Monday, August 08, 2005

More Quasten on the Didache

"The rules of morality are set forth by means of a description of two ways, that of good and that of evil.... This two-way device, which here becomes a basic method of training catechumens, bears the stamp of a time-honored Greek concept. It was used in Hellenistic synagogues to instruct proselytes.

"According to [the Didache], baptism by immersion in running water, namely in rivers and springs, was the customary manner of administering this sacrament; baptism by infusion was sanctioned in cases of necessity. This is the sole reference from the first and second centuries regarding baptism by infusion.... The Didache contains, moreoever, an express precept enjoining fasting. Both the candidate and the minister of baptism are required to fast before the administration of the sacrament. Wednesdays and Fridays are prescribed as fixed fast days....

"The recital of the Lord's prayer three times daily is for the faithful a matter of obligation. Ch. 9 and 10 are of importance for the history of liturgy for they contain the oldest eucharistic prayers yet recorded.... The opinion advanced more than once, that we have here no specific Eucharistic prayers but simply table prayers, is untenable. The discussion of the Eucharist is closely connected with that of baptism and the two are evidently associated in the author's mind."

So what strikes me, reading this, is the extent to which we 21st century American Catholics have become almost two-tiered; those to whom these basic (to the Didache author) guidelines for Christian life are still familiar, and those to whom they seem like archaic and unfamiliar relics. Gone since the late 20th century are the expectations of universal fasting until noon on the Station Days of Wednesday and Friday, of fasting as a matter of course during Lent and before reception of sacraments. How many Catholics still pray thrice daily as a matter of habit, no matter how nominal they may be in other ways? The dawn, noontime, and evening Angelus are quaint customs; baptism is de-emphasized in the rush to assure parents that we don't regard it as "fire insurance" and it's fine to wait until you can get all the relatives together for the event.

I'm not in the ranks of those bemoaning the Second Vatican Council. In some respects, the teachings of the Didache are better respected today. The Liturgy of the Hours (breviary) is no longer the province of priests, but prayed by laity in its full form or else in shortened or adapted forms (Shorter Christian Prayer, Magnificat magazine)--an excellent development of thrice-daily prayer. Baptism by infusion is no longer sprinkling for infants, and many parishes have returned to full or partial immersion for older children and adults; again a welcome development, as the Didache makes it clear that infusion is only for the sake of necessity. Legalistic aspects of fasting and abstinence have been done away with; no more fussing over the necessity of medicine, or rainwater entering the mouth. Alternative Friday penance is permitted; a good thing for vegetarians.

But the pastoral and liturgical improvements seem more than offset by the disappearance of a common practice. What good is emphasizing the ancient practice of praying the psalms and Our Father three times a day, if nobody is doing it? The Angelus may have been too Marian for many (though the genuflection at "became flesh/ And dwelt among us" reveals the true Christocentric nature of the prayer); but at least it was once universal. Historian Eamon Duffy--hardly a reactionary conservative--has written intelligently on how the loss of a common fasting practice has gutted the meaning of the penance, which was essentially communal.

So where now? Is there any return to a broad cultural Catholicism that could recognize the teachings of the Didache, even if in a less than ideal form? Can we retain the ressourcement retrievals of a more authentic, patristically based Christian practice, without such practice being confined to ghettoes of self-described "traditional" Catholics?


Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

There's a good snippet of the Eamon Duffy article I referred to at Pontifications. Check out that post, and all of Fr. Al's always-excellent blog, at

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Amy said...

When I first read the Didache, I read it as a Protestant. Admittedly, I had more than a casual interest in Catholicism, but Catholic culture was quite foreign to me - both beautiful and frightening. The Didache was comfortingly familiar.

My early Christian training always emphasized morality and love. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments," and "By this shall all men know that you are my discliples, that you love one another," - these verses were cornerstones of my faith. My family observed no rituals beyond going to church on Sundays and praying before meals, but we cared for our nieghbors, spoke truthfully and worked honestly. It seemed quite natural to me that the writer of the Didache should begin with teaching on morality and unity.

Now I am a Catholic and my heart leaps to read the earliest Eucharistic prayers and instructions for baptism. Even in these, however, I feel my Protestant love for simplicity. The instructions seem so minimal, no more than you absolutely need for Christian worship.

It strikes me that our early brothers and sisters were probably clamoring for more instruction. The Jews had rituals for incorporating their faith into daily life - ritual washings, offerings, and prayers. It seems only natural that Christians should want to know how and when to pray, when to fast, etc. They wanted the shared culture of which Sharon speaks.

Often, however, I feel a gentle resistance to this pressure in the epistles and earliest Christian writings. It seems to me that the apostles remebered well Jesus' warning against the leaven of the Pharisees - ritual without love. I sense a delicate balance. There is a need to foster a common Christian practice, but a danger in adding to Christ's instructions.

I love the Didache because it sticks so close to the gospels. A return to the simple observances recorded here, in my eyes, would be a great blessing for all Christians with little danger of legalism.

(Sharon's friend)

9:57 PM  

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