St Cuthbert and missionary monks

Melrose Abbey

When I lived in Durham, my office was a two-minute walk from the powerful, weighty Romanesque/Norman cathedral. I visited the cathedral at least once a week to refresh my soul in what was, for us, a difficult year. If you turn right on entry and go to the Galilee Chapel, you find the tomb of the Venerable St Bede. If you turn left and walk along one of the broadest Romanesque naves of Europe, through the transept and into the late mediaeval Gothic expansion, you will find the tomb of St Cuthbert, behind the High Altar of the chancel.

St Cuthbert’s tomb is at the same height as the chancel, so you’ll have to take some stairs to get to it.

When King Henry VIII wanted the wealth of the church, combined with a Reformation zeal for simplicity, the old, glittering, glitzy, bejewelled shrine to St Cuthbert was dismembered (disiecti membra sancti?). Today, the saint lies interred beneath a black slab, similar to that of St Bede, ‘Cuthbertus’ inscribed in gold on it.

This body, intact for centuries (they disinterred it in 1104 and found it still to be fleshy and the limbs moveable), is Durham’s greatest treasure. To be sure, there are some mediaeval ecclesiastical politics behind the placement of St Cuthbert’s body, to do with the desire of Durham to be the episcopal seat of Northumberland, but the choice of St Cuthbert as Durham’s preferred saint is no accident.

Christianity arrived in (returned to) England in 597, and King Oswald of Northumberland brought St Aidan (d. 651) as his monastic mission-bishop based at Lindisfarne. The mission of St Aidan was something of a top-down affair. The king and his thegns converted, and the assumption was that their people would as well.

Around the time of Aidan’s arrival from Iona, Cuthbert, his most famous successor, was born. What makes St Cuthbert so interesting, from his time as a monk at Melrose to his death as a hermit on Inner Farne (at the time, all that was Northumberland), was the fact that, although a hermit at heart and contemplative by practice, he was also a preacher.

It is rumoured he preached as far north as Edwin’s Burg (Edinburgh), where a church to St Cuthbert stands today where once the shores of the Nor’ Loch lapped against the land. And he did not just preach to kings and carls, to thegns and landholders. He preached to the common folk of Northumberland, people to whom the king’s religion had not yet reached in the ensuing decades.

And this is why St Cuthbert is the greatest treasure of Durham Cathedral, for he really, truly was the instrument of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Gospel to Northumberland (which in medieval terms would include County Durham).

When I think about how we might reorient our lives and churches in post-Christendom, it is the example of such figures as Sts Cuthbert and Aidan that strikes me the most — people who are devoted to both the inner chamber, the secret room, the contemplative life of the mystic, and to the outer world, the preaching of the Gospel, the saving of the lost, the making of disciples.

Maybe we need more missionary monks.

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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.