Nor did contemporary observers seem to think the Cistercians were defined by their economic activities – either used or eschewed.[i]
And indeed, even the document considered to have been written in 1134 didn’t single out “pawning, leasing, sales, and exchanges” for censure.[ii] (196)
She concludes that the Cistercians “participated vigorously in the economic changes of the twelfth century while retaining the solitude of their houses and granges and the simplicity of the food, clothing, and liturgy that made them appear so intensely holy to their neighbors.” (196)
By this example of simplicity and austerity, Bouchard argues, the knights were attracted to them “psychologically,” as they were “reaching a level of social prominence . . . at the beginning of the twelfth century,” thus “just reach[ing] the point both of being able to enjoy [the] comforts [of the aristocracy] and of recognizing that the soul’s salvation might lie in the rejection of them.” (197)
But at the same time, there was a “social” appeal of the Cistercians to the knights as well, “because the Cistercians were integrated into the rural knightly system of ‘give-and-take,’ where property transactions were used not only to transfer ownership of property but also to bind people together.” (197)
Here’s a new way I’m thinking of for developing the faculty seminar on Christian humanism I’m doing for my friend the Think Tank Director. I like this one better than the more chronological one shared earlier. I’ll share this in a couple of chunks because I went a little crazy with editorializing on it.
This reworking suggests that we use the seminar to explore the hypothesis that Christian humanism has found ways to keep together key dyads: divine-human, faith-reason, virtue-grace, heavenly-earthly, reason-imagination (or truth-beauty). And that the REASON the tradition has been able to do that is its strong grounding in the Incarnation.* We could look at each of those dyads through readings across the different periods, in a way that could attend to historic development without bogging down in the chronology/history.
* Arguably it’s not just the Incarnation but the almost shocking organic unity of the God-human relationship in early soteriology that grounds this whole thing: that is, the theosis understanding of salvation. But interestingly, both Luther and Calvin were similarly quite mystical and organic about the human-God relationship – there are great readings from both that show this.
NOTE: Stupid WordPress has no idea how to deal with the automatic numbering in MS Word, and I don’t have time to go in and change it. So please ignore the plethora of “1s” in the following!
Bouchard’s book shows that the longstanding scholarly claim that “the ideals of Cistercian monasticism and the rapidly developing economy of the twelfth century were incompatible” does not survive close analysis of the economic and religious records. So why was it made in the first place?
Another key reason for the scholarly claims about decline due to economic engagement is the existence of “The ‘legislation of 1134,’ setting out what types of property were and were not suitable for Cistercian monks.” Scholars have assumed this to be “a reiteration of what the monks had believed and practiced since Citeaux’s foundation in 1098.” The document raises up farming over other economic activities, so “scholars have treated the early Cistercians as exclusively farmers, who concentrated on opening up uncultivated lands and who were economic innovators only in their pioneering use of draining methods.” They have therefore taken the evidence for other kinds of economic transactions as de facto evidence of declension.[i]
Then the dissection of the paradigm begins. First Bouchard notes that it has had to be modified and re-modified in recent years, as evidence for non-farming economic transactions has pushed earlier and earlier,[ii] and as scholars have had to wrestle with a lack of any kind of numerical decline that would imply that the monks’ secular neighbors no longer valued them as holy men – quite the contrary, as the order continued to gain members and resources at a rapid rate. This has caused scholars to back away from harsher language of “decadence,” preferring instead to state that their “ideals” had not survived the encounter with certain “realities.”[iii]
Now we turn to a more direct example of the supposed conflict between economic work and spiritual health. This is from the fascinating study of Cistercian economic activities penned by Constance Bouchard.[i] Bouchard states the crux of her argument like this:
“Whereas modern scholars usually contrast spirituality and economic success, the Cistercian order in Burgundy, in its first century of development and expansion, was able to participate in the multiplying economic activities of the period and at the same time continue to be considered by its secular neighbors an intensely holy order whose monks had the ear of God.” (ix-x)
I note again that “secular” used above means what it has meant to older generations and still means to the Roman Catholic Church: those Christians who, in contrast to the “regular” (rule-following) monastics whose daily round focused on eternity, engage in the business of the world and of “this age” (the saeculum). Thus even priests were considered seculars. And certainly knights, peasants, and craftsmen as well – most of whom would have been trying to live as Christians, and had at least elementary understanding of, and agreement with, key theological sources such as the creeds.
