Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages’

On Teaching Church History to Undergraduates

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

By R. Barry Levis

Rollins College is almost stridently secular, unlike many other colleges in our consortium. Therefore teaching the history of the Christian Church can be a daunting experience. In some ways our student body at Rollins is bifurcated: we have a large majority of students who have had almost no exposure to Christianity at all and a smaller group who think they know all there is to know about theology and the Bible. Of course we do have some students in the middle of the spectrum, but the extremes seem far better represented. Trying to bridge the gap between those two groups is often a challenge.

I teach three courses that focus entirely on the history of Christianity: a lower–division survey course, Christianity and Society; an upper-division course, the Reformation; and a graduate seminar, Religion and Western Culture (focusing on the Middle Ages and the Reformation). In addition, I include material on the history of religion in most of my other courses where appropriate (and even at times when it is not). Thus I run into the problem of trying to fill in gaps that exist with my secular students and overcoming the misinformation that my religious ones bring into the course.

I normally don’t lecture but use primary source documents as a starting point for questions and discussions. Fortunately most of our students are invariably polite and respectful (although not always), and I encourage them to ask questions about terms and concepts they don’t understand in the readings. In some cases students are too embarrassed or don’t think it is “cool” to ask. Therefore, I am attentive to the glazed look on some students’ faces as a barometer. When I note the blank stare I backtrack and begin defining concepts and filling in historical details. If I’m lucky a more self-assured student will ask. Having been teaching for forty-five years, I should have by this time produced a series of canned answers which I could put on my computer or Blackboard defining Transubstantiation, Canon Law (having nothing to do with military tactics), Original Sin, Atonement, Pentecostals; the list goes on endlessly. Equally challenging are the students who think they have a clear grasp of these technical terms but have any number of misconceptions or denominationally specific understandings of them.

I have prepared a boilerplate speech for the beginning of all my courses dealing with religious subjects: this is a history course and not a Sunday school class. I approach the material from the historical perspective, meaning I will depend on standard forms of historical evidence. Miracles therefore always become problematic. I try to explain that to a person of faith there may be no question about the reality of miracles, but the historian cannot assess them since they cannot be verified by unbiased historical evidence. That always produces scowls in the corners of the room. I emphasize the fact that the Church like every other institution has not remained constant, that it has relentlessly changed including its understanding of the original teaching of Jesus and church doctrine. I also explain when I begin discussing the Reformation, that today I will probably offend some Catholics. But not to worry, I will eventually upset Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Baptists.

I likewise try to shake up the complacency of our students at the very beginning of the course. For instance, I open my survey course with Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography for shock value. Because Dom lives some twenty miles from our campus he has visited on several occasions to discuss his book with my students. It is amazing how students can rail against the author’s conclusions when we have our preliminary class discussion and how silent they become once confronted by the author himself.

I have also used Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus because it provides an excellent introduction to the critical examination of historical sources. Either book obviously causes my more conservative students a good deal of unease, but both religious and secular students learn about the study of early Christianity through these very accessible readings. These works also lend themselves to good class discussions about the gap between what students have been taught from the pulpit or Sunday School, and what is taught in seminaries to prospective ordinands, especially in mainline Protestant and Catholic seminaries.

Once I get past the early church, the sailing gets quite a bit smoother until we get to the Reformation and problems arise again. The students especially love the tales of corruption and scandal in the late medieval church, although they don’t much like excursions into Scholasticism (which I explain is a necessary evil). But then for my religious students, denominational rivalries raised their heads once we begin examining the various battles between Catholics and Protestants, and between the assorted Protestant groups.

The quiet of the eighteenth century comes as a relief, but then we must confront conflicts between science and religion, especial Darwin, and the issues of biblical textual criticism, especially when I take a detour to the Jesus Seminar. Nevertheless, the class discussions become much more lively as we traverse these mine fields. The students are so exhausted by the time we reach the twentieth century and so preoccupied with their final writing assignment that Vatican II and Ecumenism can’t provoke much excitement out of them. The kick-start we get in discussing Crossan or Ehrman at the beginning of the course, however, enables students to expressing their views comfortably but generally respectfully on the controversial issues we confront.

My Reformation class works out quite differently. As an upper division course, most of the students are either history majors who have had the European survey course or religious studies majors who have a much better grounding in the material. Nevertheless, I know that many of them have little understanding about the differences among denominations and that since so many of them are not active churchgoers, they do not comprehend specific variations that emerged from the Reformation. Therefore, I require all students to make a series of local church visits so that they really study the transformations emerging from the sixteenth century. They attend a Traditional Catholic service, which still uses the Tridentine Mass; a Lutheran service; a Pentecostal church after discussing the Protestant radicals; and finally an Episcopal service at the local Cathedral. I assign them a short paper after each visit in which they analyze one aspect of the service: the music, liturgy, method of praying, the sermon, or the physical setting.

At the end of the semester, they produce an historical recreation of a Calvinist service in our chapel, in which they reconstruct the sermon, liturgy, and appropriate music working with our Dean of the Chapel and the choral director. The students break into groups: one selects a sermon by Calvin and then edits it into the time constraints dictated by the dean. Another group working with the music director of the chapel selects suitable music for the service. Others map out the liturgy or the vestments to be worn by the clergy. At the end of the semester, the class takes over the regular Sunday chapel service and conducts the historical recreation on the basis of the research they have completed. Even the “unchurched,” because of their church visits and research into the Reformation, are able to produce a surprisingly accurate historical recreation of a typical Sunday service in Calvin’s Geneva. A young Jewish student did a marvelous imitation of Jean Calvin the last time I taught the course. (We don’t, however, have Michael Servetus show up at the end, although that would certainly add color).

In either course, students often ask me if I am a Christian or not. Many assume that I am not because of the assignments I give them that seem to undermine traditional church teachings. One Southern Baptist student was clearly in shock by what I was presenting. The student informed me that his mother was planning to drive over from Lakeland to sit in my class to correct my errors. She planned to convert me to Christianity. I started to tell him that in fact I am an Episcopalian but then thought better of it. I discovered several Southern Baptist students who do not regard Episcopalians as Christians. So my battle might have been lost anyhow.

