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
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
Saint Augustine of Hippo, playing hot potato with his heart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Following introductory material from C S Lewis here, here, and here, the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis opens its tour of medieval heart religion with a peek into Origen, Augustine, and other early Church Fathers:
Origen, early fathers
Although affective piety was “a mood and form of expression which advanced over all of Europe between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries,” (ATK: 130-131), the writers of that period, from Anselm to Bernard to Julian to Dante, were merely passing on a tendency from the early church, described by Robert Wilken: “Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart.” Even in the most detailed theologizing of the early and medieval fathers, “The goal was not only understanding but love.”
The very first systematic commentator on Scripture, Origen of Alexandria (185-254), interpreted the Song of Songs as an allegory of the believer’s relationship with God—erotic emotions and all. In Origen’s reading, the song’s male lover is God or Christ and its female lover is Israel, the church, or the believer. Augustine, Gregory the Great, and a long line of medieval interpreters would pick up Origen’s approach to the Song of Songs, using similar sexual language of our desire for God. As Gregory mused, “‘what force of love exists in the bedchamber of the Bridegroom.’” Continue reading
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) shows the Good Samaritan tending the injured man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here’s the next bit of the “hospitals chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows from this bit on Lewis and this introductory bit.
So how did all of this translate into a Christian emphasis on bodily care? For the early and medieval churches were notable for healing. Yes, miraculous healing, on occasion. But also, and much more frequently, the sort of healing that comes from basic nursing care and the application of medical knowledge (however rudimentary during most of the period we’re studying).
The Pagans in the Roman world of Christianity’s birth had no such distinctive. They had “no religious impulse for charity that took the form of personal concern for those in distress.” Indeed the Pagans taught neither compassion nor active mercy as virtues. To be merciful only helped the weak—those who were drags on society.
It is important that we “get” how radical this change was, from the Pagan to the Christian attitude toward illness and healing: “In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help.” Continue reading
Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530
Still hammering away at Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Turning now to the “creation chapter.” Here are a few halting thoughts toward an introduction. They won’t appear in the final book in this form, but they suggest some linkages between medieval Western faith and modern Catholicism – in an area Protestants could learn from:
Modern Catholic tradition still draws from the Creation emphasis in the medieval church, which has attenuated in Protestantism.
Lewis picked this Creation-positive spirituality up too. Think of his love of storms, rocks, trees; his laughing exuberance in storms, rain, fog, drizzle (making him the perfect Englishman), as he reveled in “the quiddity [“that-ness,” essential nature] of things”; his use of long walks in the country to recharge himself.
We might see in these things the influence of the Victorian romanticism still lingering especially in literary and artistic corners of the British Isles during Lewis’s growing-up years: that sense of the mystic sacredness of nature itself, the sort of lavish and sometimes dark and even pagan pantheism that made Blake such an odd duck, led the brilliant Catholic engraver Eric Gill to create his frank and shockingly explicit public works of art, and brought the late-19th-century Decadents such as Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde (both of whom became Catholic) down into their pit of muck. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged C S Lewis, Catholic Church, Catholicism, community, Creation, death, G K Chesterton, love, marriage, romanticism, sex
English: Illustration of the spherical earth in a medieval manuscript. The figure shows two men walking around the spherical earth, one going to the East and the other to the West, and meeting on the opposite side. O. H. Prior, ed., L’image du monde de maitre Gossuin, (Lausanne & Paris: Librarie Payot & C ie , 1913), pp. 93-4. 14th century copy of a 12th century original (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
OK folks, still at it: the “theology chapter” of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis is nearly done. Having introduced it with clips from my introduction of the “modern problem” which I hope this chapter can help address and my two-part review of Lewis’s relationship to philosophy and theology (of the modern and medieval varieties), the time has come to jump into the medieval material. Here is the “medieval introduction,” which finds that it must clear away some stereotypes before positing the “four balances” that medieval theology maintained – from which we can learn much today.
I. Medieval faith in reason? Surely not!
Possibly the number one reason many (I hope not most!) modern Protestant Christians will not give this book the time of day is that they assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason.
It’s a shame we have to do this, but in order to get back to the brilliance of medieval theology, we first have to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and top-selling – according to Amazon sales rankings) book by one William Manchester called A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester is a historian, but he works way out of his field here. And that is the most charitable reason I can think of for his straight-faced argument that even in Columbus’s time, and throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the 8-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says “nonsense.” Continue reading
Image via Wikipedia
Last summer, Mark Van Steenwyk and I taught a Bethel Seminary course called HS-ML729: Resources for Radical Living. Now we are preparing to teach the course again in Bethel’s winter 2011 term, in both a Masters and a DMin mode.
Version 2.0 of the course will be different from version 1.0, both in its basic structure and in the figures and movements we will be studying under the rubrics of the prophetic life, the compassionate life, the penitential life, the devotional life, and the communal life.
We will still explore, under each of these five thematic areas, two figures/movements from Christian history and today–making a total of 10 case studies. But both the framework and the case studies will change. This post outlines the new and, we hope, improved structure. The revised list of case studies (figures and movements) we will cover in version 2.0 can be found here. The first post in this series of three presented the original version of the course. Continue reading