Midweek Medieval Blog: The Black Plague: How the Church Responds to Pandemics

While the Ebola pandemic unfortunately continues in Africa, many people in the USA see it as “contained.” I could write an entire blog about the panic of people here, the fight against Ebola in Africa, groups like Doctors without Borders, etc. I urge people to continue to pray for Africa and their battle with the disease. But for today’s blog post I wanted to examine a similar topic related to the Medieval Era: the Black Plague of the mid-1300s. Historians believe that the Plague killed between 30,000,000 and 40,000,000 people in Europe in three years (F. Donald Logan, A History of the The Church in the Middle Ages, 283). There are many sources which examine the Plague from a medical perspective, but I want to discuss the impact that the Plague had upon the Medieval Church.

Obviously, when 30-40% of the people in Europe die in a three year period, the church will be impacted. In fact, whole religious communities perished because their close proximity to one another in such closed-in buildings. The response of the church throughout Europe was varied. In many places, the clergy worked closely with the infected: caring for the sick, performing last rites, and even burying the dead. Other clergy fled to save themselves, often leaving people no one to whom to confess their sins. Some of these clergy advocated confessing sins to other laity as a substitute, and then if the infected survived, confessing sins to a parish priest later (Logan, 283).

Another negative response from the church was to make scapegoats of people groups. Some attacked Muslims, some attacked lepers as if they were responsible, but the most popular scapegoats were the Jews. France and Germany had many instances where Jews were burned alive inside wooden buildings, as Jews were accused of poisoning the water supply (Logan, 284).

One of the more interesting responses was penance in the form of flagellation. Many monks were seen walking into the streets without shirts and whipping each other as a form of retribution. They believed that whipping the flesh would curtail lusts and desires of the flesh, and possibly serve as penance for whatever had brought about the Plague. Pope Clement VI condemned the flagellation movement shortly thereafter, however (Logan, 285-86).

So, what does the Plague of the fourteenth century show us about the Medieval Church? Well, it shows the church’s humanity, both in the fearful fleeing of some clergy and the courageous work of others with the infected. It also shows its propensity to blame others, especially Jews (an issue which would unfortunately continue). Finally, the religious fanaticism in response to such an apocalyptic event also reveals a great deal about the Medieval Church and its fascination with atoning for whatever brought on the pandemic.

In the USA today, we encounter many shocking events, the recent Ebola scare being an obvious parallel. When a nurse flew from Dallas to Cleveland, we saw some of the aforementioned blaming arise. The whole nation was fearful of an outbreak, and people started buying Ebola-proof suits off of Ebay. Fear, blaming, and ostracizing should never be the response of the church to catastrophic events. Prayer, love, compassion, and even people going into harm’s way should characterize the church’s response. The benefit of modern technology allows such a response to be done carefully and in a well-informed manner.

What other parallels do you see today? How can the church respond to other pandemics like AIDS, malaria, and cholera?

Midweek Medieval Blog: St. Gregory Palamas and the Strange Practice of Silent Meditation

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This week’s Medieval blog takes a brief look into the life of St. Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359). Gregory was consecrated Archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347. Gregory was canonized in the Eastern Church in 1368. He is remembered most often for his theological legacy of Hesychasm. “The aim was to attain victory over the passions, and thus inner tranquility (hesychia), from which one could proceed to the contemplation of God. There was a stress on silent meditation and a particular posture was recommended as an aid to the concentration: the chin rested on the chest and the eyes were fixed on the navel… Breathing was carefully regulated and a simple prayer was recited.” (Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, 81).

Gregory is known for his theological battles with Barlaam, a Western monk. Barlaam disagreed with Gregory’s view that God could be known more fully through such practices as those mentioned above. Gregory responded by emphasizing humanity’s ability to know God only through God’s activities, or energies (Lane, 82).

Gregory demonstrated his thinking in a commentary on Matthew 16:28. He wrote, “Scripture shows us God descending from his supreme dwelling place and raising us up from our humble condition… so that the one who is infinite may be surely but within limits encompassed by created nature” (“Gregory Palamas on the Divine Condescension in the Incarnation,” in The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alistair McGrath, 291).

Hesychasm, although a difficult concept, no doubt has many parallels in individual spiritual practice today. The practice of silent meditation and even specific posture and breathing exercises is sometimes advocated for Christians to try in their individual devotions. Even in Western traditions, Eastern practices and traditions are utilized and praised. I have only rarely taken time in silent meditation, but each time that I have, I have found the effect quite powerful. In living in such a busy culture here in the USA, the practice of silent meditation can prove to be a powerful, counter-cultural method of drawing near to God. After all, that was the whole point of Hesychasm: bringing its practitioners closer to God.

