Fundamental to Mani's system was a notion of cosmic battle between good and evil, light and dark, present throughout the cosmos in 'particles'. Matter was not intrinsically evil, but it could be a prison in which light particles were trapped. The Manichaean mission was to free the light particles to return to their heavenly home. Within the elaborate mythological scheme Mani constructed, the human body had been created by demonic powers of the lower realm, a poor parody of the heavenly prototype of Adam/Eve, the androgynous humanity of divine origin. Because their spirits were of heavenly origin, humanity could liberate divine light particles from within, turning the body into a vehicle for salvation. Ritual practices as complex as this mythological scheme allowed Manichaeans to construct their daily lives so as to participate continuously in the process of transforming material reality from a realm dominated by dark particles into one not only liberating light particles, but further, serving as a harbinger or storehouse for gathering in divine forces of light.24
The central Manichaean ritual was that of a daily cultic meal and the elaborate practices necessary to arrange it. Two classes of adherents enabled such a ritual structure to operate: the Elect, or Adepts, whose sole task was the liberation of light particles; and the Hearers (Auditors) whose devotion was enacted through service to the Elect. As the Elect sought to live a life most suitable to liberating, or gathering in, the divine light, they had to have as little engagement in the fallen world as possible. This life of perfection was known as the Rest. Its practical expression was a life of celibacy and extreme renunciation, passed in wandering beggary. In turn, the Hearers undertook the necessarily ambiguous tasks of working in the world to obtain, prepare and distribute the food needed by the Elect. The Hearers made possible what the Elect did, and the Elect made possible the Hearers' future salvation.
Manichaean ritual life, however, was built on more than mythological narratives. It was also built on a scientific world-view that understood change to be possible: matter could be altered from prison to liberating vehicle. This was true of the cosmos; it was true of the body. The emphasis on ritual practices and especially on food was above all a focus on attaining health. Once again one finds repeated imagery of Christ as the Good Physician, healer of the wounded, who heals the collective body of the faithful even as he heals the individual bodies of the sick.
This medical imagery dominates the large corpus of Manichaean hymns that survive in Coptic, translated from Syriac originals of the third and early fourth
24 BeDuhn, Manichaean body.
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