The last post looked at the “heart of late medieval heart religion”: devotion to the Passion of Christ. This post asks: How would getting a stronger sense of the humanity of Christ, today, affect the way we worship? This is almost the end of the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:
The desire for a tangible experience of God’s love has not dissipated with the discovery of the atom or the invention of the automobile. Modern Protestantism has given relatively little attention to our imaginative and emotional lives, yet the century just passed saw a dramatic upsurge of charismatic spirituality.
With its devotion to the person of Jesus, its impassioned worship, and its physical experiences of God’s intimate presence (tongues and “slaying in the Spirit”), this movement first sprung at the turn of the 20th century in a poor, multiethnic Los Angeles neighborhood, from a root in Wesleyanism’s continuation of the longstanding Christian “heart religion” tradition. Then at mid-century it reemerged in mainstream Christianity—springing first from the Anglican and Roman Catholic confessions, with their sacramental and historical emphases.
But you don’t have to be a charismatic to awaken your imagination and your senses in devotion to Christ. Those who feel a lack in this area could do worse than to begin a time-traveling “spiritual research trip” to the roots of Cross-centered piety.
Not everything you find there will be helpful. Few of us will wish to emulate certain Irish monks by standing for long periods in a bucket of ice water, arms outstretched in a cruciform position. But it couldn’t hurt, with Martin Luther, to “look to the wounds of Jesus” to “comprehend the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.”
Western Christians today need to hear the medievals on this: we tend to hurry over the Incarnation—seeing it as a necessary step to get Jesus to the Cross, where he can die as a substitutionary atonement for our sins. In general, we miss out on the rich historical theological resources on Creation and Incarnation, and we focus instead on Sin and Salvation. But Margery Kempe, for example, was captivated by the fact that God has really become human and really has been tempted and has suffered in all the ways we have. Jesus’ stark human suffering affected her most not by illuminating the legal, substitutionary mechanism of salvation (as is true today, for example, in many evangelical circles), but by revealing the unimaginable love of a God who would go to such extremes to reach us—even taking on the deepest physical and emotional sufferings to which we fallen folk are heir.
This acute awareness of the Incarnation was no theologically fuzzy, inward-turned “mysticism.” Medieval scholar Ellen M. Ross argues that, on the contrary, “the believers’ alliance of compassion with Jesus enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans and to act compassionately for their benefit.” The resulting works of mercy and practices of confessing one’s social sins, Ross concludes, helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society. Surely we need something like this again!
A second reason for connecting with Margery is that her affective piety may be a medicine for a peculiar ailment of many (post-)modern Christians: the spiritual torpor and indiscipline induced by lives of material gratification and “amusing ourselves to death.” To such inaction and spiritual flabbiness, the ascetic discipline of an Antony or a Gregory offers an intriguing tonic. But our modern spiritual illness involves not just spiritual inaction, but also spiritual and emotional distance. By this I mean a sort of flat-lining of the spirit: We may so easily fall into an attitude that says, “There may be a God. There may be a Jesus who died for our sins. But though I believe these things, they do not touch my heart.” How different this is from Margery, who when the Archbishop of York asked her the rough question, “Why do you weep so, woman?” replied firmly, “Sir, you shall wish some day that you had wept as sorely as I.”
Margery’s life and Book, and medieval affective, bodily devotion in general, remind us that such intensely emotional piety focused on the humanity (and thus also deity) of Christ was not merely an inward-focused “kick.” Both intuitive emotion (her weeping) and practical imitation (her late-life acts of mercy) can infuse wisdom into our very hearts and bodies, in ways that speculative theology can never do.
- “Sexy devotion” – C S Lewis, Margery Kempe, and the mystics’ erotic language of intimacy with Christ (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)
- The heart of medieval heart religion: Devotion to the Passion of Christ (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)
- The comforting voice of God and C S Lewis’s favorite mystic Julian of Norwich (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)
- The roots of heart religion – The English affective tradition (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)
- The roots of heart religion – Anselm of Canterbury (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)
- The roots of heart religion – Gregory the Great (gratefultothedead.wordpress.com)