If you do a Google Blog search for ‘Benedict of Nursia’, you will get approx. 33,800 hits. A search of Everything gets you 221,000. St. Benedict is one of the most popular saints of western Christianity, unlike the other Italian notables covered by Pope St. Gregory’s Dialogues — so popular even in his own century that, rather than receiving a mere chapter in a Dialogue, he received an entire Dialogue devoted to his life.
Nonetheless, I have a feeling that Benedict’s popularity comes not just from his holiness of life and his miracles but mostly from his Rule, composed for the monks of Monte Cassino and the other monasteries under his care and used by the Carolingian Church as the monastic rule when they sought to regularise and standardise monasticism, a movement that went beyond the Frankish Empire and as far afield as Jarrow.
As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.
Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:
The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)
Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.
Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.
Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!
Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.
Apparently, the title of this post is a Winston Churchill quotation; so says the Internet, anyway.
At present, things are going swimmingly for me. There is light, brightness, joy. You know, that sort of thing. At times like this, it is easy to put on a CD of hymns and sing along or simply listen in joy. It is easy to thank God for the victory. To see the promises of Scripture leap off the page and into my life.
But there has been darkness in the past.
There will be darkness in the future.
Times when prayer is dry. When God seems distant — not just ”Tis only the brightness of light hideth Thee’ distant, but ‘Are you even there?’ distant. Church (what a bore!). Other Christians? Ugh. Spiritual reading? Morning Prayer? No. Really, let’s just watch Star Trek and go to bed.
Historic, orthodox Christianity has plumbed the depths of such times, whether we think of the writings of St John of the Cross or the life of St Teresa of Calcutta.
Perseverance is the key. We read of St Silouan (1866-1938; born Simeon) about his own darkness:
Month after month went by and the torturing assaults of the devils never slackened. His spirits began to fail, he was losing heart, while despair and the fear of perdition gained ground. More and more often was he possessed by the horror of hopelessness. Anyone who has gone through something of the kind knows that no mere human courage or power can hold out in this spiritual battle. Brother Simeon foundered and reached the final stages of desperation. Sitting in his cell before vespers, he thought, ‘God will not hear me!’ He felt utterly forsaken, his soul plunged in the darkness of despondency. Sick at heart, he remained in this black hell for about an hour.
That same day, during vespers in the Church of the Holy Prophet Elijah …, to the right of the Royal Doors, by the ikon of the Saviour, he beheld the living Christ.
In a manner passing all understanding the Lord appeared to the young novice whose whole being was filled with the fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit — that fire which the Lord brought down to earth with His coming.
The vision drained Simeon of all his strength, and the Lord vanished. (Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, pp. 25-6)
Few of us are blessed with anything approaching the beatific vision that St Silouan had at Vespers that evening. Indeed, many of us will find that we go to Vespers, or say our prayers, or turn up on Sunday after Sunday, almost unwillingly, and with no apparent change.
St John of the Cross says that this dark night exists as a means to help us grow in grace, in holiness, and in faith. The apparent absence of God is there to strengthen our weak souls. It is like a mother weaning her child. If we persevere in faith, we will come to richer, deeper, profounder love of God and our fellow humans.
This is real Christianity. This is not quick fix, Jesus-will-make-you-happy-rich-healthy religion. This is not pop psychology poorly applied by the underqualified. This is perseverance, seen in saints such as Silouan, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa. It involves pain, sorrow, grief.
But in the end, real joy, abiding peace, as we behold Our Saviour face to face in His glory.
I realise I’m a week late for Trinity Sunday, but I read this in St Anselm’s Monologion last night, and I thought I’d share it here. It comes after Anselm goes as far as he can in using logic to prove and explain the Trinity (although I don’t think logic goes quite so far as he thinks). He writes:
This seems to me to be a sublime mystery, which stretches well beyond the horizon of human understanding. Therefore one ought, I think, to restrain the ambition to explain. When investigating the inexplicable, if it is possible to arrive at an account which is certainly correct, I think one must be content with that even if it is impossible to see how it may be so. There is no argument for disallowing P the certainty of faith where P is asserted as a necessitated and uncontradicted conclusion, but, because of its deep and incomprehensible nature, does not admit of explanation. And what, after all, is as incomprehensible, as ineffable, as that which is above everything else? So then, given that all our assertions so far on the subject of the supreme essence have been made on the basis of necessary reasoning, the fact that understanding cannot fathom so far as to explain them in words does nothing to undermine their certainty. (Ch. 64, trans. Simon Harrison in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works)
In discussing the many wondrous things he provided for the church at St-Denis, Abbot Suger (1081-1151) writes:
To me, I confess, one thing has always seemed preeminently fitting: that every costlier or costliest thing should serve, first and foremost, for the administration of the Holy Eucharist. If golden pouring vessels, golden vials, golden little mortars used to serve, by the word of God or the command of the Prophet, to collect the blood o f goats or calves or the red heifer: how much more must golden vessels, precious stones, and whatever is most valued among all created things, be laid out, with continual reverence and full devotion, for the reception of the blood of Christ! Surely neither we nor our possessions suffice for this service. If, by a new creation, our substance were reformed from that of the holy Cherubim and Seraphim, it would still offer an insufficient and unworthy service for so great and so ineffable a victim; and yet we have so great a propitiation for our sins. The detractors also object that a saintly mind, a pure heart, a faithful intention ought to suffice for this sacred function; and we, too, explicitly and especially affirm that it is these that principally matter. [But] we profess that we must do homage also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels, and to nothing in the world in an equal degree as to the service of the Holy Sacrifice, with all inner purity and with all outward splendor. For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way — Him Who has not refused to provide for us in all things in a universal way and without any exception; Who has fused our nature with His into one admirable individuality; Who, setting us on His right hand, has promised us in truth to possess His kingdom; our Lord Who liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. (From this website)
The final sentence points us to an approach to liturgy and worship very different from either a simple Presbyterian chapel with a cappella Psalms or a mega-church stadium with a rock band, ‘For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way.’ What matters to Suger, whether he’s providing beautiful vessels for the liturgy or inventing Gothic architecture, is offering the highest worship to the highest God; the greatest goods to the greatest good.