Bouchard “use[d] the rich but largely untapped Cistercian archives to study economic exchanges between the monasteries and their secular, primarily knightly, neighbors,” reviewing records of over 2,000 economic exchanges, nearly two-thirds of them never having seen print, and only accessible in Burgundian archives. (ix)
On the efficacy of the active life as an aid to the contemplative life, Gregory’s understanding of “the mixed life”—especially, but (as we’ve seen) not exclusively for pastors and bishops—is one of his greatest legacies to the church. Bernard McGinn notes that while Gregory dwelt, “at times obsessively,” on married life’s dangers—especially owing to its unavoidable entanglements with the “outside” world—yet, “he believed that the combination of the vita activa and vita contemplativa to which the praedicatores [preachers] were called was the highest and most important form of life in the church.”[i]
The importance of this point may be seen in the fact that Gregory identified the two lives as oriented to the two parts of the “law of love” – love of God and love of neighbor.[ii]
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his own liberality with the coffers of the church on behalf of those in need, one of the elements of the active life that he taught pastors to practice was the economic work of providing for their people’s material needs and “earthly necessities.” In fact, he argued that if they did not do so, their words would not be heard well – and they would deserve it![iii]
Continued from part III, and repeating the last couple of sections of that article:
Clearly, Augustine is not dismissing the active life (though he has also not yet fully defined it). He is pointing, in fact, to a sanctifying function in that life.
In a similar text, with a less absolute division between the two lives, Augustine says the following (I give it in two translations – the first from the Cuthbert Butler book cited above, and the second, again, from an online NPNF version):
“Two virtues are set before the soul of man, the one active, the other contemplative; the one whereby we journey, the other whereby we reach our journey’s end; the one whereby we toil that our heart may be cleansed for the vision of God, the other whereby we repose and see God; the one lies in the precepts for carrying on this temporal life, the other in the doctrine of that life which is eternal. Hence it is that the one toils, and the other reposes; for the former is in the purgation of sins, the latter in the light [or illumination] of the purgation effected. Hence it is that, in this mortal life, the former consists in the work of leading a good life, the latter more in faith, and with some few, through a mirror in enigma and in part, in some vision of unchangeable Truth. These two virtues are seen figured in the two wives of Jacob. . . . the three first evangelists, who principally record the words and deeds of our Lord for the right conduct of the present life, are chiefly concerned  with active virtue; but John is chiefly concerned in commending contemplative virtue.”[i]
Then we find in Augustine a view we might almost describe as “pragmatic” – that the active life is simply necessary to us, as beings of the sort we are, and though we might desire to fly directly to the contemplative life, we cannot do so – and that’s not entirely a bad thing. We’ll take it piece by piece, reflecting on each as we go:
First, then, the “busyness thesis,” as read by such thinkers as Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great.
Augustine of Hippo described two kinds of life: the active life and the contemplative life. His reflections on the relationship between these set the theological tone for the entire era of the Middle Ages on this aspect of the relationship between spiritual and economic work—though as we’ll see later, we already find some monastic pioneers a generation or two before Augustine who were concerned with the potential for a busy life with lots of human responsibilities to crowd out the quest for personal holiness.