Finally, I regularly take advantage of the college’s generous support for outside speakers to supplement my courses. There is a great deal of local interest in religious topics, particularly controversies over the historical Jesus. I have therefore been able to invite to campus a number of prominent scholars to visit my class and also deliver very well attended public lectures. In addition to John Dominic Crossan, Rollins College has hosted in the last decade Jack Spong, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and this spring Marcus Borg. We always fill our lecture hall when the visiting scholars present the public lectures, while Karen Armstrong filled our 500-seat chapel. Part of the speaker’s obligation includes interacting with our students in small setting, thereby greatly enriching my courses.

I hope that many members of the ASCH will respond to this post with their own teaching experiences. Much as we might think of ourselves as just ordinary run-of-the-mill historians, our subject matter—unlike the rise of industrialism or the impact of the Atlantic voyages—can often cause controversy, heated arguments, resentment (once I had a graduate student clobber another after class, but that’s another story), and anger. I’d like to know how others in the profession handle these situations.

Charlemagne’s Elephant, Monkey, and Mouse

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

by Alexander Y. Hwang

Via Flickr


I have two lovely daughters, Zoe is eight and Emma is four, and I read them bedtime stories every night. I’m trying to expose my girls to history, art, literature, and theology. Goodnight Moon and Chicka, Chicka, Boom, Boom are really beautifully written books, but I was getting a little tired and bored reading the same thing night after night after night. I experimented with more “educational” bedtime reading, including a book of prayers and the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

They were spectacular failures and resulted in much loud protesting, especially by Emma. The Shorter Catechism was supposedly designed for children, but I wonder if children were different back then. I wouldn’t dare introduce them to the predestination controversy in the fifth and sixth centuries, my main research area.

Fortunately, I recalled the story of Charlemagne’s elephant from my friend, Brian Matz, who works on Carolingian theological texts. I did a little research into the elephant and began to tell them about the story at bedtime. At first, they were not very enthusiastic, but within a few nights, they were hooked. The problem is, I ran out of material, so I had to do more research and embellish the story a little.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of Charlemagne’s elephant, it goes something like this: Among the most unusual and interesting gifts sent to Charlemagne (c.742-814) was an elephant. Moreover, this elephant was sent by Harun al-Rashid (763/6-809), the Caliph of Bagdad, and fifth ruler of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), which had replaced the Umayyad caliphate, except in Spain and the western half of North Africa. This caliph was immortalized in the Arabian Nights. The caliph was hoping to form an alliance with the Franks against the Byzantines, ruled by the Empress Irene, who had offered Charlemagne the gift of her son in marriage to one of his daughters.

Charlemagne accepted only the elephant. Remarkably, the elephant survived the journey from Baghdad to Aachen, and actually lived for nearly ten more years. And, yes, Charlemagne apparently rode it into battle—but who wouldn’t? The elephant, understandably, drew not a little attention from the northern Europeans, who had never actually seen an elephant. The elephant even made it into the Royal Frankish Annals (Annales regni Francorum) and several biographies of Charlemagne.

The RFA covers the period from 741 to 829 and is considered the most important source for reconstructing Charlemagne’s reign. According to the RFA, Charlemagne sent envoys to the East, including the court of Harun-al-Rashid. Isaac the Jew had been sent to Persia several years earlier and returned with the elephant and other gifts. The RFA called the elephant Abul Abaz and later mentioned the sudden death of the elephant, in 810, while accompanying Charles, who was waiting to battle the Frisians on the other side of the Rhine, at Lippeham.

The best known biography of Charlemagne was written by Einhard (c. 770-840). In this account, the caliph thought most highly of Charlemagne, and gave him the “only” elephant he had at that time, simply because Charlemagne asked for it. The elephant is not mentioned again in the biography—his death went unnoticed by Einhard.

The unknown author of the Life of Charles (written in 888 to 891), referred to as the Saxon Poet, is the only account that explicitly mentions the excitement that the elephant produced among the Franks. All the excitement must have faded a bit—there is no other mention of the elephant afterwards. The Saxon Poet was, however, much more fascinated with the huge tent that the caliph also sent.

Notker the Stammerer or sometimes known as the Monk of St. Gall (c. 840-912) provides some interesting details not found in any other sources. The Deeds of Emperor Charles the Great has no mention of Isaac the Jew, but includes an account of the Persian embassy, which had great difficulty reaching Aachen because of the negative reactions of the Europeans they encountered.

In addition to the elephant, which is not named, Notker added monkeys to the list of gifts from the caliph. Notker also mentioned gifts from the King of Africa: a North African lion and a Numidian bear. Charlemagne gave the caliph Spanish horses and “German” hunting dogs, the latter gift, according to Notker, really impressed the caliph. As great as these gifts were, they, including the elephant, are not mentioned again.

Biographies of Charlemagne’s descendants make no mention of the elephant at all. Thegan, Ermoldus, the Astronomer, and even Nithard, a grandson of Charlemagne, failed to include the elephant.

What I find so fascinating about this early medieval (cf. the middle ages as the“dark ages”) event is how it reveals the extent of the interconnectedness of these three powers—which were culturally, religiously, and ethnically different. Another remarkable aspect of the story is the light it sheds on one of the great world civilizations, the Abbasid caliphate, in particular, the rule of Harun al-Rashid, every bit as comparable, in truth and in legend as Charles, son of Pepin.

Now, where does the monkey and mouse fit into all of this? I kind of ran out of material. It is difficult to keep their attentions, so I started adding some creative details. The monkey was just pure luck—I found out about the monkeys (Notker) after I had already included a monkey in the bedtime story. I figured, why not a monkey? And I was right. The name of the monkey is Emma, who likes monkeys and often acts like one. The elephant I named Zoe. They met at the Baghdad Zoo. This idea came from our “research” trip to the local animal prison, the Louisville Zoo.

