The Interconnected Middle Ages

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

Let us return to the topic of pre-Reformation Christianity in England. One of the most important other facts about it was that it wasn’t just in England. However wide the English may think the English Channel and the North Sea are, the island of Britain has always had strong social, intellectual, political, economic, and whatever other kind of ties to continental Europe.

Consider two of the men I mentioned in my last post — Alexander de Hales and Anselm of Canterbury. The former, although an Englishman, spent his entire scholarly career in France, from what I can tell. The latter was not English and wrote most of his major works while a monk/prior/abbot in Normandy before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. A third of the ‘A’s — Alcuin of York — spent most of his career on the continent as well.

One of our oldest complete Latin Bibles is the Codex Amiatinus in Amiata, Italy. It has been demonstrated that this codex was actually made in St Bede’s monastery in Northumberland. And, interestingly enough, it is a copy of an Italian Bible brought North by Bede’s spiritual father, Benedict Biscop. Elsewhere in Italy we find one of the most famous books of Old English literature, the Vercelli Book. Both of these will have been left behind by pilgrims.

Canterbury and Durham may have been important sites of pilgrimage in mediaeval England, but the English went on pilgrimage to Rome so much that not only were they complained of in terms of bad behaviour along the route, but there was a whole section of the city abutting the Vatican where they lived. They also went to Spain, to Santiago, one of the biggest pilgrim sites in Europe. And even when Jerusalem was not in Crusader hands, some went so far as that!

Coming to know the continental contemporaries of British theologians and devotional writers will help us enter more fully into their thought-world. It will also benefit us. Consider some of the bright lights whom I found listed as being in Durham Priory’s library:

  • St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) – One of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, he not only tamed Aristotle for Christianity in his Summa, he brought many of the riches of Greek Christianity into dialogue with his own Latin tradition. Saint of the week here.
  • St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) – Called ‘the Last of the Fathers’ by his Cistercian brothers, this is one of the greatest mystical theologians in the Latin Middle Ages. He was even Dante’s guide to the Uncreated Light. Saint of the week here.
  • Peter Lombard (1096-1160) – His Sentences became the standard theological textbook of the Latin Middle Ages, and a major exercise of many Masters and Doctors was to write a commentary on him. Thomas Aquinas did.
  • St Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) – Ivo was Bishop of Chartres. He’s most famous for canon law compendia, but his preface to said compendia as well as his letters are worth reading. They show a man with a strong moral sense but a pastor’s heart. (I mean, expressed in mediaeval terms, so…)
  • Richard of St Victor (1110-1173) – A Scottish mystical theologian who was prior of the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris. Both scholastic and mystical, in a way. The Victorines were heavily influenced by their friends over at Clairvaux, from what I understand.
  • Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141) – A Saxon mystical theologian and exegete also at the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris.
  • Bonaventure (1221-1274) – Head-honcho Franciscan who wrote a life of St Francis as well as some pretty intense mystical theology. Saint of the week here.

There were many others, like Hrabanus Maurus, in Durham’s library. But you get the point. Christianity is never insular, not even in Britain, especially not in the Middle Ages.

Of course, now we all have more than enough reading to last a lifetime…

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‘Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand!’ (Mt 4:17)

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I discovered today that the Latin Vulgate gives paenitentiam agite — Do penance! — where English Bibles usually give, ‘Repent!’ in Matthew 4:17. The Greek is metanoeite; the automatic instinct is to opt for the English. The Latin would seem to tend towards simply performing some sort out outward act, mere ‘works righteousness’ without a related renovation of the heart. Or perhaps a purely sacramental version; confess to a priest and perform the penance assigned.

Certainly, it could be read that way. It has been used that way.

For Ivo of Chartres, who has come up on this blog a few times lately, paenitentiam agere may better be, to carry out penitence. It is interesting what happens with the switch of verb and the switching out of one English derivative from paenitentia for another. Ivo is insistent in his letters that just because a person — be he king or bishop — has performed some outward act of charity or discipline does not mean that true paenitentia has occurred.

Paenitentia involves the inward workings of the human heart. These are visible to God alone. However, for Ivo, as for medieval culture more generally, the inner person will manifest itself in outer deeds. Thus, to carry out penitence will necessarily involve both true contrition for sin and behaviour that shows a desire, a willingness, to change.

Today’s Protestant is probably still wary of this question of the outer behaviour.

For Ivo, as represented in the Prologue that he wrote for his canon law collection (the Decretum — a title it shares with many other canon law collections!), the canons of the church are remedies for sin. These canons include the order for administering penitence. I am not going to get into the concept of temporal penalties for sins in mediaeval theology for two reason: 1. I don’t feel like offending any Roman Catholic readers; 2. I am not sure what it’s development looked like in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, whether someone believed that penitential acts could get them time off Purgatory, Ivo’s argument is fairly simple: they help you become holier. That is, with the aid of the grace of God working in you, your penitential actions will help make your soul healthier (remember the medical imagery he uses) and thus more able both to perform virtuous deeds and resist temptations to sin.

