Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This post continues the series from a section of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis that argues monasticism is part of our “usable past.” Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
To recap, my argument in this chapter has been that we will continue to be both disinclined and incapable of the effort necessary to practice ascetic disciplines unless we, first, have something of the passion for Christ that animated the monks and, second, have a strong traditional foundation on which to build our practice. I have been trying in this book to describe the foundation the medievals had, in their passion for theological knowledge, their understandings of Incarnation and Creation, the balance they held between Word and world, their whole-person devotion, and so on. We need both the passion and the tradition if we are to do the discipline.
In particular, the morality chapter speaks to the argument of this one: If we, like my pastor whose question is described at the beginning of that chapter, do not know how to put a Christian ethic into practice – that we are paralyzed by grace—or rather, by misunderstandings of Reformation teachings on grace. We are kept from applying the practical insights of medieval monasticism by a dimly understood sense that whatever the Reformation was about, it was about destroying monasticism (and it did end up doing that in some European countries). But with nothing to put in place of that practical monastic wisdom—though the Pietists tried to replace it, as did the Puritans—we will fail to practice spiritual disciplines as the monastics did.
Deep down we have counter-rationalizations, arguments in our heads that say “Oh no, that’s not something we need to do. We can achieve virtue in other ways besides spiritual disciplines. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged affective theology, Alasdair MacIntyre, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, emotion, ethics, Jonathan Haidt, monasticism, morality, orthodoxy, orthopathy, orthopraxy, sanctification
Here’s the last bit of the “affective devotion” chapter draft for Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:
Reclaiming the physical
Finally, among the varied aspects of our human nature, our emotions seem especially closely tied with our physical bodies. We use the same words, “feeling” or “being touched,” for the physical senses and for emotional experiences. But reading Margery Kempe’s Book makes me ask: Where has the sense of the spiritual importance of touch or physicality gone in today’s culture? Are these human senses now allowed to communicate anything true or spiritual to us? We have plenty of the visual in our TV- and movie-soaked culture, and even in our churches. But how often do we experience anything spiritually significant through touch? The most intense, ecstatic touch-experiences, those of our sexuality, have been devalued and dehumanized through obsessive attention and being made into the commodities of the impersonal marketplace. I think that like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Margery’s life of devotion and the whole English mystical tradition can help to draw today’s Christians back to the sort of visible, physical devotion epitomized in the medieval pilgrimage.
In the mid-90s I was giving a lecture on Pentecostalism at an evangelical seminary in New England. I was describing the huge influxes of eager believers, every day, by the busload, to the Azusa Street Revival that launched Pentecostalism in 1906, and again to the modern Toronto Airport Vineyard revival and the Brownsville/Pensacola revivals One student put up his hand and asked, with skepticism in his voice: “Why do Pentecostals and charismatics feel that it’s so important to actually go to the place where a revival is supposedly happening, to ‘bring back’ that revival to their home churches?” Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”
The following is from the “affective devotion” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:
Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438)
Margery was a middle-class laywoman (mother and business owner) who lived in the late 14th and early 15th century and provided us with the first biography of a woman written in English. This, by the way, was probably dictated to a clergyman, since she was almost certainly either illiterate or barely literate.
