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

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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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Medieval Unity and Humility

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If I were to choose a leitmotif for the early Middle Ages in England, it would most certainly be unity. The quest for unity is perhaps what most characterized its endeavors in the realms of ethics, aesthetics, religion, and academics. They approached all of these with the assumption that Christianity is the great reconciler of God and man, Christ being ‘the image of the invisible God” through whom and for whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.”[1] These Christians believed that through “the blood of his cross,” Christ brings peace, reconciling all things on heaven and earth.[2] In many ways, peace was scarce for them amidst the political and social upheavals after the fall of Rome. Disorder and fragmentation met them everywhere. It is remarkable (and heartening) that despite this, they persevered and eventually prevailed in bringing about stability and progress.

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Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation

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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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]  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.[4] 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.[5]

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

 

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Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England.
Founded in 597, completely rebuilt from 1070 to 1077.

England of the fifth century A.D. was a society in flux, in which stability was a scarce resource amidst upheaval and unrest. Centuries of conflict had fallen upon the small island as the final cadences of Pax Romana expired, giving way to barbarian invasions from the North. It was a time in which many cultures were colliding, consorting, and clashing. Chaos was the order of the day, and England was decidedly post-Christian. The few Christians that remained struggled to protect the moral life of their dwindling community whilst carrying out the task of evangelizing an often hostile pagan culture. Modern western Christians might resonate with these realities, for they are not far from what we experience today.  In his recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher writes that though we are not threatened physically from barbarians taking advantage of the loss of Roman protection, we are threatened nonetheless with the moral chaos left over in a society in which Christianity is no longer an effective stabilizing force. He proposes that modern Christians should look back to our medieval brothers and sisters to learn how they were able to protect and pass on Christian culture despite the turbulent times in which they lived. He contends that “we need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith” modeled after the medieval monasteries, in particular.[1] The potential to learn from the Benedictines is great indeed, for many of their organizing principles, with emphases on order, prayer, and community, in addition to the practical balance struck between inward and outward focus, provide important (and convicting ) correctives for modern Christians who have lost their way in the darkness. The effectiveness of the Benedict Option will depend upon the willingness of Christians to resist the fragmenting forces of modernity, taking stock where we have uncritically absorbed its ethos of individualism, and, like the communities of our medieval counterparts, the communities we form must be willing to submit to oversight and wise counsel if these are to be protected from the numerous ways in which they can succumb to the dark.

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