November is a month of remembrance. We remember the people who have a had a significant influence on our lives, on the 1st of November we remember all of the saints of God, those people who through their lives have shaped our faith; on the 2nd we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, those people who have shaped each of us personally and on the 11th we remember those who help to shape our countries, those who gave their lives in battle and those who still fight for our country today. Having these days however does not prevent us from remembering these people on any other day of the year.
In the church there is a practise of remembering the church Fathers, the early Christians who passed on the message of the Good news, whose writings provide us with a reference point for our faith and traditions. The office of readings is a service that the church provides where these writings are read alongside scripture readings and psalms.
Many Seminaries (theological colleges) offer a module on patristics which is the study of these writings. But why are these writings held with such importance?
To look at who the fathers of the church are, it is first important to understand who they aren’t. The apostles and others from the New Testament age are not church fathers neither are the Doctors of the church from medieval or modern times such as St. Thomas Aquinas, both these grouping have their own classification. Rather the Church fathers are those who wrote spiritual letters, sermons or catechist from approximately 50AD to 800AD. This period contains the first 7 ecumenical councils of the church. This is what is known as the patristic period, these great writers can be split into a variety of groups such as the Apostolic Fathers who were alive within 2 generations of the Apostles and many had encountered the Apostles; then there are 3 groups who take their names from the language they wrote in, those being Greek, Latin and Syriac. Then are grouping based on what the writings are about these include Councils and synods, Creeds, Canons and Apologetics (explanation/ defense of the Faith).
So know we know who they are, why should we read them? simply, to remember; to remember those who made the passing on of our Faith their life’s work. But it is so much more than that. The fathers provide us with invaluable guidance and insight based on their own faith and experience, they interpret the scriptures and other Holy elements and traditions in a way as to educate us about them, many of the traditions coming from so long ago that we, in this age may have forgotten their significance, here we are reminded of these things and they offer us an image, an example of the Christ-centred, self-sacrificing Love that WE are all called to emanate.
There 750 years of writings, how can they all be relevent? They all provide us with a different context, a way of showing how the scriptures have been interpreted over a great period of time, without becoming irrelevant to the society at that time. If the scriptures can span so long without losing relevance that it is only natural to believe that they are still relevant to this day we just have to find that point of common ground, a way of explaining them to our society today. Also another fact to consider is that the bible which contains 66 (73 including apocrypha) was written over a period much greater than 700 years.
patristic readings also offer us an insight into the lives of the writers, many of whom are saints that are well-known such as: Augustine in Hippo; Alexander the Great; Athanasius of Alexandria. There are also lesser known saint and some who aren’t formally recognised by the church as saints, such as Tertullian. But saint or not, none are infallible, and given they span three continents and over 700 years, if they agree on anything that is spectacular and so improbable, and yet they do agree on a great many topics, and this is a sign and testimony that they’re writings did not originate with them but with a higher power, influenced by the Holy Spirit, which is passed to us, by studying them but we also get a world-view of their lives through reading them, we learn about the historic significance of that time and we may even come to see, that these writers where just ordinary people like you and me, who made mistakes and fell into temptation but who ultimately gave their lives to follow Christ. It can be so easy to place the saints on a pedestal of unattainable height that we forget they were human just as we are, they felt the weight of being Christian and choosing the right path, they faced difficulties just as we do.
A lot can be written in over 700 years, St. Augustine alone wrote over 4 billion words, in fact it is reported that a medieval monk, St. Isidore of Sevile, once said (corrupte apud Florezium, Augustine) “Mentitur qui te totam legisse factetur” which translates to Concerning Augustine ‘ who so ever claims to have read all his works is a liar’ or the more literal translation would be, concerning Augustine, ‘He is a liar who confesses to have read the whole’. So where do you begin?
Luckily, you don’t have to jump right in and choose a place for yourself as there are many resources for following a structured reading list, the office of readings would be a great place to start as it gives you the prayerful approach to the readings and there are many resources to provide recomended excerpts from many of the patristics orif you have a discipline of bible study then there are many commentaries from the fathers on most of the new testament and psalms. If you are looking for more than just excerpts from the writings or more than commentries then I personally would suggest beginning with the Apostolic fathers for a few reasons, most obviously because their lifespan overlapped in some degree with the apostles, in some cases such as St. Polycarp there is evidence that they had personal contact with some of the Apostles. Beyond the simple fact that they came first and so provide the groundwork for the later fathers, they have undisputable apologetic values coming from witnessing the unwritten apostolic tradition. Also they are mostly, simple pastoral men and there for are easier to read, you don’t need to take a platonic philosophy to understand what they are saying. And many of them follow the same format that we are used to reading in the epistles and Acts of the Apostles where asthe later fathers are men or great learning and their writings reflect this.