This article looks at the modern pursuit of happiness and spirituality, and how this compares to the spirituality of the Middle Ages. The author also looks at monasteries and mysticism.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1992. 6 pages.

In Search of Spirituality

We have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated – that, in a way, life is overrated. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this (present world) to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short one. We are the first generation of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such – unhappiness …”

These words were written by former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan and appeared in the September 14 issue of the American bi-weekly Forbes. They must have expressed a sentiment that others share, for they drew a lot of attention and were quoted, with obvious approval, in a number of American magazines. I copy them here because they provide us with at least one reason for the feelings of nostalgia with which, more and more members of the present generation look at the Middle Ages.

The Modern Pursuit of Happiness🔗

The reason to which I refer is the evident bankruptcy of secularism – that is, of mankind's inordinate love for this present world, and his neglect of the world to come. That secularism has been a hallmark of the modern age. Ever since the Renaissance, western man has sought fulfilment in pursuing the affairs of this world and of this life. In course of time he has even come to claim that fulfilment as his birthright. Nowhere has that been more clearly and authoritatively stated than in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – that famous document which proclaimed that governments have been instituted among men in order to secure mankind's natural, inalienable rights, and that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The American Declaration, a typical Enlightenment piece, is more than 200 years old by now, but the sentiments it expresses are still endorsed by many, both in the United States and in the rest of the western world. The faith that these lofty ideas can indeed be translated into practice is declining, however. Repeated disappointments have left their mark. They have, on the one hand, led to cynicism and a widespread discontent with governments that promise so much happiness to their citizens and deliver so little. They have also led, however, to a questioning of the promise itself. It is still only a minority that asks whether we have really been promised a heaven on earth, and whether the persistent search for it is not counter-productive, but the numbers are increasing.

Its Failure🔗

The evidence in support of this minority view, of course, is so overwhelming that one has to be blind to miss it. Science and technology, the gods of the modern age, were expected to provide governments with the necessary tools to establish the various heavenly cities. They indeed brought a great deal of material comfort to mankind, but they did so at a price. It included pollution, exhaustion of resources, the nuclear bomb, chemical and biological weapons, and the possibility of uncontrolled and uncontrollable genetic engineering.

Nor has the increased creature comfort led to increased peace and contentment. The opposite is true. Industrialism and capitalism have helped shape an economy that depends on, and therefore demands, ever-increasing consumption. Our society has rightly been called the acquisitive one. We are told – and many of us believe it – that our happiness consists in the multitude of our possessions. At the same time we know that the present rate of production cannot be sustained indefinitely; that the global ecosystem is finite; and that the limits have already been reached, if not surpassed. Hopes of never-ending economic growth have been dashed, and members of the younger generation are already being warned that they cannot expect to reach the level of material well being of their elders. In this respect also, science and technology have failed us.

And what applies to the pursuit of materialism applies to other avenues that are being followed in our society's quest for happiness. The struggle for dominance that is waged between the sexes, the competition for power among nations and races, the search for personal fulfilment, the creed of sexual permissiveness, none of these has led to the promised increase in contentment. Instead, they have resulted in greater loneliness, soaring divorce rates, multitudes of teenage pregnancies and one-parent families, aborted foetuses by the millions, and sexually transmitted diseases for which there seems to be no cure.

Medieval Other-Worldliness🔗

It is this kind of experience that helps explain the renewed interest in the Middle Ages. For as the Noonan quote already suggests, the view that man has a right to happiness here below is a revolutionary one, typical of the modern age. It had been unknown in the medieval period. That period is often called the Age of Faith, and with good reason. The people of the Middle Ages still knew that this earthly life is little more than a preparation for eternity, and this knowledge coloured their world view and determined their value systems. The fact that not nearly every one applied these values in his or her daily life does not detract from the truth that they were not only universally proclaimed, but also widely endorsed.

This strong element of other-worldliness, it is now realized, accounts for some of the most striking achievements of medieval civilization. It inspired much of its art, architecture, law, and philosophical systems, it allowed for the predominant place the church held in medieval life, and it helped determine the period's social organization. It explains, for example, why this society held an institution like monasticism in such high esteem.

