Tag Archives: religious affections

Passion, tradition, and discipline: Medieval monks had all the tools necessary for spiritual mastery


girl playing violin_fullWe wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. We (Protestants in particular) acknowledge that the Catholic legacy of spiritual teaching is a strong and useful one (at least, setting aside all that flagellation stuff, anyhow. That’s a joke. See the footnote in this post). In this post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I begin to look at where that strength and usefulness came from:

Spiritual mastery requires passion, tradition, and discipline

It may help us to answer the question “Why monasticism?” if we consider ascetic self-denial as one species of a larger phenomenon: the drive to achieve mastery in any human enterprise. How do you master any skill? First, you need to have passionate commitment to the goal of mastery. Second, you need to study and learn practical knowledge handed down in a tradition. Third, you need to practice discipline—both in the sense of dedicating hours and hours to repetitive practice, and in the sense of implementing an often extended list of discrete “disciplines”—the particular repeated actions required by the craft.

Think of the progress of a young girl toward becoming a skilled violinist. First comes the passion: one day she hears a piece of music, and it pierces her heart with pure joy. At the beginning, she just wants to hear it again and again; then, to know how to make those beautiful sounds herself. And so she begins years of lessons and practice, giving herself to those two complementary means to mastery: studying a tradition (here, of musical knowledge) and practicing an askesis—a training or discipline. Continue reading

The comforting voice of God and C S Lewis’s favorite mystic Julian of Norwich


Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I relate in what follows, I have been in many Pentecostal /charismatic services in which someone has spoken a prophecy that is a direct message of love, hope, and assurance from God. I don’t pretend to know how prophecy works or whether in all cases it really is God communicating. But I remember when I first read the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, thinking “the way God speaks to her seems familiar!” Then later, when I found out that Julian was one of C S Lewis’s favorite medieval authors, I thought “Lewis must appreciate this particular ‘voice’ of God too.” In the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I dig a bit further into Julian’s revelations and Lewis’s interactions with them:

Julian of Norwich (1342 – ca. 1416)

Possibly Lewis’s most favorite devotional writer—certainly one of the ones he quoted the most (in a half a dozen of his books)—was the English Anchoress Julian of Norwich. “Julian’s visions made a deep impression on Lewis, and he refers to her in half a dozen of his books. In a letter written in 1940 to his friend Sister [74] Penelope, he spends more than a page talking about Julian’s vision of holding the whole universe in the palm of her hand [like a hazelnut] and of Christ’s reassurances that ‘All shall be well.’ He thought it just the right balance to say that the material world is not evil, as the Manichaeans taught, but merely little. He particularly enjoyed the ‘dream twist’ of describing the whole created universe as ‘so small it might fall to bits.’ Lewis concluded his sermon ‘Miracles’ with Julian’s vision of the hazelnut and referred to it again in The Four Loves as a vivid image to help Christians understand how far beneath the majesty of God are even the most magnificent things in his created order. Lewis quoted Julian on Christ’s reassurance that ‘All shall be well’ in The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain and again in his essay ‘Psalms,’ collected in Christian Reflections. Clearly, Julian is the sort of person Lewis had in mind when he described mysticism (in the same paragraph where he discusses the hazelnut vision) as ‘wonderful foretastes of the fruition of God vouchsafed to some in their earthly life.’”[1] Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – The English affective tradition


Richard Rolle, detail from “Religious Poems,” ...

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.[1] Having read, however, they also poured out their hearts in the tradition of affective piety, loving Christ’s humanity as Mary Magdalene had done.[2]

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 roots of heart religion – Francis of Assisi


Gemälde von Bonaventura Berlinghieri: Der hl. ...

Francis in a medieval dollhouse (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, and the fourth part here, on Bernard of Clairvaux.

Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226)

Francis of Assisi, on top of all his other distinctions, gave the affective tradition a great boost in the 13th century. The sheer ubiquity of the evangelizing, teaching movement he started ensured that anything he emphasized would deeply penetrate the Christian culture of that century, and many centuries to come. By the latter part of the thirteenth century almost every town of any size had its community of Friars Minor. Within fifty years of the saint’s death there were over fifty such communities in England alone, and more than five hundred in Italy.[1]

No influence shaped popular devotion in the high and late Middle Ages more than the Franciscans. They reached into the psyche of the people, appealing to them directly through art, literature, and impassioned preaching on the homely details of the Nativity and the stark and gritty narrative of the Passion. Tears, for Francis as for Julian and the English mystics, were a gift from God, cleansing and cathartic – a worthy daily discipline for those who “keep watch over the perfection of their life.”[2] Continue reading

Embodiment, emotion, death, asceticism . . . an attempt to describe the legacy of medieval faith


The Book of Kells is one of the most famous ar...

A page from the Book of Kells

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

Zinzendorf’s lecture #7–On the Essential Character and Circumstances of the Life of a Christian


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

Zinzendorf’s lecture #5–That Aspect of Faith Which Actually Makes One So Blessedly Happy


Here is a brief summary and commentary on the fifth 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, from 94-95, in Dr. Richard Lovelace’s class on the Pietist Renewal at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Lecture V–That Aspect of Faith Which Actually Makes One So Blessedly Happy

‘In the fifth, I have spoken of the main point which makes a believer blessedly happy [selig].’ (xxxii)

Text:  I Cor 13:2 alt [Last phrase is end of 3rd verse.] ‘And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I gain nothing.’ Continue reading