Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Taming of the Hoi Polloi

As we have seen, medieval Christianity is emerging as no longer a special path of a persecuted mostly Jewish sect, but as a predominant faith that has “baptized” entire social cultures.

We know that the clergy, as the literate remnant from imperial times in the West and the intelligentsia of the East, preserved what little knowledge could be saved. But how did its members deal with the vast mass of new European Christians, who had nothing in common with the Judaic Jesus, nor even the Greek philosopher-theologians of the Patristic era?

Let’s look at the clergy and then at the people.

Whereas the apostles were fishermen and traders—only Paul had anything approaching what we would call a theological education—the clergy of the early Middle Ages, between about the years 450 and 1000 of our era, were increasingly from the propertied and moneyed classes. We have just seen that Sts. Benedict and Gregory were both born into privilege.

The clergy slowly evolved toward a life of sexual abstinence, as both Benedict and Gregory exemplified, even before the universal church law obligation in the West, which did not fully emerge until the turn of the first millennium—both as an ascetic demand and as a response to nepotism.

Christian asceticism, including a sex-negative view unknown to Judaism, had evolved from the ascendancy of Gentile Christianity led by members of a classically educated urban Christian elite influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism. Notably, this included a matter-spirit dualism absent in the original gospels, which were imbued with Hebrew thought, which regarded the body and spirit as one and the same.

The bishops and popes were charged with teaching the faith, but in many regions they also had to take the reins of society as a whole. Out of these responsibilities emerged many institutions that no longer have an ecclesiastical connection, but started in the Church. For example, the oldest birth and death records in Europe are church documents.

Of course, the followers of the apostles were notably different from the Christian medieval laity. While the Nazarenes were a Jewish sect for only the brief time during which Judaism accepted them, the medieval Christians were not only accepted in society, they were becoming the predominant believers—at least nominally. Thus, what clerics said and taught became increasingly normative for society as a whole, which led to a mix of faith and custom.

Christian teachers of the faith were not merely dealing with paganism of various cultural stripes, but with a growing coarsening of the standard of living and the breakup of an overarching unified imperial society into local and regional fiefdoms that eventually would become nation-states.

For example, in the West beyond central Italy, priests celebrated the Mass in what later came to be called ecclesiastical Latin, which was not quite Cicero’s tongue. However, Latin ceased to be the language spoken by the Christian people, who were Lombards or Goths or Franks or Visigoths or what have you.

The breakdown of daily life, the constant warfare and the utterly uncivilized behavior of the newcomers to European West, forced the clergy to concentrate on matters of moral behavior and piety designed to nudge people toward ascetic ideals that were far from common.

The laity was, by and large, an illiterate, non-Latin-speaking mass to whom the fine points of Jewish law debated by Jesus were completely alien. Their lives were slowly directed by Christianized social customs, such as churchgoing and observance of feasts on the church calendar. Roadside shrines to various pagan gods were replaced by Christian shrines seeking the help of saints in gaining God’s favor, and bells called many in the field to prayer.

Popular piety emerged. It was a mixture of folk superstition and very elementary Christian teachings. In remote villages of Spain and Italy at the end of the 20th century it was still possible to come across the occasional older woman in black shuffling on her knees to the altar to fulfill some promise made to God in exchange for divine favor. Such piety may have been simple, but it was genuine and covered all aspects of life.

Later, when the great cathedrals were being built, at the start of every workday all workers were shriven and received the Eucharist: it was thought that only those in God’s grace should build such places of worship. These customs speak of a Christianity that was all pervasive, even though it was in a much coarser era, and that no longer exists.

Almost all of the great controversies and political conflicts of this era were, for this reason, tinged with some aspect of faith, sometimes very poorly understood or misused. An example is the emergence, in the early 8th century, of iconoclasm, a movement whose followers smashed religious art known as icons, which they regarded as a form of idolatry, an idea borrowed from the newly emerging religion of Islam.

In the 720s Byzantine Emperor Leo III banned images of Christ, saints and biblical scenes, a move that was condemned by Pope Gregory III and two Roman synods. Iconoclasm was ultimately declared heretical by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.

The movement nonetheless destroyed much of the early Christian artistic history. Chalk it up to the folly of that age, with more to come, thanks to humanity’s propensities.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Gregory's Medieval Church

Influential as St. Benedict was on monasticism, St. Gregory the Great effectively set in motion the medieval Church in the 6th century. To him is due credit for the Christianization of northern Europe, setting in motion Gregorian chant and unifying the matrix of public worship in the West.

Gregory worked in the background of much that we have already covered, but his life provides us a rich tapestry of life in Rome around the 6th century, as well as shedding light on the general position and functioning of Christianity in society at that time.

