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The Shepherd by Hermas

(Article published in the Apr 4, 2007 issue of Manila Standard Today)    

Those who wish to take a road less traveled these remaining days of the Holy Week may wish to supplement their attendance of the Triduum services with a reading of The Shepherd written by one who gives “Hermas” as his name. 

The Shepherd is not too well-known these days.  Neither you nor I are expected to have heard of it.  In fact, only when my curiosity was aroused by a short description of it in The Memory of the Christian People, by Eduardo Hoornaert, a Jesuit, if I am not mistaken, did I look it up at the net. Jesuits, from whom I learned my 3Rs of rebellion, repentance and rejoicing, are usually reliable sources of good spiritual reading, though not necessarily, of good social breeding.

But in the early centuries after Christ, The Shepherd enjoyed a good deal of attention.  Early church fathers seem to have regarded it as authoritative.  Both Ireneus, bishop of Lyons in 177 AD, and Clement of Alexandria, born 150 AD, cite it as holy writing. So do also Cyprian, whose parents were pagans and was converted to Christianity about 246 AD and became bishop of Carthage and the scholar Hippolytus of Rome, 170-235 AD.  Even Origen,185-254 AD, and Tertullian, 160–220 AD, by their criticism of it, impliedly admit that in their times, The Shepherd was regarded by many as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Only when it was regarded by the church hierarchy as not part of the canon, due to its failure to have the indispensable stamp of apostolic authorship, did it start to recede deep into the dark recesses of the Christian people’s memory.  There it remained until it re-emerged again in the middle of the 19th century when the Greek text was discovered and scholars became interested in early Christianity.  By then, it had fallen from its high position in the pedestal of religious material and is accepted in the same way that pictures and sculptures of the catacombs are seen as historical depictions of what the life of Christians was in the early days of Christ’s church.

Hermas himself, as he unashamedly describes himself in his work, is one whom the man in the street, certainly of Metro Manila today in its current state of disrepair and traffic flow convolutions courtesy of Bayani Fernando, can easily identify with.  He begins by narrating that he was a slave who was sold to one Rhode in Rome.

Let Hermas himself say what happened next: “Some time after, I saw her bathe in the river Tiber; and I gave her my hand, and drew her out of the river.  The sight of her beauty made me think with myself, ‘I should be happy man if I could get a wife as handsome and good as she is.’  This was the only thought that passed through me: this and nothing more.” Yeah, sure.

He seems to be not so good a father, but, instead, more like the modern day success in business and profession but a failure with the family.  He was told “God is not angry with you on account of this [whatever it was that entered his mind about the lady], but that you may convert your house, which have committed iniquity against the Lord, and against you, their parents.  And although you love your sons, yet did you not warn your house, but permitted them to be terribly corrupted.”

He appears to have acquired great wealth but subsequently lost it. As explained to him, “And you, Hermas, have endured great personal tribulations on account of the transgressions of your house, because you did not attend to them, but were careless and engaged in your wicked transactions.”

But, he was not too bad either.  Like most of us, he was a mixture of conflicting elements, and though his past transgressions were many, salvation was still possible, provided there was repentance.

          The Shepherd is divided into three parts: first, 5 visions; then, 12 mandates or commandments from the Shepherd, who is the central character, and finally, 10 parable-like “similitudes”.  The visions are written in the same style as the Revelations to John in the New Testament; the commandments are essentially homilies like the epistles; and the similitudes follow the structure of those instances when Jesus tells a story, then is asked to explain its elements, and ends with a practical moral precept.

Many themes are familiar to the Vatican II Christian.  The possibility of being saved is affirmed to almost every sinner (even when the sin is committed after baptism) who repents.  The exceptions are when the sin is blasphemy of the Name and, indicative of the investigatory methods at that time, betrayal of the brethren.  True repentance, however, is one that bears fruit in good works.

Those who have gone through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and were not asleep during the meditation on the two masters will recognize a similar approach on the commandments on discerning the two contrary spirits in man and how to detect each one’s respective presence.  In fact, some authors claim that The Shepherd contains the earliest, as of today, presentation of what is known as “discernment of spirits.”

The idea of stewardship over one’s worldly possessions, one finds, is not so modern. Says the Shepherd: “Instead of lands, therefore, buy afflicted souls, according as each one is able, and visit widows and orphans, and do not overlook them; and spend your wealth and all your preparations, which ye received from the Lord, upon such lands and houses.  For to this end did the Master make you rich, that you might perform these services unto Him; and it is much better to purchase such lands, and possessions, and houses, as you will find in your own city, when you come to reside therein.”

        Can lawyers be saved?  Listen to this dialogue between Hermas and the Shepherd.  “When he [the Shepherd] saw me [Hermas] weeping, he said to me, ‘Why do you weep?’ And I said, “Because, sir, I know not if I can be saved.’ ‘Why?’ said he.  And I said, “Because, sir, I never spake a true word in my life, but have ever spoken cunningly to all, and have affirmed a lie for the truth to all…how then can I live since I have acted thus?’  And he said to me, ‘Your feelings are indeed right and sound, for you ought as a servant of God to have walked in truth, and not to have joined an evil conscience with the spirit of truth, nor to have caused sadness to the holy and true Spirit…Now you hear them [the words of the Shepherd], and keep them, that even the falsehoods which you formerly told in you transactions may come to be believed through the truthfulness of your present statements.  For even they can become worthy of credit.  If you keep these precepts, and from this time forward you speak nothing but the truth, it will be possible for you to obtain life…’” Whew.

        To those who will fast on Good Friday, this is what the Shepherd says: “…offer to God a fasting of the following kind: Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart; keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heard; and believe in God…if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God.”

        There are many other religious insights in The Shepherd but, to me, the best was reserved for last. Hermas’ final paragraph talks about the departure of the angel who brought him to the Shepherd this way: “After he had spoken with me he rose up from the couch, and taking the Shepherd…he departed.  But he said to me that he would send back the Shepherd…to my dwelling. Amen.”

        In two sentences, Hermas gives what the Good News really is for us in the here and now.  It is not so much that the Christ has died because that happened very certainly in the past. Nor so much that the Christ is risen because that too must have occurred so very long ago. But the News is still Good because He will come again. 

        Happy Easter to one and all.