Early on the morning of Easter 387, just after dawn, the man whom history would come to know as “Augustine of Hippo” was baptized, along with a small group of fellow catechumens, in the large, octagonal baptistery behind Milan’s imposing Basilica Nova. The baptism itself, as well as the extensive instruction preceding and following it, was performed by another memorable historical figure: the tenacious and formidable bishop “Ambrose of Milan.” The relationship between these two towering figures of church history is the subject of Garry Wills’ Font of Life. Curiously, the relationship he describes was not based on personal affinity or compatibility of belief. Rather, according to Wills, the story of Ambrose and Augustine was “a tangled one, full of surprises,” a strange admixture of mystagogical initiation and retrospective invocation, deeply rooted in the nuances of early Christian liturgical practice and the conflicts of ecclesiastical politics. In this truly foreign context, Wills masterfully steers his historical reconstruction, artfully avoiding the twin shoals of reductive simplicity and overwhelming complexity by anchoring his narrative in the “sacred drama” of 4th-century baptism. In this, Wills does his readers a great service, bringing to life much of the ritual and symbolism surrounding the practice of late antique Christian initiation.
James J. O’Donnell has noted””at the outset of his three-volume commentary on Augustine’s Confessions””the lamentable tendency of most modern readers to anachronistically undervalue the “visceral reverence for cult that all late antique men and women felt.” We undervalue cult, liturgy, and ritual, O’Donnell argues, both because of the prejudice of our time, which tends to purge these foreign elements from the beliefs of our spiritual forebears, and because of the paucity of remaining evidence for the specifics of these highly guarded practices. In the late 4th century, it was customary for the central liturgical act of Christian worship (the Eucharist) as well as for key pieces of Christian teaching (the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer) to be withheld from both non-Christians and catechumens, through a practice known as the disciplina arcani, the “discipline of the secret.” Even Augustine, recounting his own baptismal experience in the 9th book of his Confessions, avoids describing the rite itself, preferring instead to comment on how he was moved by the singing of hymns. As there is clear attestation that much of late antique Christian teaching and practice relied heavily upon these “oral” and “performative” traditions of liturgy and sacrament, all too often veiled in silence, the church historian is faced with the dilemma of trying to reconstruct the Christianity of this period while missing key pieces of the puzzle.
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