Pope Question: Was Leo one of the bad popes?

3 03 2015

pope clipartThe question of whether Leo was a bad pope is one of the most frequent questions I get. While the answer is short (‘No’), the question itself is revealing. It tells us a few things about the perspective of people today on the papacy.

This is a question I never asked. Perhaps it’s my upbringing, or the years I spent studying the Middle Ages for fun before coming to Late Antique popes for research, or the respect I actually have for the Church of Rome, but it never crossed my mind that a fifth-century pope would even be a candidate for the ranks of ‘bad popes’.

The first thing this question tells me about how people view popes is that the papacy is very frequently seen through the lens of the Reformation and Renaissance, when Bishops of Rome had enormous temporal power as well as mistresses and children. An age when the Bishop of Rome was as likely to be a sleazy, back-stabbing jerk as any secular prince. An age when the church hierarchy was inescapably corrupt, and the top of the pyramid most corrupt of all. Setting aside the question of the accuracy of this characterisation of Renaissance-Reformation popes, this is the image of the pope that people have.

Thus, they project this ‘badness’ back onto earlier ages, and imagine earlier Bishops of Rome as being as likely to be corrupt and as grasping after temporal power.

Second, sometimes the way people discuss popes reveals that they cannot see being Bishop of Rome as a spiritual vocation that a good man might strive towards. Thus, even if they can disassociate Late Antique popes from Early Modern ones, they still imagine that it’s the sort of job a wordly-type of ambitious man guns for. This is the cynicism of our age.

Being Bishop of Rome certainly had its advantages in Late Antiquity. It also, however, came with extraordinary duties and responsibilities with very little in the way of wealth or secular power. The Bishop of Rome was shepherd of the church in the city of Rome where he had liturgical and preaching duties. He was also Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy where he had canon-legal duties and administrative tasks.

Beyond that, he was, or was at least becoming (sometimes through his own connivance, I admit, but sometimes through the activities of those beyond his Italian sphere of influence), the most powerful ecclesiastical leader in the Latin Church, which is not all that glorious at a time when most of that church is beyond the Bishop of Rome’s effective control and in the slow process of being dismembered from the Roman Empire and reconstituted as Barbarian Kingdoms.

If the Roman Episcopacy were the sort of thing to which worldly, ambitious men were drawn for the reasons cynics imagine men become Pope, it is also worthy of note that the first aristocrat to become Bishop of Rome was Felix III (pope, 483-92). One would expect more aristocratic popes much sooner if the job were all that enticing in the temporal sphere.

As I said, the question is itself illuminating.

To answer it more fully, Pope Leo I ‘the Great’ (pope, 440-61) was not a ‘bad’ pope. He had no mistress. Was not a paedophile. Led no armies into battle. Had no ‘nephews’ promoted to high ecclesiastical or secular office. Did not misappropriate church funds for his own use. Did not elaborately furnish the Lateran Palace for his own use.

He did use church funds to restore churches, both their fabric as well as their liturgical goods, damaged in the Vandal sack of 455, though. He did try to use the expanding authority of the Bishop of Rome to see what he felt was good governance and good doctrine established in the Roman world, from Gaul and Spain to Egypt and Palestine. He did go on a diplomatic mission to stop Attila from sacking Rome.

Whatever you may feel about his place in history in other ways, Leo I was certainly not a ‘bad’ pope.





Pope Questions

27 02 2015

pope clipartI’ve decided to run a little series of posts called ‘Pope Questions.’  These are responses to questions that people invariably ask me in conversations about my work. Some of them are meant to clarify issues about who exactly Leo is, others are more specific to my own feelings concerning popes. The answers I’ll give here will not be the ones I gave in the moment — or, if basically the same, not verbatim.

Expect to see the following questions answered:

  • Is Leo one of the bad popes?
  • Why study Leo the Great?
  • What makes Leo Great?
  • What other popes are ‘the Great’?
  • Are all popes saints?
  • Who is the first pope?
  • It must be difficult for you to study a pope since you are a Protestant.
  • Who is your favourite pope?
  • What do you think of the current pope?
  • Is the Vatican hiding something in the Archive? What would happen if they made it all public?
  • Is that [Gregory the Great] the Gregory who went to war against Hungary?

