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.
Allow me to base this post about medieval vernacular Bibles on two anecdotes. One is me being cheeky, the other is me having a realisation.
A few years ago, my father-in-law was looking at a wee booklet from the Canadian Bible Society about where our Bible came from, and he quizzed me, asking who first translated the Bible. I said St Jerome. He said they were looking for the vernacular. I cheekily responded that Latin was the vernacular in the year 400. To their credit, CBS did discuss Jerome elsewhere in the booklet. If memory serves me correctly, though, John Wycliffe was the right answer, as he usually is in these scenarios.
But even if we are discussing ancient translations of the Bible, we don’t actually know who first put the Bible into Latin in the third century, or Syriac in the second and third, the final stage being Philoxenus of Mabbug translating Revelation in the 500s. There is a similar time frame for Coptic, I believe. The (incomplete) Gothic Bible is fourth- and fifth-century, presumably much of it by Ulfilas. A number of translators put the Bible into Armenian in the early 400s — Mesrop Mashtots, John of Egheghiatz, Joseph of Baghin, from what I can see. About a year ago we learned about an illustrated Ethiopian Bible that was written between 330 and 650 in Ge’ez; tradition attributes the Ge’ez translation to Abba Garima in 494.
Besides Gothic, these are all Eastern, and they’re all Late Antique.
Nonetheless, weren’t the Latin Middle Ages a time when western Europe’s Christians were forbidden from hearing God’s Word in their own language? We all know about how much trouble John Wycliffe (1330-84) got in; we are told that his English Bibles were banned, and that this proto-Reformer, medieval ‘Protestant’ was condemned, and that he was the inspiration for the next pre-Protestant Jan Hus (burned at the stake at the Council of Constance, 1415). Most of the things Wycliffe got in trouble for were not his English Bibles for.
We also all know the story of William Tyndale (1494-1536) and the fact that he had to go to the Continent to freely translate and print the New Testament in English.
And is England in the late 1300s and early 1500s the same thing as all of Western Europe, 500-1500?
No, it is not. And this narrative may have made me uneasy, but I didn’t question it.
Until I visited the magnificent exhibition Verbum Domini II, a free exhibition about the history of the Bible put on by the Vatican in 2014. This was a magnificent exhibition, celebrating the Bible throughout its history, from Greek papyri to digital versions. There were ancient Bibles on display in different languages, as well as medieval Bibles — and not just Latin or eastern languages, but German and Italian ones!
This interested me. Medieval vernacular Bibles!
I then learned what my English Protestant ecclesiastical history had missed out. The English aspect of Wycliffe and Tyndale’s endeavours. Both of them were resisted by local English ecclesiastical authorities, for one thing. Wycliffe’s condemnation at the Council of Constance says nothing about translating the Bible into the vernacular. And although Tyndale was not allowed legitimately to pursue his program of translation, an English translation authorised by the Roman church was published in 1582, 1609, and 1610 (the Douay-Rheims Bible).
Various vernacular translations were made in the Middle Ages. Pre-Conquest England (before 1066) saw Anglo-Saxon translations, versifications, and interlinear glosses of the Latin text. About 1000 manuscripts or fragments from medieval German Bibles exist. Various French translations also occurred in the Middle Ages, and the Roman Church had no trouble with some made in the 1500s in Belgium. 1471 gave us our first printing of the Bible in Italian.
Now, I’m not saying that there were no issues surrounding vernacular Bibles, especially in England, especially in the later Middle Ages. These measures were usually to try and control Protestants by restricting their access to God’s Word. Nonetheless, the Bible translations into the 16th-century vernaculars of Europe by Protestants were not the first, and the Catholics were doing the same thing.
Once again, this matters, especially in the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We need to ask ourselves what was being reformed, and if the reforming looked the same in every nation. But some of the problems arising in some places, such as England, were ultimately dealt with by the Roman Church itself — such as vernacular Bibles.
The Middle Ages were a varied and long period in Christian history (fully 1/2). If we wish to be strong in our faith, and if we believe that we are right to be out of communion with the Bishop of Rome, let’s ensure that we’ve done it for the right reasons — and understanding the Middle Ages is a key part of doing so.
Most of us pay no heed to the Rogations or ‘Rogationtide’. Most Anglicans observe these three days, Monday-Wednesday before Ascension, by not observing them. Or simply noting a different collect from Sunday and a shift from the lectio continua and round of Psalms in the Prayer Book lectionary for Morning and Evening Prayer. Everything has an origin. In this case, fifth-century Gaul.
