Someday I hope to be able to write a book about spiritual practices of the ancient church, so I’ve been in contact with people I know to see what they would like to see in such a book. One question that arose was: Did they have daily devotions? What would this look like?
A starting point: The sort of standard evangelical version today consists of daily prayer and Scripture reading and the reading of other Christian books along the way, whether labelled ‘devotional’ or simply theology or biblical commentary or the like. The shape of prayer, determination of readings, and relationship of the two to our Christian books vary from person to person and tradition to tradition.
The catechists, presbyters, bishops, monks, and learned believers who left us our vast body of ancient Christian literature expect a pattern of personal, daily prayer from the ancient Christians. Many of them give great advice about how to pray. The third-century Apostolic Tradition attributed to St Hippolytus gives us a daily round for the members of the ecclesial community that consists of these times for prayer:
Third hour (9:00 AMish)
Sixth hour (Noonish)
Ninth hour (3:00 PMish)
Cock-crow (hopefully dawn, although roosters crow whenever they please, in my experience)
A little moment of liturgical history: The canonical hours of prayer clearly pre-date monasticism. These were handed down to the author of the Apostolic Tradition through tradition itself, so they are undoubtedly older even than the third century. Indeed, Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) in On Prayer 25 recommends the same round of prayer. I might even argue, if I were more acquainted with the context of the Apostolic Tradition, that the communal service of lamplighting gives us seven hours for prayer, which matches the monastic pattern of later centuries, but I do not know for certain that the service of lamplighting was daily or not.
The first three hours listed above are set aside because of their association with Christ’s passion, an association they will maintain throughout tradition. When we combine them with the Apostolic Tradition‘s teaching on the sign of the cross, we see regular, daily devotion to Jesus and the salvation wrought for us by his precious death and glorious resurrection.
The Apostolic Tradition also encourages the ordinary Christian to attend teaching in the morning if there is any. If not, then the believer is encouraged to spend time in personal study of a book.
There is no mention of the private, personal reading Scripture, although it is definitely part of the teaching and worship of the corporate church.
The only other personal devotional practice I have noted in this text is fasting, which people are encouraged to engage in at any time. One text may mean fasting before Holy Communion, but may actually mean having Communion before the love-feast (see Stewart-Sykes, 2nd ed., pp. 191-192).
These are the non-corporate devotions of the Apostolic Tradition. Can we live up to them or adapt them as we progress in piety?
Sometimes when a post like my most recent one appears on the Internet, someone immediately thinks the writer believes that the period in question is a Golden Age, or a more ‘pure’ age of Christian spirituality. I remember once I sent an article about first- and second-century evangelism to a friend, and it came up in the comments section of his (now dead) blog, and someone came in with all guns flaring as though he and I believed that everything done in the ancient church was perfect.
This is not how I view ancient and early mediaeval Christianity.
We have to immediately admit that things back then were not perfect — as early as Paul’s letters to the Corinthians or the message of the Spirit to the churches n Revelation we have evidence that Christian persons are not perfect. This trend is visible not only in Patristic and Mediaeval texts that try to solve and reform problems, from 1 Clement to Gregory of Tours or the letters of Gregory the Great, but also in texts that claim to bear weighty authority — some of these are visibly heretical to post-Chalcedonian eyes, others tread near to it, others have problems mingled in with the good, invisible to their authors.
Notker the Stammerer’s Life of Charlemagne, for instance, gives us a vision of Christianity and Christian liturgy that is mostly about doing exactly the right thing at the right time; I feel that his is one of the most ritualistic (in a bad way) and legalistic texts I’ve met.
So if ancient and early mediaeval Christianity are so obviously flawed, why would I favour them in the prayerful commission of new liturgies for today’s context? Why not just, say, construct liturgies out of Bruce Cockburn lyrics or attend U2charists?
I will dispense with the absolutely subjective first. I like ancient and mediaeval prayers. I like the way they sound. I like they way they are constructed. I like the stuff they say. I like the contexts they fit. I enjoy their perspective. Furthermore, well-translated they are more beautiful than Cockburn or U2. Here an example from the Central Middle Ages, a prayer of St Anselm as translated by Sr Benedicta Ward:
Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm)
I have that on a Post-It Note on the endpage of my Book of Common Prayer. I just love it.
