After a couple of months of travel, exams, more travel, and the opening weeks of a new semester, we are beginning to hit our groove once again. This semester, I teach two courses. One of these is a survey of the history of Christianity, from origins to the present, for a group of delightful MA students who split their time between being present on the Duke campus and being very much rooted in “real lives,” as attorneys and CPAs, youth pastors and music ministers. Most of these students live in other parts of the country, and are, for most of the semester, connected to me, to one another, and to Duke only by a series of online tools.
My other course, by contrast, is a doctoral seminar on the less than cheerful — but perennially relevant — topic of death and dying. As one might imagine, there are a number of classes on death being taught at Duke during any given semester; it is a topic that lends itself to exploration from any number of disciplines, and in any number of contexts. My seminar, much like the rest of my work, focuses on the period of late antiquity, and despite being so narrowly constrained, it is a rather rich slice, encompassing philosophical and theological reflection, ritual practice, and the immensely practical matters of inheritance law and the many careers associated with death in this period, ranging from undertakers to professional mourners.
During my opening session, I reminded my students of a text with which at least a few of them were already familiar, a passage from Augustine’s Confessions. In Book 6, Augustine recounts his mother Monnica’s arrival at Milan, having followed him there in the aftermath of her husband’s death. While her son still remains on the verge of his famous conversion, Monnica has been a life-long, devout Christian. And yet, when she arrives in Milan, her ritual habitus, her ways of “doing Christianity” confronts the customs of the local bishops, Ambrose:
“[M]y mother at one point — as was her custom in Africa— brought to the memorials of the saints certain cakes, and bread, and wine, but was forbidden [to bring these with her] by the door-keeper. And as soon as she learned that it was the bishop [Ambrose] who had forbidden [this practice], she so piously and obediently acceded to it, that I myself marvelled how readily she could bring herself to find fault with her own custom, rather than question his prohibition.”
Augustine goes on to describe just what Monnica’s North African custom had been, and how she, unlike some of her peers, performed it in a most restrained fashion. In Thagaste, Augustine suggests, the feastdays of saints and martyrs were celebrated by the faithful with a kind of feast, with food and wine, performed at their graves, perhaps even to be shared with the dead in a symbolic fashion, by pouring just a little wine onto their final resting places in commemoration of their new, heavenly birth. In Milan, however, such practice seems to have come up against the bishop’s high-minded theological commitments: that there should be clear, readily discernible boundaries between Christian and non-Christian practices; that public drunkenness ought to be prohibited; that excess food ought to be given to the poor instead; and, Augustine suggests, that the feastdays ought to be solemn ecclesiastical occasions, not potentially rowdy parties.
Monnica, Augustine suggests, was a model parishioner, changing the cherished practice of a lifetime as much out of her love and admiration for Ambrose as out of virtuous submission to the bishop’s command. And yet, the story hints at just how complex an occasion death and the commemoration of the dead was for late ancient Christians. If we were to take in hand only Ambrose’s voice — and his catechetical treatise “On the good of death” indeed seems to have been composed and preached during those very years of Monnica’s and Augustine’s presence in Milan — we might assume that Christians regarded death as indifferent, a liberation of the soul from the body. The latter Ambrose mentions scarcely at all; he assumes that Christians will bury their departed, but they ought to do so without undue munificence. Why bother with fancy memorials — or equally fancy commemorations — if the body is just the husk that has been stripped off to liberate the soul for its far more glorious afterlife?
Ambrose’s view is scarcely exceptional; Augustine echoes it in many of his writings — and cedes the pastoral priority of caring for the dead in others — as do his Greek and Syriac-speaking contemporaries. Ordinary Christians, however, seem to have bothered rather more about the body, and seem to have mourned rather more vocally than their clergy might have preferred. They built elaborate tombs, inscribed florid epitaphs, sent letters of consolation that resemble strikingly those of centuries past — and, we might add, contemporary examples –, and were, by and large, far less distinct and set apart from both their forebears and their non-Christian peers than Ambrose seems to have demanded. Of course, Ambrose himself in many regards was neither wholly sui generis nor beholden only to his theological insights; he, like most theologians, rather preserves philosophical traditions that long predate Christianity — traditions whose proponents in previous centuries critiqued just as sharply those who mourned too vocally, feared death too much, or spent too lavishly on their memorials.
The story of death, even Christian death, its approach, and its recollection, in late antiquity consists of no single strand, no single voice; it’s rather a rich, beautiful weave of intersecting threads … and this semester we hope to unravel just a few, small, colorful patches of it.