I think that is what Gregory’s focus was, as seen in his commentary on the transfiguration passage in Matthew. He saw tangible benefits to attempting to communicate with God through God’s activities and mercies in this world. I hope to attempt to try this practice in the coming weeks, and I encourage you all to as well.

What other spiritual practices allow you to commune with God? How do you like to spend your devotions?

Midweek Medieval Blog: The Venerable Bede, Model Church Historian

Well I haven’t posted to this blog in awhile because I was working on my submitting my dissertation proposal. Thankfully that is in, and now I can post again! Apologies to my readers for the lack of posts lately. Today I wanted to continue my Midweek Medieval Blog Series by briefly discussing the Venerable Bede. Bede tends to be a figure who gets glossed over in many church history survey courses, but his role is monumentally important in the history of Christianity, particularly Western Christianity.

Bede (672-755) is best known for his work the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but he also composed numerous commentaries, homilies, lives of saints, and other works. He lived in the Northern Part of England, in Jarrow, at a monastery there for the majority of his life. He is primarily remembered as a church historian and theologian. F. Donald Logan describes Bede’s view of history: “For him, history is not the retelling of old stories, the passing along of traditional accounts. For Bede history is the attempt to recount the past as accurately as possible, acknowledging that to do so is the essential task of the historian” (Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages, 61).

Bede viewed his own role as a historian as one who “was to receive, verify, and transmit, and in doing so he ensured that the Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons was a continuation of the teaching of his predecessors” (Benedicta Ward, “Bede the Theologian,” in The Medieval Theologians, ed. G. R. Evans, 57).

I often wonder if church history teachers overlook Bede because he was not involved in major doctrinal controversies or heresy trials. The fact remains that without individuals like the Venerable Bede, the Western Church may have lost much of its legacy and history. Bede was incredibly intelligent, learning Latin and Greek and dabbling a little with Hebrew in order to read the Scriptures (Ward, “Bede,” 58). His reliance on Jerome’s Vulgate is well-documented, and Bede gives us an example of one who acknowledges his debt to earlier church figures.

Bede relied on the Church Fathers to deepen his own devotion to Christianity as well as to form his homilies. He placed a high value on education and knowledge. He was also “the first to include in a historical work the BC-AD system of dating worked out by Dionysius Exiguus” (Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume One, 361). Modern history owes Bede a great deal for many of its methodologies and practices.

As a student of church history, and one who plans to be a church historian in the near future, I find the Venerable Bede particularly compelling. His attention to detail in doing historical research, his reliance on his forebears in the faith, and his emphasis on learning and knowledge all provide a strong blueprint for church historians even today. I hope and pray that church historians in the modern era will preserve the method and model of the Venerable Bede in their work.

I close with a brief question: Who are your faith role-models, or more pointedly, who do you model yourself after vocationally?

Midweek Medieval Blog: Praying for Our Kids to Turn out like Catherine of Siena

I haven’t blogged about medieval Christianity in a few weeks and had a post in that time about the Adrian Peterson saga. However, today’s return to the medieval church is prompted in part by a recent viral blog post that has been making its way around the web. There’s a post from the blog “Teach Me to Braid” that is entitled “If My Child Marries Yours” which describes a mother’s prayer not only for her children but for the mother of their future spouses. While I appreciate the sentiment of praying over all aspects of one’s children, something about this post bothers me. It assumes that one’s children will get married someday, or will want to get married, which sets up a whole host of problems. Many single Christians in their 20s and 30s really struggle with being single and what it means for their identity in God’s Kingdom and the church body. I feel that praying for your child’s future mother-in-law and that she would raise her son or daughter “right” not only perpetuates certain gender roles (the blog post notes that men need to hold their wives when they are scared and women need to say the right things to their husbands when they are worn out and tired), but also ties up your children’s identity in who they will marry. But I digress.

What does this have to do with the medieval Church, you ask? Well today I wanted to take a look at the short but powerful life of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She actually committed to a life of celibacy at the age of 7 and at the age of 15 chopped off her long hair to repel interested men (Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006, 134). Throughout her life, she was politically active. She is often credited with convincing Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to Rome, but M. Robert Fawtier is skeptical of just how much credit she deserves for the move (Tucker, Daughters of the Church, 159). She was a mystic and dictated many of her visions. Her other ministry was to the sick and dying in the town of Siena.  There is a story of her being repulsed by wiping the pus from sores of a sick patient. Catherine felt convicted about her reaction to the situation and in order to show her repentance for such an attitude, picked up the bowl of pus and drank it (Tucker, Daughters of the Church, 158). Blech. She is credited with healing the sick, even raising the dead, and interceding for prisoners. Catherine was canonized in 1461 and made a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