Another slightly less subjective reason is the connection with the historic faith and believers through the ages. Sometimes, when I receive the Eucharist, I am filled with awe at the fact that I am joining with millions of other faithful Christians on that same day to partake of the precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Nothing can compare with that mystical act. But when we pray using the old forms and old words, we are joining brothers and sisters in a transtemporal and transnational expression of piety towards the Triune God. It is not good for the man to be alone, says the LORD in Genesis. Praying ancient and mediaeval prayers is a way to unite with the rest of Christ’s mystical body and not be alone.
Furthermore, ancient and early mediaeval prayers contain powerful Gospel truths. I was raised in the evangelical, charismatic wing of Anglicanism. The glorious and wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ — that God became a man to save us poor wretches, and that He died a terrible death for us poor sinners, and that He rose again victorious from the grave, and that He ascended, and is now present with all who call upon His Name, that we are not saved by any of the good things we may do but simply through His grace, which we must accept in faith (you know that Gospel), and so forth — is the heritage of all faithful Christians.
These truths, and other ‘Bible truths’ and theological profundities are readily available in the ancient and early mediaeval prayers. Take this one from the Gelasian Sacramentary (sections of which are 6th-century, others 7th, and a modified form after 750):
O God, Who by the Passion of Thy Christ our Lord hath dissolved that hereditary death of the ancient sin, to which the whole race of Adam’s posterity had succeeded; grant that having been made conformable unto Him, as we by necessity of nature have borne the image of the earthly, so by the sanctification of grace we may bear the image of the Heavenly, even of Christ our Lord, Who with Thee… (trans. W. Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers Selected from Various Rituals)
A fourth reason is that ancient and early mediaeval prayers can speak to us in ways our own words and worlds cannot. This reason would be a reason to use any historic liturgy, be it 1662 or the Tridentine Mass or the Use of Sarum or the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or the hymns of the Oktoekhos or Aelfwine’s Prayerbook. If our prayers are temporally bound to this moment, there is a danger of them becoming earthbound rather than heavenward.
I think there is an intuition along these lines in the liturgical reforms of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Cranmer, for instance, mined the riches of the Gelasian Sacramentary as well as seeking to establish a more ancient form of what is basically Sarum (in English with no saints, mind you). The Council of Trent explicitly sought to re-establish the worship of ‘the Fathers’. Later, Pius X in the early twentieth century was interested in reinvigorating the worship life of Roman Catholicism through Gregorian chant of all things.
If we produce new liturgies based solely upon the past several years or decades, we will be timebound, trapped by U2 or by Cockburn, by the Gettys or by Graham Kendrick, praying all the latest fads instead of deep, uncomfortable truths we may never have thought to pray about.
Fifth, these prayers are not merely old, they are tested and true. Not every prayer or ritual act found in a mediaeval manuscript and dateable to the centuries of my interest is worth our time. I think. I admit to not being sure about that, but I’ll concede the hypothetical point. Nevertheless, many of the prayers from this period made their way into the liturgies of the great branches of Christianity — take the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or of St Basil the Great, or the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, or the Catholic Mass, or the Book of Common Prayer, or the various breviaries and liturgies of the hours — many of the prayers we find in the earliest traceable liturgies have made their way to us in these texts.
By way of example, the next time you encounter this (or similar words):
The Lord be with you.
And with thy Spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
It is meet and right so to do.
It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …
Thank the Lord for St Hippolytus (d. 230s) in whose day this was already traditional in the Church of Rome. And realise that this ancient liturgical moment in the ‘Anaphora’ crosses not only between Anglican/Lutheran and Roman Catholic, but across to the Eastern Orthodox and historic Oriental churches as well.
Generations of Christians have found ancient and early mediaeval prayers to be nourishing. By praying these prayers, they are able to lift their souls to heaven. By reading these words, they have found themselves in the throne room of God. By meditating on their truths, they have come nearer to the Most Holy Trinity in their frail, human understanding.
Within hours of me posting this post about Hippolytus, an eminent late antique scholar with whom I am Facebook friends informed me:
Unfortunately just about everything that’s written about this Hippolytus is made up. Sorry. He’s completely apocryphal. The general view today is that he is in fact different writers, neither of whom was an ‘anti-pope’. And he didn’t write a chronicle either.
