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.

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Part One: The Medieval Model of the Cosmos

Dante-Paradise

Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Celestial Rose – seeing the universe from a spiritual point of view

In his essay, “First and Second Things,” Lewis wrote that “you can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”[1] In fact, he continues, if you put second things first, you will end up getting neither. The thing that strikes one most when studying the differences between the Medieval Model and our own is the inversion of first and second things between the two. The medieval mind took for granted that the world, though complex, was ordered. They looked to first things to help them discover its structure, two of which were God’s goodness and Mankind’s sinfulness. Taking these as starting points, along with a tremendous respect for the wisdom of the past, they constructed their cosmology. Modern man has debunked these first things and begins with himself: cogito ergo sum. The consequences of this inversion reverberate throughout our cosmology, creating a very different reaction to the universe as compared to the medieval stargazer. Lewis writes that it is precisely this inversion that has led to the emptying and “desiccation of the outer universe” that characterizes our model, not the scientific discoveries of our more technologically advanced age.[2] He calls the inversion a result of a “great movement of internalization and that consequent aggrandizement of man,” something that is the subject of his book The Abolition of Man.[3] In other words, we have dispensed with the hierarchy of the medieval model and have put mankind into a first-place in our world, crushing everything into a “flat equality.”[4] Therefore, it is not so much its details but the Medieval Model’s ordering of first and second things that can speak wisdom into our current age and illuminate where we have gone wrong. The medieval observer’s respect for authority and recognition of Mankind’s place within an objective hierarchical order provide powerful correctives for our modern age. It reveals how our distrust of authority, our hunger for autonomy, and our worship of radical individualism have shaped our own model of the universe in such a way that it has shrunk to the point where “the parts seem greater than the whole.”[5]

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Models, Madness, and Topsy-Turvy Land

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“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” ― G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

Thanks to studying the Medieval Model of the cosmos (via C.S. Lewis, a professional medieval scholar at both Oxford and Cambridge), I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest.

That self-consciousness started with Adam and Eve, by the way.  SELF-consciousness.

Scientifically limited as their Model was, the Medievals started with Christ Jesus and the Gospel and worked downward from there. We are always looking out in their universe – out into a brightly-lit festival of celestial beauty and harmony. It’s a cosmic dance that welcomes and comforts. Our world of sin and fallenness is on the outside looking in like a cold beggar peering into a warm, fire-lit parlor. Compare this to the cold and inhospitable vacuity of our modern model. It’s completely inverted!

Cosmos versus space – think of the difference between those words. The former humbles us in the gentlest, most welcoming of ways. The latter (our view), humbles through fear with its eternal silence and infinite spaces. This is the difference between starting with God and starting with man when it comes to cosmic model (and worldview) building.

God humbles more gently than man humbles.

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The Lost Light of the “Dark Ages”

Benedictional 34v detail

Candlemas (BL Additional 49598, f. 34v) from A Clerk of Oxford BlogA Candlemas Miracle: ‘a light to lighten the English’ 

 

“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:

Ethics: The Rule of St Benedict and Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for Modern Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

Scholarship: Medieval Synthesis and  Modern Fragmentation

Conclusion: Unity and Humility

Enemy-Occupied Territory

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Why must we strive to enact spiritual discipline in our personal lives as Christians? Because at the present time, whether we realize it or not, we are in a battle. When we became Christians, we entered into an ancient war, waged from before we can remember. Add to this the reality that we don’t get to fight the way our opponent fights. Ours is not the easier task to destroy. The marching orders are to build up and pass on, not by force, but through loving God and neighbor.

And, if we are not advancing, we are in retreat, for our enemy never rests.

C.S. Lewis said it best in his book, Mere Christianity:

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening–in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil-—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do. I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.’

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“The Answer” by R.S. Thomas

 

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William Selwyn’s “Caernarfon Castle”

 

“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
before us

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”