In the last post, as I began to unpack monasticism and asceticism with C S Lewis’s help, I took a passage from his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength as a window into the way that war, by shaking all our self-interests and focusing us on a higher goal, can give us a new vision and focus for life. I concluded, drawing from a phrase of Lewis’ in that book: “‘The immense weight of obedience’ involved in asceticism, too, can attune us more finely to our relationships, relativize our petty anxieties and cares, and help us live our earthly, human lives with more zest and appreciation.” Now, to continue:
This focusing function may be a helpful general principle about asceticism. But we may fairly ask: “What makes us think the particular ascetic modes of monasticism have any answers on our modern problems? They’re so . . . medieval! Stone cloisters, hard beds, celibacy, rising at ungodly hours to chant Psalms in Latin? Really? This is the balm for our ills?”
Lewis plumbs the depths of self
Lewis, in the year leading up to his conversion, struggled mightily with his “flesh” – and even more with spiritual pride, a sin the monastic fathers unanimously agreed was among the worst, and especially tending to beset those making efforts in their lives to achieve spiritual progress.
From early on, as he struggled toward conversion, Lewis also appreciated the asceticism of the Middle Ages. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged asceticism, C S Lewis, Hugo Dyson, Middle Ages, monasticism, Owen Barfield, pride, Scale of Perfection, self, Theologia Germanica, Walter Hilton
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
And here is a bit more from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis on the “charitable revolution” in late medieval Europe, with its outpouring of personal care to the sick – founding of hospitals, waiting upon the sick hand and foot, entering into their sufferings with compassion, and finding in all of that the personal presence of Jesus Christ, just as Matthew 25 promised.
A paragon of the new model of lay involvement in healthcare was Elizabeth of Hungary. A wealthy laywoman on the model of the ancient Roman Christian hero Fabiola, the 13th-century lay saint Elizabeth began, after her husband’s death, to feed, wash the feet of, sew clothes for, and bury the sick poor. No arms-length philanthropist, she delighted in the unpleasant, humiliating labor of personally attending – after the manner of a modern nursing assistant – to the basest and messiest physical needs of her charges.
One might interpret such devotion to healing tasks as self-interested, since the theology of the day at times seemed to virtually assure salvation to those so engaged. No doubt this was a motivator, but theologians also stressed the attitude of the heart in ministering to others. Because Matthew 25 clearly showed that charitable acts to the needy were, in fact, done to Christ himself, physical charity wove itself into the fabric of one’s heart relationship with God (see “affective devotion” chapter).
In fact, Elizabeth’s actions represented (and promoted) a new, strongly affective theology of healthcare: in com-passion, the empathetic experiencing of others’ pain and suffering, she—and increasingly the Western church at large—found redemptive value because it brought them closer to Christ. By helping the sick and poor, they were not only imitating the example of Christ, but at the same time pouring out their love to him “in the most intimate and sacrificial way.” Continue reading