St Martin’s Day (Lest We Forget)

Today is Remembrance Day. The eleventh day of the eleventh month. And at the eleventh hour, a moment of silence will be taken to remember the war dead, especially of the First World War and the Second World War. It is an event and moment forged in the aftermath of a bloody, destructive conflict that ran 1914-1918 and that many considered the war to end all wars. I wear a poppy to remember the dead, as well as the survivors, and to be thankful that I grew up in a Canada and live in a Europe free of war. May God keep it thus.

It is also the Feast of St Martin of Tours (316/36-397). St Martin is the western, Gallic, proto-monk. One of the first of his kind in the Latin West. He was not always a monk.

He started a soldier.

St Martin, according to his hagiographer Sulpicius Severus, was converted while on campaign in Gaul, serving under Julian Caesar. He felt that he could no longer maintain his career as a soldier and hold up his Christian profession because of the shedding of blood, the violence, the killing of humans.

So St Martin left the army and ended up become a monk, and later bishop.

I am not arguing for pacifism here. But war is terrible, even when fought for just reasons. (And when you read about some of the things the Romans did against the Alemanni in the fourth century, you question the justice of it all.) It is a hard, harsh reality.

It is thus fitting that on this day, when we remember the 17 million dead in WWI, that we also remember St Martin.

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Is Augustine neurotic or really just Roman?

Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli (in the Uffizi, Florence where I, of course, saw it)

St Augustine of Hippo very frequently comes under attack for his views on the body and sex. In the class on said Church Father that I’m auditing, the lecturer said on Monday that in the 70s, when everyone got liberated, they needed someone to blame for having formerly been un-liberated, so they chose Augustine for being a. a long time ago and b. very influential on the western tradition.

Not to argue that everything the Blessed Augustine said was true, I still have to ask:

Is that really fair?

I believe that the answer is, ‘Nope.’

Whenever we look at an ancient author, we cannot simply look at specific views of his outwith their context in the writer’s work as a whole, nor within the wider cultural milieu wherein they were formed. To do otherwise is symptomatic of my bugbear, the Hermeneutic of Suspicion. Which I detest.

Augustine believes that the human body is a lesser good than the mind. He believes that humanity’s rational, intellective/intelligible faculty is how we are made in the image of God. The body is not as good as the mind, and is often described as the source of the fleshly appetites and passions. This, as far as it goes, sounds fairly Platonic, doesn’t it?

He also believes that this fleshly, earthly life is mortality and misery. This is also, if you ask me, simply being a Roman. Imagine a world before anaesthetics and modern medicine. A world where a toothache can cause you endless, agonising pain. A world where your wife/sister/daughter is likely to die in childbirth. A world where you could very quickly and easily die from drinking dirty water. A world where you could lose your entire fortune in a shipwreck. A world where barbarians could raid either in a big way (see North Africa, Vandals in) or a small raid (see North Africa, Berbers in).

I am fairly certain that much of life in the ancient and mediaeval worlds was toil, pain, misery. Is Augustine a neurotic semi-Manichaean when he says that human life is misery — or is he just a fifth-century realist?

According to Augustine, lust is a result of the passions, and desiring sex is lust. This is a result of the Fall — in the prelapsarian state, Adam could have an erection whenever he pleased and thus fulfil God’s edict ‘be fruitful and multiply’ without falling into sin. Alas, since sex tends to involve lust today, it is hard to have sex without sinning; thus the preferred state of celibacy.

Augustine takes a lot of flack for this in particular. It has been said that he is just a recovering Manichee who had a past as a sexual deviant and was making up for it by being a neurotic Puritan.

Once, again, I think not. Bits of this train of thought can be seen in his North African predecessor who was anything but Manichaean and who was probably married, Tertullian. Other bits, about control of the appetites, are found in the Desert Fathers and your standard Roman ethics. For example, the story is told of Cato the Younger that he shamefully admitted to having taken refuge in his wife’s arms during a lightning storm. This sort of lack of control of one’s body, etc, was regarded as not up to snuff by ancient Romans.

As well, the appetites include not just sex but also food. Augustine believes, as seen in The Confessions, that eating is only to be done to relieve hunger. If you eat out of pleasure, that is gluttony. This is a common ancient, Roman belief, and one which he held in common with the Desert Fathers (again) and his contemporary, (St) John Cassian — a fellow who, himself, did not agree with Augustinian views of Predestination (as I discuss here).

Furthermore, Augustine cannot, at least in City of God, be accused of being a Manichaean, because he does not believe the dualist principles at the heart of the Manichaean religion, that all matter — not just bodies — is evil, and we need to be liberated from it. In fact, although I believe his overemphasis and exaltation of the mind and reason finds its origins in (Neo)Platonism, Augustine also goes against the Platonic grain.

Augustine believes that we were created to have bodies. And he believes that at the Resurrection of the Dead and in Paradise we will have bodies for eternity. This is not Manichaeism or Platonism, but Christianity.

So, critique Augustine. But please don’t say that he is either a Manichee or neurotic. This simply reveals your inadequate knowledge of the man’s historical context.