Unlike Benedict, Gregory in the end he accepted a call to leave the monastery and take a place in the public square.
Gregory came from a wealthy Roman family. His father was a senator. His mother, Silvia, and two of his aunts (Tarsilla and Emiliana) were eventually canonized saints, prompting an early biographer, to refer to Gregory’s early education as that “of a saint among saints.”

In Gregory’s time, control of Rome shifted back and forth between the various invaders and sackers and the Eastern Empire. When Gregory was a child, for example, the Ostrogoth chieftain Totila sacked Rome and massacred everyone left in the city. The boy saw nothing of this because Emperor Justinian, based in Constantinople, sent troops to the north of Italy, giving Romans time to flee. Gregory’s family moved to their estate in Sicily and only returned in 549 when the city was still in ruins but control from Constantinople was reestablished.

As a young man he was a distinguished student in the academy, learning Latin grammar, rhetoric, the sciences, literature and law, by contemporary accounts he excelled at all. He became a government official and rose very young to prefect of Rome—more or less mayor—at the age of 30.

When his father died, however, he converted his family villa into a monastery dedicated to St. Andrew. The monastery was posthumously named San Gregorio Magno al Celio (St. Gregory the Great in Heaven); it still exists today at the same site, although the present structure was designed in the 17th century.

Gregory lived there in seclusion for three years. He is known for being a bit harsh and for flights of temper—a relief to me to know that even temperamental people can be saints.

The story is told that when a monk lying on his deathbed confessed to stealing three gold pieces, Gregory had the man shunned, then threw his body and coins on a manure heap to rot with a curse, “Take your money with you to perdition.” Gregory did so in the belief that the punishment would spur the monk to repent, which in fact he did. After the man’s death Gregory offered 30 masses to assist his soul before the final judgment, and the monk was said to have appeared to his brother, saying he’d been released from punishment and was in heaven.

In 578, the pope insisted on ordaining him one of the seven deacons, or regionarii, of Rome. Gregory’s father had been a regionarius (the clergy could still marry then, as Catholic deacons have since 1969). This was an administrative position in the Church unconnected to the patriarchal see or to any church congregation. The regional deacon was charged with the care of the poor, the maintenance of churches and other duties pertaining to deacons in one of the seven administrative districts into which the city was divided.

This was the start of Gregory’s clerical career, which ended in the chair of Peter, as pope. Barely a year after being appointed regionarius, Pope Pelagius III dispatched Gregory along with it as his permanent ambassador to Emperor Tiberius.

This was, of course, a far cry from the leanings of the man who had sought to be a monk in solitude. To counteract the intrigues and temptations of such a setting, Gregory brought along with him companion monks from the St. Andrews monastery, with whom he regularly prayed and studied scripture. At the request of Leander of Seville, later a saint, whom he met while in Constantinople, he wrote a commentary on Job.

Gregory was, nonetheless, a well-mannered patrician who endeared himself to his peers in the city, “especially aristocratic women” according to one account. He might have succeeded at pursuing Pelagius’ agenda in Constantinople, except for two drawbacks. One was that although he was a Latin scholar, he never quite mastered Greek, the language of the court.

Unfortunately also, he entered into a very public controversy with Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople, on the subject of the resurrection. In the classic overreach we have seen in the councils of the era, Eutychius wrote a treatise maintaining that the risen bodies of the elect would be “impalpable, more light than air.” Gregory objected, noting how the risen Christ had appeared, particularly before Thomas in John 20:25-27, where Jesus Christ says: “Put here your finger and behold my hands; and reach here your hand and thrust it into my side: be not faithless, but believing.”

The emperor intervened, summoning both to a private audience. Thereafter, the emperor ruled in Gregory’s favor and ordered Eutychius’ book burned. The patriarch, who became ill from the disputation (as did Gregory, but less gravely), recanted his error on his death bed.

From the Western perspective, this was seen as a great theological victory in an otherwise fruitless service. The less flattering view is that Gregory had to rely on Latin versions of the Bible, probably the famous Vulgate, because he could not read the learned Greek sources Eutychus cited in his defense.

The experience left Gregory with a “bitter taste for the theological speculation of the East,” according to one biographer. The whole idea of princely courts and potentates never had much of an appeal to him, anyway, so it was with great relief that in 585 or 586 he was recalled to Rome and rushed back to St. Andrew’s monastery, which had begun to become well known.

It is in this period that Gregory came across the Angle youths in the slave market, as reported earlier in Christianity spreads north and west, and became interested in going to evangelize to Britain. When the mission left with Pelagius’ blessing, however, the people of Rome were so incensed about Gregory being allowed to leave that the pope was forced to send messengers recalling the mission. By then, Gregory was a beloved saintly figure of Rome.

