As we launch into this study, let me offer some aspects of medieval faith that I take to be both potentially powerful for us today in our moment of need, and all too absent from our own habits of life and devotion—hidden from us by our hyperactive immediatism. I’ll put these in the form of a series of questions that absorbed the focus of medieval person but are less likely to absorb ours today:
(1) “Why should we commit ourselves to the wants and needs of mortal life when eternity looms?”
(2) “What meaning can the material world have to us as spiritual, not carnal, beings?”
(3) “What does suffering mean and how is God present to us in it?”
(4) “If we have faith, then how much more should we do works of mercy?”
(5) “How does human reason reflect the Logos through which the Father created the world?”
These were not the incidental, but rather the organizing, questions of medieval Western Christianity.
Medieval answers to the question of our temporal lives’ significance in light of eternity were fraught. First came the medieval division of religion-workers into the “religious”—those who live according to a rule, in a community dedicated in a special way to the purposes of God—and the “secular”—those, including parish clergy (!), who deal daily with the concerns of others caught up in the saeculum, the hurly-burly of this age. From the 4th-century desert fathers and mothers to the 12th-century preaching friars to the late medieval laypeople who imitated their disciplines, the brightly burning life of the ascetics captivated everyone who sought their salvation. By the time Henry VIII started dismantling the monastic superstructure of England in 1536, every town of any size in England had at least three or four sizable monasteries.
But from the high medieval period (1000 – 1300) through the Reformation, a rebirth of education and the arts swept Europeans into a new era of cultural engagement in arts, sciences, and practical social disciplines. The culture reawoke to Gregory the Great’s (540-604) assertion that the active, earthly life and the contemplative life serve each other, and that every aspect of our mortal, material life can serve as a conduit of divine communication and a forum of redemptive living. The preaching orders of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians rapidly blanketed Europe, bringing not only the message of the gospel but also a reborn tradition of the liberal arts.
The question of creation’s sacramental meaning spurred medieval both to a special attention (after Francis of Assisi) to the ways God speaks to us in flowers and birds, and to the most stunning and luminous achievements of a millennium of religious art—icons, reliquaries, cathedrals, and canvases of spiritual power and aching beauty.
Animated by the perennial question of the meaning of suffering, medievals plunged into the Passion of their Lord, finding in that mystery a profound sense of connection with a God who cares enough to suffer together with his creation and who urges us to imitate him in this—walking with us in our own sufferings.
The medieval solution to the problem of the place of good works in a system of grace set off a social explosion as rank upon rank of hospitals burst forth and spread over Europe, caring above all for the poor and sick who had no resources to keep themselves comfortable in their illnesses or to surround themselves with help and companionship in their dying days.
From the awareness of reason’s sacred purpose emerged all of the grandeur of scholastic theology as well as the birth of the university—perhaps Europe’s most powerful single institution apart from the church. This institution dedicated itself to the glorious celebration of Creation’s goodness, the fruitful exercise of what Dante Alighieri called “the good of the intellect,” and the intricate exploration of the Way of Salvation.