Transcending space and time

Christians in this liminal age displayed a striking ability to stretch their imaginations beyond the limits not only of their late Roman world, but also of their individual lives and the temporal order. Their classical forebears had shown an interest, either scornful or intrigued, in the religions ofother peoples, and had some sense of an afterlife and an immaterial realm. Christianity, in its earliest centuries, developed more precise notions: of salvation as a divine gift for the whole of humanity, and of judgment, fulfillment, eternal bliss; in some ways immediate upon individual death, in others a postponed achievement for the community of believers. What sets apart the sixth and seventh centuries is an intensification of both processes, particularly in the West. The universal character of the Christian economy reinforced the obligation to establish it as widely as possible - a belief that had been surprisingly slow in taking root.

83 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 2.2-3.

84 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 2.37.

85 Pace Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 2.30-31. See Wood, Merovingian Kingdoms.

86 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 3, preface. An Arian bishop's depression: 9.15.

Meanwhile, eternal life pressed more closely upon the living,87 less frequently symbolized in a martyr's dramatic sacrifice, and more often enlivened by the heightened expectation of whole communities. The radical disturbance of the western provinces made such intensification more understandable: in the East, where the structures of the Christian empire were, for a time, apparently more secure, the urgency was less evident. The West was thus better prepared, paradoxically, for a future it believed might never materialize, while the East awaited the more spectacular shock of further invasion and enclosure, which would test severely its Christian self-confidence.

Reaching beyond the familiar: the development of a "missionary life"

In the East, the "missionary" image only gradually acquired a form that future periods could make use of. Wanderers like Jacob Baradaeus operated at first within the Roman orbit and sought allies among exiles rather than among genuine strangers. Only the passage of time would make them seem exotic in a more literal sense. Indeed, all the peripheral polities to the east and south upon which Byzantium relied for defense against Persia - Armenia and Ethiopia, for example - were firmly established centers of Christianity. We discover, therefore, in "missionary" sources a postponement of implication: both the manner and the motive of movement beyond the empire were later creations.

The same was true of the West. Sulpicius Severus (d. c. 430?) pitted Martin of Tours against rustic unbelievers, and his biography encouraged later and more adventurous explorers;88 but in his own day Gaul was visibly Christian. Noricum, evangelized by Severinus in the late fifth century, would scarcely have seemed pagan or remote to readers of Eugippius's Life of St. Severin in Italy a generation later (c. 511). In the case of Patrick- often thought of as an emissary to an alien world - it is difficult to judge from contemporary evidence (the Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus) what his role in Ireland might have been; but he clearly faced a society already familiar with Christian beliefs and institutions. Only later narratives (notably the seventh-century Life by Tirechan) picture him venturing into pagan country; and they were constructed for different audiences to serve different purposes.89 Jonas of Bobbio wrote his biography of Columbanus soon after his hero's death (c. 615). He portrays a wanderer, but one without clear and immediate purpose. Columbanus subsequently

87 Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 4.43.

88 Sulpicius, Vie de St. Martin, 12.1-14.7; Stancliffe, Saint Martin.

89 See Wood, Missionary Life, 26-28; De Paor, Patrick; Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick?

turned reformer, placed by Jonas for his Italian audience at the head of a tradition that still had fresh and local relevance. Only later could he be cast as a convincing missionary.90 Gregory of Tours, always ready to present his own career as a blueprint for other churchmen, sometimes made his bishops look like missionaries; but they are tellingly tied to specific places and cast in traditional roles.91 The Anglo-Saxons seem, like Patrick, a special case; but Augustine journeyed to Kent to strengthen a Christian presence long familiar within the old Roman province. The apostle recalled by Bede depended on Frankish allies, and was anxious (like Gregory himself) to extend the influence of the Roman church in Gaul.92

The heavenly future

Images of the future always represent a reordering of the present. The sixth-century church continued to use eternal destiny as a judgment upon presumptuous industry and material success. But the fractured nature of the old oikoumene induced a greater sense of impermanence, a more urgent demand for adapted expectations - already a prominent feature of Augustine's City of God. The social models, the reconfiguration of cities, the invitations extended to new audiences, the skillful redeployment of traditional images, literary and artistic, all contributed to a new and dramatic disengagement from the world. As suggested above, art and ceremony reflected the inclination. The heavenly setting of the Eucharistic celebration dissolved the apparent solidity of the building in which it tookplace. In the words ofJohn Chrysostom, "Do you think [faced with the sight of a priest at his sacrificial task] that you are still among men and standing on the earth? Are you not rather transported to the heavens?" Worshipers were thus brought into the presence of a God elsewhere -the hallmark of Christian achievement in a post-pagan world.93

