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.

Saint of Last Week: St. Teresa of Avila

So I meant to do a post on St. Teresa of Avila last week. And then I didn’t.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) rocks. Hard. She was a Discalced (“Shoeless”) Carmelite nun involved in the Catholic Reform movement of the sixteenth century, along with our friend St. John of the Cross (saint of the week here). Sts. John and Teresa took their part in the healing of Christ’s church in sixteenth-century Spain particularly through the reform of the Discalced Carmelite monastic order.

This is a reminder that Catholic Reform wasn’t simply sending out the Inquisition to burn a few Prots. For the record.

St. Teresa, like St. John, was a contemplative and a mystic. She was blessed by God both with visions as well as with genuine spiritual insight. Thus she was able to help lead her monastic community of nuns well and help work through reforms. Even if some of her confessors doubted her visions.

But men are like that.

St. Teresa of Avila is most famous for her book Interior Castle. I read the translation by E. Allison Peers, whose interest in Spanish literature and mysticism has blessed us with translations of St. Teresa’s works as well as St. John’s and a fine biography of my old friend Ramon Llull. Anyway, Interior Castle is amazing.

St. Teresa had this vision, see, and it was of the mansions of the spirit. As in, your own spirit. And first you get past the outer world which is full of distracting lizards and stuff like that. Then you get further and further into the castle/through the mansions. Each mansion is about the cleansing of your soul at some level and what each stage looks like.

At the centre, when God has purified your heart through prayers and effort and trials and, ultimately, His good grace, there is the light of His Spirit. And it is there for anyone who is able to enter into the stillness and take the effort to stop being distracted by the lizards.

But most of us, unlike people like St. Teresa, St. John, St. Gregory Palamas, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, spend much of our lives gazing at those damned lizards.

And that’s not the blessing that calls us to. He calls us to a union of love with him.

So spend time in quiet. In silence. In prayer. With Jesus. Enter the mansions of the spirit. Find Him in the light at the centre of your soul, calling out to you gently while you’re busy staring at lizards and honey badgers.