I was asked not so long ago what kinds of things Christians did in the Early Church (first to fourth century) as a form of spiritual discipline, on a personal level as well as a corporate one. Though the concept of an individual “personal spiritual life” would have been quite foreign to first century believers as faith and Church was very much a corporate venture that had personal implications, rather than the other way around as it can often appear to be thought of today.
Much of what made Christianity structured, disciplined and set apart from society, has largely been lost in practice, or forgotten and relegated to the annals of history by many practicing Christians today.
With that said, let’s take a look at what the most common practices were of the ancient Church.
Memorising Scripture – specifically the Psalms and Gospels
Singing/praying the Psalms as worship to God
Both of these principles are based on Psalm 1:1–3 and Colossians 3:16.
“Every Psalm brings peace, soothes the internal conflicts, calms the rough waves of evil thoughts, dissolves anger, corrects and moderates profligacy.” Commentary on Psalm 1, Basil the Great (4th century)
Prayer and Fasting
Another common practice that was expected of believers was regular fasting, since Jesus had said “when you fast”, not “if”.
Typically, fasting was done every week on Wednesday and Friday, based on Matthew 6:16–18, and also to honour the days of the Passion and crucifixion in later tradition.
“But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; … but fast on the fourth day (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday). … [But pray] as the Lord commanded in His Gospel (the Lord’s Prayer) … Thrice in the day thus pray.”
Didache (c. 50 – 70)
Alongside fasting, praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (morning, noon, evening) was a common discipline. From around the third century, liturgy and prayers in a church service would start to face East as that was seen where God’s glory arose, and in baptism ritual turning East was a sign of turning away from the devil towards Christ (Jews similarly prayed facing Jerusalem). This is also why many old church buildings are cross-shaped and have the alter end pointing Eastward.
For it is required that you pray toward the east, as knowing that which is written: ‘Give ye glory to God, who rideth upon the heaven of heavens toward the east’ (Ps 67.34 LXX [Ps. 68:33 – 34]).
Didascalia, Ch. XII (c.250)
The various spiritual benefits to fasting are marked throughout the Church Fathers' works on the subject, but I find this quote from Augustine sums it up succinctly:
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.”
Augustine; Sermon, On Prayer and Fasting, LXXII (c. 393–430)
Fasting was also not just total denial of food all day, but often only until sundown (or evening meal), and would comprise of bread and water with some oils to dip the bread in. Some may be more like a vegetarian diet, but with no oil, fish or alcohol either. Meal times should be replaced with prayer, and in all times during the fast (as well as generally also), to bear in mind the true fast that is pleasing to the Lord as seen in Isaiah 58:6–9.
“Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Isaiah 58:6 – 7 (WEB)
Signing the Cross
Another ancient custom is making the sign of the cross over yourself before you pray (well, before doing anything really!).
“In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross”
Tertullian (c. 250)
“Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest”
Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 386)
Later monks, such as Anthony the Great, would also teach and use the sign of the cross for protection from demons and as part of performing exorcisms.
“Behold there are here some vexed with demons … [Anthony] called upon Christ, and signed the sufferers two or three times with the sign of the Cross. And immediately the men stood up whole, and in their right mind …”
Life of Anthony (356 – 362)
This one may be the most obvious practice, and possibly the only one that is kept universally to this day, regardless of denomination or the different branches and traditions of Christianity: Going to Church every week for communion, worship and fellowship with other believers.
“But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” (cf. Hebrews 10:24–25)
Didache (c. 50 – 70)
Meditation and silence. This is likely the least practiced discipline amongst regular Christians. I say “regular” because unless you’re a monk or nun, this is a practice often overlooked — especially in this busy modern life.
“Be still, and know that I am God!”
A lot of the monastic traditions grew out of learning to be still and quiet before the Lord; from seeking the presence of God; and trying to practice self-denial by being separate from worldliness. That’s why we often find hermits and monasteries in remote, out-of-the-way places.
It’s a discipline in itself to just be still and quite for more than five minutes and to truly seek God’s presence in the stillness without distraction or technology and social media.
