Sunday, May 29, 2016

A High and Exalted Woman

So far, in examining the key figures of Christianity, we have passed over women, whose role in society had been largely as subjects of their fathers, brothers and husbands until they devised their escape through faith.

In the early Church there are the women who accompanied Jesus and were the first to see him risen. Then there were the women who served in various auxiliary roles to apostles, such as the deaconesses Priscilla and Phoebe (Romans 16:1-3), and among the martyrs, Perpetua and Felicity, still recalled in the longer Eucharistic canons of the universal Church. Finally, some women preferred to remain tethered only to Christ rather than to a man, such as the dramatic St. Lucy, who reputedly ripped out her eyes and gave them to her betrothed, who had always remarked how much he liked them.

Medieval women offer a different template.

One of the earliest is Brigid of Kildare (450-525), one of Ireland’s patron saints, along with Patrick and Columba, an early nun, abbess and founder of several communities of nuns and of monks, as well as local churches.

Brigid, derived from a Celtic name meaning “high and exalted,” was born the child of a Christian slave, Broicsech, and her pagan master, the chieftain Dubthach of Leinster. She was sold as a child and raised by a Druid but returned to her father’s house, where she was acknowledged as a daughter. In her new position, she rejected the offer of marriage, instead persuading her father to support her decision to take religious vows.

St. Mel of Ardagh, who had been appointed bishop there by St. Patrick himself, witnessed her vows with seven devout women companions. Seeing leadership qualities in Brigid, he appointed her abbess—a position that then carried quasi-episcopal powers and she is believed to have selected at least one bishop in her lifetime.

Brigid began a religious community called Kildare (in Gaelic, Cill Dara or church of the oak), which shared a church with an associated house she founded for men, run by Colleth, a notable hermit. This is said to have been the only connected convent-monastery in Ireland at the time. For centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and abbesses; the Abbess of Kildare was regarded as the superior general of all convents in Ireland.

Brigid also traveled throughout Ireland founding churches and convents and, according to some sources, working miracles involving mostly finding food or taming animals. She is also credited with founding a school of art, including metal work and manuscript illumination. The Kildare scriptorium made the once-renowned illuminated Book of Kildare, described by Gerald of Wales, a monk, as “the work of angelic, and not human skill.” The book disappeared during the Reformation, possibly during the invasion of Ireland by the Puritan troops of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s.

She was quickly venerated as a saint after she died Feb. 1, 525, particularly in Wales and Germany, aside from her native Ireland, and became famous throughout Christian Europe. In the next few centuries at least six biographies of her were penned, affirming her significance, but also introducing variant stories about her that still cannot be resolved.

Her feast day, February 1, is observed by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions, often accompanied by the making of crosses from straw, as she did. Notably, and recently controversially, the date coincides with the pre-Christian Celtic spring festival of Imbolc, curiously enough associated with the pagan goddess Brigid.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Friends of God

One of the hallmarks of the Christianity that emerged in what I have called the cathedral of Europe is the presence of saints in statues, murals and stained-glass windows, as well as in prayer, teaching and overall leadership.

We have been hopping from saint to saint; let’s now consider the idea of sainthood—in particular the medieval saint of the western Europe.

A saint is a person seen as exhibiting holiness, someone whose behavior can in a notable way be likened to an attribute of God.

The word saint comes from the Latin sanctus and the Greek hagios, both  referring to an otherworldly quality distinct from the ordinary, something or someone special enough to set or be set itself apart—holy. In English a saint is also known as a hallow, someone holy, from the Old English halig, which is related to the German heilig (holy), from which we get Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day.

Originally, all Christians believers were called “the saints,” referring to the forgiveness and purification of baptism. Under Roman persecution, the term came to mean those who died refusing to deny the faith and were therefore deemed to be actually in the presence of God in the afterlife.

The notable aspect of martyr remembrance within their church community was that the day of a death so noble was regarded as a “birthday” to a new life with God and actually celebrated as a happy occasion. Bones were saved as relics and their names recited at the Eucharist, each church naming its own local martyrs.

Over time, Christians began to refer to saints who were “confessors,” people whose life or teaching gave witness of their faith. Saints were popularly proclaimed at first, then bishops started investigations; finally, in 993, Pope John XV canonized Ulrich of Augsburg, the first saint proclaimed in this fashion.

