What would a modern Bonfire of the Vanities look like?

In writing about Savonarola, I got to thinking about what a modern ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ would look like. What are the vanities we would come to throw into the flames and utterly destroy for all eternity?

Typically, useless luxuries are thrown into such bonfires. Who really needs fabulous works of Renaissance art, anyway? Right? But what is the traditional Christian concept that lies at the foot, that is the kindling, of bonfires of the vanities?

It is, and here I conjecture, most likely twofold. One — the things of this world are unnecessary. Thus, vain, as its Latin root vanus means. Empty. Needless. Who needs make up? Who needs hair product? Who needs to upgrade his’er iPad yesterday? Is not this stripping away of all wordly goods an abundant command in the Gospels? Luke 14:33 unsettles me on a regular basis:

In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. (NIV)

The second is related. The great good in the universe is not in the universe. The summum bonum of our lives is not of our lives. God is paradoxically closer than our very breath yet as far above us as the heavens are from the earth. The Holy One is both immanent and transcendant. And the things of this world can get in the way. Our books, our art, our new clothes, or treasured possessions, our delicacies, our gadgets — these things can distract us from the great good found in God alone through grace alone.

So the mindset of the Bonfire of the Vanities is — throw away the distractions. Then turn your attention to God.

I am imagining this not in Florence but in Edinburgh. I’m imagining the square in front of St Giles although perhaps the National Gallery would be more appropriate. And there, beside the statue of some Duke of Buccleuch or other, in front the late Gothic facade (or is it a Victorian re-do?), there are the flames, reaching to the Duke of Buccleuch’s bronze head.

In procession along the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge, through the grey, cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town come the Edinburghers. In their jeans and skirts and sweat pants (aka ‘tracky bottoms’!!) with half their rear exposed. In their kilts and suits and hoodies and skin-tight leggings. They trudge, pale-skinned to the orange glow of the flames.

And there they throw in the vanities of this age: iPads, iPods, iPhones, iEverything, Swiss watches, jewellery, make up, hair gel, books, CDs, DVDs, external hard drives full of illegally downloaded films, sound systems, flat screen TVs, your mom, theatre tickets, musical instruments (even these could go at times!), fancy shoes, and on and on.

Edinburgh is auld reekie again. And not just in terms of smoke, but Standard English reeky. The stench of burning plastic and rubber fills the air as the penitents throw their worldly sources of distraction and affection and misplaced fulfilment and false self-worth onto the towering inferno, its column rising black and malodorous into the slate-grey Midlothian sky.

But somehow I doubt there will be a black-and-white-robed Dominican from St Albert’s chaplaincy standing there urging everyone on.

So a modern Bonfire of the Vanities.

We hope such excess is not necessary. But what is necessary to reach for the Invisible God, bound as we are to the physical realities all around us. We need to make daily space for being undistracted. We need to unclutter not just our homes but our schedules. Perhaps we need to engage in a bit of a metaphorical Bonfire of the Vanities ourselves.

It is Lent. The perfect excuse for a little spiritual discipline, yes?

Saint of the Week: Girolamo Savonarola

Savonarola, by Fra Bartolomeo

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) is one of the many colourful characters of Florentine history. My favourite Florentine will always, of course, be Dante Alighieri (saint of the week here), but Savonarola and his younger contemporary Michelangelo Buonarotti are also well worth knowing.

Savonarola was born in Ferrara and educated in ‘Renaissance’ ‘humanism’, headed originally towards a career in medicine. Yet, inspired by a sermon, he decided to leave the world and become a knight for Christ, joining the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans (whose founder was saint of the week here), at Bologna in 1475. After a few years of study, Savonarola became an itinerant preacher, one of the original roles of the Dominicans (hence the official name ‘Order of Preachers’).

In 1490, under the influence of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Lorenzo de Medici ‘il Magnifico’, Savonarola was reassigned to the friary of San Marco in Florence. This friary still stands, although it is one of the conventi soppressi closed by Napoleon in 1808, and I shall visit it tomorrow morning. San Marco was the monastic house of Fra Angelico (d. 1455) and still contains many of his original paintings in situ in the friars’ chambers as well as hosting a museum today.

The last eight years are when it gets exciting.

In Florence, Savonarola proved not only to be a man of keen mind, but also a prophetic, apocalyptic preacher. He drew crowds upon crowds to hear him preach. Indeed, so many people came to hear him preach that the only pulpit large enough was the Duomo (already equipped with Brunelleschi’s [d. 1446] dome).

People liked Savonarola’s very medieval style of apocalyptic. He preached the gospel of repentance to a decadent city in a wealthy peninsula. He preached against tyrants who suppressed the people entrusted to their care. He preached against wealthy clergy who abused their spiritual power for worldly gain. A cult following formed around Savonarola, called the Piagnoni, the weepers/wailers.

