Saint of the Week: Ramon Llull (& Mediaeval Missions)

Re-post from 2007.

Ramon Llull preaching
Ramon Llull preaching

Ramon Llull (1232-c. 1314) was a Spanish (Majorcan) polymath who, after a mystical conversion involving dramatic visions in 1263, devoted the rest of his life to mission to Muslims. He did this largely through a huge corpus of works – 243 confirmed, including some in Arabic – as well as exhorting and equipping European Christians to engage in missionary work with Muslims instead of Crusade and attempting the establishment of missionary schools that would equip friars, especially in the Arabic language. He himself engaged in four missionary journeys, three to North Africa (1292, 1307, 1314) and one to Syria that ended in Cyprus instead where he debated Nestorians and Monophysites.

I originally wrote this post just after handing in an undergraduate paper on Llull that focussed on his reception in North Africa and factors that contributed to both his welcomes, deportations, and martyrdom. The original post continues ... I’m thinking of changing the tagline for this blog to “The Mouthpiece of the Revolution”, given the content of several of the last posts. If so, Llull is a man we can all learn from. Here are a few interesting things from my journeys through scholarship surrounding Ramon Llull. Some are quotations from authors I read, others are thoughts from elsewhere. We’ll see if I put them in order . . .

First of all, Llull was part of a fairly large effort on the part of the Franciscans and Dominicans to convert North Africa in the 13th century, beginning in 1219 in Morocco. It was to die fairly soon into the 13th century, though. Robert I Burns writes:

As time passed the dream of conversion flickered, fitfully dimmed, and died. . . . For a moment of time, nonetheless, influential people had favored sheathing the sword, sitting down in dialogue with the immemorial and hated enemy; for a moment, many men had groped for some common ground that was not a battlefield. The dream failed. It had amounted to a reaffirmation of a traditional, more profoundly Christian approach to the dissident. (p. 1434)

Llull’s main method, both in his disputations in Tunisia and with Muslims in Spain, was that of logical persuasion. Unlike some mediaeval thinkers, such as Ramon Marti, he believed firmly that Christianity could be logically defended and demonstrated, even proven. To this end, he had an Ars given him by God, by which any claim could be examined to determine whether it was true or not. He travelled through several European universities, most notably Paris, that great centre of learning and theology, expostulating and demonstrating this Ars. Many loved it and extolled its virtues – finally, a way by which the infidel could be entirely persuaded to the truth of Christ! And Muslim intellectuals enjoyed disputing with him; some may even have been converted during his first missionary journey.

If the idea that reason alone can convert a person seems a wee bit naive, some factors must be taken into account. First, the mediaeval Christian “assumed that the Muslim intellectual at bottom could hardly take the dogmas of Islam seriously” (Burns, 1433).

Second, Llull himself did not imiagine that Muslims would be convinced by reason alone. E Allison Peers in Fool of Love demonstrates that many of Llull’s works have the unbeliever go through a sudden turn-around during debate due not to logic but to divine Grace. As well, Hillgarth notes that in The Book of the Gentile, the pagan Gentile, having heard the doctrine of a Christian, of a Jew, and of a Muslim, leaves scene undecided, implying the role of grace “in perfecting the work begun by reason” (24).

Finally, similar to the previous point, throughout the Middle Ages, and in Llull as well, is a belief that “miracle rather than rational argument is the best proof of the truths of the faith against its heretical, Jewish, and other opponents” (Goodich, 65).

An interesting aside: Urban II, he who called the First Crusade in 1096, declared 8 years earlier to Bernard, Bishop of Toledo, “strive by word and example, god helping, to convert the infidels to the faith.” I’ve a feeling that the Crusade did not go entirely as the Pope intended . . .

And a note on Aquinas (mostly so I don’t forget after all this). In his missionary handbook, “He admonished his colleagues that, though Muslims were open to argumentation, one could not convert by reason; philosophy served ‘not to prove the faith but to defend the faith.’” (Burns, 1397)

But back to Llull. One of the reasons Llull is notable is because he understood the principle that one had to get under the skin of a culture if one is to reach it for the gospel. Hillgarth expresses Llull’s attitude far better than I can:

Conversion . . . was to be by persuasion and persuasion had to be based on knowledge, on a study of the manners and life, the philosophy and mode of reasoning of the different non-Christian peoples. . . . Lull [is] exceptional for his knowledge of Islam among the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages. He understood its psychology, he celebrated the beauty of its liturgical language, the depths of its religious spirit, and he recognized how close it was to Christianity. (25)

We would all do well to be like Llull. He spent lots of time in prayer, especially the contemplative prayer of the mystic. When he wasn’t praying, he was studying about Islam so that he would be able to present Christ to the Muslims effectively; he was writing, either to persuade Muslims the truth of Christianity or to encourage and equip Christians for the work of mission; or he was engaged in evangelistic contact, be it with Muslims and Jews in Spain, Muslims in North Africa, or heretics in Cyprus. If only we were so diligent!

To follow: Ramon Llull in Cyprus . . .

Further Reading on Llull

Read Fool of Love by E Allison Peers for a good introduction to the saint (London: SCM Press, 1946). It’s a short little book and gives insight into Llull as a mystic, philosopher and missionary. If you don’t have time for that, try The Catholic Encyclopedia, although Peers’ book is highly superior.

The Other Works I’ve Cited:

Burns, Robert I. ‘Christian-Islamic Confrontation in the West: The Thirteenth-century Dream of Conversion.’ In The American Historical Review, 1971, pp. 1386-1434.

Goodich, Michael, translator and editor. Other Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Hillgarth, J. N. Ramon Lull and Lullism in Fourteenth-century France. Oxford: Clarendon Prss, 1971.