In general, saints have always been seen as exemplary people, extraordinary teachers, wonder workers, figures who intercede for the living with God, quite often they refused material comforts and were with a special relationship to God—albeit not always possessing all of these qualities. Saints are not free of sin (St. Jerome, the great biblical translator, shared with me the shortcoming of a bad temper) nor of error (try as he might, St. Augustine retained a bit of the Manichean dualism from his pagan days), nor regarded as divine—it is heretical to hold such a view.

In later periods, popes set up processes by which saints should be canonized—in the adversarial legal system from the late middle ages to the 20th century, there arose the famous “devil’s advocate,” an individual charged with arguing against sainthood for a given individual. Today, the process resembles more closely the presentation of a doctoral dissertation. An excellent book on the subject is Making Saints by Kenneth Woodward.

In the Middle Ages, the recalling of saints, their veneration and prayers seeking saints’ influence with God, was aided by art that often depicted them with a halo, a ring of light—often golden—that surrounded the saint’s head. Of course, medieval theologians argued about the halo, as about everything. In the Catholic interpretation, the halo stands for the divine grace suffusing the soul in perfect unity with the physical body. Eastern Orthodox theology views it as a “window into heaven.”

All of the apostles (save Judas) were deemed saints as was the mother of Jesus, Myriam, whose place became mired in endless disputes as the theologians of Mariology fought for ever loftier titles and claims for the simple Jewish maiden from Nazareth.

In the popular conception, Christians “prayed to” saints, although this is theologically incorrect and was heretical even in the Middle Ages. When a Christian addresses a fellow believer who is dead, what is happening is an invocation. The Christian calls upon the saint as a go-between of sorts to obtain divine favor.

Mary, because she was the earliest and most prominent woman saint and also a mother who suffered to the point of seeing her son die, was and to some remains, the focus of requests for intercession. In the mind of popular piety, which is the untutored but intuitive and often most valuable expression of faith, how could Jesus in heaven refuse a request from his mother?

Mary inspired the rosary, with its Hail Mary prayer, the Christian mantra that announces the significance of God becoming a man, a humble human from an unmarried mother. The repetition turns it into a kind of music intended to put the person praying in the quietude of God’s presence.

In the Anglican use there are two beautiful hymns that recall the Christian saints.

One is I Sing a Song of the Saints of God (from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, no. 293), by Lesbia Scott (1898–1986) who composed a number of children's hymns which she sang to her own children as a young mother in her twenties and published them in 1929 as Everyday Hymns For Little Children. The hymn takes us in the historic arc from the apostles to our day
I sing a song of the saints of God,
patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died
for the Lord they loved and knew.


You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea;
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

Another is the more stately For All the Saints (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, no. 287), composed as a processional by the Anglican Bishop of Wakefield, William Walsham How and published in 1864; today it is sung with music composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams in 1905. This hymn takes the listener through the travails of sainthood
For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!
Sharing their struggles and remembering them lies at the core of the communion of between the living and dead saints.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Cathedral of Europe

Despite the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Christianity that flourished in western Europe in the high middle ages could best be compared to a beautiful Gothic cathedral and its memory still evokes a certain fondness in those who developed an appreciation of its achievements.

Let’s begin by focusing on the great medieval Gothic cathedral as symbol of the best of medieval European Christendom. To begin with, they were massive, awe-inspiring structures designed to point upward, to God, as was all of society. The very building of a cathedral, although it might involve behind the scenes wheeling and dealing, in its actual concreteness expressed a very deep sense of faith in the Christian good news.

Every morning, the workers lining up to build Notre Dame, Chartres, Westminster Abbey, Burgos began the day being shriven—confessing their sins and imperfections in order to be forgiven—and participating in the Eucharist service of the Mass, spiritually communing with God and one another. The medieval people of West Europe, from Italy and Spain to Germany and the British Isles, could not envision building a great cathedral unless everyone involved—from the architects and supervisors, to the craftsmen to the lowliest laborer merely hefting heavy materials—were in what theologians came to call “a state of grace,” working in the bare presence of God in their midst.

Cast your eye to the fields outside the cities, where the distant ringing of bells at noon would prompt farm hands and farmers to stop working to recite, together, the Angelus, the prayer that in Latin begins with the words Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae (“... the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary ...”). The angel, of course, is Gabriel, a messenger of God who revealed to Mary that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God (Luke 1:26–38).

