Our Christian predecessors were anything but stuffy. The following letter, written by Sidonius Apollinaris to his friend Eriphius of Lyons, gives a vivid description of the cathedral vigil service for St Justus in mid-fifth century Gaul:
We had gathered at the tomb of St Justus – you were prevented by illness from being present – [where] the anniversary celebration of the procession before daylight was held. There was an enormous number of people of both sexes, too large a crowd for the very spacious basilica to hold even with the expanse of covered porticoes that surrounded it. After the vigil service was over, which the monks and clergy had celebrated together with alternating strains of sweet psalmody (alternante mulcedine psalmicines), everyone withdrew in various directions, but not far, as we wanted to be present at the third hour when mass was to be celebrated by the priests.
Because of the cramped space, the pressure of the crowd, and the [heat of] numerous lights brought in [by the procession], we were absolutely gasping for breath. Moreover, imprisoned as we were under the roof, we were broiled by the heat of what was still a summer night, although just beginning to be touched with the coolness of an autumn dawn.
So when groups of various classes were dispersing in different directions, the leading citizens resolved to go in a body to the tomb of Syagrius, which was not quite a full bowshot away. Here some of us sat down under the shadow of a full-grown vine whose overarching foliage made a shady canopy formed by tall stems that drooped over in an interlaced pattern; others of us sat down on the green turn, which was also fragrant with flowers.
Conversation ensued, pleasant, jesting, bantering, and a specially happy feature in it was that there was no mention of officials or of taxes, no talk that invited betrayal, no informer to betray it; certainly everyone could have told freely any story worth relating and worthy in its sentiments. The audience listened in a spirit of eager rivalry; and the story-telling, though tinged with hilarity, was not on that account formless.
By and by, having for some time felt sluggish for want of exertion, we resolved to do something energetic. Thereupon we raised a twofold clamor demanding according to our ages either a ball or gaming-board, and these were soon forthcoming. I was the leading champion of the ball; for, as you know, ball no less than books is my constant companion. On the other hand, our most charming and delightful brother, Domnicius, had seized the dice and was busy shaking them as a sort of trumpet-call summoning the players to the battle of the box. We on our part played with a troop of students, indeed played hard until our limbs deadened by inactive sedentary work could be reinvigorated by the healthful exercise...
Well, when we had sat down the pouring sweat prompted him to ask for water to bathe his face... While he was drying his cheeks in leisurely fashion he remarked: "I wish you would command to be written for a me a quartet of verses in honor of this towel that has done me such service."... Without further delay, I next called to my side his secretary, who had his writing tablet read to hand, and without more ado composed the following epigram: "At dawn, or when the steaming bath invites him, or when his forehead is hot and damp from the chase, with this towel let handsome Philomatius comfort his streaming face, so that all the moisture flows into the absorbent fleece."
Scarcely had our good friend Epiphanius the secretary written the above lines when it was announced that the bishop, at the beckoning of the appointed hour, was proceeding from his lodging, and so we arose. You must treat with indulgence this doggerel you insisted on having...Add a lamb roast or a BBQ pit, pitch a few banners with building appeals, and you've got a good twenty-first century church fair, ethnic festival, or pilgrimage weekend. The Church, after all, while not of this world, is very certainly in it!
Text of Sidonius' letter taken from Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West.
Photo: Bp Atanasije kickin' it in Cali.