I have seen in the Galleria dell’Accademia the two side panels of a triptych painted by one of Savonarola’s disciples (whether a Dominican or a lay artist, the museum label did not tell). They are of John the Baptist on the left and Mary Magdalene on the right. The figures are grey-skinned and ragged, their flesh hanging off their bones. This is the late-medieval spirituality of Savonarola, in stark contrast of the well-fed and well-dressed saints of the contemporary Renaissance. This is the spirituality of poverty — worldly and spiritual, the intersection of the two.

And it was the lack thereof that Savonarola so railed against in Florence.

Not that he was apolitical, mind you.

In 1493, Savonarola preached a series of sermons proclaiming that a new Cyrus was to cross the Alps and invade Italy, then set the Babylonian captives free by reforming the Church. To prove that Savonarola had the gift of prophecy, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy the next year.

Charles VIII marched South and invaded Tuscany, taking the towns along the way. Piero de Medici fled, and soon Charles’ army was encamped outside Florence asking why the Florentines hadn’t supported him. Savonarola went forth and interceded for the Florentines, encouraging Charles to take up his mantle as reformer of the church.

And so Florence was a republic again. And Savonarola was in the thick of it all. 10 December, 1494, he declared:

I announce this good news to the city, that Florence will be more glorious, richer, more powerful than she has ever been; First, glorious in the sight of God as well as of men: and you, O Florence will be the reformation of all Italy, and from here the renewal will begin and spread everywhere, because this is the navel of Italy. Your counsels will reform all by the light and grace that God will give you. Second, O Florence, you will have innumerable riches, and God will multiply all things for you. Third, you will spread your empire, and thus you will have power temporal and spiritual.

This was not to be the case.

Things looked to be looking up. In 1497, Savonarola held the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history. The transitory things of this world — art, money, books of astrology, make up and so forth — were burned in a huge bonfire in front of Piazza della Signoria. My Time Out guide to Florence greatly laments this bonfire, wondering what wonders were lost; however, it also fallaciously claims Michelangelo was there, fallen under Savonarola’s spell, and threw some of his own artworks in. Given that Michelangelo was in Rome at the time, I don’t think so.

No doubt, however, some beautiful objects were lost alongside the make up and money and astrology books. And this is too bad. The world is full of too much ugliness to lose the beauty. But for a Renaissance Florentine banker, is this art he has burned? Or is it another attachment to a world of vanities, to a world where the rich oppress the poor, to a world more concerned with gilt haloes around the saints than with emulating the virtues of the saints?

I don’t recommend having a Bonfire of the Vanities yourself, but note that Savonarola was not the only one. Note also that, despite his best efforts, Florence still has the highest concentration of art anywhere in the world. There are masterpieces everywhere here, from the famous (like Michelangelo’s David) to the not-so-famous (like the aforementioned Savonarolan triptych).

The execution of Savonarola

In 1498, the pope was finally fed up with Savonarola. And so were the people of Florence. The new golden age hadn’t really come for them, and Charles VIII was threatening papal lands. And so Savonarola was tried for heresy and burned in the selfsame spot as the Bonfire of the Vanities.

I first heard of Savonarola in connection with this quote:

Read this book.  It contains everything.  You ask for love?  Read this book of the Crucified.  You wish to be good?  Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good.

I don’t recall where I found it, sorry. I next heard of Savonarola in connection with the Bonfire of the Vanities (little knowing that there were many) and then as yet another voice calling for reform in the wilderness who was silenced by a tyrannical church hierarchy out to preserve its own wealth and decadence.

The real Savonarola is both more colourful and less heroic. At least, he is less heroic for the Protestants who hold him up as yet another Dominican proto-Reformer/martyr. He helped establish political reform in Florence and believed the King of France to be God’s agent for church reform everywhere. This is not quite the same as Jan Hus (d. 1415), is it?

I look forward to visitng Fra Girolamo’s monastery tomorrow and seeing what trace he has left on Florence as I now enter tourist mode.