Every day at six in the morning, noon and six in the evening bells would toll—and in churches, convents, monasteries, fields and homes, at court and in universities Christians would gather to pray. They recited, in versicle and response form, three biblical verses narrating story of the Annunciation to Mary. Interspersing between each recitation was the Hail Mary, the prayer derived from the words of the angel, reminding everyone, from fool to bishop to king, that God became one of us.

The universities, or universitas magistrorum et scholarium (the guild or community of teachers and scholars), were an invention of the Church, which had taken up the mission of saving and expanding all human knowledge in the darkest of ages. The Church christened such labor as a form of worshiping the unfathomable divine Being who had made all that there was to study. The first universities in Europe were founded by bishops, the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (1150) and the University of Oxford (1167).

Within their walls, scholars studied theology, philosophy as well as the arts and some of the sciences we know today. All in Latin, the language of learning, even though medievals lacked Ciceronian linguistic purity and ordinary people were speaking variants that mixed the tongue of ancient Rome with those of illiterate hordes.

Similarly, as western Europe’s fiefdoms and regions slowly evolved into empires and kingdoms, the norms that ultimately governed them all were those of the Church. Just as popes and bishops crowned emperors and kings, they often mediated when there were conflicts, and heaped praise on those who in some way practiced gospel values from the throne. King Louis IX of France was canonized in part for tempering the ordeals of medieval trials, settling disputes with the Albigensians and reputedly ceding territory rather than wage war.

Everything in that time and place was imbued with the stories, the artifacts, the teachings and the aura of the Christian faith.

The wars were all crusades, as the anonymous Cantar del Mío Cid (Song of My Cid) calls the strife of “Christian knights” against infidels in Spain. Society’s best customs and beliefs were policed by the Inquisition.

Tourism involved pilgrimages, “the hooly blisful martir for to seke,” as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reminds us. The love story is that of Heloise and Abelard, a wealthy Paris pupil and tutor whose star-crossed romance ends with both taking up celibate lives, passing on to history as the nun and monk whose chaste yet passionate letters have come to us.

Churches were full, since they were the only reliable source of wonder, but clerics took care to come up with incense to conceal the aroma of the great unwashed. Monasteries reflected the communal spirit of Christianity. Convents became a refuge for intelligent women thanks to the uniquely proto-feminist character of Jesus, who broke ranks with the social customs of his time to treat women with dignity.

The best known music was choral and ecclesiastical. The highest knowledge was that of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the great work in the field known as the “queen” of scientia (learning).

Of course, the people who lived between 476, the sack of Rome, and 1453, the capture of Constantinople by invading Ottomans, did not think of themselves as medieval. Indeed, the term was not used in writing until 1469, after the era’s millenium was over. (For a scholarly, but riotous romp in medievalism, see the blog Got Medieval.)

Twentieth-century historians and artists rushed to demythologize the notion of medieval Christian Europe after the guns of August 1914 killed what little remained of its spirit. Today, we all know Carl Orff’s bawdy choral work Carmina Burana, whose lyrics were drawn from the drunken revelry of medieval students. We laugh at the foibles in Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron and the way it lays bare the hypocrisies of the age. Norman Cantor’s wonderful recounting of modern medievalist historiographers, Inventing the Middle Ages, takes us through the intellectual process involved in assessing the age.

Yet despite themselves, the western Christians of Europe attempted to live in a continental cathedral, one in which the highest and best aspirations were aimed at the heavens, and the worst and basest impulses and deeds were at a minimum disguised as pious. Their successes are reverently remembered by some, as their failures are bitterly decried by others, both with some measure of justice.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Inquisition (Sins of the Medieval Church V)

“I prefer a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition than to have a woman in my life,” sings Professor Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady. All jokes aside, the Inquisition was nowhere as bad as its reputation, even if it notably disregarded the kind of love of neighbor proposed by Jesus the Christ.

