“For, whatever the medieval faults, they went with one merit. Medieval people never worried about being medieval; and modern people do worry horribly about being modern.” ~ G.K. Chesterton “On Turnpikes and Medievalism”
As in their moral lives, medieval scholars operated under the assumption that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (2 Cor. 3). Anglo-Saxons Christians loved unity and order. Perhaps the upheaval of the times, the rapidly rising, falling, and fragmenting of kingdoms and countries, stimulated a passion for order that might have otherwise been absent. Perhaps it was the presence of “huge masses of heterogeneous material,” fragments of a more civilized and advanced time that they inherited after the fall of Rome. Regardless, they operated upon these principles of finding unity and order and this led them to become extraordinary synthesizers. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes that “At his most characteristic, medieval man was … an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.” He wanted “place for everything and everything in the right place.” From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.” Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans. All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which came from pagan cultures. Though the forces of fragmentation may be different in modern times, we can still learn from their ability to create harmony across disciplines. Indeed, the fragmentation of our moral lives extends into all areas of culture, including our academics, arts, and sciences. We set reason high “on the soul’s acropolis,” as C.S. Lewis writes in his poem “Reason,” consigning the imagination with her “dim exploring touch” to seemingly impassable depths. As we enter a post-Christian era, we can learn from the medieval church’s ability to bring together all of the disciplines into “a complex unity that encompassed all of time and space,” leaving out nothing, thus revealing the grandeur of God.
“We are delighted to know about the ignorance of medievalism,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in The Illustrated London News in 1906, but “we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge.” Our ignorance is perhaps best betrayed by the continuance of the term “the dark ages” in our imaginations when we consider the time period spanning from the fall of the Rome (about 410 A.D.) to the start of the Renaissance (1485 A.D.). The image of darkness persists despite the fact that “this derogatory opinion … has now been almost totally abandoned by professional historians in favor of the neutral view that takes ‘Middle Ages’ simply as the name of a period in Western history, during which distinctive and important contributions to Western culture were made,” writes historian David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science. Every age has its myths, even our modern one, and none is more entrenched than the belief that this period, which saw a flourishing of Christianity in the West, was one of oppression and ignorance, in which blind faith supplanted reason in all areas of life. It is as if the Renaissance arose out of the medieval vacuum, creating itself from nothing, a cosmic singularity, unleashing Reason from the vise-grip of autocratic bishops and malicious monks. A more accurate picture is what is sought here. Who were these medieval believers and what lessons might modern Christians living in a post-Christian culture learn from them with regards to preserving and perpetuating the faith in a rapidly changing society? Looking specifically at England, I contend that we have much to learn, from the stabilizing force of the monastery, with its community structured around the Divine commission to love God and neighbor, to the ways in which medieval Christians respected, protected, and preserved the past. In the end, a more accurate picture should emerge out of the darkness that shrouds the time. Perhaps then we will be recalled to the reality that we are indebted to the medievals for many of our modern institutions: “that Parliaments are medieval, that all our Universities are medieval, that city corporations are medieval, that gunpowder and printing are medieval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are medieval.”
Wisdom from the early Medieval Christians of England:
“The Answer” by R.S. Thomas
Not darkness but twilight
In which even the best
of minds must make its way
now. And slowly the questions
occur, vague but formidable
for all that. We pass our hands
over their surface like blind
men feeling for the mechanism
that will swing them aside. They
yield, but only to reform
as new problems; and one
does not even do that
but towers immovable
Is there no way
of other thought of answering
its challenge? There is an anticipation
of it to the point of
dying. There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
— R. S. Thomas
Read more about R.S. Thomas here: “Poet of the Cross”
The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal.
~ Saint Augustine, Homily 2 on the First Epistle of John
More than any previous era, modern Man feels small. As astronomy presses further the boundaries of the known universe, one could say that we shrink in proportion. As our cities grow larger and our buildings seem to defy gravity, this conquest of nature leaves us estranged from it. “What is Man that you are mindful of him?” asked the ancient Psalmist under the star-studded sky that greeted him each night. “What is Man?” the modern asks, as astonishing images from Hubble reveal millions of luminaries that lie forever beyond his vision’s capacity. Only silence seems to answer us from this infinite beyond. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal. Ours is an age when mankind has been put in his place, one could say. What we are learning screams “Where were you when the universe began?” Our existence appears so unnecessary, so insignificant in comparison to the vastness of time and space. Pain and suffering accentuate the sense of isolation all the more.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life addresses this alienation. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” The Tree of Life begins, quoting the Book of Job as its epigraph. Director Terrence Malick’s experimental film is not unlike the Book of Job in that it sets this cosmic question within the context of an individual family’s loss. God answers Job with a riddle, but he was comforted, nonetheless. As an artistic exploration of the problem of evil and unjust suffering, Malick’s The Tree of Life is as complex and puzzling as Job’s mysteries, with meaning that encompasses and transcends every camera movement. This film provides a modern retelling of Job with stunning cinematic lyricism, one in which the wonder of existence “shines through everything.”
Silence can be a welcome refuge from the noise of modern existence. A place of renewing peace in a hurried world that is ever striving and reaching, reaching and striving for something, anything, and everything.
Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the limitations of the pagan poets and their epistemology is Plato’s cave allegory. Socrates wants to move the minds of the young men away from the visible world to the unseen world beyond the senses, the realm to which reason looks and is grounded. In the allegory, Plato likens the world as perceived by the senses (and the pagan poets) to a dark cave. The sensual aspects of our souls are what keep us captive there in chains, while the fire (representing convention) offers a secondary light, casting shadows on the cave wall that we perceive as reality. The poets might be the ones who produce the shadows that capture our attention. The goal of reason (and education) is to move one outside the cave into the world that “is eternal, unchanging and utterly good.” Once one has been freed from the chains and has ascended, he is obligated to return to the cave and seek to free others with captivating images drawn from outside the cave that are necessarily closer to that which is truly good, true, and beautiful. The genius of this allegory is that it has done just that for many generations. Reynolds notes that “the image of the cave is so powerful that it has haunted countless other works of art, including poems and movies.” Plato was indeed engaged in his own artistic endeavor.