Most believe it was an Asian type of elephant (the African kind has larger tusks and huge flapping ears) that may have been white or albino, but I could make up the species of monkey. I concluded it was a Asian elephant, probably of the Indian Asian subspecies. Bagdad had much easier access to trained Asian elephants—places like India had a long tradition of employing Asian elephants in battle. The zoo had both kinds, equally strange and magnificent. There are a lot of different kinds of monkeys. I decided on the Gelada, a monkey/baboon, only found in the highlands of Ethiopia.

This is all part of my plan: I wanted the elephant to be Indian—introduce the girls to India and the great religious traditions and cultures of this land: Hinduism and Buddhism primarily. The monkey was Ethiopian—a great way to introduce the ancient African-Coptic Christian tradition. So, the elephant is a Hindu, the monkey is a Christian, the animal trainer/transporter a Muslim, and Isaac, Charlemagne’s legate, is a Jew. I thought it was great way to introduce them to the rich cultural context.

So, the bedtime stories are based on an aspect from the “real story.” The elephant from India—cf. Ganesh. The monkey was made up, but it had to come from somewhere, and what better way to remind my girls of the universal spread of Christianity, both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches. Yeah, it didn’t go over too well with the girls—they just wanted to hear about the elephant and the monkey.

Thus far we have covered their meeting (two orphans living adjoining cages at the Baghdad Zoo) and their journey from Bagdad to North Africa and then to Italy and then Aachen. I had Isaac disguise the elephant as a big wagon so they could sneak past the Byzantines. The monkey rode on the elephant the rest of the way. There were adventures in the desert, on the ships they had to travel on, the hike over the Alps, and living in Aachen.

The elephant and the monkey were met by a church mouse in the large stable that housed them. His name was Alcuin, and he wore wire rimmed glasses, was tonsured and had a tiny monk’s habit—he was a church mouse, after all. The mouse tells them about Aachen and the Franks, and Charlemagne. They talk theology and other more important things like finding bananas—the monkey was dreaming of bananas since leaving Baghdad. They go skiing in the winter time, swim with Charlemagne in the river in the summer, and unwind in Aachen’s natural hot springs. They did not like going to war with Charlemagne, who insisted on taking the elephant to battle, when the elephant was obviously a pacifist. There was an incident when a fire broke out in the palace and the elephant and the monkey came to the rescue—and the idea of the fire hose was born.

I plan on continuing my research on this extraordinary event. Any help, either with the bedtime story or the scholarship would be greatly appreciated.

Further reading:

A great place to begin is The Medieval Charlemagne Legend: An Annotated Bibliography by Susan E. Farrier (Garland Medieval Bibliographies series, 1993). The section, “Relations with Moslems,” contains a good number that re-re-reexamines Pirenne’s thesis.

Jeff Sypeck’s Becoming Charlemagne (HarperCollins, 2006) is one of the few modern biographies that explores the elephant, and includes notes on recent work on the elephant, including two children’s novels about the elephant. Sypeck notes that Isaac is missing from these accounts.

The internet has a few interesting articles on the elephant:

Jon Mandaville, “An Elephant for Charlemagne,” provides a general overview of the gift.

Kristin Zeier, “Baghdad, Jerusalem, Aachen—On the Trail of the White Elephant,” is a news story that covers reports on the “Ex oriente: Isaac and the White Elephant” exhibition in Aachen, in 2003.

Richard Hodges, “Charlemagne’s Elephant,” History Today 50, no. 12 (Dec. 2000): 21-27, places the elephant in the context of long distance trade.

Alexander Hwang is a visiting professor at Brescia University.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Religious Tourism (or Lack Thereof) in Norwich and King’s Lynn, England

Friday, July 27th, 2012

by Donna Ray

Being a fan of the medieval visionary writers Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, and assuming that many others across the globe shared my fandom, I expected at least a minor crush of tourists when I recently visited these women’s hometowns of Norwich and King’s Lynn, England. I was disappointed but not surprised to find no mention of either Julian or Margery in the official tourist literature for East Anglia despite their renown in religious and scholarly circles. Emphasis in promotional brochures was rather predictably placed on shopping, nightlife, restaurants, “family fun,” and local football.

It’s hard for long-dead religious figures to compete, however deserving: Julian (ca. 1342-ca. 1416) wrote the Revelations of Divine Love, a hopeful meditation on the tender love of God and the first known book by a woman in English. The Book of Margery Kempe, published in 1436, has less spiritual heft than Julian’s book—its protagonist being more boisterous and less stable, in every sense of the word—but is nonetheless full of theological and cultural interest and arguably the first autobiography written in English.

Norwich was up first on my trip: Only brief notice appears in a city-sponsored brochure of “numerous medieval churches” (there are, in fact, thirty-one). This paucity of boosterism, in addition to the fact that St. Julian’s Church and the Julian Centre are off the beaten path and in a rather seedy part of town, might explain why I was the only visitor there in late June.

I received a very gracious welcome, however, from the two women running the Centre (library, gift shop, and adjoining guest house), who reasoned that the recession also had something to do with the downturn in visitors; although, on a good day, they might have half a dozen. The church itself, now part of the Anglican Diocese of Norwich, is small and cozy, formally outfitted for Anglo-Catholic mass held there on Mondays and Fridays and solemn evensong on the first Sunday of each month. But the church primarily functions as a shrine to Julian, an anchoress whose small cell was attached to the south end, near the altar. An annual Julian festival and lecture are held on the grounds each May.


The south side of St. Julian’s Church, Norwich (the reconstructed anchorhold at center)


St. Julian’s Church is not far from the River Wensum, which runs through Norwich. The church can be accessed by foot by crossing the new Lady Julian Bridge (opened in 2009 and named at the behest of local Anglican nuns) over the river from a commercial district. From the quieter and older King Street on the other side, where sits a medieval trading hall, a new sign points the visitor to St. Julian’s Alley, which leads to the church.

The church and Julian Centre can also be reached by car along Rouen Road, lined with government housing, car shops, and graffiti-covered walls, just south of the city’s red-light district. Another Anglican church two blocks away serves as a drop-in counseling center for area prostitutes. Some beer cans and empty cigarette packs littered the otherwise lovely and steadfastly maintained churchyard, watched over by the Friends of Julian of Norwich and a stray white cat.


