I write this with the open admission that I am no scholar of the Middle Ages – just a priest with a fondness for Arthurian legends.
There are surely some things to be thankful for when one considers that we no longer live in the Middle Ages. Yet there is much that the Church might be able to glean by looking at the nature of medieval belief and the way the Church understood its place in the community and state (or perhaps the way the Church understood the place of the state and community within the broadest outlines of the Church).
One helpful way to look at the history of the Church is through the lens of ongoing growth and re-appropriation. We look back to look forward and we look forward to understand what is behind us.
Undoubtedly there are advances in the life of the Church that we must be grateful for – that goes without saying. Yet, even as I type this, I am anticipating the critique of those who will immediately apply the language and lens of modern criticism (“Yeah, let’s go back to monarchical, violent, patriarchy!”). Let’s not. But let’s also not think that the modern believer has a monopoly on the terms, signs, and substance of our faith.
There are a couple of areas in particular in which the medieval Church was on to something.
- An engagement with the reality of death and dying: In a culture that denies death by any means necessary (chemical, surgical, and pharmaceutical) the medieval world’s encounter and wrestling with the reality of the human physical experience is something to re-examine. Life was devastating at times and the Church openly faced the complexities of suffering. One need only look at the evolution of All Souls to see the medieval Church pastorally engaging the complex emotional and spiritual turmoil of death. Look at the deeply moving and powerfully real images of the crucifixion that came into popular use to see a Church that understood and knew the cost of being human in sometimes inhuman circumstances. There is a world around us and people in our own parishes struggling to face ends that are grim, sudden, shocking, and undeserved – the Church must create space for grief and hope to commingle and find true expression. Part of being a place of Truth is being a place in which hard truths are talked about openly and with profound humility.
- A comfort with the physical: Of a piece with a comfort with death is a comfort with the realities of life. The medieval world was not one that allowed for tidy spirituality. It was a tough world with tough choices. We might now mock the notion of bloody hosts and other miracles – but often miracles were those that established the power of God to work through common and imperfect things and people. Relics become a means for God to use even dead bones. The Eucharist is a sign not that simply indicates that Christ might be present in the abstract but that He is with us – made known in the most essential stuff of very difficult lives. The medieval Church was one that understood prodding wounds with fingers of disbelief, that got what it meant to know the pain of the spear, that bled with saints, cried with grieving Mothers, and found solace and hope in Real Presence. The medieval Church could engage the realities of pain and suffering because it did not deny them but understood them as crucial to the life of faith and the cost of simply being human. Yet God’s life with us brought him into our very pressing hurts such that we might know new life and a peaceable reign. The very lifecycle of the earth was seen through the lens of rogation days – such that daily living had a connection to the eternal beyond.
- An acknowledgement that sin exists: The medieval world, a world of hard choices, was not one in which any person could be free from sin and temptation. Of course, we might think that there were excesses in medieval penitential piety and yet have we strayed too far in the other direction? Have we pretended that sin is simply in the eye of the sinner such that it is not actual recognition of transgression against God and our fellow man but emotional distress that marks the penitent? We do not want to lapse into a faith of quick shame and festering guilt. Yet, there are severe and debilitating costs for a Church or society that find themselves unmoored from notions of sin and repentance. The burdens society faces – from racism and sexism to climate change to so many more can find their root in our inability to truly proclaim the inviolability of the Body of Christ. Without a willingness to face and name sin we cannot actually move beyond sin and repentance to renewal.
- Mystery, Imagination, and Holy Permeability: The medieval world was one that, despite its harsh realities, also was a place where imagination and mystery collided with holy promise to reveal God at work in mysterious yet common ways. A forest was a magical place. A cave promised treasures. An ocean teemed with challenges both mundane and supernatural. In all of this, there was an understanding that God was at work in the world. Of course, so was the Devil. The world was a place of passionate engagement by God – he was not content to sit on the sidelines and watch things plod along once he had set them in motion. We have to find a way to share a bit of that cosmic delight with the world around us. We are faced with so many of the same physical and spiritual realities that faced the medieval Church and yet we are content to believe that we alone face those realities and have often lost sight that God is still at work in the world. The barrier between the beyond and the here is thinner than we think. All around us is swirling a world of constant mystery in which God delights to walk with us.
- Worship like something is happening: All of this swirling together of harsh reality and divine promise was revealed in the worship life of the Medieval Church. While we might not wish to ape the complexities of the Tridentine Rite – the complexity of the liturgical life revealed something of the complex reality of faith and the promise of holy beyond. When believers came together for Mass, something was happening that demanded attention, intention, and prayerful engagement. This is not to say we want to recapture the prescribed formulas of a practiced elite but that we want to create a space and time for worship that communicates that all are being called into the deepest mysteries of the Word made Flesh. The whole of the created order takes its form and function through the mysterious working of the transcendent reality of God. Our worship must explore not simply the realities we face daily but the deeper reality of the Presence of Christ – the Presence we pray will draw the creation and community around us from its present into a new Kingdom life. Self-referential or watered down worship does not make the divine more accessible it simply makes the mundane, perhaps, more palatable.
- The Church at the heart of the Town: The very real and practical effect of having an institution that straddles earthly and heavenly realities is that it becomes a locus for local community. People look to it for hope and for immediate needs. Our churches stand as potential gathering places, green spaces, and more for each of our communities. Gone are the days when we shape the calendar and the daily life of our communities – yet within our grasp is the ability to shape the daily lives of those who come through our doors such that their lives take on a sacramental character and they become living embodiments of the Church’s influence in the world. We are no longer the arbiters of culture – yet a culture without true arbiters is yearning for voices that will help shape, guide, and give meaning. One need look no further than Pope Francis to see a hint of what this can mean – authentic Christian living exercises a soft power that no amount of state sponsored mandate or privilege can ever command.
All of this is not to say that we should yearn for a return to yesteryear. Our tradition, however, is replete with means for drawing men and women anew to Gospel life. I firmly believe that there are elements of our tradition that are calling to the deepest spiritual longings of the lost and hurting. Yet tradition is not meant to be the shibboleth of an inwardly-focused, pure community. Our work in the world must reflect our deepest longing to elevate all those whom we touch so that those who thought themselves unlovable might know that they are adored by the Christ whom we adore. This is the promise of the Medieval Church – the world is awash in divine promise and harsh realities alike. A forward looking Church will hear cracking voices, hold trembling hands, look into tearful eyes, and with courage and humility say, “there is more.”