Archives For The Medieval Church

presence

Have you read The Practice of the Presence of God? Between the world wars, C.S. Lewis pondered this devotional collection written in the 1600s.

Lewis was rather disappointed during his initial reading, but he apparently grew in his respect for the slim volume. He read it in 1930, the year prior to his becoming a communing member of the local Anglican church. His body rests in its cemetery today.

In a letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes his impression of the work. It is impressive to note how he acknowledges that his own “mood” may have influenced his reception.

In reading I have of course little to record, and never shall have much in term time. I read in two evenings a little book that came from Leeborough called The Practice of the Presence of God which I picked up & put in the study when I was there last because it seemed to me a promising title. It is by a seventeenth century monk.

It is full of truth but somehow I didn’t like it: it seemed to me a little unctuous. That sort of stuff, when it is not splendid beyond words, is terribly repulsive, or can be, can’t it?

No doubt it depends very largely on one’s mood. I had just finished the fourth Gospel in Greek (as I think you know) before you came, and after that most other things are a come down. Not that I liked that in all respects either.

It’s fascinating that Lewis acknowledges that his reading of the humble kitchen monk and sandal-maker followed in the wake of his reading of The Gospel according to John, in the Greek. This must rank near the top of Lewis’ greatest understatements: “and after that most other things are a come down.” (Who among us would ever desire for even our finest writing to be compared to John’s inspired Gospel?)

Lewis was not dismissive of the seventeenth century work. As late as 1956, the two friends discussed the volume in their correspondence. That year Lewis wrote “Yes, Bro. Lawrence is of course right” in response to an unpreserved observation made by Greeves.

Christianity Today offers a brief account of the Frenchman’s life here. It describes a pivotal point in the life of the man who would become a soldier, and then a monk.

Born Nicolas Herman in 1614 in a small village in Lorraine, France, he had a soul-altering experience at 18. That winter, while looking at a leafless tree, he marveled that its barrenness would soon turn green again, flower, and bear fruit. This insight made him intimately aware of God’s love from then on.

The Soul of C.S. Lewis describes one example of the similarities shared by the Oxford professor and the French monk whose work he described as “full of truth.”

One of Brother Lawrence’s secrets was in realizing what Lewis would one day also discover: that every activity can be either religious or irreligious. The difference is in our minds and hearts.

Obviously, The Practice of the Presence of God is now in the public domain (since its author died in 1691). There is no excuse to ignore this Christian devotional classic which has long been appreciated by many Protestants, as well as Lawrence’s fellow Roman Catholics. You can download it in several formats here or obtain a (currently) free kindle version from Amazon.

Lewis Quotes Brother Lawrence

Although the following excerpt lacks sufficient context to make a great deal of sense, it is worth noting the following from That Hideous Strength, the final volume in Lewis’ space trilogy. It reveals that the wisdom of the uneducated monk remained with Lewis, even as he wrote his own religious treasures.

In the book, Dr. Dimble is a good-willed academic who Lewis uses to interpose some of his personal thoughts.

Dr. Dimble drove out to St. Anne’s dissatisfied with himself, haunted with the suspicion that if he had been wiser, or more perfectly in charity with this very miserable young man, he might have done something for him. “Did I give way to my temper? Was I self-righteous? Did I tell him as much as I dared?” he thought.

Then came the deeper self-distrust that was habitual with him. “Did you fail to make things clear because you really wanted not to? Just wanted to hurt and humiliate? To enjoy your own self-righteousness . . ?” The sadness that came over him had novelty in it. “And thus,” he quoted from Brother Lawrence, “thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself.”

This intriguing passage suggests that Brother Lawrence’s thoughts continued to inspire Lewis . . . long after his initial exposure to them. Here the fictional professor nearly succumbs to his self-doubt before he reminds himself that this is a common result of introspection that ignores the love and presence of God.

If you have not yet decided to read, or reread, The Practice of the Presence of God, perhaps one of these excerpts will inspire you to do so.

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”

“That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries.”

“We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”

Timing the Reformation

February 7, 2017 — 8 Comments

wristwatch

I had an entrepreneurial epiphany on how to get rich during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and since I’m not an entrepreneur, I’m passing the idea on gratis, to readers of Mere Inkling.

Inspired by the shocking success of the Playmobil Martin Luther—their fastest-selling item ever—I wondered what other commemorative items might result in a windfall for investors.