The Monasteries🔗

The Reformation has had little good to say about the monastic system of the Middle Ages. Its criticism is understandable. In the late Middle Ages a large number of monastic orders were in serious decline and, as Luther well knew, even in the better monasteries the stress was less on the service of God and neighbour than on asceticism and the accumulation of merit points.

The periodic decline of monastic orders and the element of legalism in the monastic system are not, however, the entire story. Especially in the early Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome, when barbarism threatened to overwhelm all of Europe, it was monasticism that kept the light of Christian civilization burning. It was not only that the monasteries kept learning alive by the preservation and copying of ancient manuscripts and by the institution of schools. They also served as hostels, hospitals, and shelters for the poor and ill and persecuted, and as centres of manufacture, agricultural experimentation, and technological invention. Monks and nuns were the teachers, in the widest sense of the word, of their barbarian and semi-barbarian neighbours. And of course, they copied and studied the Bible, and were constant in their worship of God and their intercession for society.

Not in the last place, it was the monasteries that sent out the missionaries who would in course of time evangelize the entire continent. The Irish missionaries, beginning with St. Patrick, the Anglo-Saxons such as Willibrord and Boniface, and the later continental ones – they were all products of and supported by the monastic system. Monasticism often showed the vitality of the Christian faith. Love of God, and the desire for God's nearness, were the motivating forces in monasticism at its best. That love and desire were expressed not only in meditation and asceticism, although that too was always present, but they also manifested themselves in practical service – service of God and of the neighbour. And it was done in the conviction that this life is indeed but a preparation for the life to come. Therefore the care of souls – one's own and those of one's neighbours both far and near – was one of the highest priorities.

A Modern Search for Spirituality🔗

Throughout much of the modern period most people have found it difficult to understand this way of scheduling one's priorities. Centuries of almost unlimited social, economic, and technological progress have had a secularizing effect not only in society at large, but also among believers. Often Christians came to feel at home in this world, and the tendency became strong to shrug off the medieval kind of other-worldliness as overly spiritual, and even as an unwarranted and ungrateful avoidance of the good things of this world. “World-avoidance” became a dirty word, also among Reformed Christians, who sometimes forgot that that word has more than one connotation.

As mentioned, it is the increased awareness of modernism's failure that is at last bringing about a revision of this view of the Middle Ages. Medieval spirituality is in, and that not among Christians only but even among non-Christians

The example is taken from the late Dr. Louis Praamsma's excellent four-volume history of the Christian Church (De Kerk van Alle Tijden, Franeker, Wever, 1979-81). As is well known, medieval religion was often tainted with semi-pelagianism: man was to do good works in order to merit God's grace. This semi-pelagianism played an important role in monastic piety as well. There were exceptions, however. Dr. Praamsma shows that at least in some cases people were exhorted to put their trust in Christ's sacrifice alone, rather than relying at least in part on their own merits. The example he supplies is from a conversation between a Benedictine abbot and a dying monk. Part of that conversation I give here in translation:

Do you acknowledge that you have lived a life of sin and deserve eternal punishment?

I acknowledge it.

Do you believe that the Lord Jesus Christ has died for you?

I believe it.

Do you believe that you can be saved only by His death?

I believe it.

Then do this, as long as your soul is within you: put all your trust in this death alone; have no confidence in anything else; entrust yourself wholly to this death; cover yourself with it altogether; enwrap yourself in this death. And if the Lord God is going to condemn you, say to Him: Lord, I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and your judgment, and if not, then I refuse to be judged. And if He then says to you: but you are a sinner, answer: Lord, I place the death of our Lord Jesus between you and my sins … and I offer you His merits instead of my merits, which I should have, but which I lack. If He tells you that He is angry with you, say: Lord, I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between you and your wrath and me.

As the author concludes, here we have medieval piety at its best.

Mysticism of the “Inner Light”🔗

When describing the spirituality of the Middle Ages, we must give attention also to the period's mysticism, for the two are so closely related that at times they are indistinguishable. Medieval mysticism flourished especially after the 11th century, that is, in the period when European society began to experience a profound social and cultural revival. At that time religion became, for many, far more personal than it had been in the early Middle Ages. Mysticism expressed that personal element. It was also a reaction to the externalism, intellectualism, and materialism of the official church, and stressed feeling, piety, religious inwardness, and communion. That, however, is about all that the mystics had in common, for medieval mysticism was not a uniform movement. Nor was it uniformly Christian. It ranged all the way from evangelical to semi-pagan and near-pantheistic.

