What Would Clement Think? (A little long)

I have recently been slogging my way through Volume 2 of the 37-volume set of the Church Fathers. specifically, “The Instructor” by Clement of Alexandria, which is basically a manual of how Christians are supposed to behave in the church, in the home, and in public.

In reading this work, I have been amazed at the difference between the standards of his day, which he taught as requirements, backed by quotations from the Sacred Scriptures, and the standards of our day. I am convinced that if someone were to bring Clement into our century and take him (blindfolded, so he could not see anything) into any of our Catholic congregations at the time of Mass, and then remove his blindfold, he would run screaming from our midst, convinced that we had been completely taken over by the spirit of the world, whatever that is.

I am going to summarize some of his teachings below; I will denote what are my own comments.

Clothing is to be simple, of plain, white (i.e., not dyed or embroidered) fabric. (Comment: I think he means linen or wool; he specifically forbids silk). Inn public, women are to be completely covered, including the face.

Artificial decoration of the face (i.e., makeup) is completely forbidden, as is the dying of the hair and the use of hair extensions. Women’s hair is not to be cut, braided, or plaited, but gathered into a simple bun. Men’s hair and moustache may be trimmed to keep it out of the eyes and mouth, but the beard is not to be shaven. Furthermore, men are not to remove body hair at all. (He described a process very similar to what we call “waxing,” only using pitch). He also forbade perfumes for both men and women (Comment: There goes my Old Spice!) His favorite word for men who followed these and other trends was “effeminate;” his word for women who chased styles and decorated themselves was “meretricious.”

Jewelry was forbidden to men, except for a signet ring worn on the pinky. Women could wear modest jewelry in the household, to attract the attention of their husbands, but not in public.

Sporting events (“spectacles”) and the theater were forbidden. (I suspect he would also forbid television.)

Christian men were to associate only with good men; he used the food regulations in the Mosaic Law as types of people with whom Christians should or should not associate.

Physical exercise in the gymnasiums was allowable for men; women’s “exercise” was limited to housework.

Gambling (“dicing”) was forbidden.

Men should not look at women. Period.

An affluent lifestyle was forbidden; Christians were to live frugally, and give away their excess. He had special criticism for those who had silver and gold vessels for every possible use (including chamberpots).

Christians were to take care of their own selves, without hiring a multitude of servants to do it for them.

Christians were to eat food that was simple and basic; exotic dishes and sauces were forbidden.

Eating at banquets was to be done decorously, without extravagant swallowing, belching, spitting, sneezing, hiccuping, clearing the throat, and wiping the nose. (Comment: He didn’t mention flatulence, but I suspect he didn’t care for that either.) There should be no talking with food in the mouth.

Wine mixed with water, in moderation, was acceptable. Drunkedness was not.

Pleasantry was allowed; extravagant public laughter was not.

Filthy speaking (talk about adultery, frivolous prating, etc.) was forbidden.

Sleep should be a night-time activity; no afternoon naps. And one should sleep only enough to rest himself for the next day’s work.

Comment: Unfortunately, I can’t pass on what he had to say about sex; in that chapter (QUAENAM DE PROCREATIONE LIBERORUM TRACTANDA SINT), Clement’s frankness seems to have been such that the translators (19th-century Protestants, mainly Presbyterians, I believe) felt they had to leave it in Latin. I am looking for a link to an English translation, but I haven’t found one yet. If someone can send me a link to one, I’ll mail you a lollypop [even though Clement would forbid it :stuck_out_tongue: ]. If one of you Latin scholars would care to do a translation yourself, I’ll mail you a Micky-D’s gift card.

Final comment: Read Clement and you will see that he was absolutely convinced that what he was teaching was correct and necessary; he had a Scripture verse[s] for everything he said. And yet, 19 centuries later our standards are completely different from his. Who was/is wrong–Clement in insisting in a strictly regulated lifestyle, or we, who seem to have no regulation whatsoever in our lifestyle? And if Clement was wrong, then how much of the remainder of our tradition (small “t”, if you please) is wrong?


well, “small t” traditions are just that - not doctrines, not Truths, just pious practices that enrich our experience and expression of our Faith. And they are very culture-dependent (sometimes by being part of the culture, and sometimes by being in opposition to it). So for the most part, I don’t think “right” and “wrong” are the categories. More like “appropriate” and “inappropriate” or “helpful” and “hindering.”

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