Feel free to ask your own questions, of course!

I will not answer whether Leo was a Medici pope — I assume that person misheard the century ‘fifth’ as ‘fifteenth’. Or had Medicis on the brain. Or both. Nor will I answer if the Fall of the Roman Empire was near in time to the Reformation; I fear that person had little knowledge of European history.

Also, expect Montly Popes as of March, but not Weekly Saints. Too hard to keep up the saints.





Ladders of Ascent

26 02 2015

I am trying to read St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent* for Lent this year. I say trying because I was in the midst of The Mystery of God at the start of this season, so I waited until I was done that before starting this. It struck me as a disciplined way of reading. I am, as it works out, still stuck in the Introduction by Kallistos Ware (the most prolific translator and introducer of the Orthodox world), which is itself illuminating.

I thought I would share some of my pre-reading thoughts with you. Mostly about ladders and ascent.

First, the image of the ladder is not restricted to St John Climacus (of course). It comes into Christian spiritual writing from the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:10-19 (‘Jacob’s Ladder’). In this vision, Jacob sees the angels of God ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Here is William Blake’s painting thereof:

I always find Blake’s images striking and thought-provoking, even if, like his poetry, they are not strictly orthodox.

Met Kallistos mentions that St Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 43, 71), St John Chrysostom (Homilies on John 83, 5), and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Historia Religiosa or History of the Monks in Syria 27) all also used the image of the ladder as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Those three are St John’s precedents — the image also comes later in the West in Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection.

The idea of the ladder is, of course, of a metaphorical, spiritual ‘ascent’ to God from the lowly life of this earthly world. It is worth stressing that, overall (despite use of physical imagery), the biblical and traditional view of God and ‘heaven’ is that He is not in the heavens (that is, the sky) but as close as our very breath. Heaven is all around us. The Kingdom of the Heavens is right here (an important modern contributor to this is Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy).

The heavens are here, but our senses are dulled to them — dulled by sin and by fallenness. We need to climb ‘up’, back to God, back to heaven. And so, using an image drawn from Scripture as well as some Platonic teaching, the image of the ladder goes up.

For interest, the classic anonymous text of fourth-century Christian Syriac spirituality is The Book of Steps — there, we ascend to Christ by a series of steps; there are two paths, one of which is easier to stay on but slower to reach the goal than the narrow one. We also have images from Christian piety of ascending mountains — St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt Carmel, for example, or many references, such as in St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa, of ascending Mt Sinai and like Moses.

We have all, through our shared, fallen, human state, as well as our own actual sins, to which we are, sadly, in bondage, moved away from God. Christ, however, has opened up the gate that we may return. This is the ascent. It can be arduous for us at times, but we have more than a Guide in the Good Shepherd who has shown the pathway and will carry us if need be.

The ascent of the mystic into the cloud of unknowing is nothing other than finding the Holy Trinity. And we can start the climb wherever we are, lay or monk, husband or wife, student or job-seeker, CEO or priest, housewife or factory worker. Let’s climb the ladder.

*Two things: Climacus is a latinization of Klimakos, which means ‘of the ladder.’ The name varies; it is often as quoted above in English (as in the translation by Norman Russell for The Classics of Western Spirituality, which I am reading), but sometimes just The Ladder sometimes The Ladder of Paradise.





Lent starts tomorrow — rethink discipline

17 02 2015
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

I’ve noticed a few people recently expressing their concern about the usefulness of Lenten disciplines. For some, rather than turning their hearts towards Easter, their Lenten discipline just makes them grumpy, and then Easter becomes a gluttonous, fleshly indulgence in whatever it was they had given up. Or they notice no perceptible increase in virtue (although, perhaps, moodiness).

So, really, what’s the point? Why engage in a Lenten discipline?

