What Did It Feel Like to Be a Christian in Late Antiquity?

Georgia Frank, professor of religion at Colgate University, explains how it would feel to be a Christian in Late Antiquity for a visiting lecture at BYU in connection with Maxwell Institute and the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 9, 2017)—What did it feel like to be an ordinary Christian in Late Antiquity? Most of the religious records we have were written by or about “spiritual rock stars” who lived as hermits in caves or fasted for months, but our understanding of early, everyday Christian life is fairly limited. Georgia Frank, professor of religion at Colgate University, presented her research on the feelings of early Christians in a visiting lecture at BYU. Frank said, “The sermons and songs [of the fourth–sixth centuries] can reveal the emotions of those who first heard them.” 

In a religion that seeks to transcend the mortal state and enter divine space, it can be easy to dismiss the physical body as an unimportant part of the religious process. Frank explained that with the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, “[Christians were] no longer under the threat of persecution and with a greater stake in the material world, early Christians developed religious practices that relied on the physical senses to perceive divine mysteries.”

Early Christians, Frank said, “Cultivated a set of interior senses bound with physical interactions.” She used as an example the rite of Christian initiation, which involved the application of scented oils to various parts of the body while psalms and scriptural passages were recited with each touch. Both the oil and scripture acted as “spiritual cues” for Christians to recognize an important devotional moment. “Christians learned to regard the material world as rife with spiritual significance,” Frank commented.

The process of discerning spiritual significance sometimes took what Frank referred to as a “re-education of perception” – clergy would teach the congregations about the sanctity of what they saw. This was especially true with the Eucharist which potential converts did not see prior to their baptism and could seem underwhelming when they finally saw the simple bread and wine. “Priests encouraged congregations to summon the spiritual splendor they anticipated,” Frank noted. Through dramatic sermons, Christians were encouraged to ponder on the nature of the blood and body of Christ, giving the Eucharist a more believable palpability of blood and flesh.

Rather than transcending the physical body in their minds alone, early Christians used their emotional, bodily responses to understand divinity. “We have to remember the early Christians didn’t have a neat separation of mind and body like modern Western thinkers inherited from the philosopher  Descartes.”

Frank continued, “For them, emotion was something that would intersect mind and body…I approach emotions as things of judgement, tied up in rationality, cognitive and bodily, choices affected by cultural context.” Emotional responses are not solely impulsive, Frank argues, “Even if I lash out, it’s because something I value is being attacked . . . there’s a cognitive value judgment that happens.”

“Young men and women were taught to persuade others through speeches and rouse emotion in them,” Frank said, using the writings of John Chrysostom as an example of these emotionally rousing sermons. Chrysostom especially warned Christians about going to the Roman theater whose entertainment often featured extreme brutality – including gladiator fights. His view, Frank explained, was that through cheering, the Christians would be taking a personal part in the murder with their emotional energy complicit in the brutality.

Rather than view violent spectacles, Christians were encouraged to engage in activities that would help them achieve long-lasting joy. “Re-education is about overlaying more lasting perceptions and creating spaces for them,” Frank explained. These activities would include holy pilgrimages, the Eucharist and participating in liturgical processions.

Liturgical refrain was another powerful emotional tool for early Christian congregations. In the story of Noah told through a sixth-century sermon written by Romano, different groups singing the parts of the people, animals, and Noah. The refrain “redeem us all” is repeated by the entire congregation as a reminder of their need for baptism and redemption. “The refrain separates the saved from the damned,” Frank said. The damned, silenced by the water, could not sing “redeem us all” and receive grace from the Savior.

Early Christian worship, Frank closed, was not about leaving the physical body and material world behind. Rather it “engaged the whole body, but particularly affected the senses . . . redirecting negative emotions to become positive.”  

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Images: Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, c. 359 C.E. , Dr. Georgia Frank