Sunday, June 26, 2016


Nothing is more significant to the faith in the Middle Ages than the intellectual movement known as scholasticism, which flourished between 1100 and 1500, deeply transforming philosophy, theology and the sciences in Europe ever since. In this school of thought stand giants: Anselm of Canterbury, Pierre Abelard, Peter Lombard, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, to name a few.

From ancient through medieval times, all study of knowledge (Latin scientia) or wisdom (Greek sophia) was seen as an interconnected search for truth. In those pre-scientific (or more correctly, pre-empirical) eras, societies accepted what reason and observation discovered about the material and logically comprehensible world, as well as what intuition and insight suggested about the unobservable and unmeasurable—both as containing a measure of valid truth.

In this way, among the ancients the measured and reasoning Aristotle, Plato, Euclid and others could live side by side with Zeus, Adonai, Marduk and an endless collection of imps, spirits and daemons that animated, or gave life, to the world. By medieval times what we know today as the natural, exact and social sciences, were inquiries that at some point settled on temporary or theoretical and practical axioms that served as foundations for whole structures of inquiry. To use geometry to design buildings, the ancients accepted that parallel lines never meet, even though this was unprovable.

Only philosophy (Gr., philosophia, love of wisdom)—and in Christian times theology (theologia, discourse about God or God-talk)—stubbornly pressed on to that spot in infinity at which parallel lines may, or may not, meet. Philosophers, in theory, could climb the Mount Everest of knowledge and hope to reach the peak of capital-T truth, whereas theology, springing from the leap of faith, knew from the beginning that humanity received only a glimmer of light and that no one alive had seen the face of God.

Into this state of thinking, appeared two figures, one of whom was not medieval and the other a Spanish-born Muslim, Aristotle and Averroes, who figuratively electrified the scholars of new universities in Bologna, Paris and Oxford as travelers brought copies of classical texts long thought lost.

In the devastation of the early Middle Ages, one of the great losses to Europe was the destruction of libraries and repositories of many philosophy texts, including those of classical Greek philosophy. However, the 711-788 Islamic conquest of Spain and the establishment of a caliphate in Cordoba, with its links all the way to the Levant via Islamic north Africa, suddenly brought to European light those manuscripts, among them those of Aristotle.

Moreover, in the Cordoban Islamic and Jewish academies of learning there arose men of learning such as Rabbi Moses Maimonides, whose followers worked out the use of vowels in the Hebrew Bible, and the Muslim scholar Averroes, who wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle.

This is how Scholasticism came to be. The term comes from the Latin scholasticus, “that which belongs to the school”; it was the learning developed and taught by a group of academics (or schoolmen) of medieval universities. Today, their science is disregarded as outmoded but their philosophy and theology remain valued and debated contributions.

Notably, for the history of the faith, the Scholastics attempted to reconcile ancient classical philosophy with medieval Christian theology. None other than Aquinas explained the theological task ahead for the believing Scholastic as “faith seeking understanding.”

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Magistra of Bingen

Returning to our brief sojourn among the women of the Middle Ages, let us consider Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary and all-around polymath.

Had she been a man, Hildegard would have been recognized long ago as among the best known Christian medieval geniuses. A true sign of Hildegard’s transcendence in our time is that both conservative Joseph Ratzinger and the New Age movement have paid homage to her or, as one scholar puts it, “hijacked” her work.

Even her name is formidable. Hildegard, from the Germanic hild (battle) and gard (protection or enclosure), means “battle guard.” Indeed, in Scandinavian mythology the Valkyrie Hildegard was sent by Odin to escort battle heroes to Valhalla.

Childhood and Development

Although she is named after her place of residence as an adult, Hildegard was born in Böckelheim on the Nahe, in one of Germany’s winegrowing districts,  not far from Frankfurt am Main. She was born about 1098 to a family of the free lower nobility, the youngest and possibly tenth child of  Mechtild of Merxheim-Nahet and Hildebert of Bermersheim, who may have directed her to a life in the church as a customary “tithe” of sorts.

As a girl she was sickly. Hildegard stated in her recollections that from a very young age she had experienced visions. It’s disputed whether the visions or her parents’ ambitions led to her placement, sometime between the ages of 8 and 14, with Jutta, the daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, at the monastery at Disibodenberg, to which a growing community of women who lived ascetic lives was attached.