In the film Into Great Silence (La Grande Silence) the monks talk only once. The film is about the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse, monks (technically hermits in community; what Byzantines would call a lavra) living in perpetual silence. Except once a year. Then they get to talk. All I remember is that there was some conversation about hand-washing, and one of the monks says,

‘Perhaps the problem is not with the tradition but with ourselves.’

This is a very humble approach to spiritual inheritance — what one would expect from Carthusians.

Perhaps the problem isn’t with Lenten disciplines but with how we engage in them.

To take the example of coffee. People give up coffee for Lent quite frequently. They crave it and find it annoying and go through all the symptoms of chemical withdrawal. By Easter, however, they should be free of the habit. But many people brew their first cup of coffee that Easter morning and start the cycle all over again. What, they feel, was the point of Lent?

I have two thoughts concerning this. First: Whenever you crave that coffee, think on Jesus. If you get a headache because of withdrawal, consider that Jesus got a headache because of a crown of thorns. You are suffering a voluntary abandonment of an unnecessary pleasure you engage in voluntarily. Christ, although voluntarily saving us, died. Your tiny, little suffering is a smidgeon of a taste of a teaspoon of the suffering of God the Son on the Cross.

Remember that fact all of Lent, regardless of discipline. Annoyed at the extra time taken up by reading the Archibshop’s Lent book? Craving some chocolate? Extra hungry during a Friday fast? Remember that Christ died for you. That you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then thank Him for His sacrifice, Who died that you might live, Who trampled down death by death.

Second: Use Lent to be a kickstart to a more disciplined life, anyway. Monks don’t really need Lent — they already live in a more disciplined way than us. When Easter comes, they can, what, eat meat once a week again? If they even eat meat. On Easter morning, don’t make that brew. Maybe, if you enjoy the ritual of coffee that much, start drinking de-caf. Think on it.

This leads me to my final thought, which is rethink what sort of discipline you do this year. I’m not giving up anything. Instead, I’m going to use this focussed, forty-day period in which so many of us do more than usual to do as much as I wish I did usually — a weekly fast and daily morning prayer. And hopefully I’ll continue for years beyond Sunday, April 4, 2015.

What disciplines might you kickstart this Lent?





Apocatastasis: The Heresy that Never Was

10 02 2015

MJH:

Whether you agree with apokatastasis or any other form of universalism, it’s very, very important to get your facts straight. Here’s a good post about ‘Origenist’ apokatastasis and the Fifth Ecumenical Council by Fr Aidan.

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

When presented with the universalist hope, Orthodox and Roman Catholics (and sometimes even Protestants) will invoke the the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed. Over the past two centuries, however, historians have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promulgated by II Constantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of condemning the Three Chapters. Not only does Justinian not mention the apokatastasis debate in his letter to the council bishops, but the official acts of the council neither cite the fifteen anathemas nor record any discussion of them.  Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils in 1990, he did not include the anti-Origenist anathemas, offering the following explanation: “Our edition does not include…

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Gregory of Tours and the need for real discipleship

9 02 2015
My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)

My copy of a French stamp showing the baptism of Clovis (r. 481-511)

So I’m reading Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks right now, and not for any insight into mission and discipleship or disciplines but for insight into the culture and society of Merovingian Gaul. Nonetheless, as a Christian reader I cannot turn off my personal perspectives and thoughts while reading.

This passage seized my thoughts the other day, and I thought I’d share with you:

Chilperic was the next to fly into a rage. … He continued to advance with his troops and invdaed the Limousin, the district of Cahoors and other territories near by, all of which he ravaged and sacked. He burned the churches, stole their holy vessels, killed the clergy, emptied the monasteries of monks, raped the nuns in their convents and caused devastation everywhere. There was even more weeping in the churches at this period than there had been at the time of Diocletian’s persecution.