The Lady Julian Bridge, crossing the River Wensum



The neighborhood around St. Julian’s Church (not visible here, but across the street from the medieval trading hall and center)


Julian settled into her cell in 1373, at age 31, and remained there for the rest of her life. Here she led a life of prayer and devotion; wrote her Revelations, or >em>Showings; and counseled visitors who came to the south window of her cell. Another opening on the north side of the cell, toward the altar, was her window to the Blessed Sacrament; and a third allowed communication with a servant.

The original church building may have been erected in the tenth century; but the anchorhold was pulled down after the Reformation. The church was bombed and severely damaged in World War II, but it was rebuilt afterwards, including a new replica of the anchorhold based on the ancient footprint. The cell is now, however, a small carpeted chapel, so one has to mentally strip away the modern accoutrements to imagine what the space looked like when Julian lived there.


Julian’s cell as it looks now


Among the other medieval buildings of note in Norwich are the imposing Norman cathedral and castle, some distance from St. Julian’s Church but no doubt visible from it in Julian’s day. Less imposing, but important as a religious landmark, is the timber-framed Briton’s Arms, now a restaurant but once a beguinage for a small community of semi-religious women—the only surviving medieval beguinage in England, built probably in the first half of the fifteenth century. The Carmelite solitary and scholar Elizabeth Obbard is reportedly writing a book on Julian’s connection to the beguinage, possibly as a resident there before she became an anchoress. Some scholars also speculate, given Julian’s maternal sensibility, that she may have been a wife and mother before she became an anchoress. There is no evidence that she was ever a nun.


The Briton’s Arms: once a medieval beguinage, now a restaurant


Whatever the case, we know that fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Norwich was a tumultuous place: the Black Death struck there at least three times during Julian’s lifetime and wiped out half of the city’s population, perhaps including (although this is entirely speculative) Julian’s own family members. Norwich also felt the effects of the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Uprising of 1381, ongoing theological strife (a pit for burning Lollards stood not far from St. Julian’s Church), and papal schism. Julian’s presence must have been an eye in the storm, her cell a place of reassurance and stability. The mission of the church hasn’t changed; in its brochure, the Julian Centre says that it aims “to be a place of quietness and prayer in the midst of a busy city.” One hopes the new bridge and signage will help them fulfill that mission.



Next up on my trip was a train ride to King’s Lynn, 44 miles to the west of Norwich, on the River Ouse. Here the medieval historical sites are somewhat more front-and-center, as the town is smaller and the monuments thus loom larger. The city tourism center also offers a “pilgrimage trail” map for those wishing to see the medieval sites. On these two rainy days in early July, however, my husband and I were the only pilgrims in sight.

No one knows exactly where in the city Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1440) lived, but her home was likely not far from the river in the market district where the well-established, wealthier families lived. (Her father was the mayor, her husband a merchant.) As in Norwich, King’s Lynn—called Bishop’s Lynn in Margery’s day, or just Lynn—is crammed with old churches and the ruins of medieval religious communities, some of them repurposed for modern non-religious use.

In contrast to Julian, Margery gave a lot of attention to physical space and movement, with vivid accounts of the many cities to which she traveled in Europe and the Holy Land. The place that features most prominently in Margery’s biographical account, however, is her home church in Lynn: St. Margaret’s, founded in 1101 and still an active (Anglican) parish church now formally named King’s Lynn Minster.

St. Margaret’s, in contrast to St. Julian’s Church, is enormous—the architectural centerpiece of the town as well as the spiritual centerpiece of Margery’s lively and sometimes tortured spiritual narrative. Margery spent hours praying there, receiving visitations and instructions from Christ, engaging in pastoral tasks, shedding her signature tears, sometimes receiving support but often noisily irritating the people around her. By her own account, she saved the church from fire by her intercessions, which were followed by a timely snowstorm. Another time, she was allegedly hit by a heavy beam that fell from the ceiling of the church, and yet was miraculously unharmed.


St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn



Interior of St. Margaret’s Church


The narratives of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe come together briefly in Margery’s Book (1:18). During a visit to Norwich around 1413, Margery visited the cell of the renowned anchoress, who for three days gave her much needed reassurance, encouraging confidence in God and fearlessness in trouble. Margery in fact made more than one trip to Norwich, crossing the boggy expanse of Norfolk to receive the counsel of those celebrated for their piety, seeking as she did always and everywhere both peace and vindication.


Via Brother Leon of Walsingham, at St. Michael and All Angels, Brighton

Contemporary icon of the meeting between Julian of Norwich (left) and Margery Kempe


Nothing beats religious tourism for the church historian. Seeing a place, rather than just reading about it, gives a sense of scale and proximity and provides a total sensory environment. Despite the centuries of change, and sometimes neglect, that overlay historical sites, there is no better way than an on-site visit to absorb the spirit of the place and the people who lived there. In Norwich and King’s Lynn, as in so many historical religious sites, one can still perceive the spiritual liveliness and perseverance of the inhabitants.

Even in the faded and damaged places, one can get an immediate whiff of the long-term narrative and appreciate the vacillating fortunes and failures of religious institutions and people, even to the present day. For anyone who seeks them out, these places still convey a comforting sense of stability amidst chaos, whatever it may be.


Donna Ray is a lecturer in History and Religious Studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Running With Saint Columbanus

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

by Marvin Lindsay


St. Columbanus Window of the crypt of the Abbey of Bobbio. Via Wikipedia.Christian monks fancied themselves “athletes for Christ.” If so, the Irish pilgrim Columbanus was a monastic Bobby Knight, a demanding, fearsome coach of the ascetic lifestyle.

How demanding was he? Columbanus’s Rule maximized manual labor and minimized food and sleep. The Irish pilgrim permitted his monks but one meal a day, in the evening. On winter weekends, Columbanus required his charges pull back-to-back all-nighters: chant half the psalter on Saturday night and the other half on Sunday. Given that Columbanian-inspired literature assigns penances for nodding off during the divine office and for squirreling away food, it appears as though the Rule induced sleep deprivation and eating disorders in some of its adherents. Indeed, Columbanus’s Rule is a feedback loop. It produces physical symptoms that are dealt with by ratcheting up the very pressures that produced the symptoms to begin with.

