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
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
Over at Peter Enns’s blog on Patheos, Reformed scholar Chuck DeGroat reflects, “imagine the experience in-the-flesh as a renowned Reformed scholar taught grace and union with Christ from a couple of Catholics.” He’s talking about an unexpected classroom experience at Oxford with Reformed historian Alister McGrath, and Chuck promises to further unfold his experience learning from McGrath in a second post. Together the two posts bear the title “Reformed and Contemplative: Discovering Both 16th Century Reformations.”
Yup, that’s one of the Catholics McGrath was talking about in the picture: Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila.
Kinda reminds me of this post byWestminster prof Carl Trueman similarly arguing for the value of the Catholic mystics.
Image via Wikipedia
What follows are some acute observations on the Christian landscape of the early Middle Ages from Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994). For those interested in the monastic culture of the Middle Ages or the ins and outs of medieval spirituality, this is a wonderful text. McGinn has solidly mastered all that he writes about, and he communicates it in terms understandable to the nonspecialist reader.
The notes that follow are taken from Chapter 1, “The Making of Christendom.” Each note begins with the page number.
17 “The changes in Christian spirituality between 400 and 800 are especially significant for understanding the development of medieval Latin mysticism. No one disputes that these centuries saw the end of ancient Christianity, tied to the world of the late Roman city, and the birth of early medieval Christianity, more often than not rural and monastic in character. . . .” Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Resources for Radical Living
Tagged Augustine of Hippo, Benedict of Nursia, Benedict's Rule, Bernard McGinn, Boethius, Cassiodorus, compunction, education, fall of Rome, Gregory the Great, Middle Ages, monasticism, mysticism, Robert Markus
One may say: well, if evangelical mysticism/immediatism (direct access to God in Jesus) has stunted our ecclesiology by making everything between the individual and God negotiable according to a sort of pragmatics of piety (see my previous post), then it must also militate against tradition in all senses of that term.
In other words, our tendency to emphasize direct experience of God must be the enemy of a full-orbed understanding and appropriation of the church fathers and other rich theological and spiritual sources from the shared Christian heritage. Yes?
But surprisingly, no. Or at least, not necessarily. And this suggests a program for evangelical renewal today, as I suggest in another section of my paper “Evangelicals and Tradition,” given at the 2007 meeting of the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue in St. Paul:
Lest we think that the Augustinian-Platonic focus on direct inward experience of the divine works only against tradition, however, we need only remember the Reformers’ own deep engagement in the thought of the church fathers. The Reformation was precisely the story of a group of people who saw unacceptable (they would have said, “modern”!) innovations in their church and worked to reform and renew it by reengaging with . . . yes, the Bible; yes, the New Testament church; but also and very significantly, the church fathers. When the late Robert Webber talked about the “ancient-future church,” he was saying only what the Reformers themselves were saying. Continue reading
These days all you have to say, in order to be blacklisted from the rolls of evangelical Christianity by certain self-appointed watchdogs, is that you are a fan of “contemplation” or “mysticism.” Voila! you are apostate: probably sliding into Eastern mysticism, and certainly a dangerous person for right-thinking evangelicals to hang around.
A colleague of mine at Bethel San Diego, the theologian Glen Scorgie, has lately been spelunking the little-studied area of “evangelical mysticism.” Among a select group of 19th- and 20th-century evangelical spiritual writers such as A. W. Tozer and Andrew Murray, the Catholic mystical writers were not at all off-limits for evangelical study and praxis.
I’d go further. If you define mysticism as Bernard McGinn does, as a direct, intimate relationship with God in Jesus, accessed through certain disciplines, then I would argue that mysticism has been present in evangelicalism from its beginnings in the 18th century, and indeed from its immediate roots in the 17th. Here’s a clip from the beginning of a paper I gave in 2007 to the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue here in St. Paul. I use the term “immediatism” here, but I mean by it mysticism, in the sense defined above:
“Immediatism” in evangelicalism’s DNA
American Evangelicals have mysticism, or what I would call immediatism—the belief that the average layperson has direct, individual access to God, with no other mediator beside Christ—in the bloodstream. We find this at the very roots of American evangelicalism, among the first Puritans. As we were first taught in 1939 by the grand revisionist and revivifier of the Puritans, Perry Miller, this was “an emotionally vibrant and spiritually vigorous group in the tradition of Platonic idealism and Augustinian piety; their zeal came from an insatiable quest for the spiritual ideal of union with God despite their human imperfections.” Continue reading
Here is a brief summary and commentary on the seventh lecture of Nicolaus Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf, Bishop of the Church of the Moravian Brethren, from Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects in Religion, preached in Fetter Lane Chapel in London in the Year 1746. Translated and Edited by George W. Forell, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1973.
Again, this was from early in my graduate experience, 1994-1995, in Dr. Richard Lovelace’s class on the Pietist Renewal at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Lecture VII—On the Essential Character and Circumstances of the Life of a Christian
‘The seventh gives the essentials of a Christian inwardly and outwardly.’ (xxxii)
Text: John 21:16. “Do you love me?”
From the bit ‘Not of Paul, Cephas, Apollos, Christ’ (I Cor 1:12) Zinzendorf comes to the conclusion that a true Christian is ‘neither Lutheran nor Calvinist, neither this nor the other religious denomination, not even Christian.’ (He adds, ‘Paul excludes Christ himself . . . ‘) (Erb 311) [Note: it looks like the edition I was using for all of these lectures is found in the Paulist Press Classics of Spirituality series, the Pietist volume edited by Peter Erb] Continue reading
Posted in Resources for Radical Living
Tagged assurance, denominations, ecumenism, Holy Spirit, Ludwig von Zinzendorf, missions, Moravianism, mysticism, Pietism, religious affections, religious experience, salvation, witness of the spirit
Back at Christian History, we were working for a while on getting a series of “Christian History Minutes” together for airing on a certain network of Christian radio stations. The deal never went down, but today I stumbled across the small series of “minutes” that I wrote at that point as a demonstration of what we might do. Here’s one of those, on a celebrated woman in Christian history:
Looking back, Theresa of Avila might have said it was a cry for God’s attention.
I’m Chris Armstrong, editor of Christian History magazine.
Theresa was a headstrong girl. Born in 1515 in Catholic Spain, her greatest desire was to get on God’s good side.
So one day she ran away to Muslim territory. She hoped the Moors would find her and martyr her for Christ.
Returned by her uncle, young Theresa soon ran off again—this time to a convent, where she denied herself diligently.
In the end, though, Theresa decided we don’t need heroic deeds or self-denying discipline to get God’s attention. Here’s what she said:
“We have no need to go to heaven in order to speak to the eternal Father or to enjoy His company. . . . Nor do we need to raise our voice to address Him, for He hears every whisper, however low.”
For more stories from our spiritual heritage, visit www.christianhistory.net or read Christian History magazine.