The insight struck like the lightning bolt that dropped Luther to his knees and sent him off to the monastery.

Since this celebration hearkens back to the beginning of the Reformation . . . back to the day when the 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg . . . it dawned on me that we so indebted to what happened that moment that we are, in a true sense, living on Wittenberg time.

What better item to remind us of the significance of this than to turn to expert horologists* and design a Wittenberg Watch? Ideally it would be permanently linked to Wittenberg time. The wearer would also benefit from learning more about time zones and mathematics, trying to sort out the local time, especially when traveling.

More about the details in a moment.

C.S. Lewis and the Importance of Time

The nature and passage of time was of great importance to C.S. Lewis. He devoted an entire chapter to the subject in Mere Christianity. In “Time and Beyond Time,” he explores how God acts within history, but is not subject to time’s constraints.

If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.

Lewis then proceeds to explain his understanding by saying this “idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone. It is a ‘Christian idea’ in the sense that great and wise Christians have held it and there is nothing in it contrary to Christianity. But it is not in the Bible or any of the creeds. You can be a perfectly good Christian without accepting it, or indeed without thinking of the matter at all.”

Another difficulty we get if we believe God to be in time is this. Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise?

Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them.

But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them, because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him.

You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you.

In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already “Now” for Him.

Since God was/is witness to that day in Wittenberg, just as he knows our tomorrows today, we see his placing of creation within the linear progression of history is intentional. It does not restrict our Lord in any way, but it enables us to comprehend our existence. And thus, we are compelled to mark the passage of time.

What Might the Wittenberg Watch be Like?

Something elegant and tasteful, yet modest and unobtrusive. A watch like the one pictured above. It’s produced by Swisstime and has the added benefit that it is part of their “Rebellion” line, which means that Roman Catholics shouldn’t be excluded from the market. The only minor drawback is the price, $930,000.

It seems to me that a wise businessperson could undercut that by thirty or forty thousand, and only need to sell two or three watches to retire in comfort.

An alternative to this timepiece, for the less prosperous, would be to get a regular Timex or Casio and just set the time to that of Wittenberg! That’s the key anyway—the Wittenberg Watch measures the hour based on the time there in hallowed birthplace of the Reformation. (For those who like details, that would be the Central European Time Zone, UTC/GMT +1.)

An astute investor will recognize that the Wittenberg Watch concept easily translates for an ecumenical audience. One easily imagines other editions for various denominations.

Aldersgate Watch for Methodists (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Azuza Street Timepiece for Pentecostals (Pacific Standard, UTC/GMT -9)

Canterbury Timepiece for Anglicans (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Geneva Timepiece for Calvinists (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Edinburgh Edition for Presbyterians (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Hollywood Timepiece for Televangelists** (Pacific Standard, UTC/GMT -9)

London Chronometer for Quakers (Greenwich Mean, GMT)

Münster Timepiece for Anabaptists (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Rome Timepiece for Roman Catholics (Central European, UTC/GMT +1)

Anyone who desires can feel free to run with this idea. I relinquish all rights to the concept of religious timepieces.

As for now, I’ve been rethinking the idea altogether. I’ve decided it’s best for me to reset my own watch to Jerusalem time.

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* Horology relates to the science of measuring time and making timepieces. (Yes, I had to look it up also, even though I remembered enough Latin to know hora means hour.)

** It’s quite possible that televangelists already own the Rebellion Reb 5 Diamond timepiece pictured above, however, the members of their digital congregations may be in the market for something more modest.

The Urgent Need for Chivalry

September 13, 2016 — 13 Comments

chivalryWith all the nations of the world engaged in power struggles—or cowering behind the protection of their more courageous allies—C.S. Lewis’ essay on “The Necessity of Chivalry” demands our attention.

Yes, the very word “chivalry” reeks of a bygone era that has been superseded and relegated to history books. But those who consider the concept outdated impoverish their lives and quite possibly contribute to the violent spirit of our age.

Warfare is not an abstract concept to the millions—yes, millions—of people who are surrounded by vicious threats every hour. Britain itself was in this position when Lewis penned these words during the Battle of Britain.

As he wrote, three days before Winston Churchill’s most famous speech, Lewis commended those same few to whom so many owed so much. It was 1940, and Germany’s advance had yet to be halted. Ultimate victory in the world conflagration would remain uncertain for years.

