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Discipline of the Secret

There existed in the earlier ages of the Christian church a mystic and secret worship, from which a portion of the congregation was peremptorily excluded, and whose privacy was guarded, with the utmost care, from the obtrusive eyes of all who had not been duly initiated into the sacred rites that qualified them to be present. This custom of communicating only to a portion of the Christian community the more abstruse doctrines and more sacred ceremonies of the church, is known among ecclesiastical writers by the name of Disciplina Arcani, or the Discipline of the Secret. Converts were permitted to attain a knowledge of all the doctrines, and participate in the sacraments of the church, only after a long and experimental probation. The young Christian, like the disciple of Pythagoras, was made to pass through a searching ordeal of time and patience, by which his capacity, his fidelity, and his other qualifications were strictly tested. For this purpose, different ranks were instituted in the congregation. The lowest of these were named the Catechumens, meaning in English, the beginners, those under instruction. These were occupied in a study of the elementary principles of the Christian religion. Their connection with the church was not consummated by baptism, to which rite they were not admitted, even as spectators, it being the symbol of a higher Degree; but their initiation was accompanied with solemn ceremonies, consisting of prayer, signing with the cross, and the imposition of hands by the priest. The next Degree was that of the Competentes. or seekers.

When a Catechumen had exhibited satisfactory evidences of his proficiency in religious knowledge, he petitioned the Bishop for the sacrament of baptism. His name was then registered in the books of the church. After this registration, the candidate underwent the various ceremonies appropriate to the Degree upon which he vas about to enter. He was examined by the bishop as to his attainments in Christianity, and, if approved, was exorcized for twenty days, during which time he was subjected to rigorous fasts, and, having made confession, the necessary penance was prescribed. He was then, for the first time, instructed in the words of the Apostles' Creed, a symbol of which the Catechumens were entirely ignorant.

Another ceremony peculiar to the Competentes was that of going about with their faces veiled. Saint Augustine explains the ceremony by saying that the Competentes went veiled in public as an image of the slavery of Adam after his expulsion from Paradise, and that, after baptism. the veils were taken away as an emblem of the liberty of the spiritual life which was obtained by the sacrament of regeneration. Some other significant ceremonies, but of a less important character, were used. and the Competent, having passed through them all, was at length admitted to the highest Degree.

The Fideles, or Faithful, constituted the Third Degree or Order. Baptism was the ceremony by which the Competentes, after an examination into their proficiency, were admitted into this Degree. "They were thereby," says Bingham, "made complete and perfect Christians, and were, upon that account, dignified with several titles of honor and marks of distinction above the Catechumens." They were called Illuminati, or Illuminated, because they had been enlightened as to those secrets which were concealed from the inferior orders.

They were also called Initiati, or Initiated, because they were admitted to a knowledge of the sacred mysteries; and so commonly was this name in use, that, when Chrysostom and the other ancient writers spoke of their concealed doctrines, they did so in ambiguous terms, so as not to be understood by the Catechumens, excusing themselves for their brief allusions, by saying, "the Initiated know what we mean." And so complete was the understanding of the ancient Fathers of a hidden mystery, and an initiation into them, that Saint Ambrose has written a book, the title of which is, Concerning those who are Initiated into the Mysteries. They were also called the perfect, to intimate that they had attained to a perfect knowledge of all the doctrines and sacraments of the church.

There were certain sprayers, which none but the Faithful were permitted to hear. Among these was the Lord's prayer, which, for this reason, was commonly called Oratio Fidelium, or, the Prayer of the Faithful. They were also admitted to hear discourses upon the most profound mysteries of the church, to which the Catechumens were strictly forbidden to listen. Saint Ambrose, in the book written by him to the Initiated, says that sermons on the subject of morality were daily preached to the Catechumens; but to the Initiated they gave an explanation of the Sacraments, which, to have spoken of to the unbaptized, would have rather been like a betrayal of mysteries than instruction.