“Why did they live like this?” we ask ourselves.

Like your middle school PE teacher, Columbanus lived by the maxim, “No pain; no gain.” If the rewards of the next life are “an unbearable weight of glory beyond all measure,” then such a reward would require a commensurate weight of sorrow in the present life. In addition, Columbanus regarded the human body on a good day as “full of bile, rheum, fluid, blood, and phlegm” (Sermon VII). Why indulge the loathsome flesh’s insatiable demands for food, sex and sleep?

When I run, I bring Columbanus with me. Marathon training is the closest I come to the disciplined and physically demanding lifestyle of the ancient “athletes of Christ.” Working up to last November’s race day distance of 26.2 miles (10 miles farther than the average American work commute) required me to complete innumerable eight to 12 mile runs in Richmond, Virginia’s oppressive summer heat. Those runs left me gasping for air, on the edge of dizziness and nausea, a little too keyed up to fall asleep and feeling exhausted upon waking. Halfway into my training program I was receiving PT for a strained piriformis muscle (a literal pain in the butt). The best treatment is rest, but the training program feedback loop cried for more mileage. I gave up my Sunday run anyway. I also ditched the half-marathon scheduled for the morning that Hurricane Irene’s outer bands were lashing central Virginia, much to the chagrin of my inner Columbanus. He harangued me for my lack of fidelity to the training rule and my pitiful excuses.

When he wasn’t haranguing me, Columbanus was asking me the same question that I asked him: Why are you doing this, Marvin? To stay a step ahead of the Reaper? To show up at your next reunion looking a tad fitter than most middle aged men? Columbanus just shook his head at how my bodily discipline was entwining me in the flesh rather than emancipating me from it.

I’m OK with that. I understand but do not subscribe to the ascetic mindset that sees body and spirit pitted against each other in a zero-sum game.

Besides, there’s more to running than pride and vanity. Around the 14 mile mark I experience what some people call flow. In the rhythm of pounding the pavement and the gentle up and down motion of the pack, you’re no longer running a race. You are the race. An ebullient spirit wells up and overflows.

Flow, or any other uncanny, athletic experience is not necessarily a religious experience, as Nick J. Watson points out in his essay “Nature and Transcendence: The mystical and sublime in extreme sports.” Watson calls the reader’s attention to Eckart’s warning that there is nothing spiritual about seeking a spiritual experience as an end to itself apart from efforts to purify the soul of vice. I view my running schedule as a metaphor for other, more important and purgative commitments in my life: persistence in prayer, persistence in my graduate studies, faithfulness to spouse, children and friends.

Did Columbanus experience flow? The concept of flow seems to be more congenial to Eckart’s unitive brand of mysticism than Columbanus’s world-denying asceticism. Columbanus preaches a God who is immense and incomprehensible, “wholly other” to use a 20th century term, too “big” to unite with. But maybe there is something like flow in the hagiographical accounts of Columbanus taming bears in the wilderness of the Vosges. Columbanus’s disciples remembered him as someone whose self-discipline extinguished the inner flames of vice and restored a fallen creation to its Edenic state in which an ebullient spirit united all living creatures. Perhaps that’s the standard by which to judge any discipline we would submit ourselves to: does it reconcile us to God, the world and ourselves?

Marvin Lindsay is a Ph.D. student in the History of Christianity at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

Mary Oliver’s “Soft Animal of Your Body”: Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Denys Turner on Prayer

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

by Courtney Palmbush

It isn’t really important, but I wonder if Mary Oliver is a Thomist. Her poem, “Wild Geese,” is one of my favorites:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The most striking line in the poem for me is this one: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.”

Your standard Christian, I think, will struggle with this poetic advice. First of all he or she will usually say that as human beings, we are like–and yet mostly unlike–animals. And if we just went around letting our soft animal bodies love what we love—well, what then? You’re just going to go around following your bestial instincts?—or at best, your own subjective moral code? How can that be right?

The thing that this perspective doesn’t take into account is how hard it is to know what we actually love.

When I recently remembered Oliver’s poem, it occurred to me that its irresistible truth lies very near to the “materialism” of Thomas’ understanding of what it means to be human, and to both his and Julian of Norwich’s thoughts on prayer—anyway, as far as I have been able to come to understand these things in my own thinking through the work of Denys Turner.

As for the particularities of being human, for Thomas we are not a fallen species striving for some lost perfection in ourselves, but rather we are a species whose pinnacle of perfection—that is, the pinnacle of what it means to be human—can be seen in Jesus Christ. We tend to think that Christ’s humanity is somehow lessened by his lack of sin, but Thomas says no—Christ was in fact the perfect model of humanity. And so in our own efforts to know and become our truest selves, we are seeking to become fully human. As Turner puts it:

“If we know God “rationally” it is as rational animals that we do so, and not as quasi-angelic hybrids…the arguments for God are rational because they make their way to God beginning from the world human beings inhabit as animals and interrogate rationally.”

(Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas, ch. 4, forthcoming, Yale University Press)

Our truest selves are the people we are when we comprehend fully what it is that makes us happy, which is to say, when we know our own wills.

“Another way of putting all this would be that a person’s “will” consists in what he or she can be said “really” to want—except that the meaning of the word “really” is too ambiguous to be clear.  In one sense of the word “real,” a person’s “real” wants are shown most convincingly by what they do, and rather less so by what they say they want. For self-deception is all too present a possibility….

“The sense in which Thomas means “will” to be identified with my real wants is this: whatever else I may want, in wanting it, what I really want is happiness. Unfailingly that is so. I may be wrong as to what will make me happy. Indeed, most people are some of the time, some are most of the time. But while I may pertinently ask of any course of action or way of life the reason for engaging in it, “why is it desirable?,” Thomas says it cannot make any sense to ask what makes happiness desirable…

“And what today we are likely to call the “moral” life for Thomas is more simply described as the “happy” life. Moreover, we can say that for Thomas a person succeeds in living the happy life when she gets to do, regularly and routinely, what she “really wants.”…

“More problematic is the case where there is something wanted but not known—the case, centrally, where our deepest desires are hidden from us by veil upon obscuring veil of upbringing, of socialization, of personal insecurities and fears, of relationships abusive and abused, of desire unfulfilled and frustrated; and in this sense of “want,” in which we want something but for all these reasons do not know what it is, we do not know our own “wills.” For what we will is happiness; and what we really will, whether or not we know it, is whatever it is that will make us happy.

