Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part III

Augustine, portrait by Sandro Botticelli; wikimedia commons, public domain

Continued from part II

First, then, the “busyness thesis,” as read by such thinkers as Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great.

Augustine of Hippo described two kinds of life: the active life and the contemplative life. His reflections on the relationship between these set the theological tone for the entire era of the Middle Ages on this aspect of the relationship between spiritual and economic work—though as we’ll see later, we already find some monastic pioneers a generation or two before Augustine who were concerned with the potential for a busy life with lots of human responsibilities to crowd out the quest for personal holiness.

From his writings on this matter, it is clear that he sees both kinds of life as necessary and that the active life comprises most of our experience here on earth. Second, it is also clear that the contemplative life is above all desirable, unites us to our true God, and comprises tastes of heaven for us – thus the descriptions of the contemplative life in the long list of dyads in his most famous passage on the subject, below, is a kind of travel brochure or gift catalogue for the contemplative life, designed to stir up our desire for it. One may see such language as a clue to why so many entered an ascetic, and so many more a fully cloistered monastic, life in the time between Augustine and Luther: only strong desire could so move them:

“The Church knows two lives divinely preached and commended unto her: whereof the one is in faith, the other in ‘specie’ [sight]; the one is in the time of pilgrimage [the temporal sojourn in a foreign land], the other in eternity of abiding [the {heavenly} abode]; the one is in labour, the other in rest [repose]; the one is on the way, the other in the [true] country [fatherland]; the one is in the work of action [active work], the other in the reward of contemplation [wages of contemplation].[i] The one turns away from [declines] evil and does [makes for] good, the other has no evil from which to turn away [to decline from], and has great good to enjoy; the one wars with the foe, the other reigns without a foe; the one is strong in things adverse [brave in the midst of adversities], the other has no sense of aught adverse [no experience of adversity]; the one bridles the lusts of the flesh [carnal lusts],[ii] the other is given up to the joys of the spirit [has full scope for spiritual delights]; the one is anxious with the care of getting the victory [conquering], the other in the peace of victory is without care [is secure in the peace of victory]; the one is helped in temptations, the other, without any temptation, rejoices in its Helper Himself; the one assists the needy [is occupied in relieving the indigent],the other is where it finds none needy [is there, where no indigence is found]; the one pardons the sins of others that its own sins may be pardoned,[iii] the other suffers nothing that it can pardon, nor does anything that calls for pardon; the one is scourged with evil[s] that it be not lifted up [elated] with good things,[iv] the other through so great fullness of grace is without any evil, so that without temptation of pride it cleaves to the Supreme Good; the one discerns between good and evil, the other sees things which are only good: therefore the one is good, but still in miseries [but miserable as yet]; the other is better and in beatitude [the other, better and blessed].”[v]

THUS, the Augustinian context will always be – and this means will be for the entire Middle Ages, the period of our study today – one in which priests, bishops, abbots will make every effort to recommend and paint bright pictures of the contemplative life.

So what is interesting to us is, how the active life – the one that particularly concerns today’s “faith and work movement” – still in that period gets attributed value. In what does that value consist? What may we say of that life? In the above Augustinian passage, it seems to consist mostly in challenge, temptation, adversity, and (in a word) suffering – though it has its purposes and its benefits, which are also evident: that life is the arena of our sanctification.

That life is also the arena in which we “assist the needy, pardon the sins of others,” etc. – in other words, the place where we actively love neighbor – thus fulfilling that part of the Lord’s twofold law of love. Clearly, Augustine is not dismissing the active life (though he has also not yet fully defined it). He is pointing, in fact, to a sanctifying function in that life.

[i] Here is the language of reward used in the tradition to describe the link from active to contemplative lives—the enjoyment of the latter is the reward for good work in the former—which Bernard of Clairvaux will later pick up too; see the section on Bernard, below.

[ii] That is requires ascetic discipline.

[iii] It seems Augustine has in mind here the Lord’s Prayer.

[iv] Here is Augustine’s negativity on any earthly definition of human flourishing (remember his sex addiction) – but we will see others in the medieval tradition of Christian thought that he births and always informs, modifying him on this (see Ellen Charry, God and the Art of Happiness), with the greatest eventual exceptions being the world-affirming theology of Thomas Aquinas and the this-worldly spirituality of the late medieval lay spiritual movement.

[v] (Tract. in Ioan).” Augustine, “Lectures Or Tractates On The Gospel According To St. John,” Cxxiv.5., in Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism: The Teaching of SS Augustine Gregory and Bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life, 2nd ed. (London: Constable & Co., 1927), 228. The interpolated alternative wordings are from the English translation in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, V1-07, which may be found online in full text here: http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0354-0430,_Augustinus,_In_Evangelium_Joannis_Tractatus_CXXIV_%5BSchaff%5D,_EN.pdf.

Continued in part IV . . .

2 responses to “Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part III

  1. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part IV | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Spirituality and economic work in the Middle Ages: Complementarity, not enmity? Part II | Grateful to the dead

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s