St Mamertus (Bishop of Vienne, d. ca 475, brother of Claudianus Mamertus) introduced the Rogations, as we read in Sidonius Apollinaris (430-89) in a letter to his friend Aper:
The solemn observance of these [Rogations] was first inititaed, and introduced to us by the father and pontiff Mamertus, who thereby set an example worthy of all reverence and launched a most salutary venture. Before this the public prayers (with all respect to the faith, be it said) were irregular, lukewarm, sparsely attended, and, so to speak, full of yawns; their purpose was frequently obscured by the disturbing interruptions for meals, and they tended to become for the most part petitions for rain or for fine weather; indeed, to put it mildly, the potter and the gardene ought not to have attended them together. 3. But in these Rogations, which the aforesaid chief priest has both made known to us and made over to us, there are prayer and fasting, psalmody and lamentation. I beg your presence at this festival of humbly bowed heads, this fellowship of sighing suppliants; and if I am a true judge of your spiritual leanings you will come all the more promptly now that you are summoned not to a feast but to tears. Farewell. (Letters 5.14; trans. W.B. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library)
Sidonius also mentions the Rogations in a letter to Mamertus, saying that they are a consolation to the people of Auvergne in the impending invasion of the Goths (Letters 7.1), saying later in the letter:
This people of Clermont, knowing that these calamities all came upon your people of Vienne before your intervention and have not come near them since, eagerly follow the lead of your hallowed instruction, diligently entreating that one so blessedly supreme in spirituality may grant the support of his prayers to those to whom he has now sent copies of the Rogations.
Later in the century, Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus, Bishop of Vienne (ca 494 – ca 518) preached homilies on the Rogations. Avitus says:
The bishop therefore tested the initial enthusiasm, being particularly concerned to hold the prayer of the first procession at the basilica which was then nearer the walls of the city, so that the observation should not immediately become contemptible at its inception, with few supporting it, on account of the slowness of the people to take it up. It went with great speed, large numbers and the greatest remorse, so that the procession truly seemed short and narrow to the tears and labours of the people. But as soon as the holy bishop saw signs of greater things from the effect of the lesser ones, there was instituted on the following day what we are about to undergo first, i.e. tomorrow, if God assents. The churches of the Gauls subsequently followed the action that set such a pleasing example, but in such a fashion that it was not celebrated among all on the same days on which it had been instituted among us.
… And if we ought assiduously to confess that we have sinned, there is a need for the duty of confessing and of the humility of repenting – above all because the compunction of the united populace can thus be combined with the incitement of good works, so that the recalcitrant may blush yet more appropriately, if, contradicting the whole multitude in the solitude of his own mind he does not lament his sins or vice along with the weeping populace. It is therefore necessary to conspire in good work. Each takes from the other either an example from humility or solace in confession. Excessively dangerous and for the few is that lonely combat, in which the strength on the other side is tested. But truly, when the approval of the multitude fights against the common enemy, the courage of another man drags along even the timid soldier. (Homily 6 on the Rogations, trans. Ian Wood for Translated Texts for Historians)
The 511 Council of Orléans uses the fantastic adjective quadraginsimalis to describe the Rogations — ‘Lent-like’. The penitential character is thus key, along with public prayers to God (litanies), combined with processions. By the 590s, Gregory of Tours seems just to assume that the Rogations are a regular part of liturgical life.
I shall not trace the history farther because it would take me too long to learn it. Nonetheless, the practice spread from Gaul; it likely went to England with the Roman missionaries who had a lot of contact with Gaul (recall that Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated by the Metropolitan of Arles). Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Christianity interacted a lot in the Early Middle Ages, and then England got conquered by William the Bastard in 1066, himself from France.
As I say, I don’t know any congregation that practices this Late Antique solemn observance, although they probably exist. Whether they do processions, who can say? Nonetheless, for the past three days, I’ve prayed the Litany at Morning Prayer, as well as this Collect:
Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of thy servants towards the attainment of everlasting salvation; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, they may ever be defended by thy most gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We may no longer see natural disaster as God’s judgement for our sins (and no good Augustinian should!), but we should nevertheless live lives of repentance as well as intercessory supplication. The Rogations are as good a time as any to readjust our focus, and in observing them we can join with our forebears in the faith back to the year 473.
I was chatting with a friend at a barbecue yesterday (indeed, in the smoke of the very barbecue itself!), and the subject of the Council of Tours of 813 arose, as it does. It arose for about the only reason I imagine it does arise these days, which is Canon XVII:
It seemed to our unanimity, that any bishop have homilies containing the necessary admonitions, about which his subjects be educated, that is about the catholic faith, according as they can grasp, about the perpetual retribution of the good and the eternal damnation of the wicked, about the future resurrection as well and the last judgement and with which deeds the blessed life can be promoted or by which it can be excluded. And that each be zealous to translate the same homilies clearly into the rustic Roman language or the Thiotisca, so that everyone can more easily understand the things that are said.
The Council of Tours of 823 did other things, encapsulated in 52 canons. You can read the Latin here. They legislate about the sale of church offices, about the translation of clerics, that bishops should frequently read and memorise the Gospels and letters of St Paul and become acquainted with the church fathers (in particular they should read Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule), that bishops should preach, take care of the poor, and lead a holy life. Various other things are articulated. It’s not uninteresting.