Then came a year of unprecedented flooding in Italy. In Rome, the Tiber overflowed its banks, destroying buildings, among them the granaries of the Church with all the store of corn. Famine and disease followed and many died in Rome. It is said that activity came to a standstill and streets were empty save for the wagons with corpses being taken for burial in pits beyond city walls. The following year, 590, Pelagius died.

In those days the choice of a successor of Peter lay with the clergy and people of Rome. The beloved Abbot of St. Andrew's was elected unanimously, to Gregory’s enormous and repeatedly expressed chagrin. He didn’t want to leave the life of the cloister. The appointment, which included a secular civil role as well as ecclesiastical, had to be confirmed by the emperor. Gregory appealed personally by letter to Emperor Maurice, but Germanus, prefect of the city, suppressed this letter, and sent only the formal election papers.

In the next 14 years, Gregory became the great organizer of the Church in a way that suited the medieval times best, despite suffering almost continually from indigestion, attacks of slow fever and gout.

At the outset, Gregory wrote his Liber pastoralis curae, a work on the office of bishop that became a textbook on the subject; in it he lay down his own episcopal duties: to be a “physician of souls,” leading the Church; to lead a life ordered from a spiritual point of view; to teach and admonish; to bear in mind his own weaknesses.

Much like Pope Francis today, Gregory strove to live in monastic simplicity. One of his first acts as pope was to banish all the lay attendants and pages from the Lateran palace. The palace was a donation to the Church by Constantine, named after the pre-Christian owners of the land, the Laterani family, a patrician family believed to have been among the plotters of Nero’s demise.

The pope then was a secular as well as religious leader. There was no magister militum (literally, “master of the soldiers”) to command troops in Rome, so the role fell to the pope. At this time the Lombards were attacking northern Italy, and penniless refugees were flooding into the Eternal City. As a former regional deacon, Gregory was able to press the Church’s existing structures to the task of distributing corn that came chiefly from the estates of the Church. At about this time, the Church possessed land estimated at between 1,300 to 1,800 square miles, much of it in the Italian peninsula, Sicily and Africa. Gregory was also charged with administering these possessions—with great skill, it is said.

Politically, the pope as Roman ruler was nominally still under the legal jurisdiction of Constantinople, but as the empire’s ability to assert power in the West declined, Rome did pretty much what it wanted. During Gregory’s papacy, the imperial delegate to the West was a man named Romanus, who established his court in Ravenna, which was closer to the danger of the moment, the Lombards. The distance allowed Gregory a fair amount of latitude.

In his religious role, Gregory did not shy away from asserting primacy, as is evidenced by his criticism of the Constantinople patriarch’s adoption of the title Ecumenical Bishop (ecumenical meaning universal), but he was also the first pope to adopt the title “Servant of the Servants of God,” still a papal title today, and generally declined to interfere in the matters of other bishops.

Perhaps his major and longest-lasting reform was what came to be known as the Gregorian Sacramentary. A sacramentary was a medieval book for the priest celebrating the Mass and other services. Gregory’s sacramentary became the basis for the Roman Missal, which gradually took over as the normative form of the liturgy (Gk. litourgeia, or “work of the people in worship”) of the entire western Church. At this time the Eucharist service had become known as the Mass, from the concluding words in Latin, Ite missa est (literally, “go, you are sent”).

Specifically, Gregory ordered
  • the insertion in the Canon, the part of the service between the Sanctus and the Consecration of the Bread and Wine, of the words “diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari” (Dispose our days in Thy peace; command that we be saved from eternal damnation and numbered among the flock of Thy elect);
  • the recital of the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) in the Canon before the breaking of the Host;
  • the chanting of Alleluia all year round, rather than just at Easter;
  • that subdeacons not wear a chasuble, an outer and colorful vest, while assisting at Mass;
  • deacons not to perform any musical portion of the Mass, other than singing the Gospel.
Gregory’s writings were scholarly and the documentation of his papacy is vast. He is the only pope between the fifth and the eleventh centuries whose correspondence and writings have survived enough to form a comprehensive body of work.

I have already noted two of his major works, the Commentary on Job and The Rule for Pastors. He also put together his Dialogues, a collection of works on holy men of the epoch, including St. Benedict (a source for the previous entry), a collection of 22 sermons on Ezekiel, 40 sermons on the gospels and sermons on the Song of Songs, of which only two survive. In addition to that are 854 letters that survive in the Vatican library.

Gregory died on March 12, 604. Today he is revered as a saint in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions and also by some Lutheran churches; even Reformer John Calvin admired him as “the last good pope.”

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ora et Labora

Few people exemplify the spirit of the Christian Middle Ages better than St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), the Italian monk who wrote the Rule that bears his name, which influenced the broad monastic movement of the age and became a model for many Christian monastic orders.