The term mysticism is not easy to define. It is derived from a Greek word that means “to close,” and it implies that one closes his eyes and ears in order to shut out the world, “empty” himself, and in that stillness find communion with God. Such a “closing of eyes and ears” could (and frequently did) mean a disregard of God's revealed Word and a reliance on “the inner light” – on the heart's illumination by the Spirit apart from the Word. It was this type of mysticism that easily degenerated into something akin to pantheism. Several medieval mystics taught that the human soul is a spark of the divine and that, by means of asceticism and various mystical exercises, man can realize his divinity and reach union with the Godhead. Perhaps the best known of these “inner light” mystics was Meister Eckhardt, a German. In 1329, two years after his death, several of Eckhardt's teachings were condemned by Rome, but his influence spread through much of western Europe.

Not nearly all medieval mystics went to these extremes. Many of them did believe with Eckhardt, however, that in the matter of his salvation man cooperates with God. He does that by such means as contemplation and meditation, voluntary poverty, a variety of good works, and ascetic exercises of often great severity.

This faith in man's ability to contribute to his salvation inevitably pushed the biblical message of the cross of Christ into the background. Indeed, mystics frequently began to allegorize the Bible, teaching that the gospel of Christ's birth and death and resurrection refers not to redemptive-historical events but to the experiences of the Christian. He himself must “give birth to Christ” in his heart, die unto the world and the flesh, and ascend to God.

Applications Today🔗

The reader will have noticed the modernity of this kind of mysticism. The doctrine that the gospel does not proclaim historical truth but merely symbolizes what must take place in the believer's heart has been proclaimed in liberal churches throughout modern times. It appealed because it removed much of the supernatural content of Christianity, and left room for man's autonomy. He could save himself.

That message was in harmony with the secularism and optimistic humanism of the modern period. It continues to be influential today, but its appeal is not quite as strong as it used to be. In our post-modern age many are no longer confident that man can do without the supernatural. Secularism is on the decline, faith in the supernatural is in, and mysticism is becoming popular. So is pantheism. More and more people of our days look for communion and meaning by transcending the material world and “realizing” their divinity.

It is true that the road to this divinity is different from the one followed in the Middle Ages. Today we do not have to go through difficult spiritual exercises, including extreme cases of self-sacrifice and self-denial, as the medieval mystics did. There are easier, more technical means nowadays, such as mind-altering drugs, hypnosis, and oriental techniques like the chanting of mantras. But the reasons for and the aim of the search are similar to those that prevailed in the Middle Ages, and this similarity goes a long way to explain today's interest in medieval mysticism.

Bernard of Clairvaux🔗

Although Christians, especially today, should be aware of this recurring kind of humanistic mysticism and understand its causes, there is little positive they can learn from it. That is not true, however, of all types of religious experience in the Middle Ages. Throughout that period there have been evangelical Christians, people who believed in and lived by the Gospel of sola fide and sola gratia: salvation by faith and by grace alone. Among them were also mystics. These people undoubtedly remained children of their time, especially in their stress on the need of asceticism – self-denial, self-discipline, the avoidance of the world and its pleasures, and so on. But not every medieval monk or nun considered the ascetic life necessarily a matter of merit before God. It could also be engaged in for the sake of the kingdom.

The best known of these evangelical mystics is Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 to 1153). Bernard was in fact the first of the great medieval mystics, who lived well before the rise of the men of the “inner light” described in the previous paragraphs. Born into a noble French family, he joined at age 20 the Cistercians. This monastic order, which had only recently been established, was reformist and severe. It demanded apostolic simplicity and poverty, stressed piety rather than learning, and spent much effort in opening up, cultivating, and evangelizing the wilder, still semi-pagan areas of western Europe. A few years after joining, Bernard founded his own Cistercian monastery in the wilderness of Clairvaux.

