrection. We have fragments of her writings dealing with the various sites that she visited in Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor. Egeria’s account is important for several reasons. From a secular perspective, it is important because Egeria was a woman, and there are few extant writings from antiquity by female authors. From a Christian point of view, her story is noteworthy in part because it serves to bust the myth that the Scriptures were confiscated early on by the ECC (Evil Catholic Church) and locked up in “monasteries and museums” (as Tim LaHaye claims) where the faithful had no access to them. St. Egeria, writing 50 years after the death of Emperor Constantine (the guy who made Catholicism the religion of the Roman Empire, forcing “true Christians” underground – or so I’d heard), recounts the details of her visit to the River Jordan:

…setting out from Jerusalem and journeying with holy men, with a priest and deacons from Jerusalem and with certain brothers, that is monks, we came to that spot on the Jordan where the children of Israel had crossed when holy Joshua, the son of Nun, had led them over Jordan, as it is written in the book of Joshua, the son of Nun. The place where the children of Reuben and of Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had made an altar was shown us a little higher up on that side of the river-bank where Jericho is. Crossing the river we came to a city called Livias, which is in the plain where the children of Israel encamped at that time, for the foundations of the camp of the children of Israel and of their dwellings where they abode appear there to this day. The plain is a very great one, lying under the mountains of Arabia above the Jordan; it is the place of which it is written: And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the Arabot Moab on the Jordan over against Jericho, forty days. This is the place where, after Moses’ death, Joshua the son of Nun was straightway filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him, as it is written. This is the place where Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy, and where he spake in the ears of all the congregation of Israel the words of this song until it was ended; it is written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here holy Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel one by one, in order, before his death. So when we had arrived at this plain, we went to the very spot, and prayer was made; here, too, a certain part of Deuteronomy was read, as well as his song, with the blessings which he pronounced over the children of Israel; after the reading, prayer was made a second time, and giving thanks to God, we moved on thence. For it was always customary with us that, whenever we succeeded in reaching the places we desired to visit, prayer should first be made there, then the lection should be read from the book, then one appropriate psalm should be said, then prayer should be made again. At God’s bidding we always kept to this custom, whenever we were able to come to the places we desired.

It certainly sounds as if she had more than a passing acquaintance with Scripture – she’s alluding to and quoting from Deuteronomy 33 and 34, not exactly two of the best-known chapters in the Old Testament. And she constantly alludes to Scripture throughout her writings, with her quotes conforming closely to the text of the Septuagint version of the Bible (for those of you who have been following my series on the canon, this should come as no surprise).

Egeria sojourned in Jerusalem, chronicling the liturgical practices there. As a Protestant, I viewed any church that adhered to a liturgy as a Bible-free zone. Yet, listen to her words concerning the teaching of the Scriptures to the catechumens:

And as he [the bishop] explained the meaning of all the Scriptures, so does he explain the meaning of the Creed; each article first literally and then spiritually. By this means all the faithful in these parts follow the Scriptures when they are read in church.

So even if you couldn’t read or write, you were familiar with the Scriptures because they were read to you at Mass, and their meaning was explained to you. The ECC apparently hadn’t yet consolidated its iron grip on the faithful…

Egeria gives a fascinating account of the observance of Lent in the 4th century church in Jerusalem. As a pampered 21st-century American Catholic, I might not have made it through the 4th-century Jerusalem Lent – those Christians were hardcore.

When the days of Easter come they are celebrated as follows. For as with us forty days before Easter are observed, so here eight weeks before Easter are observed. But the eight weeks are observed for this reason: they do not fast on the Lord’s day or on the Sabbath, with the exception of the one Sabbath day which is the vigil of Easter, on which it is necessary to fast. Except on this day they never fast on a Sabbath throughout the whole year. So deducting from these eight weeks, eight Lord’s days, and seven Sabbaths – for they must fast on one Sabbath, as I said above – there remain forty-one fast days, which they call here ἑορτύι, i.e., the quadragesimal [fast]. The several days of the several weeks are thus observed….

…For the custom of those who fast here in Lent is that some, viz., those who observe the week-long fast, as soon as they have eaten on the Lord’s day after Mass – that is, at the fifth or sixth hour – do not eat throughout the whole week until the next Sabbath after the Mass at the Anastasis. But when they have eaten early on the Sabbath, they do not eat in the evening, but on the next day – that is, the Lord’s day. They eat after the Mass at the church, at the fifth hour or even later, and then do not eat again until the next Sabbath, as I said above. For the custom here is that all those who are, as they say, Renuntiants, whether men or women, only eat once a day, and this not only in Lent, but throughout the year. If there are any of these Renuntiants who cannot keep the entire week’s fast, as we described above, throughout Lent, they take a meal on the fifth day in the middle [of the week]. Those who cannot do even this fast for two days at a time all through Lent, and those who cannot do even this much, fast from one evening to the next. No one demands how much one ought to do, but each one does what he can; neither is he praised who does more than he need, nor is he blamed who does less. Such is the custom here. And their food during the forty days is of this kind: they neither eat bread which cannot be strained as a liquid, nor taste oil nor anything else which is got from trees, but live on water and a little gruel made out of flour. So the Lenten fast is kept, as we have said.

Personally, I gave up sweets for Lent. I doubt St. Egeria would have been too terribly impressed.


Tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Here is Egeria’s depiction of what the church in Jerusalem would have been doing today, the day before Palm Sunday:

When it begins to be morning, as the Sabbath dawns, the bishop makes an offering and the oblation early on the Sabbath. And when the dismissal is to be given the archdeacon calls out, saying: ‘Let us all be ready in the Lazarium at the seventh hour to-day.’ So at the beginning of the seventh hour they all come to the Lazarium. The Lazarium – i.e., Bethany – is about two miles from the city; and as they come from Jerusalem to the Lazarium, about 500 paces from the latter place, there is a church in the street at the spot where Mary, the sister of Lazarus, met the Lord. And when the bishop has come here all the monks meet him, and the people enter; one hymn is sung and one antiphon, and they read the passage from the Gospel where the sister of Lazarus meets the Lord. So prayer having been made, and all having been blessed, they go from thence to the Lazarium with hymns. When they come to the Lazarium the whole crowd assembles, so that not only the place itself, but the fields all round, are full of people. Hymns and antiphons are sung appropriate to the day and place, and in like manner lections suitable for the day are read. Before they are dismissed, Easter is announced – that is, the priest goes up to an elevated place and reads the passage from the Gospel where it is written, ‘When Jesus had come to Bethany, six days before the Passover,’ etc. The passage having been read and Easter announced, they are dismissed. These things are done on this day, because it is written in the Gospel that so it was done in Bethany six days before the Passover; now from the Sabbath to the fifth day, when, after the supper, the Lord was apprehended at night, is six days. Then they all return to the city straight to the Anastasis, and vespers are held as usual.

Authentic 4th-century Christianity was something of an aerobic workout, walking two miles to another town to commemorate the events of John 12, and then walking back to hold vespers at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the Anastasis), not neglecting to show up for Mass the next morning, and remember – they’d been fasting off and on for weeks! Kind of neat to know what Christians in Jerusalem were doing 1,630-some years ago on this day in history – different from what we are doing, and yet the same. Continuity, thy name is Catholic.

On the memorial of St. Turibius of Mongrovejo

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credit: Israel Bethany Stone church with silver dome, by Djampa

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