It is in this milieu, but not only for this context, that Lewis challenges us to combine the chivalrous values of meekness and ferocity.

Lewis argues that in the chivalrous “knight,” true humility and the capacity for great (but moral) violence are merged. The result is not a schizophrenic warrior, but a noble defender of what is good.

Indeed, even apart from wartime, it is vital that society has heroes to protect sheep from wolves. In a moment I will share with you a brief video featuring an amazing artistic rendering of this essay on chivalry.*

In the essay, Lewis’ examples span Western history. He uses Launcelot as the archetype of the chivalrous man. And he offers the hope and evidence that chivalry is not extinct. A veteran of the previous war, he wrote at the outset of the Second World War:

Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon. Yet with this “sternness” there is much “meekness;” from all I hear, the young pilots in the R.A.F. (to whom we owe our life from hour to hour) are not less, but more, urbane and modest than the 1915 model. (“The Necessity of Chivalry”)

And accordingly, in our own day there are many serving in uniform who exemplify the same virtues. Would, though, that all who bear arms could be described thusly.

Some who are reading these words may regard chivalry as a “sexist” concept. It is not. Certainly no more than courage, strength and virtue could be deemed such. The fact that Lewis’ historical examples of society’s defenders are men simply reflects history.

In the seventy-five years since he wrote, it has become evident that women too can easily embody both meekness and unyielding courage. One need look no further than the ranks of the military and law enforcement to see this borne out.

Chivalry for the Civilian

It would be a tragic mistake to think that chivalry is only required during war. It is a vital, daily necessity of all social life. And the increasing incivility of the world suggests its erosion. (Many attribute this in part to the anonymity of the internet, which allows bullies to savage others anonymously and without mercy.)

This is what Lewis was saying when he described Launcelot as being “not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”

After all, it is not the bland or “lukewarm” person who makes this world a better place. It is upon chivalrous men and women that the majority of the vulnerable must ever rely.

Each of us needs to be willing to examine our own lives for the union of these two traits: courage that does not surrender to what is wrong, and meekness that is gentle, calm and patient with others.

These are the values that we need to promote in our communities, media and schools. Because what we instill in receptive minds is precisely that which will take root. To use more contemporary terms, the “programming” these young minds are subject to will directly influence the behaviors that they “output.”

Let us do all we are capable of, to be, and to raise up, what is chivalrous. After all, despite all of the utopian promises of those who believe humanity is capable of purifying itself, the evidence shows otherwise. As Lewis said,

There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but this seems to have been an exaggeration.

Enjoy this fine presentation of  “The Necessity of Chivalry.”

_____

* This video is a creation of CSLewisDoodle, about which I have written before. (Their name may sound quaint, but the expertise with which they visualize Lewis’ words is astounding.)

Sanctified Languages

January 6, 2015 — 8 Comments

petrusOne major difference between Christianity and Islam is their view of language. For the Muslim, Arabic is the language by which the Quran is to be known. For the Christian, there is a great impulse to translate the Scriptures into every tongue in the world.

In Islamic worship, the Quran is properly recited only in Arabic, whether the individual understands Arabic or not. This is similar to the way that most Hindus chant mantras in ancient Sanskrit.

A parallel can be drawn with the medieval practice in the Western branches of Christianity where Latin continued to be used for worship, even after it lost its role as the shared language.

The fact, however, that the Bible had even been translated into Latin was due to the Christian desire to make God’s word accessible to all people. Jerome, an early Christian theologian, became a linguistic scholar with the goal of translating the Vulgate, into the common language of his day.

It would have been a great shock to him, and to Pope Damasus I who commissioned his effort, to see the Latin so ingrained in the church’s usage that their heirs in leadership lost sight of the desire to bring the Lord’s words directly to the people so that all could understand them.

One of the great successes of the Reformation was the successful translation and distribution of the Scriptures into the vernacular of various language groups. Martin Luther’s translation, in fact, standardized the German language which had evolved into several different dialects.

Coincidentally, Lutherans have remained at the forefront of Bible translation, and Lutheran Bible Translators continue that vital work today. They currently have twenty-two Bible translations in process. LBT works in conjunction with Wycliffe Bible Translators, which is an even larger organization.

C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture at the University of London entitled “The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version.” In one portion he addressed the influence of the King James translation on the English language. While not nearly so pronounced as Luther’s on German, it is measurable.