Saint Augustine, in one of his sermons to the Faithful, says: "Having now dismissed the Catechumens, you alone have we retained to hear us, because, in addition to those things which belong to all Christians in common, we are now about to speak in an especial manner of the Heavenly Mysteries, which none can hear except those who, by the gift of the Lord, are able to comprehend them."

The mysteries of the church were divided, like the Ancient Mysteries, into the lesser and the greater. The former was called Missa Catechumenorum, or the Mass of the Catechumens, and the latter, Missa Fidelium, or the Mass of the Faithful. The public service of the church consisted of the reading of the Scripture, and the delivery of a sermon, which was entirely of a moral character. These being concluded, the lesser mysteries, or Mass of the Catechumens, commenced. The deacon proclaimed in a loud voice, " Ne quis audientium, ne quis infidelium," that is, the Latin meaning, Let none who are simply hearers, and let no infuiets be present. All then who had not acknowledged their faith in Christ by placing themselves among the Catechumens, and all Jews and Pagans, were caused to retire, that the Mass of the Catechumens might begin. For better security, a deacon was placed at the men's door and a subdeacon at the women's, for the deacons were the doorkeepers, and, in fact, received that name in the Greek church. The Mass of the Catechumens which consisted almost entirely of prayers, with the episcopal benediction was then performed.

This part of the service having been concluded, the Catechumens were dismissed by the deacons, with the expression, Catechumens, depart in peace. The Competentes, however, or those who had the Second or Intermediate Degree, remained until the prayers for those who were possessed of evil spirits, and the supplications for themselves, were pronounced. After this, they too were dismissed, and none now remaining in the church but the Faithful, the Missa Fidelium, or greater mysteries, commenced.

The formula of dismission used by the deacon on this occasion was: Sancta sanctis, foras canes, the Latin for Holy things for the holy, let the dogs depart, the word doff being a term of reproach for the unworthy, the hangers-on.

The Faithful then all repeated the creed, which served as an evidence that no intruder or uninitiated person was present; because the creed was not revealed to the Catechumens, but served as a password to prove that its possessor was an initiate. After prayers had been offered up--which, however, differed from the supplications in the former part of the service, by the introduction of open allusions to the most abstruse doctrines of the church, which were never named in the presence of the Catechumens the oblations were made, and the Eucharistical Sacrifice, or Lord's Supper, was celebrated. Prayers and invocations followed, and at length the service was concluded, and the assembly was dismissed by the benediction, "Depart in peace." Bingham records the following rites as having been concealed from the Catechumens, and entrusted, as the sacred mysteries, only to the Faithful: the manner of receiving baptism; the ceremony of confirmation; the ordination of priests; the mode of celebrating the Eucharist; the Liturgy, or Divine Service; and the doctrine of the Trinity, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer, which last, however, were begun to be explained to the Competentes.

Such was the celebrated Discipline of the Secret in the early Christian church. That its origin, so far as the outward form was concerned, is to be found in the Mysteries of Paganism, there can be no doubt, as has been thus expressed by the learned Mosheim:

Religion having thus, in both its branches the speculative as well as the practical, assumed a twofold charater - the one public or common, the other private or mysterious it was not long before a distinction of a similar kind took place also in the Christian discipline and form of divine worship; for, observing that in Egypt as well as in other countries, the heathen worshippers in addition to their public religious ceremonies to which everyone was admitted without distinction, had certain secret and most sacred rites, to which they gave the name of mysteries, and at the celebration of which none but persons of the most approved faith and discretion were permitted to be present, the Alexandrian Christians first. and after them others, were beguiled into a notion that they could not do better than make the Christian discipline accommodate itself to this model. No trace of the Disciptina Arcani is found until the end of the second century and it appears to have died rapidly near the close of the sixth century Strong traces of it are asserted by the encyclopedists to be even now in the Greek liturgy. Further details are given in the old works De Duciptini Arcani by Schelstrate, published at Rome in 1685, and that by Tentzel, published at Leipzig in 1692.

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