NOT MANY Catholics are familiar with the Didache (The Teaching of the Apostles), and had Philotheos Bryennios not stumbled upon an 11th-century copy of the manuscript lying in the library of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Constantinople in 1873, it perhaps would have faded entirely from our collective historical memory.

Luckily, this simple summary of Christian doctrine, which was probably written around the time St. Paul was drafting his epistles, has survived. No doubt scholars will continue to discuss—as they have already done at length—the various possibilities of authorship (perhaps one of the Twelve Apostles), when it was written (between the first and third century), and where it was written (Antioch or Egypt). However, none of these contentious issues should cloud the lessons than can be learned from this ancient Church tract.

The Didache (pronounced did-a-KEE) can be thought of as a sort of Cliff Notes for the Gospel. Divided into 16 short chapters, the richness of this little gem can be discovered in the span of a coffee break, or in the brief slot of quiet time allotted for morning or evening prayers.

The complete text may be found on various Internet sites or at your public or parish library. In it you will find the ABCs of Christianity—the bare bones of the Gospel message that Christ commanded his followers to preach to all creation.

The first two verses of the opening chapter set the tone for the entire text: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways. Now this is the way of life: first, ‘you shall love God, who made you’; second, ‘your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another.’” These verses are a perfect echo of Christ's reply when asked about the greatest of the commandments by the scribe in St. Mark's gospel (12, 28-34).

“There are two ways”—no third option here. Either you are a Christian or you are not. Though this may sound overly simplistic to some contemporary ears, perhaps it is because many have complicated their lives unnecessarily. Despite the relativistic theories with which pop psychology has bombarded us during the past few decades, many things in life are indeed black and white. For example, chapter two gives the clear moral teaching “you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide.” This in itself is a message that must reach the hearts and consciences of all contemporary Catholics, especially those who claim to be “pro-choice.”

But rather than focusing our attention on any single issue, let's try to grasp the Didache's larger perspective, which was highly valued in ancient times. It is the perspective already taught in the Gospel: That in the true hierarchy of values in one's life, God must occupy first place; neighbors, the second place; and one's self, a distant third. What a far cry this is from “looking out for number one.”

The message of the Didache is the radical Christian revolution that, when lived to the full, leads us along the arduous path of the cross to the heights of sanctity. It is the same message that one saint took as a motto: “To God all the glory, to my neighbor all the joy, to me all the work.” It is also the message that can be drawn from the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who worked along those same lines which apply to all Christians.

But how can God and neighbor be accorded the places of honor in a person's life? The Didache, echoing the Lord's teaching, proclaims that this can be achieved by doing good and avoiding evil: “My child, flee from evil of every kind, and from everything resembling it” (3, 1). “You must not forsake the Lord's commandments, but must guard what you have received, neither adding nor subtracting anything” (4, 13).

In the first six chapters, interspersed among a short chain of negative precepts which could disconcert those who regard the Church as a nagging mother seeking to stifle her children's freedom, we find various positive commandments such as: “Be patient and merciful and innocent and quiet and good, and revere always the words which you have heard” (3,8), and “Accept as good the things that happen to you, knowing that nothing transpires apart from God” (3,10).

Chapters 7 through 10 deal with the liturgical life of the early Church, specifying baptismal norms and offering texts to be used during the Eucharistic celebrations. In chapter 8, verse 3 we find the very practical piece of advice to pray the Our Father three times a day. For the modern apostle called to live in a frantically paced world this simple counsel of setting aside some fixed moments in our daily schedule for prayer is a must.

Chapters 11 to 13 discuss how to receive and test apostles and prophets. The opening verse of chapter 14: “On the Lord's own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure” attests to the importance the first Christians attributed to Sunday. The appointment of bishops and deacons is discussed in chapter 15.

The final chapter is explicitly eschatological: “Gather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for all the time you have believed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time” (16,2).

The instructions of the Apostles are clear. There are two ways and since one does not know the hour when the Lord is coming (cf. 16, 1) serious and prolonged preparation is necessary for the final examination which all will undergo. We already know the question that will be asked: Did you love me, I who am your God and who live hidden in each and every one of your brothers and sisters?

Brother Stephen Fichter is a seminarian studying theology in Rome.