It’s not easy to make the case for tradition among modern Christians – especially, perhaps, evangelicals. Why did modern Christians leave tradition behind? And why might we need it again?
How do many modern Christians see the material world? Often in one of two apparently opposite, but equally problematic ways. Here’s the third way that medieval Christians can teach us.
Another “mini-post” that wraps up my series from the draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:
A renewed incarnational awareness will also give us a renewed and particular energy toward compassionate ministry, as it did for 12th-13th c. Christians in the “charitable revolution” of those centuries – and indeed in the whole long Christian growth and development of the hospital. But more broadly in all forms of compassionate ministry. Medieval Christians’ acute awareness of the Incarnation was no theologically fuzzy, inward-turned “mysticism.” Especially as they began to enter emotionally into the events of the Passion, that horrific demonstration of God sharing in our embodied suffering, the compassion for Jesus that this stirred in them became “enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans and to act compassionately for their benefit.” The resulting works of mercy helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society. Surely we need something like this again.
We have seen how attention to the humanity of Christ and his presence in others’ humanity encouraged hospitality and pastoral and even medical care, in Benedict’s and the Benedictines’ emphasis on “Christ in the guest,” in the particularity of the seven corporal (and spiritual) acts of mercy, in the specificity and concreteness of Aquinas’s ethical thought, and of course in the history of the innovative Christian institution we now call the hospital.
The Enemy of our souls will do anything he can to raise our eyes from the physical needs of others in a false super-spirituality, keeping us from achieving that incarnational awareness that would pour out from our hearts in compassionate ministry. As Screwtape tells the junior demon,
“On the seemingly pious ground that ‘praise and communion with God is the true prayer’, humans can often be lured into direct disobedience to the Enemy who (in His usual flat, commonplace, uninteresting way) has definitely told them to pray for their daily bread and the recovery of their sick. You will, of course, conceal from him the fact that the prayer for daily bread, interpreted in a ‘spiritual sense’, is really just as crudely petitionary as it is in any other sense.”
 Screwtape Letters, letter 27, in Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 263-4.
If traffic on this site is any indication, it looks like this discussion of monastic discipline is resonating with readers. Today we’re looking at two surprising ironies of the monastics’ way of living: (1) though marked by heroic effort, it was vividly aware that nothing happens without grace, and (2) though born out of a solitary discipline, its best wisdom has always been relational and communal.
A potential objection and the role of grace
Some readers may be nervous about the term “mastery” that I’m using here. Surely that’s the wrong term for the spiritual life. What we’re really after is being mastered by God – isn’t it? Doesn’t this analogy of technical mastery risk making the Christian life a matter of earning salvation by works? When we turn to Bishop Athanasius’s biography of the proto-monk Antony of Egypt, we find the bishop describing the monastic life as being animated by twin energies. This double dynamic, learned from the apostles and early martyrs, consisted on the one hand of athletic, near-heroic self-exertion and self-interrogation, and on the other of God’s gracious help from heaven through Christ—a duality that would shape all future monastic movements. The importance of both of these elements to the Christian life was the key theological point of the book, and the book became the pattern and manual for Christian monasticism East and West, and the compass of correction whenever a monastic group or tradition felt themselves going off course and wanted to return to the purity of early understandings.
In other words, monasticism always understood its human effortfulness as working in synergy with the transformative energy of God’s grace, through which (alone! said the monastics and the main, Augustinian tradition of medieval theology) the monks were saved from sin into blessedness.
Another confusion revealed in our nervousness about this “mastery language” is a confusion between means and ends: of course in the end, we seek to be mastered by God – the question is how we get there. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Antony of Egypt, Augustine, commmunity, grace, Medieval, Middle Ages, monasticism, solitude, spiritual disciplines, Spiritual practice, Spirituality
Lewis was born to save the modern world from trashing its traditions – both Christian and classical. Once he had converted from his own “chronological snobbery,” he quickly found a vocation in recovering tradition for others. This is the second post from the “Tradition chapter” of Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis. The first is here.
For an idea of how Lewis viewed the power of tradition, we turn to his answer to the Christian Century magazine when they asked him, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The wording of that question is crucial. They asked not “what books did most to influence your style?” or “fire your imagination?” or “give you templates for your own writing?” etc., but rather “what books shaped your vocational attitude and philosophy of life.” As we see in the preface to Sister Penelope’s translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione, retitled “On reading old books” in later anthologies, and even more in his De Descriptione Temporum address at Cambridge in the Fall of 1954, nothing more triggered for Lewis “the place where his deep gladness met the world’s deep need” than the modern abandonment of tradition. I mean his sense that in abandoning tradition, the modern world had dealt itself a grievous wound, which only his Christian faith kept him from seeing as inevitably fatal.
Lewis was perhaps the best prepared person of his generation for the task of appreciating and passing on the wisdom of past generations to those yet to come. Continue reading
C S Lewis’s demon Screwtape, writing about how much he just LOVES “historicism”
Today I begin posting from the “Tradition chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis – or as I’m now less flippantly inclined to call it: Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.