In many ways Bernard was a typical medieval Roman Catholic. He preached the Second Crusade, collected relics, and did much to promote the cult of Mary. But he also fought the anti-semitism that, sometimes with the church's blessing, spread across Europe during the Crusades, and he did not hesitate to criticize publicly the moral or doctrinal backslidings of the most powerful men of his age – popes and kings included. It was for that reason, and because of his preaching of salvation through faith in Christ alone, that he was gratefully remembered by both Luther and Calvin.

It was his faith in the all sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice that defined and explains Bernard's spirituality. That spirituality was expressed in his life, his books and sermons, and also in his hymns. An example of these hymns is the well known “O sacred Head, now wounded,” which Bach was to make famous by including it in his St. Matthew's Passion. Bernard's mysticism stressed personal, existential faith, practical piety, and above all love; love for the neighbour, but first of all for Jesus as the Lamb of God.

Protestant critics have objected that the Bernardine method – the steps he followed to express and experience this love to the highest degree – could lead to the typical mystical attempt of climbing up to God. And it is true that Bernard, like all medieval mystics, must be read with discernment. We can learn little from his typically Roman Catholic teachings, and we will also do well to ignore his mystical methodology and terminology. We may learn, however, from his Christ-centred life, his belief that faith must be lived and its fruits shown, and his conviction that the greatest of these fruits is love. In other words, we may learn from his practical spirituality. In defence of Bernard it should also be said that he himself was too much a man of the gospel of sola gratia to see the mystical life (which for him was the same as the Christian life) as the soul's ascent to God. For him, it was simply a progress in love.

St. Francis🔗

Bernard of Clairvaux was influential in his own days and throughout the Middle Ages. He is remembered and celebrated also today, although perhaps not quite to the same extent and with the same enthusiasm as some of his successors. Recent publications give the impression that more attention is paid nowadays to the German mystic Eckhardt (whom we already met) and his followers, and to men like Geert Groote, Thomas a Kempis, and other members of the Dutch mystical movement of the late Middle Ages which became known as the “Modern Devotion.” Thomas a Kempis, as the reader will know, is the probable author of the world-famous devotional The Imitation of Christ, a booklet that is well known also in Reformed circles. I want to conclude this article with some remarks about the man who is without doubt the 20th century's favourite medieval saint: St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis, an Italian, lived from 1182-1226, about a century after Bernard. The 12th and 13th centuries were a period of very rapid economic expansion and also of rapidly increasing urbanization. The church became wealthier and more powerful than ever, a situation that disturbed many believers and caused more than one to promote the cause of voluntary poverty. Francis, the son of a wealthy Italian merchant who was converted after a serious illness, was one of them.

Having broken with his family he wandered through Italy, preaching to the urban masses, begging from the rich, giving to the poor, caring for the sick and the helpless, and expressing his joy in his Lord. His cheerfulness, kindness, humility and self-denial attracted many followers. In 1210 the pope allowed the establishment of the Franciscan order, which soon spread throughout western Europe.

Francis did not object to any of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church. His concern was with the Christian life, and the strength of his movement was to a large extent the result of his personal example. His ideals did not long survive him, and in that sense his work had little lasting significance. He certainly was no reformer – even less so than Bernard of Clairvaux had been. He deserves to be remembered, however, as the man whose joy it was to try to walk in the footsteps of his Lord, and who took seriously the command to show God's love to the poor, the sick, and the lonely. He also deserves to be remembered as the man who loved God's creation. Usually busy in the urban centres, Francis liked to return to nature, and that not in order to escape the temptations of the world, as earlier monks had tended to do, but because it was part of his Father's world. He loved his fellow creatures, human and non-human ones, and they returned his love. He is said to have been able to tame wild animals; he cared for and fed the lowliest of creatures, and he preached to birds and other beasts.

It is especially his social concerns and his love of nature that explain the popularity of Francis of Assisi in our days. He is the shining example of social reformers and has been proclaimed patron saint of ecologists. And indeed, the modern world can learn from St. Francis. So can modern day Christians. They should remember, however, what motivated him in his life of compassion and care for his fellow men and for the rest of creation. It was not the premises of a modern day type of social gospel, and certainly not the near pantheistic modern concern for “Mother Nature.” It was, rather, his love for Christ, and his sincere desire to walk in His Master's footsteps.

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