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Letter to the Newly Baptized (Clement of Alexandria)

Prof's Notes:
It might be helpful to read a little about Clement of Alexandria (the author) to put his words in context. (Wikipedia does a fine job.) At the very least, it is worth noting that Clement is writing after a period of mass trials and executions of Christians in the early 200s CE. Such trials and executions weren't precisely consistent in the Roman Empire, but they weren't infrequent either.

It might also be helpful to know who Clement was talking to. The “newly baptized” are converts to Christianity who have participated in the early church ritual of baptism. Baptism was a ceremony in which converts were immersed in or sprinkled with water by a church leader (often the bishop - a regional spiritual leader). This act symbolized cleansing from sickness and wrong-doing (sin, in Christian parlance) and it granted the converts full membership in the Church (including the right to participate in the communion/Eucharist rites, which were quite secretive in the early church). Baptism was often viewed as a transformative act, in which the convert renounced whatever wrong-doings s/he was responsible for and dedicated him- or herself to a new and more ethical life.

As you read, consider what sorts of behavior and mindsets Clement is asking of his readers. You might also ask how these behaviors and mindsets could be a response to a period of government scrutiny and condemnation of Christianity...

Cultivate quietness in word, quietness in deed, likewise in speech and gait; and avoid impetuous eagerness. For then the mind will remain steady, and will not be agitated by your eagerness and so become weak and of narrow discernment and see darkly; nor will it be worsted by gluttony, worsted by boiling rage, worsted by the other passions, lying a ready prey to them. For the mind, seated on high on a quiet throne looking intently towards God, must control the passions.1 By no means be swept away by temper in bursts of anger, nor be sluggish in speaking, nor all nervousness in movement; so that your quietness may be adorned by good proportion and your bearing may appear something divine and sacred. Guard also against the signs of arrogance, a haughty bearing, a lofty head, a dainty and high-treading footstep.2

Let your speech be gentle towards those you meet, and your greetings kind; be modest towards women, and let your glance be turned to the ground. Be thoughtful in all your talk, and give back a useful answer, adapting the utterance to the hearer's need, just so loud that it may be distinctly audible, neither escaping the ears of the company by reason of feebleness nor going to excess with too much noise. Take care never to speak what you have not weighed and pondered beforehand; nor interject your own words on the spur of the moment and in the midst of another's; for you must listen and converse in turn, with set times for speech and for silence. Learn gladly, and teach ungrudgingly; never hide wisdom from others by reason of a grudging spirit, nor through false modesty stand aloof from instruction. Submit to elders just as to fathers. Honour God's servants.3 Be first to practice wisdom and virtue. Do not wrangle with your friends, nor mock at them and play the buffoon. Firmly renounce falsehood, guile and insolence. Endure in silence, as a gentle and high-minded man, the arrogant and insolent.

Let everything you do be done for God, both deeds and words; and refer all that is yours to Christ; and constantly turn your soul to God; and lean your thought on the power of Christ, as if in some harbour by the divine light of the Saviour it were resting from all talk and action. And often by day communicate your thoughts to men, but most of all to God at night as well as by day; for let not much sleep prevail to keep you from your prayers and hymns to God, since long sleep is a rival of death.4 Show yourself always a partner of Christ who makes the divine ray shine from heaven; let Christ be to you continual and unceasing joy.

Relax not the tension of your soul with feasting and indulgence in drink, but consider what is needful to be enough for the body. And do not hasten early to meals before the time for dinner comes; but let your dinner be bread, and let earth's grasses and the ripe fruits of trees be set before you; and go to your meal with composure, showing no sign of raging gluttony. Be not a flesh-eater5 nor a lover of wine,6 when no sickness leads you to this as a cure. But in place of the pleasures that are in these, choose the joys that are in divine words and hymns, joys supplied to you by wisdom from God; and let heavenly meditation ever lead you upward to heaven.

And give up the many anxious cares about the body by taking comfort in hopes towards God; because for you He will provide all necessary things in sufficiency, food to support life, covering for the body, and protection against winter cold. For to your King belongs the whole earth and all that is produced from it; and God treats the bodily parts of His servants with exceeding care, as if they were His, like His own shrines and temples.7 On this account do not dread severe diseases, nor the approach of old age, which must be expected in time; for even disease will come to an end, when the whole-hearted purpose we do His commandments.

Knowing this, make your soul strong even in face of diseases; be of good courage, like a man in the arena, bravest to submit to his toils with strength unmoved. Be not utterly crushed in soul by grief, whether disease lies heavily upon you, or any other hardship befalls, but nobly confront toils with your understanding, even in the midst of your struggles rendering thanks to God; since His thoughts are wiser than men's, and such as it is not easy nor possible for men to find out. Pity those who are in distress, and ask for men the help that comes from God; for God will grant grace to His friend when he asks, and will provide succour8 for those in distress, wishing to make His power known to men, in the hope that, when they have come to full knowledge, they may return to God, and may enjoy eternal blessedness when the Son of God shall appear and restore good things to His own.

  1. Gosh this relationship between mind and passions sounds familiar… Maybe because Clement (150-210 CE) is living only shortly after Epictetus (50-135 CE)?
  2. I'm not entirely sure what this means, but it seems to be linked to “signs of arrogance” - perhaps this sort of step was indicative of the upper-class or a stereotype of haughty persons?
  3. The church leadership - locally, this would have been the deacons and presbyters who organized the church. Regional leaders (bishops) oversaw multiple churches and provided guidance for local leaders.
  4. The wording here is a bit confusing - Clement just means to tell readers don’t be slothful by sleeping when you ought to be praying
  5. I'm relatively sure Clement is advocating a vegetarian diet here...
  6. wine was considered medicinal in Roman pharmacology
  7. It’s worth paying attention to how the body is discussed in this source, if only because the relationship between body and mind or body and soul has been a matter of concern to many of our other sources (Epictetus, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita). Christian theologians and philosophers will likewise struggle to decide whether the body is a good or evil thing for much of Christian history.
  8. Succor: assistance and help