Margery is a great example of a layperson with a deep, even mystical piety who became an influence on the clergy and monastics of her day—although plenty of people simply wrote her off as a crazy lady because of the depth of her emotion during church services. But in that very trait, she was a reflection (if extreme) of the late medieval tradition of affective devotion: “Her spiritual life was centered, from the beginning and throughout her life, on the human Christ, the object of her prayers and her love. She identified very closely with the Virgin as woman and mother, and her participation in the Passion was enlarged and inspired by sharing Mary’s grief. Her enthusiasm, her ‘boisterous’ emotion, and her conspicuous humility were borrowed from the Franciscans and legitimated by their authority. And her method of meditation—that is, her personal involvement in the biblical story, placing herself among the holy figures—was exactly the method prescribed by writers of affective devotion.” (ATK, 155)
Margery’s book is earthy at points – even bawdy. She tells a particular story about an episode of sexual temptation in her life that is R-rated. And her language of intimacy with Christ is also direct and frank. When he sees a “comely [handsome] man” in the streets, it sets her to meditating on Jesus. And when she talks about her times of inner dialogue with her Lord, she uses a term usually reserved in her time for the kissing and cooing of young lovers: “dalliance.” We have not moved far from Bernard here! Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged affective theology, Bernard of Clairvaux, C S Lewis, devotion, devotional life, emotion, Margery Kempe, mysticism, Richard Rolle, sex, sexuality, Teresa of Avila, Walter Hilton
Julian of Norwich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As I relate in what follows, I have been in many Pentecostal /charismatic services in which someone has spoken a prophecy that is a direct message of love, hope, and assurance from God. I don’t pretend to know how prophecy works or whether in all cases it really is God communicating. But I remember when I first read the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, thinking “the way God speaks to her seems familiar!” Then later, when I found out that Julian was one of C S Lewis’s favorite medieval authors, I thought “Lewis must appreciate this particular ‘voice’ of God too.” In the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I dig a bit further into Julian’s revelations and Lewis’s interactions with them:
Julian of Norwich (1342 – ca. 1416)
Possibly Lewis’s most favorite devotional writer—certainly one of the ones he quoted the most (in a half a dozen of his books)—was the English Anchoress Julian of Norwich. “Julian’s visions made a deep impression on Lewis, and he refers to her in half a dozen of his books. In a letter written in 1940 to his friend Sister  Penelope, he spends more than a page talking about Julian’s vision of holding the whole universe in the palm of her hand [like a hazelnut] and of Christ’s reassurances that ‘All shall be well.’ He thought it just the right balance to say that the material world is not evil, as the Manichaeans taught, but merely little. He particularly enjoyed the ‘dream twist’ of describing the whole created universe as ‘so small it might fall to bits.’ Lewis concluded his sermon ‘Miracles’ with Julian’s vision of the hazelnut and referred to it again in The Four Loves as a vivid image to help Christians understand how far beneath the majesty of God are even the most magnificent things in his created order. Lewis quoted Julian on Christ’s reassurance that ‘All shall be well’ in The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain and again in his essay ‘Psalms,’ collected in Christian Reflections. Clearly, Julian is the sort of person Lewis had in mind when he described mysticism (in the same paragraph where he discusses the hazelnut vision) as ‘wonderful foretastes of the fruition of God vouchsafed to some in their earthly life.’” Continue reading
Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” early 15th century; in the British Library (Cotton Ms. Faustina B. VI). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the fifth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury, the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux, and the fifth part here, on Francis of Assisi.
The English affective tradition – devotional writers
Affective devotion came of age in late medieval England. For some reason it seems the English were particularly good at retaining the earthy and emotional elements of the Christian tradition—from relics and saints to mystery plays and mystical experiences. I want to look for a moment at the English affective tradition—first in overview, then through four of its leading figures: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe.
Summarizing English spirituality
It’s important to note that the English were no less Scriptural in their faith than other parts of Christendom: they read aloud (or had texts read to them), then meditated on what they had read or heard (ruminated, chewed and digested it) until they had memorized it, then prayed through what they had read, and finally rested in God’s presence, praising him for the privilege of union with him: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. Having read, however, they also poured out their hearts in the tradition of affective piety, loving Christ’s humanity as Mary Magdalene had done.
Richard Rolle (1290/1300 – 1349)
Richard Rolle’s spiritual writings are striking for the earthy, empirical way he described the physical experience of passionate concourse with the Lord. In The Fire of Love, he describes actual bodily warmth he felt while in prayer. Continue reading
Francis in a medieval dollhouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the fifth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury, and the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux.
Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226)
Francis of Assisi, on top of all his other distinctions, gave the affective tradition a great boost in the 13th century. The sheer ubiquity of the evangelizing, teaching movement he started ensured that anything he emphasized would deeply penetrate the Christian culture of that century, and many centuries to come. By the latter part of the thirteenth century almost every town of any size had its community of Friars Minor. Within fifty years of the saint’s death there were over fifty such communities in England alone, and more than five hundred in Italy.
No influence shaped popular devotion in the high and late Middle Ages more than the Franciscans. They reached into the psyche of the people, appealing to them directly through art, literature, and impassioned preaching on the homely details of the Nativity and the stark and gritty narrative of the Passion. Tears, for Francis as for Julian and the English mystics, were a gift from God, cleansing and cathartic – a worthy daily discipline for those who “keep watch over the perfection of their life.” Continue reading
Bernard of Clairvaux, trapped in the first letter of his name – 13th-c. illuminated manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is the fourth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, and the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury:
Probably best known today for hymns such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” Bernard of Clairvaux was by any measure a formative figure in medieval devotion.
A reforming monk of the Cistercian order, Bernard returned to the simplicity of the Rule of Saint Benedict, preached to recruit participants in the Second Crusade in 1146, and in later life he had so much power that he was the virtual pope of the Western church. Throughout his career, Bernard’s teaching focused on love—in a positive, personal vein, but not a sentimental one. He talked about the relationship between the self and God. Borrowing a good deal from Augustine, Bernard, in his treatise On Loving God, sets forth four degrees of this love. He sees the self first of all loving only itself, then loving the neighbor and God for its own sake. Third, the soul comes to love God for God’s sake, normally the highest plane of love. But there is a fourth level, in which the soul loves itself for God’s sake. This is found only fleetingly on earth but will be the constant state of the dead after the resurrection of the body.
Bernard emphasizes the importance of the human Jesus for Christian spirituality. He refers more frequently than his immediate predecessors to the New Testament portrait of Jesus, not merely as an example of a holy life, but as the divine action of love to change the hearts of human beings. Bernard’s sermons on Advent and Christmas rise to the heights of praise for the Incarnation. In his twentieth sermon on Song of Songs, Bernard argued that the Incarnation was actually for this purpose: to attract our affections: “‘I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.’” Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged affections, affective theology, asceticism, Bernard of Clairvaux, emotion, heart religion, love, mysticism, O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Pseudo-Dionysius, Song of Songs
For the complete story of the mill and brewery operator, mother of 14, and “lay mystic” Margery Kempe (1373 – 1438), see my Patron Saints for Postmoderns or the fascinating website “Mapping Margery Kempe.” Why should we care about Margery? Lots of reasons, but here are a couple that particularly struck me, excerpted from the chapter on Margery in Patron Saints:
God in Flesh and Bone
At the start of the chapter I made a connection between Margery and
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. What was it about Gibson’s
movie that has galvanized so many modern (or if you like, postmodern)
Western Protestants? After all, of representations of Christ’s life there
has been no end. Why did this one, in particular, speak so deeply to so
many? I think there are two answers to this question, and that both of
them can help us understand and benefit from the life of this odd English
mystic, Margery Kempe. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Patron Saints for Postmoderns
Tagged affective theology, Augustine of Hippo, charismatic movement, charismatics, eudaemonism, Incarnation, Jonathan Edwards, Margery Kempe, Medieval, Middle Ages, religious affections, the Passion, The Passion of the Christ
Charles Williams was captivated by Dante Alighieri’s belief that he had been led to salvation by a young woman with whom he had become infatuated with when he was a boy. From Dante’s vision of Beatrice, Williams elaborated a “romantic theology.” Chesterton discovered a similar romantic dynamic in the life of “God’s troubadour,” Francis of Assisi. Lewis described his conversion as the surprising discovery of joy. Each of these writers was drawing on a distinctively medieval tradition of affective theology, exemplified especially in such late-medieval mystics as Julian of Norwich. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged affective theology, Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, C S Lewis, Charles Williams, Cistercians, Dante, Francis of Assisi, Franciscans, G K Chesterton, joy, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Confessions