Jutta was also a visionary and lived as an anchoress. The medieval anchors lived shut off from the world inside a small room, often built adjacent to a church so they could follow services, with only a small window used to convey for food and communication. Otherwise, they spent their days in prayer, contemplation, or solitary handiwork.

Hildegard lived monastically enclosed but, unlike Jutta, was not an anchoress. From Jutta she learned to read and write, recite the psalms, garden and do handiwork, as well as tend to the sick. The monk Volmar, a frequent visitor, may have taught Hildegard  musical notation.

Magistra, Visionary, Genius

Jutta’s death in 1136, when Hildegard was 38, was a transformative event. Hildegard was unanimously elected as magistra (the Latin feminine for teacher) of the community by her fellow nuns, which plunged her into a clash with the male-dominated church structure.

Abbot Kuno asked her to be prioress, also a distinctive position but under his authority. Hildegard wanted more independence for herself and her nuns, albeit toward more poverty, from an elaborate stone complex to a temporary dwelling place. She asked Kuno’s permission to move her community to Rupertsberg, a crag at the confluence of the Nahe and the Rhine rivers, in Bingen am Rhein. When the abbot declined, she went over his head and received the approval of Archbishop Henry I of Mainz.

Even then, Abbot Kuno resisted the move until Hildegard fell ill, paralyzed and unable to move from her bed—a development she attributed to God's unhappiness at not following his orders to move her nuns to Rupertsberg.

In Hildegard’s own words:
“And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books... But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of God, I fell onto a bed of sickness.”
The Abbot, suspecting a ruse, tried to move her from her bed; upon discovering he was physically unable to do so, he relented and granted the nuns their own monastery at Bingen, St. Rupertsberg’s. Hildegard acquired the land and the convent chapel was consecrated by Archbishop Henry in 1152. There, along with the nuns, Volmar served as provost, as well as Hildegard's confessor and secretary.

In 1165 Hildegard founded a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen, on the other side of the Rhine.  Buildings of an abandoned Augustinian monastery already existed so the nuns could renovate it and settle down there quickly.

Musician, Writer, Scientist

In the years that followed the move to Bingen, Hildegard produced a voluminous  collection of music, theological works and scientific treatises and even developed a language, Lingua Ignota (unknown language) and an alternative alphabet.

Hildegard's music is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers, with 69 surviving musical works, each with its own original text. At least four other texts are known, although their musical notation has been lost. You can hear a virtual concert of roughly an hour clicking here. This is what I listened to as I wrote these lines.

Her best known major musical composition, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is arguably the earliest morality play, composed probably in 1151. The Ordo takes up the struggle between good and evil through monophonic  melodies for the Anima (human soul) and 16 Virtues, which scholars believe were sung by nuns, and a speaking part for the Devil, which would have been played by Volmar.

No less artistic are her three most significant works of visionary theology. In them, Hildegard describes dreamlike visions often featuring allegorical female figures, then offers theological interpretation taking on the persona of what she calls the “voice of the Living Light.”

Scivias (“Know the Ways,” written 1142-1151), is a collection of six visions that run from creation to the end of history and its Symphony of Heaven. The Liber Vitae Meritorum (“Book of the Rewards of Life,” 1158-1163) tackles dramatic confrontations between alluring and seductive Vices against truth-telling Virtues. Lastly, the Liber Divinorum Operum (“Book of Divine Works,” 1163-1174), offers ten cosmic visions featuring the characters Divine Love (Caritas) and Wisdom (Sapientia).

An excerpt from the still uncompleted Scivias was read aloud to Pope Eugenius III at the Synod of Trier in 1148, after which he sent Hildegard a letter with his blessing and papal approval to document her visions as revelations from the Holy Spirit.

Writing on other matters, Hildegard authored Physica, on natural history, and Causae et Curae (Cause and Cure), on curative powers of various natural objects. Although not strictly theological, they reflect her view that the human was the peak of God's creation and everything was put in the world for humans to use.

In describing plants, trees, birds, animals and stones, Hildegard is most concerned with   each object and its medicinal use. For example: “Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous flowing humors and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy.”

She also displays an unusually positive view of sexual relations and pleasure from the point of view of a woman, including what may well be the first description of the female orgasm. Similarly, she linked the level of love and passion between parents and a child’s disposition.

Significance, Death and Legacy

Hildegard gained recognition despite the limitations imposed on women by Europe’s medieval customs. She had not received formal education but excelled in many fields. She used artistic devices to get around rules barring women from writing or speaking about theology.