I do not write this post to condemn either approach to worshipping God. I, myself, would prefer something in the middle. Instead, I simply want to highlight this mindset, this outlook, this worldview — once you start to grasp it, you will come to appreciate high liturgy more, whether you agree with everything its supporters say or not.
What, I would argue, Suger is saying here and in the context of the passage, is that Jesus Christ is excellent and praiseworthy. He communicates to us, with us, through the Blessed Sacrament, celebrate by the assembled faithful in church. Therefore, we should go all-out in worshipping him. No expense should be spared in worshipping Jesus. Build beautiful buildings. Craft beautiful liturgical vessels. Sing beautiful songs. Extend the worship. Stand. Bow. Kneel. Use stained glass; use gold; use crystal; use alabaster. Sing Scripture. Do processions. Wear fancy clothes.
Nothing is more wonderful than the Body and Blood of Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Nothing is more wonderful than worshipping Him and praising Him.
He is the best, most excellent, most sublime.
He deserves, therefore, the best we have to offer. No half-measures in liturgy, then. No half-hearted worship. Do your best, even if your best isn’t very good. Hold nothing back. Throw yourself at his feet, for He is more excellent than anyone you will ever meet.
It’s a different approach.
How can it inform your private devotion today? Your church’s act of worship on Sunday, whether liturgical or not?
To my knowledge, at no time did the structures of the Church in western and central Europe bar the use of the vernacular in private devotion or in private writing. Indeed, for the illiterate, such prayers are the only way they could pray. For the literate, there were times when their mother tongue would take over, as when Stephen Harding (I think he’s the one; or Aelred?) died with the English name ‘Crist’ on his lips.
Anyway, the Latin Middle Ages contain a great quantity of vernacular religious literature, and there is, frankly, not enough time for me to go into all of it here. A few highlights are worth discussing, though, I’d think.
First things first, then. You should go check out Eleanor Parker’s blog A Clerk of Oxford, an excellent blog exploring many facets of Old English life, religion, and literature. A lot of it is devoted to religious literature, both its translation into modern English as well as its explication for the 21st-century reader.
If, for some reason, you’re still reading my poor excuse of a blog, I’ll start by saying that Anglo-Saxon Christian literature is very much worth your time. There is some splendid religious poetry to be found that will stir your heart up unto the Lord. Which is the whole point. A pleasant anthology, both from Old English and Latin, is Benedicta Ward’s Christ Within Me.
Vernacular Christian literature did not suddenly vanish in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. I’ve featured here the Middle English poem ‘Man and Woman Look on Me!’, a moving piece in the persona of Our Lord from the Cross. I find there is a lot of powerful devotional poetry in Middle English.
Of course, Middle English religious literature cannot pass by without discussing Julian of Norwich (d. 1416), one of the most famous mystics of the era (at least in English-speaking countries), whom I even feature here a little bit. Her Showings are worth a read or two. Julian is not the only vernacular English mystical writer from the Middle Ages, though. Also of great popularity from the second half of the 1300s is The Cloud of Unknowing, a discussion of how to focus the mind and heart on God, a guide to contemplation (I’ve not read it, alas). Third (and also waiting to be read by me) is Richard Rolle (1300-1349), another English medieval mystical writer in the vernacular. Another Middle English mystic I have yet to read is Walter Hilton (d. 1396), whose Scale of Perfection was recommended to me by Lisa Deam who now blogs over at The Contemplative Writer.