This, I think, carries with it a fuller understanding of repentance than our usual English translation of metanoeite in Matthew 4:17. Is it biblical? Well, I hope so. Here is a brief thought on metanoia: it is a word used in various situations to refer to a changing of directions — perhaps changing sides in a war, for example. To risk the etymological fallacy, it seems to have something to do with changing your nous, your mind/intellect/heart/however you wish to translate that word. In that case, Jesus is referring to changing the direction of your life and heart to live in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

To effect that change — well, here we fall back on St Paul’s various lists of virtues and vices, of fruits of the Spirit, and his exhortations to pray, to worship God, to rejoice in the Lord, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It strikes me that what Ivo is doing is trying to find specific applications of St Paul’s general principles for the health of those Christians who write him letters or who use his canon law collection.

And one last thing — Ivo’s Christian is not alone, not sitting about performing penitential deeds in isolation. Ivo’s Christian, clerical or lay, is part of the militia Christi — the army of Christ. He or she is a communicating member of the local Church, having received the sacrament of holy baptism and partaking of the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion. He or she is a hearer or reader of God’s word, whether in sermon or from a book.

This is the context of ideal mediaeval penitence — the real life of the church as lived in community by real people.

Bibliography:

Christof Rolker, Canon Law and the Letters of Ivo of Chartres

Ivo of Chartres, Prologue, in Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 132-158.

Law and Mercy

I was looking at Cresconius, Concordia canonum, from the mid-500s today, and I see that he prefigures in some ways Ivo, Bishop of Chartres (1090-1115). Both of these men are compilers of canon law collections, taking excerpts and canons and arranging them topically to make life easier for those who have to deal with those who transgress church law.

Cresconius writes:

when an extremely fair judge has examined for himself that each and every canonical ruling of a decree concerning which a question has been stirred up at some time has been set in order in many ways, he may learn by proveable examination whether he ought to guide his judgement through severity or through leniency. (My translation)

Thus, looking at the options available, a(n episcopal) judge can make use of his own discretion, his own discernment (an ancient Christian virtue) and decide which option to choose.

The principle seems similar to that of Ivo, who believes that the variations amongst the canons are not to be explained away or one to be chosen above another as universally correct. Rather, he argues that one should follow the paths of justice or mercy based upon the case.

In this we have been led to caution the prudent reader that if perhaps he should read some things that he may not fully understand, or judge them to be contradictory, he should not immediately take offense but instead should diligently consider what pertains to rigor, to moderation, to judgment, or to mercy. For he did not perceive these things to disagree among themselves who said, ‘Mercy and judgment I will sing to you, O Lord,’ (Ps 101:1) and elsewhere, ‘All the pathways of the Lord are mercy and truth.’ (Ps 25:10) (Trans. Somerville & Brasington)

Things to ponder, I guess.

Going to church with wicked people

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

Related to Blogging Benedict: Punishment, today I read Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115), Ep. 186. In this letter, Ivo responds to a query from a monk named Laurence on questions of living with wicked (mali) people. The long and short of it, with testimonia from St Augustine and Pope Gregory VII (pope, 1073-1085), is that you must put up with them, by and large.

Receiving communion alongside a person whom you know (or think) is a sinner is not entering into communion with their wickedness but into communion with Christ. It is God who will judge such people. Our job is to love them. If their sin is privately known, you cannot refuse communication with them. If, however, they are impenitent, public sinners, then they should fall under excommunication from the proper orders within the church. Not, that is, you. Your job is to love them. Or, if they are excommunicate, to avoid them.

Remember the Augustinian line taken from the parable of the tares: If we try to pluck out the tares before the harvest, we may accidentally cut down some of wheat along with them.

Also, you shouldn’t receive gifts from the excommunicate on the grounds that, well, they are excommunicate. The earth, says Ivo (Augustine), is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. God doesn’t need their gifts. He wants their repentance.

Placing this letter in the wider context of Ivo’s thought, we need to remember that he argues for the discipline of the church as being a remedy. The goal of excommunication, as with penance, is to heal the sinner and help him’er not sin anymore.

The main point for us today is not to spend our lives sitting around in judgement of fellow churchgoers. It’s pretty easy sometimes. Perhaps you suspect someone of heresy. Or of drinking too much. Or of judgementalism due to being a teetotaller. Or of greediness. Or of any manner of personal/sinful deficiency.

It is not our role to sit in judgement on them. The merciful God is who rich in mercy, abounding in compassion whilst also perfectly just and wholly loving will do that, is doing that. Our job is to love others.

Mind you, I fear that the clergy may sometimes have to excommunicate, and I say that not just because Ivo does (for who is Ivo to me?) but because Ivo cites the apostles on the matter. Nonetheless, it is a grave thing and to be done with much prayer and for the goal of healing the broken Christian and the broken community, not in a spirit of vindictiveness and retribution.

Blogging Benedict: Punishment

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Here are the notes I wrote down while reading the chapters of the Rule, 23-30, about punishment:

23: Corporal punishment sounds harsh. I’d say it is, but in RB’s context, many other rules are much freer with the rod.

