A while back, @MilitantThomist announced on the Twitter that he and his wife were going to start attending their local SSPX church (if you don’t know what they are, here’s their site). One of his detractors went on to accuse him of following a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.
I like that phrasing. As some of you know, a friend of mine once dreamt that I was the priest at a church plant that followed the medieval Roman rite according to the Use of Sarum (you can read about that dream here), which is the liturgy of medieval England. Of course, the Middle Ages are kind of one of my things. So, really, if you were to ask, “What’s your preferred religion?”, the answer would be:
“A form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.”
Why? Well, because there are lots of things I like about the medieval church that we lost with modernity, whether Protestant or Catholic. My post about the Sarum dream mentioned some of these, and how their loss in our wider practice of the faith means that no amount of liturgical reconstruction or study of personal application of medieval spirituality will ever bring us back to the High Middle Ages.
I was going to list the specific things about the Latin Middle Ages and her spiritual world, about my love of Cistercians, of high liturgy, of vernacular preaching rooted in the Fathers, of so on and so forth. And about bringing all of it together into a living, breathing, heaving community of the faithful who love Christ and want to just reach out and touch him and swallow him and live his life.
To whatever extent my description would match any real, single moment of medieval life in Latin Christendom, it would hide the dark underbelly of medieval Catholicism, of criminous clerks, of promoting unfit clerks to high office, of uncatechised lay people, of abuses, of some doctrines being dangerously underdetermined (I am, in the end, still actually a Prot). And that’s part of how it would not be medieval Catholicism as it existed. It would be my favourite bits.
But what do we want when we dig into St Bernard or St Anselm or the Stowe Missal or St Bede or saints’ lives? What are we seeking when we prop up a postcard of a rose window on our bookcase? What is it that drew me into Durham Cathedral day after day after day? What do I think I might meet in Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich that I won’t meet at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Sunday?
Why do some of us like to get medieval? What drives us to these false medieval catholicisms? The thoughts that follow are not restricted to the Middle Ages, which is part of the point:
I think we are drawn to a bigger, stronger sense of the transcendent.
We are drawn to the idea of a united Latin Christendom, undone in the 1520s and sundered forever.
Some are drawn to the crystalline precision of Scholasticism.
Some are drawn to the vast mystery of Cistercians and Carthusians.
We are drawn to the beauty and drama of now-dead liturgical practices.
We long for a united, believing community not just internationally but locally.
We long for that “inner experience” that the mystics had.
We wish for clear boundaries of “in” and “out” that medieval canon law gave the church.
I tell you the truth: We can meet them today, and the medievals can be our guide. (Even for Prots. Shhh!)
But there is no return to a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.
Indeed, there there is no return to a form that did exist.
This is basically my life’s goal.