English is not the only vernacular literature of the Latin Middle Ages. Italy produced for us St Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) , one of the first poets to write in the Italian language. Besides his Canticle of the Sun, I highly recommend the next generation’s Fioretti, or ‘Little Flowers’, which are inspirational tales about the original Franciscans. Another important writer in Italian is St Catherine of Siena, herself a Dominican (d. 1347); her Dialogue is very challenging and thought-provoking.
There is so much more to cover — the continental Old Saxon Heliand, a ninth-century epic retelling of Christ; Lilja, an Icelandic poem of the fifteenth century; Dante (!!); medieval Irish saints’ lives and poetry; and so much more. If we lean forward just a bit, we can peek into the world of sixteenth-century Carmelites writing in Spanish as well — St Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross.
One thought that occurs as I glance over these authors. Most of them are members of religious orders or, in the case of Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle, hermits/anchorites. But consider which religious orders — Walter Hilton was an Augustinian; Francis founded the Franciscans; St Catherine was a Dominican. These are the orders that interact with ordinary people, rather than the orders of the cloister (the Benedictines, Cistercians, etc). I am greatly fond of monastic spirituality, but perhaps something important is to be found in this 13th- and 14th-century vernacular mendicant literature that will not be found in the majestic twelfth-century monastic literature.
They also, whether monastic or mendicant, exist in the world of the cities and the growing merchant class — not all of whom may have known Latin but who could probably read their own language to some degree. Another thought worth pondering.
Be that as it may, the Latin Middle Ages had their share of vernacular religion for the ordinary people. It wasn’t just priests for priests or monks for monks. There was vernacular preaching, there were even vernacular Bibles, and there were vernacular treatises, poems, saints’ lives, and even plays. The medieval west is, perhaps, more varied than our post-Reformation visions give it credit, then.
Today, my local Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate of CP) was celebrating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. I was hoping to slip into the Divine Liturgy, but no one unlocked the doors of the church, so I went for a short walk instead. Nonetheless, I felt it was timely, since this past Sunday my friend Cory was preaching on Acts 15, the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, wherein the Apostles gather to discuss whether Gentile Christians need to follow Mosaic ceremonial law or not.
The answer, as you know, is, ‘No.’
Actually, it’s a very interesting answer, because it includes this wonderful little phrase, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28). It was not simply 12 Jewish dudes sitting around offering their own opinion on what level of commitment to Jewish law followers of the Way ought to have. Rather, the holy Apostles and the elders were gathered together in council, in dispute, and in prayer, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to see the way forward for the Jesus movement.
On what authority do these Apostles and elders decide that they know what seems good to the Holy Spirit?
Well, on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom they had travelled for a few years, whose resurrection they witnessed, whose deep teaching they received, and whose ascension into heaven left them dumbfounded. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit Himself has descended in miraculous power upon these people. They were selected by Jesus before He ascended. And they were anointed by the Holy Spirit in a stunningly palpable way afterwards.
The principle governing the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem was that when the leaders of Christ’s church, set apart for headship and anointed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully meet together, the Holy Spirit can communicate through them.
This, whether you agree with the Council of Nicaea and the other six ecumenical councils, is the biblical foundation of the authority of the councils. It is an application as logically applied to these councils as any application your local Baptist or Presbyterian minister is likely to give you for your own life from any other passage of Acts.
Arguably, more so.
I once heard one of the guys who was at some point associated with the word ‘Emergent’ (honestly, it was my sole encounter with him, years ago) state that he didn’t want to have to believe the Nicene Creed just because a bunch of guys said this was orthodoxy. Who, he said, were they to tell him what to believe?
The argument is this: They are the church’s chosen, anointed leaders.
The bishops gathered together in council. They argued. They prayed. Some guys may have been punched (unlikely — sorry, St Nicholas fans). They argued. They put together a faith statement. They argued about it. They signed off on it.
According to the ideal church structures of the time, each of these bishops was an actual spiritual elder. For example, St Spyridon was a shepherd of such great holiness of life that he was chosen to be bishop by the local community in Cyprus. The theory of episcopal election was that the local bishop, the overseer of local church life, was chosen — elected, even — by his local community, both clerical and lay. So each of the alleged 318 ‘Fathers’ at Nicaea was an elected representative of the Christian community in his home city. That, at least, is the theory.
Another fact is that they did not see themselves as a bunch of unrelated, discrete units, entirely autonomous of each other. They believed that the individual Christian believers, their local congregations, and the congregations of cities reaching from London to Adiabene, from Gallaecia to Alexandria, were united through the simple fact that they were Christ’s mystical body. Therefore, if you could get a majority of their elected, anointed leaders to agree about something, it was something to which to pay heed.
Now, you may think that is still all nonsense. And, in fact, the councils for which we have the blow-by-blow records show us how fractious these assemblies of Christ’s elected, anointed ministers could be. Furthermore, orthodoxy should probably be better determined than simply a majority vote. I, personally, agree with the seven ecumenical councils because I think they are the most philosophically defensible and biblically faithful expression of Christian doctrine out there.