“Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ . . . having no hope and without God in the world; Once you were in darkness, but now you are light” (Ephesians 2:12; 5:8). The first Christians experienced profound light and liberation in Christ, freed from the darkness of vengeful gods and fate, and drawn into a community of love, affirming the dignity of all people as created by a good and loving God. These early Christians rose from a small and persecuted minority to the leading force of the Roman Empire. When that same Empire collapsed in the West, the slow and painful work of rebuilding occurred around groups of monks, tilling the soil, copying texts and educating new leaders.
Nonetheless, the self-described Enlightenment looked back on what modern philosophers and historians called the Dark Ages, which they thought had abandoned the rationality and nobility of the ancient world. Catherine Nixey’s recent book, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (HMH, 2018), traces this alleged loss of light, accusing Christians of destroying priceless works of art (i.e., idols and temples), shutting down centers of philosophical thought, and eventually outlawing pagan worship altogether. Nixey presents her readers with what she sees as ammunition to support a modern narrative of Christian intolerance and hostility to freedom.
In response to her claims, peppered as they are with exaggeration and sarcasm, we can point out that these alleged destroyers were pagan converts who turned their back on the hopeless spiritual darkness of a world without salvation. Further, these same Christians carried whatever genuine nobility they found into the new Christian culture they created. For example, although she dwells on the fact that Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, pillaged the temple of Serapis, she fails to note that he supported the instruction of the pagan teacher Hypatia. Despite episodes of violence toward idolatry, it would be more accurate to say that the Christian world grew directly out of the classical world, with a biblical vision both purifying and integrating elements of the culture of antiquity.
Eamon Duffy, a British Catholic historian, offers a different take on the rise of Christian culture, examining the ways in which Christianity expressed ideas and developed new forms of beauty. His new book, Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity (Bloomsbury, 2018), traces the materiality of Christianity from the early Church to the onset of the Reformation. “Christianity is a material religion,” Duffy argues, believing in the Incarnation of God and the resurrection of the body, and Christians “venerate the relics of the holy dead, they bless material stuff — water, salt, oil, wax, medals, holy pictures, palm branches” (137). Duffy traces the sacramental expression of history through the Church’s popularization of the book over scrolls, the invention of the musical staff to spread Gregorian chant, and the breathtaking art honoring Our Lord and the saints — all means of transmitting light to others.
Duffy actually opens his book by taking on Edward Gibbon, whose monumental and anti-Christian work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was frequently cited by Nixey, responding to Gibbon’s assertion that Christianity had demeaned classical purity with its barbaric devotion to the dead bodies of saints. Rather, the great importance given to the veneration of the saints in the Middle Ages — relics, healings, pilgrimages, images — expresses the incarnational principle of Christianity. God embraces our humanity through his coming into the flesh and continues to touch us through the sacraments and the transformation of human life through grace.
As we approach All Saints and All Souls Days — on Nov. 1 and 2 respectively — we can strengthen our bonds to the deceased members of the Church. The Church invites us to invoke the aid of the saints and, in turn, help our deceased family and friends undergoing cleansing in purgatory. Duffy reminds us that the greater communion of the Church extends “the network of friendship and obligation which constituted the community of the living” (252). The bonds between living and dead continue. The saints are our patrons who guide us through our life pilgrimage and we should remember “the bond of charity and the obligation of care for friends and kin even beyond the grave” (253). The communion of saints demonstrates that the rich community of Catholicism endures even when all falls into darkness. The light of faith guides us in building up a more human culture now and enables us to enter the light that never fades.