Benedict was born of wealthy parents, the twin of St. Scholastica, in Norcia, Umbria, a north central region of Italy. At about the age of 20 he went off to Rome to study. There he was shocked by the dissolute life of his fellow students and also fell deeply in love with an unnamed woman, both experiences that led him to flee the city.

He took his old nanny with him as a servant, and they settled in the town Affile, about 40 miles from Rome. The town is in a valley that leads to a man-made lake associated with an abandoned mansion of Emperor Nero near a spot called Subiaco (from Sublaqueum, or “under the lake”). There Benedict met Romanus of Subiaco, a hermit living in a nearby monastery, to whom he told the reason he had left Rome.

On the advice of the hermit, he moved to a triangular cave by a lake, where he lived in solitude for three years. It was a maturing and deepening experience in which he kept himself apart from the world except for occasional communications with Romanus, who provided him food by lowering a basket from the monastery, which stood atop the cave.

As with earlier hermits, he experienced visions and temptations. Once he was tempted by the appearance of the woman who had beguiled his heart in Rome; in response, he stripped himself and ran out of the cave into a bush to distract himself from the allure with the pain of the brambles on his skin.
St. Benedict of Nursia, from a detail 
by Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455).
Licensed under Public Domain
via Commons

Benedict became known locally as a holy man, and when the abbot of a nearby monastery died, the community asked him to lead them. He didn’t think they would like his ways and they didn’t. Legend has it that they tired of him and tried to poison him, but when he blessed the cup from which he was about to drink, it shattered. Having failed at eliminating Benedict that way, his rival Florentinus tried to seduce his monks with prostitutes, causing Benedict to flee, only to found 12 monasteries of 12 monks each in the Subiaco area.

In 530 he founded what became the renowned Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, where he wrote his famous Rule.

Asceticism and monasticism existed in Judaism, but were not mainstream practice. In Christianity, they were an attempt at a form of saintliness, or setting oneself apart for God. The inspiration came from Jesus’ fast in the desert after his baptism by John the Baptist, as recounted in Luke 4:1-13 and Matthew 4:1-11 and briefly referred to in Mark.

Christian monasticism emerged among the north African hermits known as the Desert Fathers and later under the monastic communities founded or influenced by St. Anthony the Great. The earliest rule of monastic life was written by St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, in the fourth century. This remains the basis for Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Some 40 years before Benedict, the anonymously composed Rule of the Master (Regula Magistri) circulated in Europe.

These two earlier rules are believed to have influenced Benedict, but what Benedict did that was new was to balance advice to abbots on the art of maintaining a community of monks with spiritual wisdom for the members of the community on the Christ-centered life.

Benedict’s overall motto is Ora et Labora (pray and work). He divided the monks’ day into eight hours to pray, eight hours to sleep and eight hours to carry out manual work, sacred reading or works of charity. About half the Rule is devoted to how to be obedient and humble and how to recover from failings; the other half deals with what he calls the work of God (Opus Dei) or the tasks that best exemplify the labor of Christ. The nearby convent where his sister Scholastica went to live, often called the first Benedictine convent, was reputedly the first community after Monte Cassino to adopt his Rule.

You may set up for daily reading selections from the Rule’s 72 short chapters online through a daily reading system from St. John’s Abbey at Collegeville, Minn., at

Benedict did not formally establish an order. The posthumous Order of St. Benedict was and remains informally organized along what we would call a “congregationalist” model. Each monastery is independent of the others, though all have the Rule in common.

Monte Cassino and Benedict himself, and even the cave where he lived, a site of pilgrimage, came to renown in his own time and later. The monastery survived countless wars until the U.S. Air Force mistakenly came close to destroying it completely in air raids on Feb. 15, 1944. It was rebuilt as shown below.

Monte Cassino.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Benedict’s rule became the basis for the regulations of many future and more organic orders. The network of monastic communities in Europe that developed thanks to the Rule preserved knowledge, sacred and secular alike, and provided a variety of essential social services in a very turbulent time. Benedict was canonized a saint in 1220 by Pope Honorius III and in 1964 Pope Paul VI named him patron saint of Europe, precisely because of his vast influence on European social culture and faith.

He is also revered as a saint in the Anglican Communion, within which there are active Benedictine communities; one of them included the Benedictine monks who built Westminster Abbey, in London, the traditional coronation site of English kings and queens. The Orthodox tradition also celebrates St. Benedict in its calendar.

Benedict’s life was first retold roughly 20 years after his death in a dialogue-type narrative that is not a historical biography in the modern sense but an early and inspiring memory of the saint. (You may read the full text at The Dialogues of Gregory the Great, Book 2: Life of Benedict.)