I want to bring this blog to a close by examining a passage from her Dialogue, her most famous work, in which she has a conversation with God about her own faith, the reform of the Catholic Church, and the world in general. In one section of the Dialogue, God outlines the requirements for the clergy and leaders of the church. “I demand purity and charity of every soul, a charity that loves me and loves others, and helps others in whatever way it can, serving them in prayer and loving them tenderly. But much more do I demand purity in my ministers, and that they love me and their neighbors, administering the body and blood of my only-begotten Son with burning love and hunger for the salvation of souls, for the glory and praise of my name” (Catherine of Siena, Dialogue 113, in Oden, ed. In Her Words, 200). These requirements therefore show the importance of being one of God’s ministers, and God goes on to describe to Catherine the abuses present in the church. She, in turn, later prays for the Church and for God to “be merciful to the world and to the Holy Church. I am asking you to grant what you are making me ask… make your holy Church blossom again with the fragrant flowers of good holy shepherds whose perfume will dispel the stench of the putrid evil flowers” (Catherine, Dialogue, 134). Church reform is therefore a big part of her life’s work.

Catherine of Siena embodies wisdom, intercession, and prayer in addition to her political activism. From an early age, she shunned the typical life of marriage in favor of celibacy, and her ministry impacted many. She had a hand in leading the Pope back to Rome, she worked for the reform of the Church, and she ministered to the sick. While it “took her family some time to come to terms” with her decision to be celibate (Lane, 134), her brief life impacted the world in a great way. I wonder if instead of praying for our children’s future spouses (and their mothers), we should pray for our children to strive to impact the world like Catherine of Siena.

I welcome your comments on this issue. Is it wrong to pray for you children’s future in-laws? How can parents effectively pray for their children’s lives? What are you own prayer practices?

Midweek Medieval Blog: Innocent III and the Powerful Church Leader

For this week’s Midweek Medieval Blog I wanted to focus on a figure whom I find fascinating from the Medieval period: Innocent III. In keeping with the usual form, I will keep this blog brief (one could easily write quite a lengthy piece on Innocent). Over the last few weeks I have been following the Mars Hill Church issues and the accusations against head pastor Mark Driscoll. I don’t want to get into the details of the church or Driscoll’s leadership, but I have seen comments which note the danger of allowing a leader of a church to gain too much power. Well, there’s no easier way to segue to Innocent III than that.

Innocent III is the epitome of a powerful church leader. He was pope from 1198-1216, and during his papacy, he convened the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. The council produced 70 canons which Innocent simply presented, and these canons were not debated at all by those present. (F. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages, London: Routledge, 2002, 195). The pope is powerful when he convenes a church council, simply presents the canons, and there is no subsequent debate regarding any of the canons. The council focused on reforms for the clergy, with the clergy being seen more as pastors than as rulers (Logan, 196). Innocent also “forbade through the council the founding of new rules; new orders would have to adopt existing rules” (Logan, 197).

I want to provide a quotation from Innocent regarding the papacy and authority from Alister E. McGrath’s edited volume, The Christian Theology Reader, 3rd ed. The quotation is from Innocent’s Sicut universitatis conditor (Just as the creator of the universe) from the beginning of his papacy in 1198. Innocent writes, “Just as the creator of the universe established two great lights in the firmament of heaven, so he also appointed two dignitaries for the firmament of the universal church. The greater of these rules the human souls (the ‘days’), and the lesser of them rules human bodies (the ‘nights’). These dignitaries are the authority of the pope and the power of the king. And just as the moon derives her light from the sun, and is inferior to the sun in terms of its size and its quality, so the power of the king derives from the authority of the pope.” (McGrath, 498).

I always enjoy the pope vs. king back-and-forth of the medieval period, seen for example in the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 CE by the pope. Secular authority vs. spiritual authority was a constant battle in the history of the church. To a twenty-first-century audience, Innocent’s passage comes across as standoffish and almost comical. However, Innocent’s power enabled him to enact sweeping reforms in the church. Therefore, one could say that papal power served a positive purpose and created a positive change in the lives of priests and especially congregants.

Today, in the United States especially, Christians are weary of church leaders and their power. The aforementioned Driscoll is just one example of many church leaders who have fallen out of favor with the general public because they became too powerful. While I tend to sympathize with those who are weary of authoritative church leaders, I can see some validity in a highly structured, hierarchical church practice (my high-church readers rejoice). I think that often having a single leader or bishop may allow for helpful reforms and changes to be enacted more quickly than having a leadership council endlessly debate ideas. The too many cooks in the kitchen analogy seems apropos here. I have attended many different church types with varying degrees of authority placed on one person. I think having someone to actually make the (informed) decision can be a good thing.

I want to close by asking for your thoughts: What benefits are there for having church hierarchy? What are the dangers? Can a church have a council of elders and a bishop that gets the final say? Can and should Protestants admire Catholic church practice?