This, as you can imagine, came as a bit of a blow. Hippolytus a fake? After a little bit of this (go to 0:32 for the glory of it):
I moved on with my life. Clearly, I need to do better research on my popes. At all times. Or at least base what I say on … ancient/mediaeval sources; or the most recent research based on ancient/medieval sources. So here we go.
A little quotation from Saint Jerome could almost be enough to cover this:
Hippolytus was the bishop of a certain church. I have not, in fact, been able to learn the name of the city. (De Viris Illustribus 61)
But that’s a bit unsatisfying. How do we come to have a martyr story combined with an anti-pope combined with a host of writings, including sermons and a eucharistic liturgy?
First step: More than one Hippolytus. J. A. Cerrato, in Hippolytus Between East and West lists a bunch of these, the first being the martyr who died under Maximin, first mentioned in 354. There are are three other Hippolyti who died under Valerian later in the third century; the first, d. 257, is supported by archaeological and hagiographical evidence; the second, d. 258, is a character extrapolated from martyr acta of Lawrence; the third, d. post-257, was a Novatianist who returned to the Catholic faith and whose acta were written (and possibly forged?) by Pope Damasus as anti-Novatianist propaganda. There seems also to have been another Hippolytus, also a martyr.
That gives us five third-century martyrs named Hippolytus. At least one is probably real, maybe four. Cerrato writes, ‘By way of genuine accounts, the presbyter Hippolytus (c. 235) of the depositio martyrum is accepted as historical by consensus …’ (12). This Hippolytus, exiled with Pontian, was made into an anti-Pope by Doellinger, apparently.
I can see, however, how one could slip the reformed Novatianist Hippolytus into the exiled, earlier martyr Hippolytus and turn him into an anti-pope.
What about the many writings (which go beyond the Apostolic Tradition)? Cerrato tells us:
There is scant evidence, therefore, in any early sources to suggest that the martyred Hippolyti were teachers, or literate ecclesiastics. (13)
That leaves this blogger wondering how, once conflated into the Anti-Pope, they are imagined to be a writer. Apparently I have to read all of Cerrato book to find out, though. Since my PhD isn’t on Hippolytus but on Leo, I’ll refrain. Nonetheless, Cerrato does note that there is a Greek Hippolytus who was a spiritual teacher. No doubt writings come to be attached to him that way?
What, then, of the Apostolic Tradition? Who wrote it? How old is it? The commentary by Bradshaw, Johnson, and Phillips of 200 first gives us the traditional reasons for calling Hippolytus its author:
The first is that, while no existing manuscript of the document itself bears a title or author’s name, two of the derived church orders do refer to Hippolytus. (2)
The second argument is that the opening section of the document speaks of having ‘set down’ … ‘the tradition that catechizes the churches’ … This encouraged the identification of the document with an otherwise unknown treatise, the Apostolic Tradition, apparently included in a list of Hippolytus’s works inscribed on the right-hand side of the base of a statue discovered in Rome in 1551 (2-3)
If you ask me, these are reasons for a hypothesis but not a firm attribution. The commentators agree, noting the tendency to associate documents with famous men of old, whether they had anything to do with it — and a large number of other documents are falsely attributed to Hippolytus. The statue is also not clearly a statue of Hippolytus, nor necessarily a list of his works. Some also wonder if this text was even Roman, and note that it was more widely circulated in East than West. Add to these concerns the above discussion of Hippolytus’ identity, and the attribution of the work to him weakens enormously.
Well, what about the date? Is it as old as the supposed Hippolytus? Alistair Stewart-Sykes, in the SVS translation On the Apostolic Tradition, says that it is Roman and third-century, based upon similarities between it and later Roman liturgies as well as the connections between the practices described in other early Roman Christian literature.
So, what can we say? There were multiple Hippolyti who probably did not write the Apostolic Tradition but who may have worshipped with a version it in Rome in the third century.
What this teaches us is that Christian historiography, especially before Constantine, is fraught with danger. The ancients themselves can lead us astray, such as when the Hippolyti are conflated, or when they incorrectly attribute texts to people (or write texts under false names). Modern scholars can also lead us astray, such as the Anti-Pope theory which is still current in popular circles (as I learned to my peril!), or the weak attribution of the Apostolic Tradition to the shadowy figure of Hippolytus.
