3. Of their Diet and mode of taking their Meals
Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVIII. Domestic and Social Character of the Primitive Christians
3. Of their Diet and mode of taking their Meals
The tables of the primitive Christians were distinguished by the greatest frugality and temperance. Their grand principle was to eat and drink in order to satisfy the cravings of nature, and invigorate their bodies for a renewal of their necessary labors; and while, on the one hand, they knew nothing of the austere and painful abstinence, which after-ages of ignorance and superstition came to practise and extol as highly meritorious, they were equally careful, on the other hand, to check the indulgence of a nice and fastidious taste in the gratification of the palate. There was nothing, indeed, which they seem to have been more solicitous to avoid than any imitation of the excessive luxury and epicurean habits of their contemporaries; and justly accounting all excess, whether in eating or in drinking, as incompatible with the maintenance of purity, and attention to spiritual duties, they inflexibly adhered to the rule of abstaining from everything that tended to inflame the passions, or to engender any hankering after the pleasures of sense. On no species of food did they lay an interdict, except on things strangled, and on blood, according to the council of the apostles, which, for many ages, continued in force among the Christians, – and such high seasoned viands as were heating to the frame. Those of the East, indeed, who, living in a warmer climate, were always distinguished by their habits of austerity and abstinence beyond Christians in other places, preferred the flesh offish or fowl to the grosser and more succulent flesh of quadrupeds. Many of them even lived wholly on a diet consisting of preparations of milk, or of vegetables, or such light fruit as figs and dates. Wine was freely admitted to the tables of the primitive Christians – their notions of propriety, however, forbidding the use of it to women and young people. But even by the other sex it was drank sparingly; and though chiefly the weak wine of the country, was always, according to the practice of the ancients, diluted with water. To have continued long indulging in such a luxury, or to have been discovered smelling the flavor of the winecup, – to have made sumptuous preparations for the table, – to have betrayed much anxiety about the cookery, or produced a great variety of viands and spicery at their entertainments, would, in those early days of Christianity, have brought discredit, if not ruin, on the religious character of the individual. And yet there were no austerities then in vogue among the Christians. Looking upon all the creatures of God as good for food, they deemed themselves at perfect liberty to make use of them as suited their convenience and their taste, at such times and in such a measure as temper, constitution, or age, required; and they never dreamed of imposing any limits to the enjoyment of the comforts of life, beyond what reason and religion prescribed. But justly accounting an ill regulated and luxurious appetite as the source of innumerable evils, and placing their highest ambition and pleasure in the attainment of spiritual excellence, they practised the greatest abstemiousness, confining themselves to the plainest and simplest fare; in many instances taking only one meal, in none more than two a-day, and then never carrying their indulgence in the pleasures of the table further than that temperate use of them which was necessary to repair the bodily vigor, and which left the mind free and ready, as occasion offered, to engage in prayer or other exercises of religion. The object they proposed to themselves by the practice of such singular moderation was that of mortifying the senses, and enabling them to wield with a firmer hand the reins of discipline over the motions and appetites of their corrupt nature; and that they entertained Dot the most distant idea of making a vain and Pharisaic parade of their abstinence, or were accustomed to regard it in no other light than as simply a means of promoting the great end of their moral and religious improvement, is evident from the following, out of i
nnumerable anecdotes, by which we might illustrate this branch of their customs. Among the martyrs that fell during the violent persecution of the Christians at Lyons, was a young man of the name of Alcibiades, distinguished for the exalted piety of his character, and who had for years accustomed himself to a small and sordid diet. When thrown into the dungeons, he continued the same habits of living, which, though long custom had rendered them easy to himself, gave offence, it seems, to several of his fellow-prisoners, who found it impossible to conform to his standard of abstinence. At length one of the confessors, undertaking seriously to remonstrate with him on the impropriety of refusing to enjoy the gifts of a bountiful Providence, and thereby creating jealousy in the minds of others, Alcibiades listened in a christian spirit to the friendly admonition, and from that moment, laying aside all singularity, indiscriminately partook of whatever was provided for himself and his brethren in distress. Thus admirably did the primitive Christians observe the golden mean, by avoiding equally the extremes of sordid penury and luxurious gratification of the senses. Their frugal diet acquired a relish from their previous labors; and while they never denied to themselves any of the good things of life, as far as was consistent with the ends of sobriety and religion, they considered it their duty always to keep within the bounds of that "temperance which is a fruit of the Spirit."
The manner in which they conducted their repasts was itself an effectual preservative of temperance, while, at the same time, it was eminently characteristic of the piety and spirituality of the primitive age. – When dinner had been served, and the family had taken their seats at the table, the master of the household, with a grave and solemn voice, and in a prayer of considerable length, acknowledged their dependence on the care of their common Father, expressed their gratitude for the past tokens of his bounty, and invoked him to bless, for their health and comfort, the provisions of which they were about to partake. During the progress of the meal, some member of the family in houses of the lower class, or some hired reader, in those of the richer orders, entertained the company with select portions of the Scriptures; for so strong and insatiable was their appetite for spiritual food, that they could not rest satisfied and happy without providing suitable refreshment for the soul at the same time that they were enjoying the comforts of the body. The viands being removed, the family circle was drawn more closely together, – for now were unfolded, and put into the hands of all, the precious scrolls in which, in those days, the Scriptures were written. Previous to this, however, each was expected to put himself in an attitude of becoming reverence; the hands were carefully washed, that not a stain might fall on the Sacred Volume, and, while the men remained with their heads bare, the women covered themselves with a veil, as a token of respect for the Book of God. The head of the family then read aloud a few passages, both from the Old and the New Testament, accompanying them with some plain and simple admonitions of his own, or recalling to the memory of his audience the public exhortations which, on the preceding Sabbath, had been founded on them in the church; or he taught the younger branches of the house to repeat after him the beautiful prayer which was dictated by the lips of the Saviour; and told them, in simple phrase, of the love which God bears to the young, and of the blessedness of remembering their Creator in the days of their youth. These readings and exhortations were always short, and diversified, at intervals, by sacred music, – of which the primitive Christians were passionately fond. Sometimes one, distinguished by taste and talents for spiritual songs, sung some favorite piece of sacred melody; at other times, the shrill voices of the women and the children were blended in full chorus with the deeper tones of the men, – till, as the hour set apart for refreshment drew towards a close, the venerable parent, whose look and attitude called for momentary silence, gave thanks to the Giver of all good, for the enjoyment of their natural and spiritual comforts, and prayed that his presence and his blessing might be with them during the succeeding period of labor and duty. Thus, among the primitive Christians, their ordinary refreshments were sanctified with the Word of God and with prayer; and thus were the words of eternal truth interwoven, in the most agreeable and captivating manner, with the habits and the pleasures of every-day life.