The history of the Authorised Version has been told so often that I will not attempt to re-tell it, and its beauties praised so lavishly that I will not praise them. Instead, I will proceed at once to its influence as an English book. I shall attempt to define that influence, for I think there has been misunderstanding about it and even a little exaggeration.

Lewis’ argument is that the Bible has a profound influence on English literature, the particular translation, less so.

Ideally, all Christians would understand Hebrew and Greek, and be able to read the Scriptures in their original languages. However, there is no stigma in reading a translation. In fact, there are small pockets of people who do not understand the history of the Bible who believe that one particular translation (i.e. the King James Version) is the only authoritative text.

Sadly, I once saw an advertisement in a newspaper inviting worshipers that read: “Are you tired of people changing the Authorized Version of God’s Word with Greek and other languages? If so, come and join us at . . .”

Fortunately, the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples celebrate the translation of God’s word of life into every language spoken today.

Meanwhile, memorization of the Quran in Arabic (even when that is not the reciter’s actual language) remains highly regarded in Islam. Arabic has been regarded as so holy, in fact, that there was great reluctance to contaminate the Quran by using a printing press.

During the Ottoman Empire, until 1729, printing anything in Arabic was a crime. Somewhat ironically, the first printing utilizing Arabic movable type was done by Pope Julius II in the first decade of the sixteenth century. It was created for the benefit of Christians living in Arabic lands.

To provide a powerful illustration of a Christian validation of the authentic inspiration and power of God’s words—in any language—we turn once again to the German reformer.

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. . . .

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. St. Paul declared it to be the peculiar glory and distinction of Hebrew that God’s word was given in that language, when he said in Romans 3, “What advantage or profit have those who are circumcised? Much indeed. To begin with, God’s speech is entrusted to them. . . .”

Similarly, the Greek language too may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation. (Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of Germany”).

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The image above is an illuminated “P” which begins the name Petrus (Peter). The manuscript is displayed in Malmesbury Abbey in England, but was originally transcribed in Belgium circa 1400.

Deadly Gargoyles

September 8, 2014 — 15 Comments

gargoyle magdalenWhoever first considered gargoyles an attractive addition to buildings, must have had an odd personality. I have never developed an appreciation them.

What’s worse is when moonstruck (lunatic) architects deem gargoyles suitable for adorning churches.

There are too many examples out there to count. I am sure there are a number of websites devoted to them. But I don’t care enough to investigate.

It is one thing to shape a natural or fantastical creature to use as a rain spout on a building. Quite another, in my opinion, to opt for a grotesquery.

Churches should stick with symbolism that edifies the people. Admittedly, this can include some potentially gruesome subject, such as images of martyrdoms.

Our familiarity with the crucifix itself has dulled the impact of its terrible agony. We often fail to recognize the magnitude of the suffering Jesus endured.

Gargoyles were in the news this week. The reason for their appearance gave the title to this column.

A tragedy occurred in Chicago when a gargoyle broke free from a dated building and struck an innocent pedestrian. She was killed almost immediately by the crushing blow.

To make matters even more sad, the building from which the “ornament” fell was a church.

Second Presbyterian Church was built in 1874 and is a national historic landmark. Local news outlets report that it failed various inspections between 2007 and 2011, but passed them in 2012 and 2013. (The picture above is not of the gargoyle in question.)

Sarah was the name of the victim of this tragic accident. I invite your prayers on behalf of this young woman’s loved ones, especially her two children.

I think so little of church gargoyles that I included the subject in an as yet unpublished book set in the medieval period.

The nightmare gargoyle pictured on the top of the page adorns Magdalen College in Oxford. It was established in 1458, and was the school where C.S. Lewis began his teaching career.

In C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life, Bruce Edwards writes, “The college is noted for its wealth of gargoyles, grotesques, and stone portraits of notable people.”

Well, the college may be named after Mary Magdalene, but at least it isn’t a church. As for the stone “portraits,” they sound like a very agreeable adornment.

As lovely as Magdalen is considered to be, on the whole Lewis considered Cambridge University more appealing than Oxford. In a 1954 letter he wrote, “I’m afraid one must admit that, architecturally, Cambridge beats Oxford; there is so much more variety in Cambridge.”