Saint of Last Week: St. Teresa of Avila

So I meant to do a post on St. Teresa of Avila last week. And then I didn’t.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) rocks. Hard. She was a Discalced (“Shoeless”) Carmelite nun involved in the Catholic Reform movement of the sixteenth century, along with our friend St. John of the Cross (saint of the week here). Sts. John and Teresa took their part in the healing of Christ’s church in sixteenth-century Spain particularly through the reform of the Discalced Carmelite monastic order.

This is a reminder that Catholic Reform wasn’t simply sending out the Inquisition to burn a few Prots. For the record.

St. Teresa, like St. John, was a contemplative and a mystic. She was blessed by God both with visions as well as with genuine spiritual insight. Thus she was able to help lead her monastic community of nuns well and help work through reforms. Even if some of her confessors doubted her visions.

But men are like that.

St. Teresa of Avila is most famous for her book Interior Castle. I read the translation by E. Allison Peers, whose interest in Spanish literature and mysticism has blessed us with translations of St. Teresa’s works as well as St. John’s and a fine biography of my old friend Ramon Llull. Anyway, Interior Castle is amazing.

St. Teresa had this vision, see, and it was of the mansions of the spirit. As in, your own spirit. And first you get past the outer world which is full of distracting lizards and stuff like that. Then you get further and further into the castle/through the mansions. Each mansion is about the cleansing of your soul at some level and what each stage looks like.

At the centre, when God has purified your heart through prayers and effort and trials and, ultimately, His good grace, there is the light of His Spirit. And it is there for anyone who is able to enter into the stillness and take the effort to stop being distracted by the lizards.

But most of us, unlike people like St. Teresa, St. John, St. Gregory Palamas, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, spend much of our lives gazing at those damned lizards.

And that’s not the blessing that calls us to. He calls us to a union of love with him.

So spend time in quiet. In silence. In prayer. With Jesus. Enter the mansions of the spirit. Find Him in the light at the centre of your soul, calling out to you gently while you’re busy staring at lizards and honey badgers.

Saint of the Week: St. John of the Cross

Image of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross

My first encounter with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was musical, in Thunder Bay at a Steve Bell concert where Steve performed ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ based on St. John’s poem of the same name.  Later, I was to encounter this mystic saint through the similarly folksy music of John Michael Talbot.  I found the image of the dark night and the discovery of the beloved quite irresistible.

I next encountered him in the written translation of his poetry in a slim volume of his poems given me by my friend Emily.  Although I was to lose this book and The Way of a Pilgrim in a misguided use of cargo pockets on my trousers to carry books, its brief time in my life was a blessing.  His vivid and almost (dare one say it?) erotic imagery of the relationship between the soul and God was powerful for me.

I think this Spanish mystic would have approved of my initial encounters with him — as well as the association of his poems with The Way of a Pilgrim.  You see, St. John was a mystic and a monk, indeed, but he was also a singer.  I remember hunting down information on him on the web after these early meetings, and I learned that his spiritual friend, St. Teresa of Avila, described John of the Cross as spending time walking in the hills and singing songs to God.

And why not?  Why not sing songs to one’s lover?

St. John of the Cross demonstrated his great love for the Almighty through the commitment of his life to monasticism.  This was the sixteenth century, and anyone who has looked at, say, the Fifth Lateran Council or the events that started in Germany in 1517, knows that the Church in many ways was in need of reform.  St. John and St. Teresa were both Carmelites, and both were involved in the reforming of their religious order.

St. John’s commitment to reform of the Carmelites was so great that he was considered with suspicion by other Carmelites monks and once found himself imprisoned in a rival monastery.  But have no fear — he made a daring escape!  Let no one tell you that the life of a mystic is boring and full naught but long nights sitting around in silence seeking the divine embrace!

Besides the poem ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, St. John of the Cross also wrote a commentary on it, appropriately titled The Dark Night of the Soul.  I read E. Allison Peers’ translation of this well-nigh central text to post-mediaeval western mysticism whilst in Cyprus (where I was informed by a friend that all you needed from St. John was a quotation and then you’d be cool).  I never moved to its sequel, The Dark Night of the Spirit, for that was for contemplatives who had moved appropriately through the lessons of the Dark Night.

The concept of the Dark Night is something any spiritually healthy person needs to know.  We may have effulgent love for God that pours itself out in poetry and beauty and paintings and dance and essays and ecstasies and social action* and who knows what else.  But we will at times find ourselves unsatisfied.  We will be dark, dry, barren.  Those things we once found sweet — prayer, the Scriptures, the Eucharist — are bitter and empty.

This is there for us to grow.  God doesn’t want us to be good, strong Christians.  He wants us to be better, stronger Christians, pursuing the way of perfection through worship and imitatio Christi all of our days.  As a mother weans a child of her milk so the child can move to solid food, so God removes some of the pleasantness of the spiritual life for a spell so that we can grow into even greater and clearer manifestations of his unending love for us.

I have by no means done anything resembling justice to this mystic, poet, spiritual reformer.  If I have somehow whetted your appetite, find his poems, find Peers’ translation of the Dark Night, and read the relevant chapter of Edith M. Humphrey’s Ecstasy and Intimacy.  You won’t be disappointed through an acquaintance with St. John.

Also — pray for a while today.  St. John would recommend it, for how can we say we love God when we spend no time with him?

*St. John of the Cross was cited by Thomas Merton as saying that contemplation was more important than action, and that one action that has been preceded by much contemplation is worth more than ten with none.  Or something like that — see The Inner Experience.