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Netherlands Centre for Patristic Research – Third International Congress

Early Christian Mystagogy and the Body

Utrecht, 30 August – 1 September 2017



Mystagogy is a more or less formal process of initiation by ritual, sacramental, and didactic means into a continuously and intimately felt presence of a mystery that is regarded as transforming one’s personal life. In the early Christian period, two older traditions about human physicality influenced the Church’s vision and development of the process of initiation into the Christian faith.

One, deriving from the Bible and from particular strands in Greek philosophy, stressed the positive value of the body, also for the life of the soul. Hence not only did the Church in fact involve it in various rituals, but the future state which every believer was urged to try to deserve was imaged as resurrection and joyous eternal life in a new, glorified body.

The other tradition was the Platonic dualism of soul and body. It tended to speak of the present body and its urges as the image of the old, uninitiated life, and to advise the practice of asceticism as part of the fight from a physical reality that distracted from the contemplation of the invisible and immaterial divine. For this emphasis on asceticism, the Fathers also found support in the Apostle Paul’s letters (for instance, 1 Cor. 9). The fact that the body was actually and intimately involved in the initiation process – most obviously in baptism – tended to be regarded as a metaphor.

From the second century on (Polycarp), the dead body of holy men and women also played a role in the Church’s mystagogy. The Eucharist was celebrated over martyrs’ tombs, churches were built over or nearby the tombs, and the saints came to be venerated near the presence of their physical remains.

Later, the latter were experienced as a palpable conduit to divine healing power, and a miraculous cure almost always led to the subject’s conversion. Many stories relating such events gure in sermons by ecclesiastical leaders and they were intended to produce an insight leading to conversion in their listeners.


Scholars are invited to examine the role of the body in these approaches to the divine, in theory and in practice, in individual authors and/or collective contexts from the patristic period, and to reflect on how their findings might be interpreted in the light of modern thinking and practice.

The organisation is happy to announce that keynote lectures will be delivered by Prof. Dr. Danuta Shanzer (University of Vienna), Prof. Dr. Catherine Conybeare (Bryn Mawr College) and Prof. dr. Wendy Mayer FAHA (Australian Catholic University).

The proceedings of the congress will be published in the Late Antique History and Religion (LAHR) series (Peeters Publishers, Leuven).

The Congress will be held in the historical centre of the city of Utrecht, in the buildings of the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology and the Museum Catharijneconvent (museum for the history of Christianity and religious art in the Netherlands).


Prof. Dr. Paul van Geest, director Netherlands Centre for Patristic Research

Dr. Giselle de Nie
Dr. Hans van Loon
Dr. Arnold Smeets