Saint of the Week: Gregory the Great

Pope St. Gregory the Great (Gregory I, 540-604) was one of the mighty figures of the Early Mediaeval papacy. He was the bishop of Rome from 590-604 and left behind an enormous corpus of writings, including sermons on the Gospels, Ezekiel, and the Song of Songs; his Dialogues about the lives of Italian saints, the most famous of these being the second, all about St. Benedict (saint of the week here and here);* an influential commentary on Job; the Pastoral Rule; and a surviving corpus of 854 letters known as the Register.

He was Bishop of Rome in a turbulent time. The Eastern Roman Empire had reconquered Italy in his lifetime, and he was one of a line of popes friendly to the Emperor in Constantinople, in his case the Emperor Maurice (from what I recollect, not a bad Eastern Roman Emperor). However, by the time Gregory attained the see of Rome, most of Italy, save Rome and Ravenna, was under the rule of the Lombards — primarily pagan or Arian in belief — and not the Emperor on the Bosporus.

Despite the various vicissitudes of Early Mediaeval life, such as lamenting the spoliation of Rome’s monuments by its own citizens, or the gradual and decades-long process of ruralisation (I know this is a contested point), Gregory did his best to keep Christianity and Christian culture strong in Rome and beyond — hence, in part, his energetic literary activity (note that my friend Leo the Great [saint of the week here] only left us 173 letters and had a papacy five years longer).

Besides being a great pastoral theologian (he distilled Cassian’s Evagrian Eight Thoughts into the Seven Deadlies) and notable preacher, part of Gregory’s attempts to keep up the intellectual spiritual life of the West was found in liturgical reforms. He moved some things around, and is credited by tradition for inventing Gregorian Chant. He also helped make the liturgy a bit more flexible according to the Church Year, and thus many sacramentaries of the centuries following his papacy bear his name.

He was also a missionising pope. By Leo X, people may be uncomfortable with the claims of universal jurisdiction made by the Roman See. Now, I’m not 100% sure if Gregory made such claims, but he certainly seems to have wielded some authority beyond Italy the way Bede (saint of the week here) writes about. Anyway, Gregory was the pope who sent Augustine (saint of the week here) to Canterbury and began the evangelisation of England. From England, as noted when Boniface was saint of the week, came many other missionaries to the Germanic barbarians in later years.

His energy and his desire to see the intellectual and spiritual life of the world around him prosper are certainly reasons to remember Gregory the Great. He is one of the Four Doctors of the Western Church from the Patristic Age. His feast day is this coming Saturday, September 3.

More on Gregory

The Life of Benedict from the Dialogues is in the Penguin Classics Early Christian Lives, Carolinne M. White, ed. and trans. It is also online here.

NPNF2 translation of the Book of Pastoral Rule and select letters on CCEL, and more letters here. These translations also come with good, if dated, introductions.

*For the discussion on the Gregorian authorship of these Dialogues, there is a good post at Liturgy from last week.

Saint of the Week: St. Valentine

This past Sunday was Valentine’s Day.  So it is only appropriate that we commemorate Valentine as our saint this week.  The St. Valentine of choice this week is he who died in AD 270.

He was a martyr during the reign of the Emperor Quintillus (I think; my history books aren’t at hand to confirm Quintillus’ brief reign).  During the third century, Christians underwent persecution on and off.  Some emperors persecuted them heartily, others did little more than seize holy books and disallow gatherings for worship.  The sporadic nature of Roman persecution of Christians was also such that the Christians were not usually persecuted universally but only in certain places and only at certain times and only for certain offenses.

These persecutions were sometimes because foreign, non-traditional, non-ethnic religious groups were an easy scapegoat (see Nero’s persecution in the 60’s).  Sometimes they were because the Christians refused to burn incense to the emperor, claiming that since the emperor is but a man, he ought not to receive worship as a god.  Another cause of persecution is the deep-rooted Roman belief in the pax deorum — the peace of the gods.  Rome was successful because of divine favour.  Not to worship or believe in the gods was to court disaster for the Roman people.  Therefore, to prevent disaster, or to stop it (as in times of crisis such as the third century), those who did not worship the gods — “atheists” — were rooted out.

Valentine was a priest in Rome during a persecution.  It is my understanding that he was brought before the magistrate and required to recant his Christian beliefs (a fairly simple action, “Recanto.”).  He refused.  He was commanded so to do multiple times, but held firm to his faith until the end.  Since he refused to recant, he was then beaten with clubs, dragged through the City, and beheaded.

Why on earth do we go out on dates and give loved ones heart-shaped cards and chocolate on St. Valentine’s Day?  It may be the leftovers of the Lupercalia, observed on February 15.  I don’t see how a festival that consisted of men running about naked and hitting people with leather thongs, animal sacrifices, and religious solemnities becomes Valentine’s Day.  It may simply be a rootless sort of “Spring thing”, since everyone is twitterpated in the Spring.

As far as Valentine is concerned, the legend (tradition?) is that he was forbidden to perform Christian marriages but refused, and kept on getting people married, so they killed him.

Although we are uncertain of all the details of his life, he was real.  Remember that we are also uncertain about Quintillus’ life and reign.  Times of upheaval and uncertainty make for incomplete, disjointed, and occasionally contradictory records.  As well, since St. Valentine was but one of many martyrs (more than one of whom was named Valentine), and not as famous as some, we find ourselves unsure of many details.

The lesson from his life?  To stand firm in the face of persecution.  If you do so, you might have a popular holiday named after you.