“The moral life, therefore, consists first in those practices that enable the discovery of what it is that we really want, the happy life. And, for Thomas, within that general practice of self-discovery, a principal means of tracing the way back to what we really want is prayer, oratio.

(Turner, Aquinas, ch. 5)

I’ve heard people say that you should never pray for yourself, as if petitionary prayer were a kind of a sin. And of course, saying prayers all day long for yourself instead of for your lonely elderly neighbor, or a friend who has lost a child, is insensitive. But to act as if you hadn’t any needs, or that your needs were irrelevant or unimportant is a kind of dishonesty. Speaking for myself, praying genuinely for what I want or need is a freeing experience that functions on a number of levels I don’t entirely understand. Something happens. And a good part of what happens is the discernment process that happens in the very act of my bringing my desires before God. As Turner observes in Thomas’ thought, we see the world from a very specific standpoint: not as “quasi-angelic hybrids,” as the Platonists have it, but as human beings, complete with all needs and desires of human animals.

“And our only available starting point for that practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore we ought to pray for what we think we want, regardless. For prayer is “a hermeneutic of the human will” in that, by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be “unfolded,” “explicated,” so as to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, “implicated” in all the opacity of their experienced form. Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, secundum sensualitatem. For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire—for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is—we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will.”

(Turner, Aquinas, ch. 5)

Much like Thomas, but in her own distinctive way, anchoress Julian of Norwich also saw the unique quality and potential of prayer. Like Hildegard of Bingen, or Elisabeth of Schonau, Julian received a series of “showings” on her deathbed about which she later spent twenty years writing. Julian’s process of unravelling the meanings in her visions is a balancing act: on the one hand, she sees that ultimately “love was His meaning,” and that “sin is nothing,” but she cannot, will not, abandon the Church’s teachings on sin and punishment. The tension in Julian’s work—the conundrum of holding opposing pieces of information in mind at once—never relaxes. And the question of prayer—its purpose and efficacy—is another aspect of that tension.

“Statistically, ‘successful’ petitionary praying is a hit-and-miss business. In moments of fine prayer, Julian tells us, a person may feel a particular intimacy of and with God. But otherwise than in such comparatively set-piece and staged occasions of contemplative peace, prayer–“my lament/Is cries countless”– and whether or not “countless cries” make any difference to what happens seems, in practice, impossible to say–for they are “like dead letters sent/To dearest him that lives alas! away.” As with how things turn out generally, so in particular with petitionary prayer–there seems to be little consistency in our relationships with God. And that, Julian admits, can trouble us. For if Christians are inclined to think that the love of God is possible, then the thought will probably come to mind unforced that the divine will should be a trifle less indeterminably elusive than it is in their experience. After all, we know that we would not get on very successfully loving any other person, a spouse or a friend, say, if getting on the inside of their reactions were quite so random an affair as ours seems to be with the will of God. So Julian knows that the ordinary practical problem with prayer is no different from her general problem with her shewings themselves. And that problem about prayer concerns how to put these two things together: God’s promise that he answers all prayers, because from all eternity he has willed to do so, with the apparently random cussedness of what actually happens.”

(Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian, Yale UP, 2011, 158)

Turner sees in Julian’s understanding of her vision concerning prayer, or “beseking,” shades of Thomas’ thought, namely that,

“God is minded from the start to bring about what he wills by means of our prayers–which is merely Thomas’s expansion of what Jesus went on to say as Matthew reports him: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). It is the Father’s knowledge of what we need that is the cause of our asking…for we pray out of grace, which is his alone to give. It is because the initiative of prayer is not with us, but with God, that Julian can be so certain that God gives us what we beseech in prayer. Hence, just as Augustine saw that it was within his seeking–as its ground–that God was to be encountered before ever he could be discovered as that seeking’s object, so the Lord tells Julian: ‘I am the grounde of thy beseking. Furst it is my wille that thou have it, and sithen [next] I make the[e] to wille it, and sithen I make the[e] to beseke it–and thou besekest it! How shoulde it than be that thou shuldest not have thy beseking?’”

(Turner, Julian, 161)

The only problem is that we are either too afraid or too unaware of ourselves as human beings to bring before God what it is that we want, in order to understand what it is that we need

“We are a mystery to ourselves. We do not always know what we want, and sometimes this is a straightforward case just of being undecided whether we want this rather than that, like being undecided whether to take a job offer or not. But sometimes it is more like this: we thought we knew what we wanted, only when we get it, it turns out that in truth we did not and that we “really” wanted something else; we were mistaken about what we wanted. Or sometimes it is as when I realize now that I was in love with so-and-so, though at the time I did not know it; I thought it was just friendship or some such. In such cases, our not knowing what we want is not that we are undecided as between two or more known wants; it is rather that there is something that we want, only we do not know it.”

(Turner, Julian, 162-163)

. . . .

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

This is the magic of poetry—to be able to say in one line what some of the best theologians in human history have labored over in volumes.

Charlemagne, Christianity, and the Uses of History

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

by Robert Alvis

I recently had the good fortune to spend a day in Aachen, Germany, and to tour the city’s magnificent cathedral and the neighboring Cathedral Treasury Museum. These two sites offer an abundance of riches that are especially meaningful for historians of European Christianity. In addition, they offer valuable insights into the important relationship between history and Christianity within European societies. In addition to offering doctrines, rituals, and ethical guidelines to its practitioners, the Christian tradition has provided means for articulating the past in meaningful ways.