Before we even consider the actual Inquisition, let’s clear the landscape of hoary tales and misconceptions. Contrary to popular notions, the Inquisition
  • began in France, not Spain, and indeed, the well-known Inquisition trial of Joan of Arc for heresy was the result of trumped-up charges supported by bribes from English King Henry VI;
  • had no jurisdiction over Jews, but only over Catholics (including converted Jews who were accused of reverting to Judaism while pretending to be Christian);
  • executed about 1 percent of those brought before it for a total, using the even the most damning estimates, of less than 40,000 people executed (about half in effigy only) over the roughly 730 years of its existence.
These are not ringing endorsements, but they put to rest the notion that the Inquisition was an unspeakable Spanish institution of mass murder directed against Jews. Not true. None of it.

The Inquisition as an ecclesiastical institution did not exist until 1233, but was first proposed in France by King Louis VIII in 1226. His decree of that year ordered that people excommunicated by the diocesan bishop, or his delegate, receive “due punishment,” a task his successor expressly delegated to barons in 1249. Similar decrees emerged in various Western kingdoms.

This occurred against the backdrop of concern about religiously imbued peasant revolts and popular movements such as the Cathari (Albigensians), which persuaded many Christians to deny some of the more philosophical tenets of the faith and to adopt an anticlerical (and anti-nobility) proto-puritannical stance. In response to these realities, the Third Lateran Council in 1179 authorized bishops or their delegates to conduct judicial processes to declare certain believers to be heretics, as needed.

However, when civil authorities and laypeople took to enforcing such decretals the pseudo-justice meted out was brutal and in most cases based on primitive legal concepts.

Remember that this was an age in which torture of commoners was the norm in all legal proceedings; the theory was that such people could not be trusted to tell the truth unless it was under duress. Often guilt or innocence was discerned by “sink or swim” methods, including tying a rock to the accused’s neck and seeing if God revealed the person’s innocence by somehow preventing the drowning. Hence the term “trial.”

As a further example, allow me to cite Simon de Montfort, the earl of Leicester who married into the French nobility, who boasted that in 1211 his men had burned alive many neo-Manicheans (followers of a body-soul dualistic philosophy). The gentleman and his men were convinced they were carrying out an edict of King Philippe Auguste, which was based on a Lateran III decree about eliminating heresy, thus they deemed that, undoubtedly, theirs was a Christian deed.

When Pope Gregory IX established the papal inquisition, including norms applicable to the whole Church, in 1233, it was a step toward introducing throughout Europe the legal notion of a judicial inquiry in which recorded testimony and evidence was weighed. The original intention was high minded and civilizing.

It also reflected the general behavior of the clergy in these matters. In 1076 Pope Gregory VII excommunicated a Christian mob in Cambrai that had seized and burned a Cathar judged by the bishop to have be a heretic. In 1145 clergy at Liege rescued victims from a similar crowd.

Unfortunately, Gregory IX’s inquisition came at a time in which the most common episcopal judicial proceedings, in France, were operated with the presiding judge taking an investigative role, rather than that of an impartial arbiter. The Inquisitor was born.

Gregory assigned the enforcing task to St. Dominic’s Order of Preachers. Along with the Franciscans, the Dominicans were critical of corruption within the ranks of the clergy—oddly enough, much like the Cathari, yet from the standpoint of orthodox or conventional Christian teaching.

The Inquisition was a failure of judgment and a departure from the faith on a number of grounds.

Jesus’ words and example emphasized persuasion and charity toward those who would not listen to the good news. Faith was described as a gift from God, rather than something earned or acquired.

Apostles were never encouraged to do more than simply walk away from the unbeliever: “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake off the dust from your feet.” (Matthew 10:14) Unbelievers who were enemies? “Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.” (Matthew 5:44)

As if that were not enough, the Inquisition became an instrument of the Spanish state when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, seizing control of the papal inquisition within their domains in 1478, with permission from Pope Sixtus IV. The Spanish monarchs were allowed to appoint three clerics, usually Dominicans, to run the Holy Office, whose name came to inspire terror until it was abolished in 1834 by Queen Isabel II.

The major flaws of the Holy Office, in addition to the lack of charity and presumption of judging others implicit in the entire exercise of inquiring into the “purity” of someone else’s faith, was that like any state institution it became subject to political abuse, corruption and sheer incompetence. The Holy Office became a convenient means to further consolidate the nation’s Iberian and Christian character after the final battlefield victory over the Moors and the expulsion of Jews, both in the momentous year 1492.