She gained instant credence in her time once the pope authorized her writing down of visions and began preaching in four tours throughout Germany starting around 1160, speaking before clergy and laity in chapter houses and in public, mainly denouncing clerical corruption and calling for reform. Abbots and abbesses asked her for prayers and opinions on various matters.

She had several fanatical followers, including Guibert of Gembloux, who wrote to her frequently and became her secretary after Volmar's death in 1173. Hildegard corresponded with popes (Eugene III and Anastasius IV), statesmen (Abbot Suger, counsellor of Louis VI and Louis VII of France, and German emperor Frederick I Barbarossa) and notable figures such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

On September 17, 1179, when Hildegard died, the sisters who were with her claimed they saw two streams of light appear in the skies and cross over the room where she was dying.

Hildegard was one of the first persons whose life was subjected to the Roman canonization process; however, four attempts were not completed and she remained officially at the level of beatification (“blessed” rather than “saint”) until 2012. Her name was nonetheless added to the Roman calendar in the 16th century. Her feast day is September 17.

Several popes referred to Hildegard as a saint, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In 2012, the latter decreed the celebration of St. Hildegard to the entire Catholic Church in a process known as “equivalent canonization,” laying the groundwork for naming her a Doctor of the Church, the fourth woman among 35 saints given that title.

Hildegard of Bingen also appears in the calendar of saints of various Anglican churches, including the Church of England, which also commemorates her on September 17.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ephrem of Syria, Harp of the Spirit

Once again I will make a chronological jump, this time to very late antiquity, to pay attention to Ephrem the Syrian, unknown to me until last week, since he seems remarkably significant for our time and for a particularly troubled part of our world.

“When I was a little child and lay in my mother’s bosom, I saw (I was as in a dream) a vine-shoot growing on my tongue, and it increased and reached unto heaven; it yielded fruit without measure, leaves likewise without number,” the saint recalled about his life as he neared death. “It spread, it stretched wide, it bore fruit: all creation drew near. And the more they were that gathered, the more its clusters abounded. These clusters were the homilies; and these leaves the hymns. God was the giver of them: Glory to Him for His grace! For He gave to me of His good pleasure from the storehouse of His treasures.”

Ephrem (circa 306-373), also known as Ephraim, wrote hymns, poems and sermons in verse, as well as prose biblical interpretation. All these works were crafted to lift up the Church during the troubles of his times. The saint’s life and significance are, indeed, defined by the context of these times.

He lived in the waning days of the Roman Empire, when it was at times ruled by one emperor, then by two. To the north were various pagan Gothic tribes, to the east the Zoroastrian Persian Empire.

Ephrem was born in the eastern Roman Empire in Nisibis (today Nusaybin, Turkey), a port town bordering Assyria almost at the spot where the eastern Mediterranean coast turns sharply from an east-west to a north-south orientation. The saint’s hymnody suggests that both his parents were part of the growing Christian community, in a city that also included pagan religions, Judaism and early dissident Christian sects. Later biographers wrote that his father was a pagan priest. In Ephrem’s day, the inhabitants of Nisibis spoke dialects of Aramaic, and the Christians favored the Syriac dialect, in which he wrote.

He was baptized as a youth and almost certainly became a “son of the covenant,” a title given in the Syriac church to men and women committed to sexual abstinence and service, in a kind of proto-monasticism. Jacob, the second bishop of Nisibis, appointed in 308 and recorded as a signatory at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, named Ephrem a teacher (malpana in Syriac), a title that still carries respect among Syriac Christians) and ordained him a deacon.

He began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his office. In his hymns, he often refers to himself as a “herdsman,” to his bishop as the “shepherd” and to his community as the “fold.” Ephrem is credited with founding the School of Nisibis in 350, which later became a center of learning of the Syriac Orthodox Church and is regarded in Orthodoxy as the first university, because it had departments teaching theology, philosophy and medicine.

What might have been a serene life of devotions, learning and service was abruptly interrupted by Shapur II, the 10th king of the Sasanian (or Neo-Persian) Empire. The kingdom, which traces back to the Parthian and early Persian nations, was emerging as a world power. At one point it grew to encompass all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Eastern Arabia (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatif, Qatar, United Arab Emirates), the Levant (Israel, Jordan Lebanon, Palestine, Syria), the Caucasus (Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Georgia, South Ossetia), Egypt, large parts of Turkey, much of central Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), Yemen and Pakistan. Eventually, it was overrun by Arab Islamists.