But, of course, it is Canon XVII that is most referenced. This is one of the first times we meet ‘rustica Romana lingua’ as something distinct from Latin. In the immediate context this would mean early Old French, but also includes the nascent Romance languages elsewhere in the Frankish domains in Spain and Italy, I’m sure. The Council of Tours was a local council, but it was part of Charlemagne’s efforts to correct religion and morals in his realms; it was assembled at the emperors behest, as were (it seems) some other councils that year. Thiotisca is mediaeval German.
Anyway, this canon is interesting because it counters two claims sometimes made by some Protestants (not all Protestants, and not all of them all the time). First, that there was no preaching in the Middle Ages. Second, that the vernacular was forbidden from official church activities in the Middle Ages. These are both false. Given that the Dominican order (founded 1216) is even officially called the Order of Preachers, the idea that people didn’t preach in the Middle Ages very easily refuted; just search your local university library catalogue for medieval preaching. Or sit back and enjoy this anthology by J.M. Neale. Nonetheless, some may still imagine that everything was in Latin.
Over a century after Charlemagne’s reform synod in 813 at Tours, in a land beyond Frankish control, we have the homilies of Aelfric of Eynsham, whose Old English homilies survive — you can read modern English translations here, if you wish. We also have the tenth-century Blickling Homilies in Old English. I am not an expert on all the vernacular homilies, but I do note a book about preaching in Romance languages prior to 1300 in my university’s catalogue. A lot of these sermons do not survive in the vernacular, though, as discussed at Harvard’s Houghton Library website. Since Latin was the international language of public discourse, most sermons were translated into Latin for dissemination; thus, the oral and the written find themselves at a much farther remove in this instance than usual.
Nevertheless, if we consider stories about the influence held by preachers such as St Francis in the early 1200s or Savonarola in the later half of the 1400s, we realise that vernacular preaching must have been normal.
The point of my poorly-sourced argument above?
Medieval Christianity was not as far removed from ordinary life as you might expect. The church was not, for a full half of its history, dominated by Latin to the exclusion of a language such as the people understands. Yes, the liturgy was in Latin. Yes, the language of high European culture was Latin. Yes, the official pronouncements of the ecclesiastical authorities were in Latin. But the day-to-day preaching to ordinary folk of the Middle Ages was in English, Old French, the old dialects of German, not Latin.
When we read the Reformation, this is important to keep in mind. There was preaching, and it was in the vernacular. It was the translation of the liturgy and the reform of certain practices and teachings that were the main concern of the Reformers. They, themselves, inherited and continued, in many ways, the mediaeval heritage of vernacular preaching. Let’s not erect mediaeval straw men in our quest to keep our consciences clear in our separation from Rome.
When I was in undergrad, there was a friend of some friends who was interested in Christianity, but who believed that God/Christ being ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’ and being perfect would mean that God could not act. Sameness, he argued, implied stasis; God cannot be a dynamic being if He is the same, but, rather, a static one. So God can’t do things, because doing things implies changing.
However, God is perfect, so He is perfectum, which means he is complete and lacks nothing. If we consider this idea in terms of fulfilling your our purpose or (since God is self-sufficient) being eminently what you are by nature or essence (ontologically), then we see that God can act and still be perfect; indeed, perhaps if God did not act, he would be imperfect. If perfection implies being what you are at its fullest, and God is love, then perfection would logically mean that God acts, but that none of his acts are imperfect. He loves perfectly.
From this question, let us ask another. How can we fulfil Jesus’ command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt. 5:48) Or how do we understand Hebrews 10:14, where it is said, ‘by one sacrifice he [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’? What does it mean when we think on heaven/paradise, where there seems to be an expectation that there will no longer be sin? Does this mean we sit around doing nothing?
By no means! In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we will have no room for growth and development. St Gregory of Sinai (c. 1260-1346) says:
It is said that in the life to come the angels and saints ever increase in gifts of grace and never abate their longing for further blessings. No lapse or veering from virtue to vice takes place in that life. –Philokalia, volume 4, p 222
The idea here is one that goes back at least to St Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) who discussed in The Life of Moses that since God is infinitely good, then we finite beings will never stop progressing in goodness. It is an interesting idea. Perfection for the finite means progress (true progress) in holiness, in becoming more like God (that is, theosis).
As far as this life is concerned, we must realise that we can always be holier, even if we are less sinful than we used to be. Our finite state of goodness is not simply marred by sin but limited by its own nature. St Athanasius (296-373) expresses the idea that Adam and Eve would have progressed in knowledge and maturity and holiness of a divine sort even if they hadn’t disobeyed in the Garden (see On the Incarnation).
Even the angels progress in grace.
This is what a better understanding of infinity and finitude can do for us. Ever upwards!