It allowed suspicion to be cast on many of Islamic or Jewish background who converted to remain in Spain, on the basis of testimony often offered for venal reasons. Similarly, envious people falsely accused at least two major Spanish literary figures—including Miguel de Cervantes and Fray Luis de León—leading to their incarceration for years until they were cleared.

An aggressive counting of people publicly executed in Autos de Fe between 1701 and 1746 yields 111 deaths and 117 executions in effigy—the latter of people adjudged heretics yet somehow not in the custody of the Inquisition.

The papal Holy Office was not abolished until 1968 by Pope Paul VI. Its successor agency, the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, at one time headed by one Joseph Ratzinger, cardinal and later pope, only has claim on the control of official texts and the public works of theologians, with no penalty greater than suppression of the material in question.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Crusades (Sins of the Medieval Church IV)

Efforts to reform medieval institutional Christianity in the West gave rise to two tragic historical developments. In this entry we will cover one of them, the Crusades—military campaigns against perceived non-believers, waged under the banner of the Christian cross, and in many cases with the blessing of the pope.

The tone of the crusades was set by the first one (1096–1099) launched by Pope Urban II at the request in 1095 Emperor Alexios I Komnenos for military aid from Urban II to fight the Turks, who had captured Niceae. Urban’s cry of Deus vult (Latin for “God wills it”) set the stage for a series of murderous battle campaigns, skirmishes and sheer religious vigilantism called Crusades.

Everything that happened in that first campaign after had the best of the “good” Crusades, meaning limited and defined goals and an organized military campaign. Unfortunately, the misguided papal call, intended to whip up sentiment to support Christian princes into saving the cradle of the creed from nonbelievers, led to the worst of the “bad” Crusades.

Having no warring Muslims or heathen hordes at hand, some 20,000 people, mostly peasants, led by Peter the Hermit, set off into the first major outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in Europe when they arrived in Germany, called the Rhineland massacres. These went from limited, spontaneous violence to full-scale military attacks on Jewish communities in Speyer, Worms, Mainz and Cologne.

The subsequent crusades, and campaigns such as the reconquest of Spain, retroactively dubbed a “crusade” of sorts, has all the elements of the first. Historians still debate exactly how many of these campaigns there were, from the traditional four to as many as eight or more.

Indeed, the very brutal eventual suppression of the Albigensians, or Cathari, in southern France and northern Italy, in which St. Dominic became unwittingly entangled was called a crusade—from it emerged another misguided institution, the Inquisition, of which we shall speak later.

They were the mildly justifiable efforts to protect from an externally hostile world a society purportedly organized among the lines proposed by the wisdom of Christianity. Then, also, they were the excuse for the most horrible of human traits to emerge under cover of divine sanction. Their detailed history is ably documented elsewhere by scholars.

All were more or less just as bloody given that they were fought in an age in which, given the absence of explosives, war was very much a hand to hand combat to the death in which one contender ended up soaked in the blood of the other. To say that the Crusades were awful because they involved brutality is simply to ignore that all armed conflict at that time, indeed today, was and is brutal.

The real question is: how to square following the Galilean who said “blessed are the peacemakers” and crowned love as the highest virtue with tearing each other to pieces in an institutionalized carnage called war? It is not enough to pop out the “just war” theory (whose development within Christianity was associated with the Crusades).

It is particularly timely, in an era in which the West finds itself in conflict with radical Muslim jihadism, to recall from the Christian viewpoint, the grave error in calling any armed conflict a “crusade,” as President George W. Bush did in 2001 and many before him.

At the heart of all crusades was an effort to locate the power of God, of the universe, of all that is beyond us, in a place called the Holy Land, merely because it is the locale of the biblical Israel and Judah, the prophets and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. There is something oddly dissonant about fighting ultimately to control a city historically revered by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a place whose very name Yerushalem (Jerusalem) means Mount of Peace.

It is also remarkable folly in the most pedestrian sense of the word. One of the post-9/11 comments I deem the most historically lucid on this subject is that of novelist John Le Carré. Days after Bush committed the error of calling for a new “crusade” after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Le Carré reminded anyone willing to listen of the historical fact that the Christians lost the Crusades.

Certainly, even in the “crusades” deemed a historical military victory, such as in Spain’s momentous recapture of Granada in 1492, the Christian faith lost whenever men took up arms in its name.