Shapur laid siege to Nisibis in 338, 346, 350 and 359. In 363 the Roman emperor Jovian was forced to surrender the city. One of Shapur’s conditions was the expulsion of the entire Christian population, since the city was in his officially Zoroastrian kingdom. Ephrem, along with Amida, one of the most distinguished teachers of the Nisibis school, left to settle in the inland town of Edessa (modern Şanliurfa), where, already in his late 50s, he dedicated himself to ministry in the new church and continued his work as a teacher in the renamed School of Edessa.

Once again, peace of mind eluded him. Edessa had always been at the heart of the Syriac-speaking world and was full of rival philosophies and religions. Ephrem remarked that orthodox Nicene Christians were simply called “Palutians,” after a former bishop of the city. Meanwhile, a disturbing array of sects—Arians, Bardaisanites, Manichees, Marcionites and various Gnostics—each claimed to be the true Christian church. This led Ephrem to compose a large number of hymns defending Nicene orthodoxy. They were set to Syriac folk tunes and sung by all-female choirs in the city’s forum.

Ephrem was in his 60s when he succumbed to the plague as he ministered to its victims. He died in Edessa, on June 9, 373.

Ephrem left behind an enormous number of hymns, of which 400 are still extant, most of them highly regarded in the Syriac Orthodox Church, in particular those against heresies. He also wrote homilies in verse (or memres).

Better known and most highly regarded are his lyric teaching hymns (madrases), whose imagery draws from the Bible, folk tradition and other religions and philosophies. They are gathered into various hymn cycles—including his Carmina Nisibena (Song of Nisibis), On Faith, On Paradise, On Virginity and Against Heresies—that were sung in his day by all-women choirs with an accompanying lyre.

Ephrem’s prose work includes a biblical commentary on the Diatessaron (a single gospel harmony of the early Syriac church) and his Commentary on Genesis and Exodus. Some fragments exist in Armenian of his commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and Pauline Epistles.

He is also regarded as the author of The Life of Saint Mary the Harlot, the story of a woman of his time who flees the temptation of incest, becomes a prostitute and eventually regains her faith and virtue. Some scholars dispute his authorship, but surviving copies contain at the end the following prayer widely accepted as written by Ephrem:
Have mercy upon me,
You who alone are without sin,
and save pitiful me:
for beside You, Father most blessed,
and Your only begotten Son who was made flesh for us,
and the Holy Ghost who gives life to all things,
I know no other, and believe in no other.

Now be mindful of me, Lover of men,
and lead me out of the prison-house of my sins,
for both I and the prison are in Your hand, O Lord,
the moment You bid me go out from it elsewhere.

Remember me that I am without defense,
and save me, a sinner,
and may Your grace, that was in this world
my aid, my refuge, and my glory,
gather me under its wings
in that great and terrible day.

For You know, You who try the hearts and reins,
that I did shun much of evil and the byways of same,
the vanity of the impertinent and the defense of heresy,
not because of myself, but of Your grace
wherewith my mind was lit.

Therefore, holy Lord, I beseech You,
bring me into Your kingdom,
and deign to bless me with all that have found grace before You,
for with You there is magnificence, adoration, and honor,
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Among Syriac Christians, Ephrem is called the Harp of the Spirit, the Deacon of Edessa, the Sun of the Syrians and a Pillar of the Church. Pope Benedict XV proclaimed Ephrem a Doctor of the Church (“Doctor of the Syrians”) in 1920. His Catholic feast day is June 9, but on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) it is June 10.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Bridget of Sweden, a Redoubtable Woman

Known as a medieval mystic, patron saint of Sweden, one of several patron saints of Europe and founder of the Brigittine Order, St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden is not to be confused with the Irish St. Brigid of Kildare, whom we just reviewed. Despite several centuries that separated them, their similar names invite taking a look.

Bridget was born about 1303 to Birger Persson, governor and provincial judge of Uppland and one of the wealthiest landholders of the country, and Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, a woman of some renown in her time for her great piety. The family was also distantly related to the deceased St. Ingrid, who in 1272 had founded the first Dominican cloister in Sweden.