In two other letters written the same year, Lewis revealed that there was much more to his new academic post than mere architecture that appealed to him. Oxford had taken Lewis for granted, and often belittled him because of his simplistic trust in Christ.

You know I am going as a Professor to Cambridge? My new college is Magdalene, Cambridge: a tiny little place compared with this, but a perfect gem architecturally and (I think) much more congenial socially & spiritually.

Did I tell you I’ve been made a professor at Cambridge? I take up my duties on Jan. 1st at Magdalene College, Cambridge (Eng.). Note the difference in spelling. It means rather less work for rather more pay. And I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, & pious, & gentle and conservative– unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and ‘old woman’ here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

It is not about architecture at all—or the presence or absence of grotesqueries. It is about finding a home where you know you are welcome and appreciated. A place where you do not need to remain constantly on your guard, because there are colleagues present who desire to see you humbled.

It is good to know C.S. Lewis spent the final years of his teaching life in an academic family that truly appreciated the gifted scholar in their midst.

stfrancisMy brother, sister and I have nearly finished the somber task of going through my father’s possessions. We distributed many items to various family members, but the local charities have probably benefited most, as we cleared out the three bedroom home.

Sadly, my mother died nearly twenty years ago. My sister inherited her cedar chest, but had left it in our father’s house. As she prepared to take it home, we discovered some interesting items, including forty pictures my father had sent home during his 1967-68 tour in Vietnam.

We also found a Bible my mother had used when she attended studies. She was born in the generation which would never dare to highlight passages or scribble in the margins. Thus, the Bible bears no evidence it ever belonged to her . . . aside from some inspiring bookmarks, and a few newspaper clippings she had found meaningful.

One of the quotations that I too found particularly edifying, came from the pen of a Roman Catholic priest named Francis de Sales:

Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or he will give you the unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

Francis was a post-Reformation Bishop of Geneva who was noted for his gentle approach toward religious divisions—in an era when such moderation was extremely rare. He is known for writings on spiritual growth (in Roman Catholic parlance, “spiritual formation”).

Although I have not read it, his book Introduction to the Devout Life comes highly recommended, and is available for free download here. I suspect even agnostics could enjoy it for its historical value.

By all accounts, Francis led a chaste and humble life, much like his namesake, Francis of Assisi. (Both men were canonized by their Church.)

Speaking of the first St. Francis, I have always wondered why no Pope ever honored his legacy by assuming his name. I suppose this is because his most prominent characteristics are not those most Popes seek to emulate. The assumption of Francis’ name by the new Pope, I believe, bodes well for his papacy. If he follows in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi, he cannot stray too far afield.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the thirteenth-century saint who began life as a self-indulged soldier and ended it living under a strict vow of poverty. Francis’ celebrated affection for animals—he is considered their “patron saint”—could not help but endear the monk to the creator of Narnia. Each year, many Christians participate in Roman Catholic and Anglican ceremonies for the blessing of animals on Saint Francis’ feast day.

In The Four Loves, Lewis discusses the nature of our physical body. He notes that there are several competing perspectives about our corporeal constitution, with the extremes either demeaning or glorifying humanity’s material nature. Lewis suggests that a metaphor created by Saint Francis provides a more biblical view.

Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious.

But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.” All three may be—I am not sure—defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body. There’s no living with it till we recognise that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of buffoon.

Yes, I have to live for a while yet in this donkey of a shell, which illustrates daily the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who wrote that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak . . . and short-sighted . . . and lazy . . . and stubborn . . .

This body, my flesh, argues that I should spend my day worrying about tomorrow. But the Holy Spirit speaks a more hopeful word. A promise. As God inspired Francis de Sales to eloquently proclaim: “Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day.”

Knowing Our ABCs

November 28, 2012 — 12 Comments

Most readers are familiar with the amazing story of Jeanne D’ Arc (Joan of Arc). She was a French peasant who received visions which proved accurate. She foresaw victory for a humbled nation which had not experienced a major military victory for an entire generation.

Jeanne led the army of the Dauphin (the heir to France’s throne who would reign as Charles VII) to unimaginable victories. She was seriously wounded but inspired her troops with her swift return to battle. She counseled, and prayed for mercy, but recognized England could only be repulsed from French shores by force.

Tragically, she was captured and the English, following a sham trial, judged her guilty of heresy. Jeanne was only nineteen when she perished in flames in an English blaze. Just twenty-five years later, a special court convened by the Pope found her “not guilty” of the crime, and proceeded to declare her a martyr. She was canonized in 1920, nearly five centuries after her brief but brilliant life.