In Light of Bible Sunday …

Since yesterday was Bible Sunday (see my post here), I’ve decided to post a catena (Lat. for “chain”) of quotations about the Bible; it is not patristic, especially given the presence of Asimov of all people!  If you want to read more of my thoughts about the Bible, I’ve got a list of posts at the bottom.  Here we go (in vaguely chronological order):

Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate on them day and night.  We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put is precepts into practice.  Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love.  So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page but channels of grace into our hearts. –Origen

Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the Holy Scriptures. –St. Antony the Great

All of Holy Scripture is bound together, and it has been united by one Spirit.  It is like a single chain, one link attached to another, and when you have taken one, another hangs from it. –St. Jerome

For my part I declare resolutely and with all my heart that if I were called upon to write a book which was to be vested with the highest authority, I should prefer to write it in such a way that a reader could find re-echoed in my words whatever truths he was able to apprehend.  I would rather write in this way than impose a single true meaning so explicitly that it would exclude all others, even though they contained no falsehood that could give me offence. –St. Augustine

Constant meditation upon the holy Scriptures will perpetually fill the soul with incomprehensible ecstasy and joy in God. –St. Isaac the Syrian

If you do not love the blessed and truly divine words of Scripture, you are like the beasts that have neither sense nor reason. –St. Nilus of Antioch

Read this book.  It contains everything.  You ask for love?  Read this book of the Crucified.  You wish to be good?  Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good. –Savonarola

The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me. –Martin Luther

We owe to Scripture the same reverence that we owe to God. –John Calvin

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. –39 Articles of the Anglican Religion

Unity must be according to God’s holy word, or else it were better war than peace.  We ought never to regard unity so much — that we forsake God’s word for her sake. –Hugh Latimer

Time can take nothing from the Bible.  It is the living monitor.  Like the sun, it is the same in its light and influence to man this day which it was years ago.  It can meet every present inquiry and console every present loss. –Richard Cecil

The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge.  It was given to change lives. –Dwight L. Moody

The English Bible, the first of national treasure and the most valuable thing this world affords. –King George V

Sir Arthur St. Clare … was a man who read his Bible.  That was what was the matter with him.  When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible?  A print reads a Bible for misprints.  A Mormon reads a Bible and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his and finds we have no arms and legs … –Fr. Brown by GK Chesterton

The Character of the Christian’s experience of god is determined by the reality of God who has spoken his word and who continues to speak his Word. –John Woodhouse

I have found nothing in science or space exploration to compel me to throw away my Bible or to reject my Saviour, Jesus Christ, in whom I trust. –Walter F. Burke

The infliction of literalism on us by fundamentalists who read the Bible without seeing anything but words is one of the great tragedies of history. –Isaac Asimov

The church may not judge the Scriptures, selecting and discarding from among their teachings.  But Scripture under Christ judges the church for its faithfulness to his revealed truth. –Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials

Classic Christianity never asserts either scripture against tradition or tradition against scripture.  Rather, it understands itself as the right remembering of the earliest testimony of scripture to God’s self-disclosure in history. –Thomas C. Oden

Scripture became written in order that the events attested in preaching might be more accurately preserved and remembered.  A written text was obviously more stable than an oral tradition, which might always be controverted by another alleged oral tradition.  A text, if drafted faithfully, did not distort memory but stabilized it in writing.  The written Word of canonized scripture was assumed to consistent with its anteceding oral expressions, and its transmission stood under the protection of the Holy Spirit, who accompanied the apostolic witness. –Thomas C. Oden

The Gospels were not just written to describe events in the past.  They were written to show that those events were relevant, indeed earth-shattering, worldview-challenging, and life-changing in the present. –Tom Wright

God’s Word does not breed quarrels and divisions.  It brings the simple truth and love of Jesus, who heals and unites.  It brings salvation. –John Michael Talbot

the Bible is the unique, infallible, written Word of God, but the word of God is not just the Bible.  If we try to dignify the Bible by saying false things about it — by simply equating the word of God with it — we do not dignify it.  Instead we betray its content by denying what it says about the nature of the word of God. –Dallas Willard

The Bible is a finite, written record of the saving truth spoken by the infinite, loving god, and it reliably fixes the boundaries of everything he will ever say to humankind. –Dallas Willard

In the modern world we seldom looked at the Bible as a composite picture revealing a cosmic vision of the world; we were too busy with the details to see God’s narrative whole.  We were too concerned with analyzing its parts, with literary criticism, historical verification, and theological systems. –Robert E. Webber

To suggest that only Christians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been and are capable of understanding the Bible is to deny the Bible’s universality — that it is addressed to all people of all times, not only to the learned of a particular time — and consequently to reduce Christianity to a kind of modern gnosticism. –Boniface Ramsey

A faithful reading of scripture . . . means that we seek to understand how the passages that we are reading at the moment, and the questions that we are presently asking, fit into this forgiving, healing, and life-giving drama that has been initiated by God himself. –Edith M. Humphrey

If you have the Spirit without the Word, you blow up.  If you have the Word without the Spirit, you dry up.  If you have both the Word and the Spirit, you grow up. –I never wrote down the name

Pocket Scroll posts on the Bible:

How are we to interpret the Bible?

The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy

John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2

Reading the Bible (pt. 1)

Why Read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible #2: Everything Other Than Books

The Third Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.