As a young girl, starting at the age of 7, Bridget had visions of Christ crucified. She initially wanted to enter a convent as a result of her mystical experiences, but her father prevailed on her to marry instead. At the age of 14 she married Ulf Gudmarsson, son of the lord of Närke, who was himself only 16; they had eight children—four daughters and four sons—of whom six survived infancy, a rarity at the time. One daughter is now honored as St. Catherine of Sweden.

As a young noblewoman wife, Bridget became known for her works of charity toward Östergötland's unwed mothers and their children. In her early 30s, she was called to court to be lady-in-waiting to the new queen of Sweden, Blanche of Namur. In this period she became an acquaintance of notable theologians of her time and country, among them Nicolaus Hermanni, later bishop of Linköping; the canon of Linköping, Matthias, who became her confessor; and Peter Magister, her confessor after Matthias.

In 1341 she and her husband went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, shortly after which Ulf died. After this loss, Bridget became a member of the lay Third Order of St. Francis, devoting herself entirely to prayer and caring for the poor and sick.

The visions she is believed to have had from early childhood now became more frequent and pronounced. She believed that Christ, and sometimes Mary, saints and her guardian angel appeared to her, and she wrote down the revelations, later translated into Latin by Matthias and Prior Peter of Alvastrâ, the Cistercian monastery where her husband had died. The writings, collected as The Revelations of Saint Birgitta, gained great popularity during the Middle Ages after she died.

In one of her first visions, Christ says, in part:

“Your soul will be filled with me and I will be in you … There the soul, both inwardly and outwardly delighted, is full of joy, thinking of nothing and desiring nothing but the joy that it possesses. So love me alone, and you will have all the things you wish, and you will have them in abundance. … If you believe my words and fulfill them, oil and joy and exultation will never fail you for all eternity.”

At about this time she developed the idea of establishing a religious community. In 1350, a jubilee year, Bridget braved a journey across plague-stricken Europe to Rome, accompanied by her daughter Catherine, son Birger and a small party of priests and followers, to obtain papal authorization for the new order.

The Order of the Most Holy Savior (which included both monks and nuns), also known as the Brigittines, started at a house in Vadstena, Sweden, and was later richly endowed by King Magnus IV and his queen. As with Brigid of Ireland’s communities, the order’s houses were double monasteries, with men and women forming a joint community, with separate cloisters. Their life included poverty, self-sufficiency for the community and giving all surplus income to the poor; however, they were allowed to have books without limit. The original house, still at Vadstena, has a website at The order now has several branches, one of which has a men’s house in Amity, Oregon, which makes confectionary.

The trip to Rome shocked Bridget, given the moral decay of the continent in the late Middle Ages, and she stayed in the Eternal City the rest of her life—save for pilgrimages, including one to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 1373—with the aim of uplifting Europe. She did not neglect the order, sending what were described as “precise instructions for the construction of the monastery” (now known as the Blue Church because of the color of its granite). She also insisted that an “abbess, signifying the Virgin Mary, should preside over both nuns and monks.”

In Rome, Bridget displayed what observers called a constantly smiling face and went to communion every day. Perhaps because of her charitable work, she herself experienced financial straits and was troubled by news of some of her children, whose behavior as adults was far from saintly.

Moreover, she was living at a time of grave abuses within the Church, including the pope’s virtual imprisonment in Avignon, and fought for his return to Rome and an end to corruption. Some of her visions reflect these concerns.

Her final pilgrimage to the Holy Land was disrupted by shipwreck and the death of her son Charles, all of which led to her death in 1373, on July 23, which is now her feast day. She was buried in Italy at first; her remains were later returned to Vadstena. Bridget was canonized in 1391.

Bridget has been the subject of some controversy.

She is revered by Catholics and Lutherans, even though Martin Luther called her “crazy Bridget,” and Swedish Reformation figure Olaus Petri called her revelations “daydreams.” Queen Christina of Sweden, a 17th century woman also drawn to faith and to Rome, was referring to Bridget when she said she preferred to be counted “among the sensible rather than among the saints.”

A modern history of the Swedish monarchy also suggests that Bridget did not endear herself to her patrons King Magnus and Queen Blanche when she accused them of “erotic deviations, extravagance and murderous plots.” Clearly, she is a very contemporary saint who saw no contradiction between mystical experience and active secular work—leading a holy life in the marketplace.

In sum, Bridget was without doubt a holy woman to be reckoned with, not lightly dismissed.