48. To this day one is still amazed and astonished at the disasters which befell these people. We can only contrast how their forefathers used to behave with how they themselves are behaving today. After the missionary preaching of the bishops, the earlier generations were converted from their pagan temples and turned towards the churches; now they are busy plundering those same churches. The older folk listened with all their heart to the Lord’s bishops and had great reverence for them; nowadays they not only do not listen, but they persecute instead. Their forefathers endowed the monasteries and churches; the sons tear them to pieces and demolish them. -Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 4.47-8, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Classics), p. 244

A brief historiographical note. As I’ve mentioned before, I often read the sources for Christian history in two ways — one is what this post is about, which is a more devotional approach that seeks to see what insight a text/image/story might have for my own personal life and faith. The other is the more critical approach that sets something within its context.

Grégoire de Tours, Histoire des Francs, livres 1 à 6, page de frontispice.jpg

Gregory’s History of the Franks, Frontispiece from Paris, BnF Latin 17655 fol. 2. Late 7th c.

In Gregory’s case, we should read passages such as this with some caution; he is not a pure, accurate, unbiased observer. He is, in fact, a bishop deeply invested in the culture, politics, and religion of his world. So when he imagines that the days of Clovis (d. 511, recounted in Book 2) are better than today, we need to keep in mind that Gregory is a bishop first, historian second. Gregory’s description of the earlier days may thus be rosier than the truth (I’m inclined to think it is), and his description of his own days may be gloomier, but both are there to encourage piety in the reader.

Back to my original thought. What Gregory of Tours is concerned about here is sort of like a multigenerational vision of a lot of evangelistic outreach events. That is, people heard, received, and ingested the (Catholic) faith with vigour, but before too long they were just as bad (or worse) than before. For Gregory, this is something that happened over generations. Eighty years before Gregory’s day, they were on fire for their new faith, and accordingly built churches and sought the evangelisation of their people. Now, in Gregory’s lifetime, they are raping nuns and pillaging churches — worse than the last great persecution of the pagan emperors carried out by Diocletian!

It is my belief, as a promoter (but, sadly, bad practicioner) of Christian discipline and the formation of disciples, that what (supposing Gregory to be accurate) transpired was a failure of disciple-making. The kings of the Franks after Clovis were not, it seems, brought into the deep fellowship with Christ and surrender to His will as Lord and King that true discipleship calls for. The above story about ransacking churches aside, they continued to deal treacherously with one another, commit adultery, murder people, and engage in unprovoked war. The bishops may have had converts, but over the generations of life in Frankish Gaul, they neglected to make disciples.

This makes me think of big evangelistic rallies that often have no system of follow-up. 1345 people came to Jesus! How many stayed with Jesus? Or, closer to home, how poorly we raise the children in our congregations to be confident, joyful disciples of Jesus Christ. Of the children to whom I taught Sunday School as a teenager, I can think of none who is now a churchgoer or actively involved in the life of faith. Or those people at church camp who had dramatic conversion stories but who now call themselves agnostic.

How many young people ‘graduate’ from church at Confirmation or at the end of High School? A friend of mine said that several young people who were in the group who got baptised with him disappeared after the baptism — they had dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to make it into heaven, hadn’t they? Isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?

‘The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.’ (Acts 11:25)

We should pray and seek the face of God so that we may see fewer failures of discipleship and disciple-making.





Review: The Monastic Achievement by George Zarnecki

31 01 2015

The Monastic AchievementThe Monastic Achievement by George Zarnecki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My brother Michael got me this book for Christmas, and when I started it, I was thinking that somehow it would be a history of monasticism pure and simple. But it isn’t — probably because such a thing could hardly ever be written. In this volume of Thames & Hudson’s Library of Medieval Civilization, Zarnecki gives us the history of the monastic movement primarily interested in the art and architecture of the monastic world.

This book has five chapters: ‘Monastic Origins’, ‘To the Limits of Christendom’, ‘The Return to Simplicity’, ‘Contemplation and Action’, and ‘Monastic Art and Artists’. They move roughly chronologically from the Desert Fathers to the 1400s.

In Chapter One, Zarnecki begins his discussion with the biblical precedents for the ascetic life and the early Christian domestic forms of self-denial, then moves to Sts Antony and Pachomius. The next patristic ascetic is St Basil ‘the Great’ of Caesarea, who has been very influential in eastern Christian monasticism. St Basil rejected the life of hermits, having tried it himself, because he did not see how a hermit could fulfil Christ’s command to love one another.