From his writings on this matter, it is clear that he sees both kinds of life as necessary and that the active life comprises most of our experience here on earth. Second, it is also clear that the contemplative life is above all desirable, unites us to our true God, and comprises tastes of heaven for us – thus the descriptions of the contemplative life in the long list of dyads in his most famous passage on the subject, below, is a kind of travel brochure or gift catalogue for the contemplative life, designed to stir up our desire for it. One may see such language as a clue to why so many entered an ascetic, and so many more a fully cloistered monastic, life in the time between Augustine and Luther: only strong desire could so move them:
In the first part of this essay, I offer three potential medieval objections to the compatibility of spiritual and economic work–the “busyness thesis,” the “mammon thesis,” and the “worldliness thesis”; then I continue:
Of course, one thing we can say to these three theses is “Yes, at some points in some places in the vast and complex thousand-year landscape of medieval Europe, all three of them have been argued by Christians.”
But, I suggest two further responses to this observation:
First, remember that what we are trying to do is not to prove that these theories were absent everywhere and always in the Middle Ages. It is rather to select countervailing historical instances that challenge the oft-encountered modern scholarly assumption that medievals always or as a rule found economic and spiritual work incompatible – thus either explicitly proscribing economic activity for the spiritually serious (whether monastic or lay), or judging those serious folks who do engage in economic work as derelict in their self-sworn spiritual duties and principles.
Second, we will attend to the very significant social and economic changes in the so-called “high medieval period” in the West (roughly 1050 – 1300) that began to broaden the spiritual life – the via apostolica – from the monastic cloister to the marketplace. This was a period of “increasing population, land reclamation, urban growth, expansion of education opportunities, new trade routes, [and] an emerging merchant class.”[i] So we will be recognizing, if not much geographical variation, at least temporal variation.
However, we should be careful – these social changes do not mean (as some have interpreted) that monasticism and its disciplines was either (1) fully retrenched and retracted into itself, as might be assumed from looking at the austere reforms of the Cistercians and of monastically trained Gregory VII or (2) discarded as a model for the spiritual life of the laity, as one might assume toward the end of the era. Even in the expansion of lay spirituality from the high through the late medieval period – that is, the 500 years before Luther – monasticism continues to be a central character in the story of the relationship between economic and spiritual work.
A few years ago I was invited to present a paper at a colloquium of scholars gathered to discuss topics related to the intersection of faith and economic work in the history of the church. What I presented was a first stab at a research agenda: 2/3 of a larger idea about a certain theme in medieval Christianity. Since the paper was never published, I intend to blog it here in sections. So, to begin:
The question of this paper is this: Was there, in the Middle Ages, an understanding of economic labor as inherently inimical to the spiritual life – especially as modeled by monasticism?
It is certainly true, as the great medievalist R. W. Southern says, that through its 1,200+ late ancient and medieval years of activity, monasticism was often involved in and compromised by the world. R. W. Southern talks about this complexity:
“Everywhere in the history of the religious Orders we find that associations which were founded as a protest against the world and all its ways had their destinies shaped for them by the society in which they had their being. There were many forces which shaped them, even against their will: their property, their family connexions, their secular functions, and the opportunity which they offered their members for advancement to the highest places in the social order. The ‘worldliness’ of medieval religious communities has often been remarked and generally criticized, and it is true that anyone who looks at these communities for a pure expression of the aims of their founders must very often be disappointed. The states of mind and aspirations expressed in the Rules and Foundation deeds of the various Orders were not realized in any large measure. The driving forces in their development were quite different from those of the original founders.”[i]
But the question is, would medievals themselves share the underlying assumption of this analysis: the supposed “fact” that economic work must, by its very nature, hamper spiritual formation?
The “faith and work movement” in America is in danger of deepening the sacred-secular divide . . . by approaching and understanding church in some secularizing ways. If we want to find the sacred in the world – including in our workplaces – we must first find it in our churches. And when we do, our work can be revolutionized.
That is the burden of this short TED-style talk I recently presented at a meeting of faculty members teaching in the Oikonomia Network of seminaries. The talk draws from a still-popular book called For the Life of the World, based on a series of talks on the mission of the church by the late Alexander Schmemann of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (Eastern Orthodox) in New York.
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