Tag Archives: mercy

C S Lewis’s quasi-medieval ministry of mercy – part II


C.s.lewis3 (1)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.”[1]

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

C S Lewis’s quasi-medieval ministry of mercy – part I


Kindly Lewis photoHere is the first bit of the conclusion of the “compassionate ministry” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis (the second part is here). Here Lewis helps us see the breadth and spiritual dimension of the classical medieval virtue of mercy:

How can we benefit today from this consistent though evolving medieval witness to compassionate charity through healthcare? For one thing, I believe we can see in that witness a clear reminder of the supreme role of mercy in living out the gospel. Lewis, who knew the tradition well, insisted that “if one virtue must be cultivated at the expense of all the rest, none has a higher claim than mercy.”[1] He understood, of course, the teaching of the scholastics that mercy both is and is not Christianity’s highest virtue. It is not the highest virtue, as Aquinas taught, because the theological virtue of caritas, love for God, must be counted greater, since its object (God) is greater than that of mercy (humans). But as far as “external works” are concerned, we know that “the sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy.”[2]

This puts individual acts of mercy in the right context: they are agape, caritas, made concrete through action. “Agape in action,” as Lewis put it in a letter to a Mrs. Ashton, who has taken in a poor illegitimate child to her household. “Charity,” he wrote to her, “means love. It is called Agape in the New Testament,” which is the kind of love that “God has for us,” which is “all giving, not getting.”  As the word was used by the medievals: not just throwing a few dollars at a problem—though giving money can be one kind of charity—but actualizing one’s love, which is why “to give time and toil is far better and (for most of us) harder.”

The unfortunate history of the word “charity” actually illustrates the breaking of this holism between acts of mercy (social ethics) and Christian love (personal ethics, character). Continue reading

From poorhouse to hospital – a medieval development


Basil

Basil (Photo credit: el_finco) Not actually Basil the Great, but the herb, which has been used since ancient times as an anti-inflammatory.

Here’s the next bit of the “hospitals chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows from this bit on Lewis, this introductory bit, and this description of the very first proto-hospitals in the earliest Christian church

Basil’s House of Healing

The hospital itself, it is generally agreed, begins to emerge in the fourth century from the compassion of a well-known monk—Basil, now called “the Great.” In setting the scene for this story, historian Timothy S. Miller reminds us that Lewis’s “two-edged” description of the faith (body affirming + spirit affirming) characterized monks as well as laypeople – in a way many moderns find surprising. Mentioning some of the monks’ more severe ascetic practices (for example, the unforgettable Simeon Stylites’ long stretches sitting atop a pole in the desert), Miller admits, “Their lifestyles of severe self-denial may seem to pull against the truth that God made us human beings and called us ‘very good’—bodies and all.”

“But,” continues, Miller, “if monastics really thought of the body as evil, then how is it that some of the greatest strides in the history of healthcare arose within monasticism? Monks cared for the ill in Benedictine monasteries, Franciscan leprosaria, the institutions of the monastic ‘hospitallers,’ the many hospitals of the Augustinians, and so on throughout the history of monasticism.” Basil started it all, and his story “decisively dispels” our “myths of body-hating monks.”[1] Continue reading

From merciless Pagans to merciful Christians, by way of Agape


The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijna...

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.”[1] 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.”[2] Continue reading

C S Lewis on mercy and healing, and the paradox of Christian attitudes toward the body


Jesus and AslanNext bit of the “compassionate ministry” chapter of Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. Now we turn to Lewis:

How do the “spiritual” and the “physical” dimensions of the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – weigh against each other, and finally, paradoxically, cohere? Here’s C. S. Lewis, articulating the importance of physical ministry and mercy like this. His first word on this encourages those convinced of the importance of ministry to people’s bodily health: “God created the Natural – invented it out of His love and artistry – it demands our reverence.”

So far so good, but Lewis continues, “because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified.” Oh, dear.

There is a balancing act going on here. Our “essence,” like the essence of all created things (according to Genesis) is good. But there is some mortification, some ascetic discipline, required – for we will go running after “the things of the flesh,” no matter how much we understand that God is our ultimate love and ultimate goal. Our bodies, affected by the Fall, are not an unalloyed good.

Thus Christianity treads a middle way. “At first sight,” says Lewis, “nothing seems more obvious than that religious persons should care for the sick; no Christian building, except perhaps a church, is more self-explanatory than a Christian hospital.” Yet what the Christian hospital shows us is a sort of two-sidedness, a paradox, in Christianity.

Let’s say, Lewis suggests, that you had never heard of Christianity, and you set out to observe and decide what sort of religion this was. First, you would see a long history of quite earthy activities. Lewis knew, as Stark has had to re-teach us, that almost every aspect of the European civilization that grew out of the ashes of the Roman empire was built by the Christian church: “agriculture, architecture, laws . . . healing the sick and caring for the poor,” blessing marriage, the arts, philosophy—and he could have added, as we’ve seen, science.

“If our enquirer stopped at this point,” writes Lewis, “he would have no difficulty in classifying Christianity – giving it its place on a map of the ‘great religions.’ Obviously (he would say), this is one of the world-affirming religions like Confucianism or the agricultural religions of the great Mesopotamian city states.”[1] Continue reading

“Oh, yeah. Jesus did THAT too . . .” A story about mercy and the gospel


Jesus wept

Well, I’ve gotten a bit behind on posting – been busy writing the chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis about medieval compassionate action – through the case study of a thoroughly medieval institution: the hospital. Did get the whole thing written, so I’ll be posting it bit by bit over the next few days.

I don’t think I have to start this chapter on how medievals pioneered the hospital by making a case that compassion, mercy, and healing are good things. I’m pretty sure people of every age and religion will agree on that one. Nor will I indicate some flaw in evangelical culture on this matter of compassionate ministry. The healthcare system, schools, social services departments, and NGOs are full of compassionate evangelicals, as well as compassionate non-evangelicals and compassionate non-Christians. But as I have researched the ancient and medieval development of that innovative institution in world history—the hospital—I have wondered more than once: do modern Christians really “get” the relationship of mercy and the Gospel the way medievals did?

So, allow me to open this case study in Christian compassion with a question . . .

How central is mercy to the Gospel?

We know the story. Mary the sister of Lazarus got to where Jesus was. She fell down at his feet, overcome with grief and just a bit of accusatory anger: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He saw her crying. The others with her were also crying.

What was Jesus’ response? Continue reading