The core of the cathedral was built during the reign of Charlemagne, and alongside the neighboring palace it formed the heart of the Frankish Kingdom’s new fixed capital. Its construction was part of a larger project of cultural and intellectual renewal that has come to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance. This renewal, in turn, was linked to a long string of military successes, through which Charlemagne gained mastery over much of the European continent. Pope Leo III famously crowned Charlemagne’s achievement by placing an imperial diadem on his head in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day in the year 800.

Historians long have debated whether Charlemagne was a willing participant in his imperial coronation, or whether he was duped into receiving the honor in a way that suggested his dependency upon the pope. Charlemagne’s courtier, Einhard, argues the latter position in his Vita Karoli Magni, claiming that Charlemagne never would have entered St. Peter’s Basilica had he known in advance of the pope’s intentions. And yet the notion that a man as shrewd as Charlemagne would have walked obliviously into a carefully executed imperial coronation strains the imagination.

The church he commissioned at Aachen lends further credence to the view that he welcomed the imperial title. Its striking design—a soaring domed octagon ringed by a sixteen-sided ambulatory, richly clad throughout in mosaic, marble, and polychrome stone—was unlike any other existing church north of the Alps, but it was hardly unprecedented. It was clearly patterned after the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna.

Commissioned by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, San Vitale is an early example of Byzantine church architecture, a style closely associated with the imperial court in Constantinople in the two centuries leading up to Charlemagne’s reign. In choosing to build a church after the Byzantine style in his new capital, Charlemagne was acting the part of a Roman emperor and rooting his sprawling domains in a venerable political and ecclesiastical tradition.

While Charlemagne sought to anchor his young dynasty to a pre-existing model of great renown, time would gradually hallow his legacy with a potent legitimacy of its own. Many subsequent rulers sought to bask in the afterglow of his glory, and once again Christian symbols and practices were employed to forge the connection, with the Aachen Cathedral providing a stage for the drama.

When Frederick Barbarossa was appointed Holy Roman emperor in 1152, he was determined to restore to the office much of the power and prestige that had been lost in preceding decades. And so he appealed to the memory of Charlemagne, the heroic wellspring of the imperial line. In 1165 he prevailed upon Antipope Paschal III to canonize Charlemagne (a decision annulled at the Third Lateran Council in 1179, though Charlemagne remained beatified), an honor that was celebrated with great fanfare at Aachen.

Emperor Frederick II pursued a similar strategy. In 1215 he commissioned an ornate golden sarcophagus to house Charlemagne’s remains, which he had placed in the center of the cathedral’s octagonal nave. The side panels of the sarcophagus depict a succession of emperors running from Charlemagne to Frederick II, rendering plainly the lofty legacy Frederick claimed for himself.

In 1349 Emperor Charles IV likewise sought to activate the memory of Charlemagne, ordering the skull and thighbone removed from the golden sarcophagus in order to be displayed in two elaborate reliquaries. In 1481 King Louis XI of France arranged for the bones of Charlemagne’s right arm to be placed in the now famous Arm Reliquary.

Charlemagne’s bones no longer inspire the kind of veneration that first led them to be encased in exquisite reliquaries. This explains why they are now on view in the Cathedral Treasury Museum rather than the sacred precincts of the cathedral itself.

This is not to say, however, that the relics of Charlemagne are devoid of religious significance altogether. I suspect that many of the contemporary pilgrims who make their way to Aachen each day are drawn there by more than just an appreciation for medieval artistry. They recognize in the cathedral and its treasures dimensions of a religious heritage that still matters, even if they adhere to its ritual obligations sporadically at best.

Grace Davie has coined the memorable phrase “vicarious religion” to describe the disconnect that currently exists between religious practice and religious belief and/or affiliation in Europe. While rates of weekly church attendance are dismally low throughout much of the region, in many countries healthy majorities of the population still identify with a Christian tradition. According to Davie, active members within the churches uphold values, perform rituals, and sustain collective memory on behalf of the wider population. Historical sites like Aachen play an important role in this new religious landscape, providing a richly textured past that lends meaning and depth to the European experience.

From the moment of its conception, the Aachen Cathedral was designed to shape the present by appealing to the past. It has since accumulated a dense history of its own, and this history continues to influence how those who encounter this space situate themselves in the march of time.


Pious Forgeries

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

by Patricia Appelbaum


Pious forgeries are still with us. I’ve been studying modern treatments of St. Francis of Assisi for a while, and I learned a long time ago (thanks to the good work of my predecessors) that the well-known “prayer of St. Francis” – the one that begins “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” – is a twentieth-century creation. Recently, though, I’ve realized that there are many more spurious quotations out there, so I am beginning to collect them. I have not yet tracked down many sources; that remains to be done. What I’m thinking about right now is their meaning.

One current favorite is “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” The many variant versions suggest that this aphorism has already entered into folklore. (Of course, the Internet has an unprecedented ability to multiply and spread this kind of material.) This saying is quite consistent with what we know of Francis – preaching was an important part of his mission, and all sources and commentators would agree that he enacted his message as much as he verbalized it. It’s even consistent with the humor and wit, the sense of reversal, that surfaces in most accounts of his life. But there’s no record that he actually said it.

Another one is a blessing attributed to Francis’s counterpart Clare: “Live without fear. Your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you like a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may God’s blessing remain with you always.” This one, appealing though it is, is a little more far-fetched than the first. The few documents that we have from Clare’s hand are nothing like this. They evince a sense of humility and sacrifice, and her God-language is all masculine in the traditional way. The idea that we are created holy would be alien to her (and to a good deal of Jewish and Christian tradition).

These “quotes” have turned up in published sources, sermons, and other places that ought to be reasonably reliable. A quick Internet search will reveal lots more, including many variations on the theme of preaching through actions.

This phenomenon suggests several things to me. To begin with, many practitioners of religion aren’t really worried about accuracy. If a text offers some kind of spiritual truth, or illuminates some kind of spiritual question, that’s good enough. This is probably as true of liberals as of literalists. It suggests that Enlightenment and modernist concerns have lost much of their impact, if indeed they ever penetrated very far into everyday practice.

