Part Two: Medieval and Modern Suffering

The Agony in the Garden circa 1799-1800 by William Blake 1757-1827

Jesus’s Agony in the Garden by Blake

We moderns do not suffer well. At first glance, this might seem strange to our medieval ancestors since our living conditions are far superior to that of any other civilization in human history. Nevertheless, they would quickly discern that our relative wealth and security represent “only the surface of our lives.”[1] Below the busy-ness and sophistication, there is an emptiness as vast as the space of our cosmological models. Because of this, we feel our suffering more acutely. Despite the fact that their day-to-day lives were decidedly more difficult, our medieval ancestors would pity us. Chesterton wrote that because of our nearsightedness when it comes to the cosmos, we “have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones.”[2] Indeed, the little and big things have been cordoned off from one other in our world. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we have divided the two such that “on the one side [there is] a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism,’” that is ultimately meaningless.[3] In his book Faith, Hope and Poetry, Malcolm Guite writes that in our world, “the faculties of Imagination and Intuition, those very faculties that alone [are] capable of integrating, synthesising, and making sense of our atomized factual knowledge, [have been] relegated to a purely private and ‘subjective’ truth.”[4] Again, man is the measure in the modern mind, so this subjectivity is inevitable. Part of our task as apologists is to repair the fragmentation between our imaginations and our reason, to bind again what has been torn apart. As Holly Ordway writes in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, our culture struggles “not with missing facts, but with missing meaning,” and this is difficult mental soil for the Gospel to take root.[5] This is where imaginative apologetics is indispensable for it seeks to bridge the gap between the two. Once again, we can look back to our medieval clerk to give us a way forward for in his mind no chasm existed. Therefore, as we scale the lonely peak of our modern age once again, leaving the medieval pageantry and joy behind, it is our task as ambassadors for our Golden King to tell our age about that valley below.  Two poems, in particular, can show us how the combination of imagination and reason provide a powerful antidote to our modern situation: Malcolm Guite’s “O Sapientia” and “O Clavis,” two among seven sonnets inspired by the medieval ‘O Antiphons’ that were written for the Advent season.

The medieval Christians were fighting forces of fragmentation in their time, too. Darkness had descended upon their civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire. As they looked about them, they could see that their pagan neighbors were living outside of the knowledge of Christ, not unlike they themselves had been before hearing His Good News. In recognition of these, both their former darkness and the current condition of their neighbors, Advent season became especially significant. In the days running up to Christmas, they would willingly enter into an imaginative engagement with the long history of spiritual darkness before the soul felt its worth. In his book, Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite tells us that “in its first centuries the Church developed a custom of praying seven great prayers during this time, calling afresh on Christ to come, addressing him by the mysterious titles found in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah: ‘O Wisdom!’ ‘O Root!’ ‘O Key!’ ‘O Light!’ ‘O Emmanuel!’”[6] He writes that for these early Christians, “the whole purpose of Advent [was] to be for a moment fully and consciously” in this time before Christ.[7] Imaginatively entering into that time of darkness and doubt, they would recreate the longing and waiting.

This is especially instructive for us in our post-Christian world where all too often we “rush in our conversation to refer to the known name, the predigested knowledge, the formulae of our faith,” things that might sound like clanging cymbals to our sin-wearied world.[8] Ordway notes that we are “faced with a communication challenge because we often work on the borderlands where those we hope to reach do not yet have much, or any, lived experience of the truth” we present.[9] The language of our faith is spoken in an unknown tongue. Our medieval ancestors faced a similar challenge. Guite writes that whoever composed these Antiphons most likely poured over the Old Testament to get a feel for what life was like on the vast borderland of human existence before Christ’s advent. How mankind had cried out to Him then, what words they used, might shed light on the vernacular of their pagan neighbors. Wisdom, light, king, root, key, and flame – “they would find all these things promised in the coming of Christ,” he writes.[10] Inspired by medieval versions of these ‘O Antiphons,’ Guite composed a series of seven sonnets as a response from within our own cultural moment. We will focus on two that address quite directly the inversion of first and second things discussed in the previous post: “O Sapientia” and “O Clavis” (click on links for the sonnets).  Guite does a wonderful job speaking directly to our modern dilemma of putting mankind in a first-thing position by subtly confronting our distorted views of personal autonomy and freedom.

“I cannot think unless I have been thought,” the sonnet “O Sapientia” begins. Contrast this with cogito ergo sum, Descartes’s starting place and arguably one of the most influential ideas in modern times. In the marketplace of ideas, words like ‘choice,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘rights,’ and ‘free speech’ are repeatedly used to defend political and social policies. Ordway writes that “hidden in these labels is the deep-seated assumption that personal autonomy is the highest good, one that trumps all others.”[11] I think it is right, therefore it is right for me. This is one of those inversions of first things in our world. “O Sapientia” or ‘O Wisdom,’ challenges this most directly by calling attention to the fact that we are utterly dependent upon God for everything, even our thoughts. He is the giver of all good things, including our freedoms to think and to choose. When these goods are placed first, they are destroyed. They become merely molecular “movements in the brain of a bewildered ape.”[12]

From this beginning, our thoughts now grounded in God, the sonnet moves us forward to reflect on how this idea works down to the core of our being. ‘O Mind,’ ‘O Light,’ ‘O Word,’ all help the reader identify the origins by which we think, seek, and speak. God grounds our ideas, our freedom, and our language – all things that have lost their way when grounded only in ourselves. “O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,” tells us that wisdom “is not the private capacity of an individually wise person or the accumulated prudence of a human ‘wisdom tradition’; it is a primal, almost pre-existent, quality of order and beauty out of which all things spring.”[13] This is the order that the medieval clerk sought to find. Guite writes that in this, he “wanted to convey this sense of underlying and underpinning order of things,” something that we all too easily forget for it is one of those realities that are too immediate and pervasive to be seen.[14] He is the God in Whom we live and move and have our being, He is everywhere present the Psalmist tells us and even our thoughts betray us in our ‘reasoned’ rejection of Him, for He alone can give them objective meaning beyond the movement of molecules.

