The importance of preaching for reform from the Carolingians to us

Admonitio Generalis, Paris lat. 10758, fol. 50v

In 789, Charlemagne issued a General Admonition to the Frankish domains concerning a variety of aspects of church life and canon law. This text sets out the official, governmental impetus behind the Carolingian Renaissance. Driving this renaissance was a desire to see reform in the kingdom whereby people would live Christianly and virtuously, united in peace under the king.

Although this desire seems lost to the sands of time about a hundred years later, when Notker’s Life of Charlemagne portrays the king’s primary interest in church reform as being liturgical and conduct being tied primarily not to morality but to official church discipline, one of the core elements of Charlemagne’s proposed reform is preaching:

61. To all. Before all else, that the catholic faith is to be diligently taught and preached to all the people by the bishops and priests, because this is the first commandment of the Lord God almighty in the law: ‘Hear, O Israel, that the Lord your God is one God. And that He is to be loved with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength’ [Mark 12. 29-30: cf. Deut. 6. 4-5] (trans. P D King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p. 214)

In the final chapter (ch. 82) of the General Admonition, Charlemagne provides the content of the catholic faith which is to be preached, which is essentially an expanded creed with moral instruction. The text ends:

… let us prepare ourselves withall our heart in knowledge of the truth, that we may be able to resist those who oppose the truth and that, by the gift of divine grace, the word of God may flourish and become general spread, to the benefit of God’s holy church and the salvation of our souls and the praise and glory of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Peace to those who preach, grace to those who obey, glory to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, 220)

I am fully aware that there is much debate about reform in the Middle Ages and what it means, but it strikes me that the preaching of the catholic faith and the word of God has always been central to the activity of reforming the church. In the Carolingian world, even if St Boniface (d. 754, saint of the week here) may have exaggerated or misconstrued things in some of his letters from the years prior to Charlemagne, Christianity did not always go very deep. Rosamond McKitterick writes:

In a society half barbarous, with pagan customs still happily observed (especially among the country folk), with only a veneer of Christianity, and largely isolated pockets of scholarship, every reiteration of the urgency of being educated in the Christian faith, of inculcating and absorbing the wisdom of the church fathers, assumes an enormous importance. (The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895, 8)

To jump ahead four hundred years, preaching was central to the mission of the Dominicans and Franciscans at a time when lay knowledge of the faith all claimed to know was at an alarming low and when the powerful trod upon the weak and ecclesiastics were becoming great men of the world. The Gospel was taken by the friars from the pulpits to the streets.

In the Reformation, preaching again took centre stage. The sermon, ever an aspect of the Mass, was lifted back to a place of prominence, and the Scriptures were opened up yet again to a biblically illiterate laity. In England, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer integrated preaching into the daily office as well as lengthening the lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer. Many of the Reformed rebuilt their churches with pulpits at the centre and would have preaching events every morning before the faithful went to work.

In the 1700s, the Wesley brothers, like the mediaeval friars, once again took the Gospel from the pulpits to the crowds, and pioneered open-air preaching to the working classes, revitalising the life of the Church of England while at the same time starting the Methodist movement.

Today, if we wish to see the church change itself and the world, preaching will still be central. Preachers will set forth the Gospel from their pulpits, from their podcasts, from their YouTube channels.  Open-air? Not so sure. But what I do know is that powerful preaching can transform the faithful who can transform the world. Let us all pray for our ministers as they take in hand that task each Sunday morning.

Protestant — but not Calvinist

¡Viva la Reformación! (credit: E Martin)

This week, for a course I’m taking, I had the opportunity to hunker down and read some confessional documents.  First I read The Augsburg Confession and the Catholic response, the Confutatio Pontificia, and then the more recent Joint Declaration on Justification.  I also read chh. 12 & 18 of Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther.

You may have noticed that sometimes I tag posts with “i might end up eastern orthodox at this rate”.  I think I may have used it only twice, but I could have used it more frequently.  Anyway, this feeling was increasing over Christmastide, not only with a lot of reading of St. Leo and a couple of trips to St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church, but also because of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book, At the Corner of East and Now.  I admit there is something compelling in Eastern Orthodoxy.

But then I read Augsburg and Althaus’ discussion of Luther’s theology.  And I realised that I am still a Protestant, for I found Luther’s explanation of Justification by Faith entirely reasonable and compelling, remaining faithful to Scripture whilst setting forth its doctrine with reason.  It holds in tension simul justus et peccator and faith-works and law-gospel — all of these things that, beautiful as so many Orthodox descriptions of the Christian life are, make the most sense to me and give me the greatest spiritual comfort of all explanations.

We are all bound by our understanding of Scripture.

Tonight, for the same course, I finished reading the Second Helvetic Confession.  I am clearly not a Calvinist.  Certainly not of this Confession’s ilk.  This is not just the predestination issue.  It is the overbearing, heavy-handed reliance upon public preaching of the Gospel.  As though this and the rational world of the mind were all that true piety consisted of — thus, even if the confession didn’t consider images in holy spaces as idols, it would still oppose them on grounds of their needlessness.  People don’t need pictures if they can hear the Word of God preached to them (so says this confession).

This Confession also shows many Protestant weaknesses.  It gives a fairly decent account of Eucharist when discussing it directly, but sidelines it the entire time whilst always talking about preaching.  Indeed, the Eucharist seems at one point to be best understood as basically a sermon that you eat.

It seems to support a presbyterian church order over all and rejects the Daily Office out of hand, making claims about the order of the church as handed down from the Apostles — but makes the claim that the Apostles celebrated together on the Lord’s Day!  This is a practice that has evidence for it of the same antiquity as the episcopacy and the Daily Office — evidence not clearly shown forth in the apostolic writings.  What has happened has that the Church, seeking to submit itself to nothing other than Sacred Scripture has become not only the judge of tradition but, at times, even of Scripture herself (see the bit where James is subordinated to Paul to the extent that they would be willing to jettison him from the canon if he disagreed with “the Apostle”).

Some of Helvetic II mirrored the 39 Articles.  But much did not.  So if I must turn anywhere in the Reformation, it is not to Calvin, whose followers haughtily claim that he finished what Luther began, but to Luther and the Book of Common Prayer.  No matter how hard I try, I always come up Anglican.

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.