It also suggests that the authority of the past is still very powerful. So is the authority of holy figures. We know, of course, that many texts, from biblical periods onward, derived authority from attribution: to a prophet, an apostle, a philosopher, a saint. But we would expect modern people, the heirs of scientific history, to look for authority in accuracy – in reliable documents and sources, in careful interpretation, in accountability. And we would expect postmoderns to work with the text as it stands, regardless of source or authority. Most contemporary Americans would laugh at the idea that anyone would need to attribute a text to an authority figure from the past in order for it to be taken seriously.

And yet these little texts do not circulate as anonymous aphorisms or blessings – they are presented as quotations. The holy figure from the past provides authority. Without attribution, a proverb or blessing or poem is just another text, to be considered, evaluated, and perhaps forgotten. Attached to St. Francis, it makes a stronger claim to be taken seriously and to be remembered.

But perhaps we should read this phenomenon the other way around. Perhaps it is devotion to the saint that generates the saying. Perhaps devotees of Francis are looking, consciously or unconsciously, for fresh ways to get his message across, to make it meaningful in the present. If a formulation sounds as if he could have said it, someone will make a short leap from “could have” to “actually did” or to “would have if he were living today.” Or if it is circulated in connection with his name, or his picture, or his followers, someone will make the leap to direct attribution.

This is roughly what happened in the case of the “peace prayer.” (I’ve even seen a website that names Francis as author of the “Little Flowers,” a collection compiled some hundred years after his death in which he is described in the third person.) And again, most devotees don’t care very much. It’s often said of the “peace prayer” that it conveys the spirit of St. Francis, even if he didn’t actually write it.

But this line of reasoning doesn’t work well for the blessing attributed to Clare. True, it may have been associated with her name or image at some point. But it seems very distant from her voice and her actions. It doesn’t seem to convey her spirit at all. Instead, again, the attribution invokes her power and authority. A formulation that meets some contemporary need is attached to an important figure from the past. Why it should be Clare in this case I don’t know: the blessing clearly has female references, but there is nothing particularly Claretian about it. Still, its users do not allow it to be anonymous.

What I am saying is largely speculative, I know, though it is informed by what we know of folkloric processes and historical practices. But my real purpose is to think about religious believers’ uses of history. And their relationship to St. Francis seems a good place to begin.

In one sense, history signifies reality. One reason Francis appeals to modern and contemporary people is that he is historical and therefore “real.” His life is reasonably well-documented, we can connect him with dates and a family and a place (although this last generates some other interesting questions). He acted a lot like Jesus, but no one claimed that he was more than human; he was bound by time and space and physical reality, as all historical actors are.

Many believers are looking for a usable past, and Francis is appealing because he is at least theoretically a role model. Many of his actions were concrete and simple, and people can at least conceive of imitating them. (Many of his actions were also rather mad, but that raises other complicated questions.) The spurious quotes may be a way of creating a collective memory – a shared interpretation of Francis that is comprehensible and useful in the present. These little texts, anonymously produced, collectively circulated, make oblique suggestions about meaning – sometimes invented meaning.

And holy figures from the past still carry a surprising amount of authority. Pious forgeries are still being attributed to Francis and Clare, less because of their historicity than because of their moral weight. Despite Americans’ reputation for being ahistorical, many religious Americans are still looking to the past for support. We may be more medieval than we think.

Traditions Lost…And Found

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

by Andrew Stern

Few people consider November 30th, the Feast of St. Andrew, to be a highpoint of the holiday season. Since the Middle Ages, however, the feast has had particular significance for people who share the saint’s name. In fact, for centuries every traditional name in Europe had a particular “nameday” corresponding to the feast day of the saint of that name (similar celebrations, known as “onomásticas” take place in many Latin American countries). Thus, on November 30th, “Andrews” would celebrate the feast of St. Andrew, while their friends and families would offer them good wishes and even gifts. Particularly in predominantly Catholic or Orthodox countries, namedays often became more important than birthdays, since everyone knew the feast day of an individual’s patron saint (in fact, in many European countries one can still purchase calendars with lists of namedays), while relatively few people knew the date of his/her birth.

The celebration of namedays has declined in prominence in recent decades, especially in Western Europe, yet it was an important practice at the peak of European immigration to the United States in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. Therefore, it is surprising that there is so little evidence of nameday celebrations among immigrant communities in the U.S. Studies of immigrant religions in the U.S. chronicle the many traditions that survived the process of transplantation, but of course there are others that did not, and namedays seem to be a prime example. Why is it that this tradition failed to take root in the U.S.? Given the zeal with which American capitalism seizes on any religious tradition that can be commodified and marketed (witness the Our Lady of Guadalupe candles for sale in the Hispanic aisle of virtually every supermarket), why is there virtually no trace of nameday calendars, cards, or other merchandise produced in the U.S.? Feast day celebrations of saints important to entire nations survived, so were nameday celebrations too individualistic? Answers to these questions, and similar questions regarding other religious practices that vanished in the US, may provide valuable insights on the immigrant experience.

Nameday celebrations never really caught on in the U.S., but technology may provide a way to revive the tradition. The website, for example, allows one to view the namedays celebrated on any given day in eighteen different European countries. There is also a distinctly American nameday calendar, published since 1982 and available online at This calendar blends the religious roots of namedays with American civil religion. Thus, people named Paul can celebrate their nameday on the feast of St. Paul or on the anniversary of the birth of Paul Revere. Similarly, the calendar assigns the name “Irving” to May 11th, since that was the birthday of Irving Berlin, whom the calendar honors as the author of “God Bless America.” Although namedays are becoming more secular events even in those European countries where they are still widely celebrated, the addition of new “saints” to the calendar seems to be an American phenomenon. Perhaps in a few years the calendar will include namedays for “Barack” (August 4), “Beyoncé” (September 4), and “LeBron” (December 30).

Immigrant religions in the U.S. are nothing if not resourceful. The internet may provide a way to maintain traditional practices, but there are also low-tech solutions. This year on November 30th I will receive, as I have each year for as far back as I can remember, a Happy Birthday card from my Hungarian relatives with “Birthday” meticulously scratched out and “Nameday” written in its place.