My one important tweak of this section is that eastern monasticism is not all ‘Basilian’ the way Zarnecki talks about it as though every monastery followed Basil’s Asketikon the same way Benedictines follow St Benedict’s Rule. In reality, eastern monasteries are usually independently organised, and the monastery follows a rule established by its founding abbot. They do tend to be very similar and are inspired by St Basil, but they are ‘Basilian’ in the way the adjective makes it sound.

The main focus of this book, however, is western monasticism in the Middle Ages, so Zarnecki makes his way West very quickly, discussing the early patristic sources for western monasticism. This takes about a page, and then more extensive discussion of St Benedict ensues. After St Benedict, we are introduced to Irish Monasticism, the earliest monasteries of which leave us some very interesting archaeological remains with their bee-hive huts. Then comes St Augustine of Canterbury and the Benedictines in England.

[Aside] As is usual with many Anglophone books about the Middle Ages, a lot of attention is paid to England throughout the book. I don’t mind this, although England is not instrinsically more interesting than other places in Europe. It is simply a reflection of the knowledge and interests of Anglophone writers, publishers, and their audience. [End aside.]

After the Insular section with some magnificently beautiful images of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art, we meet the Carolingians and the influence their Reform had on monasticism — largely through regularisation and the spread of the Benedictines plus all that art. After the Carolingians comes the period of the Romanesque and the Order of Cluny.

Chapter Two discusses the spread and development of Romanesque in the 11th century when there was a monastic revival and the spread of many beautiful buildings built along similar lines, as well as the churches and art of the road to Compostela, with a discussion of the mother house at Cluny as the culmination of Romanesque art.

Chapter Three discusses the reform movements, above all the Cistercians, who are the most successful. These movements sought to return to the simplicity of the original Rule of St Benedict. Accordingly, their art and architecture tended to be quite plain — original Cistercian church buildings are square (no round apse!) and have no bell-tower. Their manuscripts tend not to have decoration, or — if they do — it is usually simple flower motifs (although Zarnecki gives us some striking examples that break such ideals).

Meanwhile in the mid-11th century, canons following the Rule of St Augustine were organised. These were clergy who lived a common life but who were also active in parish ministry and life — whereas the strictly-defined ‘monk’ lives only within the monastery walls and is truly ‘cloistered’ (a cloister is the covered walkway connecting the buildings of a monastery together).

Chapter Four brings us to the world of the Carthusians, who are hermits who live together — if you see a Charterhourse, you’ll note that in fact it is a series of small, one-room house, each with its own garden, looking into a common area with a chapel. Carthusians are the most austere monks — they all take a vow of perpetual silence. (I recommend the film Into Great Silence) And beside the Carthusians, we learn of the warrior monks, the Templars and Hospitallers, and their role in protecting pilgrims and the monastic houses they built in Europe and the Middle East. Also mentioned are the Teutonic Knights who did some ample conquering in north-central Europe.

We also meet the successors to the monks — in the 13th century, the heyday of monasticism was really over in Europe. Their place was being taken by the friars, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who also lived the ascetic, communal life, but who were preachers and much more active and visible in the community. The world was now Gothic, and the great architecture was now found in the cathedrals and parish churches, not in the abbeys and abbey churches. Manuscript production was moving to secular scriptoria. While monasteries would continue to produce and commission great art and architecture, their high point in such cultural influence was gone.

Finally, Chapter Five discusses monks and monk-art. Much art that we associate with the monasteries will actually have been created by lay craftsmen in the employ of the monastery, but the content will have been set. There are, however, some famous monk-artists, and it is evident that some of them were able to work in multiple media.

Throughout, Zarnecki discusses the art and architecture of the different orders and parts of western Europe under discussion. When tenable, he shows the relationship between an order’s ideals and its art. The book is accordingly full of pictures, which I found to be very useful as well as very lovely. Not only did I meet many interesting monastic persons while reading this book, I saw so much great art. In total, there are 19 colour plates and 109 black and white illustrations. I recommend it.

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