Though this is not the opening of the chapter, I’d like to start with Lewis’s take on the “presenting problem” when the church begins talking about tradition in the 20th (and now 21st) century:
Lewis states the modern problem
The situation we find ourselves in, where we would even have to defend tradition as a good thing in the Christian church, dates back to Lewis’s day and beyond. In his famous lecture to the Cambridge University audience assembled to witness his installation as the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at that university, Lewis described his own mid-20th-century European setting as one of cultural darkness and amnesia, and himself as a kind of dinosaur—one of the few left in that dark age of wars and rumors of wars. He described himself as a specimen who still spoke the native language of the old Christian Western tradition as a native, and who could thus be a precious resource for a society and a culture that had drifted far from its moorings in the Great Tradition of Christianized Greek thought.
Lewis found this change diabolical, and he made this clear by putting it in the mouth of the senior demon in his Screwtape Letters: “Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.” The infernal realm had accomplished this, Screwtape continued, by making “the Historical Point of View” into a scholarly dogma. 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
Now we get close to the crux of late medieval heart religion: devotion to the Passion of Christ. Draft of a piece of the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:
Perhaps the most intense and long-lasting dimension of medieval affective devotion was that era’s devotion to the Passion of Jesus, the God-man. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism and a thoroughly medieval man, acted on the repeated urgings of his Augustinian confessor, Staupitz, to “Look to the wounds of Jesus.” And soon after posting his 95 theses, he announced that the only man who deserved to be called a theologian was he “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.” All through his life, his sermons and hymns contained striking images of that event. Where did this come from?
The roots of Luther’s passion devotion are to be found in the tradition of medieval affective piety that we have been examining: Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), asking Christ to forgive him “for not having kissed the place of the wounds where the nails pierced, for not having sprinkled with tears of joy the scars.” Abelard (d. 1142/43), focusing on the supreme example of Christ’s love and forgiveness in his Passion, in order to foster in the unbeliever emotions of horror and godly sorrow when confronted by this death. Bernard of Clairvaux’s (d. 1153) lavish attention to the emotions of the believer captivated by the love of God.
And then, of course, Francis of Assisi, whose all-consuming imitation of Christ seemed rewarded on September 17, 1224, in the hermitage on Mt. Alverno, when he is said to have received the gift of Christ’s wounds in his own flesh—the stigmata. Continue reading
Here is the rest of the conclusion of the “compassionate ministry” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis (the first part is here). Here we see more of how Lewis applied the classic medieval virtue of mercy in his own life, as well as how he accused modern materialists of forgetting that we cannot solve all of our problems by application of better and better techniques.
More concretely, Lewis was also lavish in his almsgiving. He said this on giving: “Giving to the poor is an essential part of Christian morality. I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, and amusement, is up to the standard common of those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. . . . For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear – fear of insecurity. This must often be recognized as a temptation.”
Barfield, who was Lewis’s trustee as well as his friend, observed how Lewis followed this principle in his own life. “He gave two-thirds of his income away altogether and would have bound himself to give the whole of it away if I had let him. . . . There were substantial donations to charitable institutions, but what he really liked was to find someone through a personal connection or hearsay whose wants might be alleviated. He was always grateful to me for suggesting any lame dog whom my profession [as a lawyer] had brought to my notice.” (14) Nor did he worry about wasting his money on undeserving types. Instead, he reflected, “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been “had for a sucker” by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need.” Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged alms, almsgiving, C S Lewis, Cecily Saunders, healing, healthcare, hospice, medicine, Medieval, mercy, Middle Ages, Palliative care
And here is a bit more from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis on the “charitable revolution” in late medieval Europe, with its outpouring of personal care to the sick – founding of hospitals, waiting upon the sick hand and foot, entering into their sufferings with compassion, and finding in all of that the personal presence of Jesus Christ, just as Matthew 25 promised.
A paragon of the new model of lay involvement in healthcare was Elizabeth of Hungary. A wealthy laywoman on the model of the ancient Roman Christian hero Fabiola, the 13th-century lay saint Elizabeth began, after her husband’s death, to feed, wash the feet of, sew clothes for, and bury the sick poor. No arms-length philanthropist, she delighted in the unpleasant, humiliating labor of personally attending – after the manner of a modern nursing assistant – to the basest and messiest physical needs of her charges.
One might interpret such devotion to healing tasks as self-interested, since the theology of the day at times seemed to virtually assure salvation to those so engaged. No doubt this was a motivator, but theologians also stressed the attitude of the heart in ministering to others. Because Matthew 25 clearly showed that charitable acts to the needy were, in fact, done to Christ himself, physical charity wove itself into the fabric of one’s heart relationship with God (see “affective devotion” chapter).
In fact, Elizabeth’s actions represented (and promoted) a new, strongly affective theology of healthcare: in com-passion, the empathetic experiencing of others’ pain and suffering, she—and increasingly the Western church at large—found redemptive value because it brought them closer to Christ. By helping the sick and poor, they were not only imitating the example of Christ, but at the same time pouring out their love to him “in the most intimate and sacrificial way.” Continue reading