Midweek Medieval Blog: Anselm of Canterbury and Understanding Your Faith

  

In continuing our Medieval Blog series (see posts on Hildegard of Bingen and St. Bonaventure), I wanted to post about Anselm of Canterbury. He is an intriguing figure from the Medieval Church largely because of his role in the development of scholasticism (Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. Baker Academic, 2006, 105). Often you will hear Anselm’s contribution to Church History as forwarding a position of “Faith Seeking Understanding” (Lane, 105). This simply means that one ought to deepen his or her faith through an exploration of various positions/ doctrines within Christianity, i,e. to begin with a foundation of faith and to seek a more profound understanding regarding the beliefs/ teachings contained therein. Anselm wrote many works on faith, monasticism and theology, but my favorite work of his is Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man).

As someone who has now spent the last 7 years at 2 different seminaries studying the Bible, theology, and (most of all) Church History, I naturally gravitate towards a teaching which advocates a more intellectually-focused study of one’s faith. However, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo frames many deep questions about Christian faith, and the Incarnation specifically, through an ongoing dialogue with one of his monks, Boso. For example, Anselm uses the analogy of a rich man holding a pristine pearl in his hand, “and no one can else can take it out of his hand unless he allows it.” Anslem asks Boso, “What if he himself, although he could prevent it, allows some envious person to knock the pearl out of his hand into the mud, and afterward takes it from the mud and stores it, dirty and unwashed, in some clean and costly receptacle of his, with the intention of keeping it in that state?” (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, Book 1, Chapter 19).

Anselm uses such an image to answer the question of whether or not God could simply restore humanity to paradise without having to make satisfaction for sins. The powerful picture shows the need for Christ’s purifying and cleansing humanity. Anselm’s willingness to engage Christian beliefs on such a level, even asking why Christ had to die at all for humanity can instruct us today. I have found that the most profound moments of epiphany in my own faith journey have occurred during times of questioning and prodding my previously-held conceptions of Christianity, God, and faith.

In my experience, being willing to engage your own faith-traditions on such a level will not only allow you to re-encounter God in a new way, but will allow your faith to be deepened through it. While I want to provide a word of caution that seminary and intellectual cross-examining of one’s faith is not for everyone, I do think that healthy spiritual guidance by a trusted mentor or pastor can be a great place to start.

I close with this: How do you see the principle of faith seeking understanding as relevant/ not relevant for today’s church? What systems/ paths have you taken in the past to move your faith into a deeper level?

Midweek Medieval Blog: Saint Bonaventure

I want to preface this blog by noting that I had a chance this past weekend to visit the Mission of San Buenaventura in Ventura, CA. My wife’s cousin lives there and we went to see her and her mom for the day. The mission is really interesting: it has a museum, beautiful courtyard, and large chapel. My trip thus provided me with the person of focus for this blog: St. Bonaventure (1217-1274).

He was a Franciscan, having been dedicated by his mother to Saint Francis when he was sick as a child (Robson, “Saint Bonaventure” in The Medieval Theologians, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, 187). Some of his major works were Breviloquium and De praeparatione ad missam (“Preparation for mass”). He wrote other treatises and commentaries as well, but one of the more intriguing works of his is the Journey of the Mind into God (Itinerarium mentis in deum), which blends classical philosophy and Christian theology.

In this work, Bonaventure writes, “In the initial space of creation, [humanity] was made fit for the quiet of contemplation, and therefore God placed [them] in a paradise of delights. But turning from the true light to changeable good, [humanity] was bent over by its own fault, and the entire human race by original sin, which infected human nature in two ways: the mind with ignorance and the flesh with concupiscence.” (1.7; in Bonaventure, Ewart Cousins, ed. and trans. New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

I love how Bonaventure sees the pre-Fallen state of humanity as “fit for the quiet of contemplation.” Such a characterization really speaks volumes about how we are today. One of the most frequent things spoken of in churches concerns how we all need to shut our minds off in order to pray, read the Bible, worship, etc. Bonaventure’s words show that our descent into a fallen state has essentially brought our minds to a place of “ignorance,” but I would also add that our minds are perpetually in a state of cacophony.

I am reminded of the courtyard at the mission in Ventura, CA that I recently visited. The beauty of the courtyard also contained an element of tranquil quiet. There was a mass being held in the chapel, so most people were using hushed voices. I think that all to often the busyness and noisiness of our lives get in the way of our contemplation of God. I know that I am definitely at fault in this as well. I hope this week that like me, you can find time to shut out the noise and really focus on God’s goodness and mercy.

I want to close with a question for discussion: What is your favorite way to shut out the world and enjoy God? Or, more generally, how do you get away from the noise in your life?