  • Note that excommunication is here rooted in biblical principles, Matthew 18.

24-26: Cutting people off from community probably very harsh in the communal world a monastery, of the sixth century. But sin damages community. Excommunication gives time for the community and the sinner to heal before restoration and reconciliation. We want these matters to be instant, but what if they cannot be, due to our own timebound nature? Then, indeed, we will need periods of separation for spiritual healing.

27: The abbots goal with the excommunicated is to heal them. Penance and consolation are both remedies. Ivo of Chartres:

Indeed all ecclesiastical discipline chiefly has this intent: either to tear down every structure that raises itself up against the knowledge of Christ, or to build up the enduring house of God in truth of faith and honesty of character, or if that house of God be defiled, to cleanse it with the remedies of penance. The mistress of this house is charity, which sees to the welfare of our neighbours, commanding that it be done for others what one wishes to be done for himself. -Prologue to the Decretum and Panormia, trans. Somerville and Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, pp. 133-34

The abbot ‘must bear in mind that he has undertaken the care of weak souls, not a tyranny over those who are strong.’ (p. 52 English trans.)

GRACE – Example of Christ the Good Shepherd.

28: If all else fails, expel the unrepentant from the monastery.

30: Beating the young vs. Anselm. [Anselm argued against beating the youths in monastic care but sought their shaping through love instead.]

What takeaway might there be? First, a good abbot/spiritual leader seeks the spiritual health of the individuals and the community. Second, sometimes this might mean a period of separation with the goal of reconciliation. Third, assigning penances is not simply a matter of purgatorial satisfaction but rather a means of helping our souls grow stronger.

How do our communities deal with unrepentant, repeat offenders who tear at their fabric? How do we balance grace and justice, mercy and the need to protect the community from destructive behaviour?

Blogging Benedict: Leadership (chapters 2-3)

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Chapter 2 of the Rule of St Benedict is all about what sort of man the abbot should be. This is Benedict’s ideal abbot. My brother Jonathan mused a while back about what it means to be a priest (a herder of cats?), and John Cassian brought him to the idea that a priest should be like an abbot, seeking to help his congregation grow spiritually, giving them the spiritual nourishment they need as students enrolled in the school of the Lord’s service (that’s me putting a Benedictine metaphor in his mouth).

Benedict’s abbot is a spiritual father. He is called to be a man of compassion and virtue. Yes, he punishes, excommunicates, disciplines the brothers. But he also loves them and cares for them and seeks their growth in the Spirit. I think about St Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), one of the great Cistercian fathers. He was mild in his punishment of brothers who deviated, and some people criticised him for this. Yet one of the brothers he treated with clemency made a complete change and recovery, if you will, becoming a holy and devout monk because of the mercy he was shown. The one who is forgiven much will love much, as Our Lord says.

This idea draws me to the idea in Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) that canon law is a remedy. The regulations surrounding medieval ecclesiastical life and the monastic lifestyle, in an ideal sense, are meant to heal us of the disease of sin. Or, as DC Talk once put it, ‘the disease of self running through my blood, it’s a cancer fatal to my soul.’ Canons and penances are not, ideally, punitive but healing and restorative.

And they are to be applied to all equally — Benedict’s abbot does not play favourites. In fact, Aelred runs counter to Benedict here. Benedict says that you should not play favourites unless someone proves himself a better monk. Aelred, on the other hand, gets in trouble for seeming to favour his wayward monk. Yet this apparent favouritism was the right remedy. This is the value of discretion or discernment, one of the most prized monastic virtues of Late Antiquity (on which I’ve blogged here).

Of course, all this is well and good for the ideal abbot. But we know that this ideal rarely exists. Do we really want to trust the lives of so many souls to live in absolute obedience to anyone in a post-Jonestown world? This is a hard question to answer. I do think there is a way to think on the virtues of obedience in our own lives separately from how much authority we give an individual leader in our worshipping community. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Chapter 3 of the Rule makes it clear that the abbot is not meant to rule as a tyrant. Benedict writes:

Whenever any important matters need to be dealt with in the monastery, the abbot should gather the whole community together and set out the agenda in person. (p. 14 English)

The goal here is a balance between control and inclusion. The monks are included in the decision-making process, their voices are sought and heard. The abbot weighs their opinions and decides. After the decision is made, the monks must obey and not dispute with the abbot in public.

I wonder if they can respectfully dispute behind closed doors?

The concept of absolute obedience is very difficult for me to imagine…

However, what I wonder is, could there be room for a ‘Presbyterian’ monastic governance? That is, no absolute obedience to anyone. Remove the abbot and replace him with the deans. Make everyone mutually submissive to a commonly chosen rule. Decisions are made corporately and democratically by the ‘kirk session’. Or, even more radically, no monastic elders at all — monastic Quakerism? All decisions require unanimity and consensus.

My closing question, then: Do you, dear readers, know of intentional communities (besides local churches!) with either a ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Quaker’ kind of leadership structure? I’d like to hear about them.