That made for unexpected contrasts on the eve of the seventh century. The Dialogues and Letters of Gregory the Great and the vivid narratives of Gregory of Tours display both material ebullience and institutional practicality; but that should not distract us from both men's eschatological convictions. Outlining

90 See Wood, Missionary Life, 35-39; Clarke and Brennan, Columbanus; Lapidge, Columbanus.

91 See Wood, Missionary Life, 29.

92 See Mayr-Harting, Coming of Christianity. Organization of new territory: Gregory the Great, Registrum epistularum, 11.39 (601 CE). Gregory to Brunhild and Theuderic, 8.4.20 ff. (597 CE); 11.47.23 ff. and 11.48.6 ff. (both 601 CE); to other figures in Gaul, 11.34.22 ff., 11.38.38 ff., 11.40.32 ff. Bede includes versions of this correspondence, making the preoccupation clear to later generations: HE, 1.23 ff., with particular emphasis on Arles, 1.24, 27 (7), 28.

93 John Chrysostom, De sacerdotio, 3.4.21-23, 144; see also 3.4.1-3.

the woes of Italy in his day, Gregory the Great could conclude, "I do not know what is happening elsewhere, but in this land of ours the world is not merely announcing its end, it is pointing directly to it."94 Italy and Gaul had already been transported into another economy, a system of selflessness and wonder that constantly undercut the expectations of false ambition and rooted interest. Yet, an ordered church supplied the social element, the societas Christiana, within which the spiritual growth of individuals could be fostered and preserved.95

This may be the best context within which to place what was possibly Christianity's greatest contribution to the centuries that followed; greater than its impact on governance and law, its channelling of violence and repudiation of feud, its enduring attachment to the legacy of the ancient world - namely, the exaltation of virginity and the development of the monastic life. The wealth of literature that illustrates the early phases of that development - Rules and Lives especially - was essentially a literature of nostalgia. Cassian's Conferences, the Lives of Martin or Daniel the Stylite, the anecdotal histories of Palladius, Theodoret, John of Ephesus, Cyril of Scythopolis, orJohn Moschus, the Sayings ofthe Fathers, the Rule of Benedict: all were designed to recall and preserve a discipline deeply admired and in danger of disappearing. They exaggerated the value of submission and detachment, which readers then attempted to put more literally into practice. Above all, they presented an image of virtue and suggested the circumstances in which it could best be fostered and perfected.

Christianity had never been the only religious system to encourage such an emphasis, and its expression of the ideal owed much to pagan antecedents. The nature of the inner life, the capacity of human freedom, the tendencies of history and the plans of God: all were the staples of ancient thought. What Christianity emphasized was anticipation over realization: the virtuous did not simply bring to the surface their innate capacities, but waited upon the reward of their otherwise unpromising efforts. The virtuous Christian was homo eschatologicus; Christian fulfillment was essentially delayed. Yet, the resulting suspense was rarely allowed to be passive or indifferent. The chief characteristic of the period may have been its manner of organizing the unfulfilled. Believers who placed their bets on an eternal destiny were nevertheless remarkably industrious. In the words of Gregory the Great, "our predestination to heaven has been so ordained that we must exert ourselves to attain it."96 Such Christians reinforced their sense of God's presence in glorious (and

94 Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 3.38, trans. Zimmerman, 187.

95 Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours, trans. Carroll, 172-81.

96 Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 1.8, trans. Zimmerman, 32.

expensive) churches, inventive in both structure and decoration. They pursued their transcendent virtue in monasteries of growing complexity and wealth -magnets of admiration (and therefore centers of power), springboards of political influence, and serious-minded exploiters of agricultural wealth. They fortified their commitment to an enduring community by impelling the powerful to a sense of service and by caring in ordered ways for the vagrant, the sick, and the poor.97

The sense of what the future might hold was different in different areas of the ancient world - there were still "Christianities." The East may have been more complacent about the ultimate fortunes of the Christian empire; the West may have been more fearful in the face of ethnic change, economic decline, and royal government. Nevertheless, to walk abroad in the towns and cities of this increasingly Christianized domain was to walk along streets and among buildings whose very permanence, grandeur, authority, and sheer usefulness were solid symbols of a civitas yet to come.

97 See Patlagean, Pauvrete economique et pauvrete sociale; Brown, Poverty and Leadership, and in Brown, Cracco Ruggini, and Mazza, Governanti e intellettuali. Gallic bishops were obliged to provide such services: Orange (511 CE), canon 16, Concilia Galliae, 9. For Italy: Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 3.34, 4.23.

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