This has been brief and has not dealt with all of the arguments fully. If you want to get down and dirty with Hippolytus, the works I’ve consulted are:
Bradshaw, Paul F., Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Philllips. The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Our last Pope of the Month was a while ago, in the person of St Clement of Rome (fl. AD 96). This month, the Pope of the Month returns in the person of St Hippolytus of Rome (c. 165-235). Between Clement and Hippolytus falls a series of other, less famous popes: Avaristus, Alexander I, Sixtus (Xystus) I, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius I, Anicetus, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor I, Zephyrinus, Callistus (see the Pope List at the Catholic Encyclopedia for articles on these guys).
The first interesting thing about Hippolytus is that he was bishop of Rome at the same time as Callistus. And then at the same time as Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. Now, if you know anything about the monarchical episcopacy that will have certainly developed in Rome by some point in the second century, if not by Clement’s day, you may know that one city doesn’t really get two bishops.
This is because St Hippolytus has the grand distinction of being an ‘Anti-Pope’ — a bishop in Rome set up in opposition to the bishop in Rome who was accepted in the canonical lists of popes. He is also one of the only anti-popes of whom I know who is also a canonised saint. Well-done, St Hippolytus!
Hippolytus established himself as Anti-pope for two main reasons. First, he doubted the doctrinal purity of Pope Zephyrinus, whom he accused of modalism (the teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different modes of being for the one God — aka Oneness Pentecostalism, like the band 4 Him and T D Jakes), himself being influenced by the ‘logos’ Christology of St Justin Martyr that saw the Son as a hypostasis of his own, which is the forerunner of Nicene Christology.
However, his break with the episcopacy at Rome did not come until the papacy of Callistus, whom he felt to be too soft ethically; Callistus would allow people who had committed sins such as adultery back into the communion of the Church. Hippolytus was opposed to such laxity. This position is not as foreign as it sounds to our modern ears; it is the sort of stance taken around the same time by Tertullian in North Africa, for example.
Hippolytus was thus elected a rival bishop of Rome by the faction opposed to Callistus’ allegedly lax moral stance.
This, however, is not why he is famous.
Hippolytus is famous amongst Christians today for giving us one of the earliest extant eucharistic liturgies, which you can read online here. It is part of a document called the Apostolic Tradition from c. 215, and what it gives us is liturgical advice from the Roman church as well as recounting other practices common at the time.
To give an idea of how ancient some of the things we do on a Sunday are, here is part of the Apostolic Tradition:
The Lord be with you.
And all reply:
And with your spirit.
The bishop says:
Lift up your hearts.
The people respond:
We have them with the Lord.
The bishop says:
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
The people respond:
It is proper and just.
That could be straight from the Prayer Book or the Missal or the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom! And it is embedded in Hippolytus’ order of service for the eucharist. The rediscovery of this very ancient liturgical text has been instrumental in the reshaping of western liturgies since Vatican II, both Roman Catholic Novus Ordo and Anglican ones such as The Book of Alternative Services or Common Worship. Read the text, and if you are familiar with these modern liturgies, you’ll see what I mean.
Hippolytus gives us prayers for the blessing of gifts, such as cheese and olives, as well as the order for ordaining bishops, presbyters, and deacons, the receiving of catechumens, the order of baptism, the prayers at eventide and a host of other little services and prayers for the daily, weekly, yearly running of the church’s life of prayer and service.
We are fortunate to have such a window as this, a snapshot of the life of worship of the Church of Rome in the early third century. Few other liturgical texts are reliably older than this, although we have some scattered descriptions of Christian worship that pre-date Hippolytus.
In 235, Maximinus Thrax (r. 235-38) was Emperor of Rome. In his persecution of the Christians, he exiled the two rival bishops, Hippolytus and Pontian to Sardinia. There they were martyred. Both bodies were brought back to the City by Fabian and venerated as martyrs. Although his unwavering stance on purity led Hippolytus to break communion with the Roman Church, he died for Christ in the end and was counted as in the peace of Christ’s Church, being commemorated as a martyr for the name of Christ and a saint — a holy man — of the Church.