C S Lewis described himself as a “dinosaur” – a relic of the ancient and medieval past, stomping around in the modern world. In this last clip of an interview about my new book (which takes C S Lewis as its “docent” into the medieval world), I look at how this “medieval perspective” led Lewis to think differently – sacramentally, incarnationally – about the world around him.
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.
Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order
At this point in the draft of Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I move from general remarks about monasticism to a reflection on the specifically Benedictine form that has long dominated Western monasticism. This is a distillation of the wonderful work of Benedictine scholar Columba Stewart:
We need something like monasticism because community is necessary for growth
The overwhelmingly dominant form of coenobitic monasticism in the West after the 9th century was the Benedictine form. When we talk about Benedict of Nursia’s (480 – 534/7) Rule, my students are conflicted. He insists on rules and disciplines, actual obedience, humility – all those things we free, democratic, individualistic Americans find so difficult. Benedict structures his monastic rule in a communal way that builds on the relational wisdom of Antony, but feels constricting to us. “For Benedict, as for the whole tradition before him, the key to monastic life was accountability to God and to other people.”
Why is he so insistent on a lifelong community commitment?
First, because we hear God through each other – and this requires not just attentiveness but obedience
Benedictine scholar Columba Stewart identifies two fundamental insights in the Rule: First, “the divine presence is everywhere,” and second, “Christ is to be met in other people.” I’d call these the sacramental and the communal principles. “The best kind of self-awareness,” says Stewart, “the kind leading to deeper and deeper awareness of God, occurs in the company of others. For most people, to become truly individual before God requires immersion in the common life.” Continue reading
Continuing with text from the “creation chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, this is the section on the arts:
We’ve seen the creation-focus in the sciences; now the arts. No one saw more clearly how the medieval openness to Creation impacted the arts than the early twentieth-century French medievalist Emile Male. Readers of C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image will be familiar with the themes Male unearths in his charming book The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Third Century: the medieval passion for sorting and ordering information; the absolute subjection to the authority of tradition, especially written tradition; the importance of scripture in forming the medieval imagination. All of these, says Male, deeply influenced medieval artists.
Medieval liturgical arts, like scholastic theology, show us again that medieval predilection for “sorting out and tidying up” that Lewis noted in his Discarded Image. Their carefully worked-out systems of conventional details amounted to a meticulous science of representing the divine through the natural. “Little figures of nude and sexless children, ranged side by side in the folds of Abraham’s mantle, signified the eternal rest of the life to come.” “It is not as rivers that the four rivers of Paradise—the Gihon, Phison, Tigris, and Euphrates—are represented pouring water from their urns towards the four points of the compass, but as symbols of the evangelists who flooded the world with their teaching like four beneficent streams.”
On the theme of what I think can fairly be called medievals’ “Creation spirituality,” Male portrays medieval artists and art as saturated in that sense of the sacramentality of all created things that Gregory the Great passed on to the Middle Ages—the understanding that God is continually communicating to us in everything he makes. Continue reading
This morning I’m going to try to knock out some C. S. Lewis material for the “creation chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Since Joe Ricke’s invitation to submit an abstract for the 2014 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan came as I was working on this chapter, here’s what I shot back to him. In some form, it will work its way into this chapter:
When he contemplated the material world, Lewis appreciated both its quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). He loved a good storm – and the stormier the better – just because of it being so marvelously what it was. He appreciated the beauty of a waterfall as something inherent and objective – and was concerned for the souls of those who did not (in his Abolition of Man).But he also appreciated that when he saw the waterfall, he was seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”
Lewis really did believe he could see God’s own beauty through his sense perceptions of the material. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Abolition of Man, Augustine, C S Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia, Creation, Great Divorce, nature, neoplatonism, Perelandra, Plato, Platonism, Pseudo-Dionysius, sacramentality, That Hideous Strength, the supernatural
The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci
In my last post, I asked, “What separates Protestants from Catholics on the matter of the arts? Why have Protestants done so poorly compared with Catholics?” I hinted that the answer lies in a certain aspect of the medieval heritage – which rightly belongs to all Western Christians today, but which the Catholics have retained and Protestants largely discarded.
What, then, did the medieval church have, theologically, that the Reformation church seems to have lost? What was the bridge from the material to the spiritual world that avoided both Gnosticism and materialism—and fostered the arts as well?
This missing links turns out to be one of the most central theological ideas of the Middle Ages: the idea of sacramentality. Sacramentality is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.
Or to turn it around, sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world. A correlative of this is that religion is not separated from, or compartmentalized from, the rest of life. It’s not something left for Sunday morning. God can and does manifest himself in and through the creation that he’s made. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Augustine of Hippo, C S Lewis, Catholic Church, Creation, Gregory the Great, Incarnation, Middle Ages, miracles, relics, sacramentality, sacraments, Saints