Meditation in this sense is the act of clearing your mind of everything BUT Scripture; having a verse or two that you focus on to keep your mind still until God moves and/or speaks. Christian meditation should be focused on God and Scripture, and being filled with the Spirit, rather than the complete emptying of oneself.
For as [Anthony] was sitting alone on the mountain, if ever he was in perplexity in his meditations, this was revealed to him by Providence in prayer. And the happy man, as it is written, was taught of God. (cf. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45) […] Pray continually; avoid vainglory; sing psalms before sleep and on awaking; hold in your heart the commandments of Scripture; […] And especially he counselled them to meditate continually on the Apostle’s word…
Life of Anthony (356 – 362)
…but his delight is in Yahweh’s law. On his law he meditates day and night.
Psalms 1:2 (WEB)
If you’re interested in trying to live out a more meditative life, but feel overwhelmed by the business of modern life to know where to start, I recommend reading this book by Abbot Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic steps for Everyday Life.
Keeping within the monastic tradition for spiritual disciplines are Prayer Ropes.
Prayer ropes, like Rosaries, are simply a tool to help keep you focused in prayer. The traditional ropes, often found more in the Eastern tradition of the faith, have knots in the shape of small crosses on them all around, and you simply run the rope between your fingers and thumb praying as you come to each knot (or bead). If specific prayer is difficult or you don’t know what to say, there’s the Lord’s Prayer of course, or a very simple ancient prayer called “The Jesus Prayer” which monks would repeat to try an live up to Paul’s encouragement to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
The prayer is as follows:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Finally, the last thing I’ll look at here is living a simple life. This is based on Acts 4:32–35; Matt 19:21.
Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Matthew 19:21 (WEB)
Maybe the hardest discipline is to live as though you depend fully on God and are free and able to give away anything (and maybe everything) if God so asks or presents the opportunity, without stressing or wanting to hold onto our possessions.
Many early Christians who were wealthy when they converted gave most of what they owned away to the poor and needy (as we see in Acts 4), or if that wasn’t possible, they just lived in such a way that they would grab opportunities to bless others and lived content with whatever they did have.
Not that I speak because of lack, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content in it.
Philippians 4:11 (WEB)
The Bible is replete with instruction on living simple and being content in what we have, see the following for a handful of examples: Matthew 6:3–4; Acts 20:35; 1 Timothy 2:1–3, 6:6–8; Hebrews 13:5; Philippians 4:19; Proverbs 11:24, 23:4; Deuteronomy 16:17.
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and [money]. Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Matthew 6:24 – 25 (WEB)
Living a simple life isn’t purely about being poor or minimalistic in terms of physical possessions, but also in our attitudes and interactions with others by avoiding drama and getting caught up in gossip or being a “busybody”. Avoiding such things will surely help us to live a peaceful and simple life, and will in turn be an example to non-Christians who look on and watch us to see how we conduct ourselves.
If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men.
Romans 12:18 (WEB)
…and that you make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, even as we instructed you; that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and may have need of nothing.
1 Thessalonians 4:11 – 12 (WEB)
To those who are unfamiliar with Church History and not from a traditional denomination, many of these things may sound or appear “Catholic” compared to what we may consider normal Christianity – especially if you’re from a more evangelical/Baptist background.
But these practices and disciplines all pre-date the Roman Catholic Church (as we know it today) by centuries, and were common practices and expectations among believers and churches within the first four centuries at the earliest, and continued in various forms throughout the last 2000 years to this day. If your faith is feeling a little shallow or lacking and you crave something deeper, I hope that you will take up the challenge to try some of these disciplines. See where the Lord takes you towards enriching your faith via tried and true methods from that great wealth of knowledge deposited over the centuries.
Have you tried any of these practices, or do you feel inspired to give any a go and try to incorporate into your own spiritual routines? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
If you’re interested in learning more about Church History and the Fathers, I’ve recently published a two book series that will take you through some of the prominent texts from the first 400 years of the Church over a 40 day reading plan. Read the Early Church in her own words and be inspired!
View and order my books on Amazon: 40 Days with the Fathers.
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