All of these culminate in “My Ground of Being, always grounding me,” awakening in us the realization that even in our wandering, even when our cosmic models exclude Him, “He upholds the universe by the word of his power.”[15] In His mercy, He remains a first thing, despite what we deserve when we put ourselves in that place. “My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,” confronts us with the reality that we cannot make ourselves according to our own will, for without bounds, our definitions are meaningless, the words becoming as empty as our cosmos. Yet the modern atheist would retort that the concept of God is as empty as space for unlike objects in the night sky, we cannot see Him through our telescopes. The final two lines answer this, giving us the boundary lines within which we can look for Him, binding up the sonnet if you will in a note of anticipation: “Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring, /Come to me now, disguised as everything.” We can point to our thoughts and everything they contemplate and say, ‘Look!’ to the atheist, ‘He is as inescapable as our own thoughts!’ Guite writes that “wisdom is both hidden and gloriously apparent” in this fallen sublunary landscape.[16] Who can flee His presence, indeed?[17]

And yet despite this, our culture still seeks an explanation that can escape Him and we bring upon ourselves the inevitable despair that comes from such willful darkness. ‘O Clavis’ or ‘Christ as the Key’, is a sonnet that speaks to this darkness. From the peak of the modern world, we look down upon the dry desert of small things and nothing can satisfy our longing to be free. Again, our world has placed autonomy in a first-thing position and has ended up destroying it as a result. This is evidenced by the fact that our culture has seen an unprecedented rise in the numbers of people treated for depression and anxiety. Though “darkness, pain, sin, and struggle,” have always weighed heavily on mankind, clouding his vision of the goodness that surrounds him, these are heightened like never before by the fact that modern technology enables us to live in denial of them.[18] When they strike, as they inevitably do, we are ill-equipped to answer them from both the vantage of points of experience and our thin worldview. Yet Ordway points out that the Gospel of our Lord can speak to our modern predicament because it is a story of rescue. Our message of hope is clothed in suffering and pain if you will, for it tells of God’s willingness to endure them for our sake in order to free us. “If we tell the truth about the experience of pain, our witness is more credible when we speak about joy,” Ordway writes.[19] Guite’s ‘O Clavis’ does just this with its depiction of sitting in the darkness of depression, looking for the key that will be the release from the dungeon. He writes that “of all the mystic titles of Christ, ‘O Clavis’, ‘O Key’, is the one that connects most with our ‘secular’ psychology” that thinks in terms of ‘closure’, ‘opening’ or ‘liberation.’[20] Our distorted understanding of these terms will ensure that true freedom will remain forever behind locked doors.

“I can remember freedom, but forget/ That every lock must answer to a key,” Guite writes. The next lines then tell of the necessary intricacy of each, “Particular, exact and intimate.”[21] Guite had in mind a passage from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he considers the entire Christian creed as a sort of “complex and strangely shaped” key that fits the complexity of our strangely shaped world. Chesterton himself was searching for the solution that would explain this wondrous world that “would never starve for want of wonders.”[22] He writes that when he finally found Christ, he “could hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click of relief.”[23] This is the relief towards which Guite’s sonnet compels us. “I cry out for the key I threw away,” he writes, the one that “turned and over turned with certain touch.”[24] Again, this highlights the complexity of our essential creed, one that is large enough to both encompass our sorrow without explaining it away, while guiding us through it with hope. Chesterton wrote:

When once one believes in a creed, one is proud of its complexity, as scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it’s elaborately right. A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key.[25]

It turns out then that our modern models of the universe are too simple.[26] They explain away our pain and suffering as artifacts of evolution rather than confront them. Yet if one explains away the problem of evil, the problem of good follows along. The universe must then contract, once again. There is no lock and there is no key. It is only a stone rolling into a hollow by accident. It is all a useful fiction. The world does not need a cosmological model that depicts suffering as merely some sort of randomly generated survival mechanism for it makes a mockery not only of our pain but of our highest aspirations to knowledge, goodness, kindness, excellence, and love. The beauty of our Christian creed, with its dying and rising Saviour, is that it is large enough to contain all of these. It reminds us that there is a world of objective “meaning, truth, beauty, and goodness” outside the dungeon walls.[27]


The beautiful Weeping Valley of Glencoe, Scotland.


[1] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York:  Scribner, 2003), 19.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 154.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1984), 170.

[4] Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008), 4.

[5] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing), 8.

[6] Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (London: Canterbury Press, 2015), 67.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, 32.

[10] Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word, 67.

[11] Holly Ordway, 62.

[12] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 28.

[13] Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word, 68.

[14] Ibid., 69.

[15] Ibid. 67.

[16] Ibid., 69.

[17] Psalm 139, ESV.

[18] Holly Ordway, 116.

[19] Holly Ordway, 124

[20] Malcolm Guite, 77.

[21] Ibid., 78

[22] G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (Kindle Locations 93-94). Kindle Edition.

[23] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 74.

[24] Malcolm Guite, 76.

[25] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 79.

[26] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 46.

[27] Holly Ordway, 129.

One thought on “Part Two: Medieval and Modern Suffering

  1. Pingback: The Medieval Model and Modern Meaninglessness | Along the Beam

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