Dr. Grace Hamman invited me to join her on her podcast, Old Books with Grace, and we had an enjoyable and wide-ranging conversation–largely about Things Medieval and why they still matter today. Boethius, Anselm, Margery Kempe, and Christian humanism all made appearances, among other people and topics. Thank you, Grace! You can find her podcast on all major platforms; for convenience, here’s a link to this new episode on one of those.
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 →
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 →
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 →
The book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, or as I think of it these days, Getting Medieval: A faithful tour of the Middle Ages with a little help from C S Lewis, is trying to be born, and I’m trying not to get in the way. I’m struggling to express an argument which will set up the medieval centrality of the Incarnation and Creation as that period’s most important legacy to us today.
What follows is just rough-draft wording of a short passage for the book’s introduction. Arguments and details still seem to pull in opposite directions, but I’m convinced of the truth, at least in outline, of what I’m struggling to express here.
Readers, I’d value your thoughts on this brief, rough, passage. Where can I go from here? How can I refine and add power to this argument? What am I missing? Where am I too negative about the modern church? Too positive about the medieval? Does this argument resonate at all with your experience or does it just seem to you to miss the mark? Continue reading →
That’s a Greek/Latin hybrid, meaning, “the Gospel proclamation for me.” So much of what Margery did was in response to her deeply personal sense of what the Gospel proclamation meant–for her and for all people.
One of the reasons it took me five years to write Patron Saints for Postmoderns is the sheer volume of reading necessary to get a handle on the lives of ten complex people. It was worth it—and not just for the book: I discovered some bibliographic treasures along the way.
So, if you’re looking for some excellent historical reads, have I got a line-up for you! Continue reading →
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 Postmodernsor 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 →
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 →
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