Recently, while reading more about her life I was reminded of something startling she said during her first “inquisition.” When she originally presented herself to the Dauphin, no one could believe a modest young farm girl could be France’s rescuer. A commission of inquiry, comprised of a number of senior clergy, offered the Dauphin a “favorable presumption” that she might, indeed, have divine sanction.

During that “trial,” she was vigorously questioned. The following account comes from Medieval History by Israel Smith Clare.

It is very interesting to see how she evaded the difficulties, overcame the objections, and quietly set aside the learned cavils of the doctors by the simplicity and directness of her replies. They first asked her what signs she could show them to prove her mission. She answered: “I have not come to Poitiers to show a sign. Give me some men-at-arms and lead me to Orleans, and I will then show you signs. The sign I am to give is to raise the siege of Orleans.” One of the [theological] doctors responded thus: “But if God wished to deliver the city he could do it without soldiers.” Jeanne replied: “The soldiers will fight, and God will give them the victory.” Brother Seguin of Limousin asked her, in his provincial dialect, in what idiom her angels spoke. She answered: “In a better idiom than yours.” Said he, somewhat angrily: “Do you believe in God?” Jeanne replied: “I have more faith in God than you have.” The sharp man was thus silenced.

Still the doctors proceeded with their examinations, asking repeated questions and suggesting many learned difficulties. Said Jeanne: “Why do you ask me all these things? I do not know even my A, B, C; but I have come, by God’s command, to raise the siege of Orleans and crown the king.” Having nothing more to say, the doctors finally decided in the maiden’s favor, to which they were somewhat influenced by the great reverence which she inspired among the people of Poitiers by her holiness and piety . . .

Jeanne’s final comment which stands out. The fact that she was illiterate was, to her, no disgrace. She was confident God had chosen her to accomplish the historic events which surely followed.

We live in an era where nearly all adults in the industrialized world are literate. Even in less privileged lands, literacy rates hover around fifty percent.

We—especially those of us who love words and write—tend to look down on those who are not as eloquent as we consider ourselves to be. A woman like Jeanne reminds us that one need not be educated to be truly eloquent. She put the ecclesiastical patricians in their proper place. And rubbed their proverbial noses in it, when she emphasized her illiteracy. Devout, courageous, humble . . . and sarcastic toward condescending clerics—I’m eager to one day meet her!

While knowing one’s ABCs bears little correlation to personal virtue or merit, literacy is essentially a good thing. How impoverished our lives would be if books were sealed to us and we could not be transported to novel places and new epiphanies in their pages.

C.S. Lewis shared this awareness that illiteracy was something that could bar some from experiencing life’s most important treasures. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, he draws a wonderful picture of the relationship between the image and the word. In this allegory, the Landlord represents God.

“. . . The Landlord has circulated other things besides the Rules. What use are Rules to people who cannot read?”

“But nearly everyone can.”

“No one is born able to read: so that the starting point for all of us must be a picture and not the Rules. And there are more than you suppose who are illiterate all their lives, or who, at the best, never learn to read well.”

“And for those people the pictures are the right thing?”

“I would not quite say that. The pictures alone are dangerous, and the Rules alone are dangerous. That is why the best thing of all is to find Mother Kirk at the beginning, and to live from infancy with a third thing which is neither the Rules nor the pictures and which was brought into the country by the Landlord’s Son. That, I say, is the best: never to have known the quarrel between the Rules and the pictures. But it very rarely happens. The Enemy’s agents are everywhere at work, spreading illiteracy in one district and blinding men to the pictures in another. . . . As often as men become Pagans again, the Landlord again sends them pictures and stirs up sweet desire and so leads them back to Mother Kirk even as he led the actual Pagans long ago. There is, indeed, no other way.”

“. . . The Landlord succeeded in getting a lot of
messages through.”

“. . . These pictures woke desire.”

“. . . And then the Pagans made mistakes. They would keep on trying to get the same picture again: and if it didn’t come, they would make copies of it for themselves. Or even if it did come they would try to get out of it not desire but satisfaction.”

Elsewhere, in the essay “Some Thoughts” in God in the Dock, Lewis expressly (and correctly) declares literacy itself as one of the things for which Europe should be grateful to the Church.

[One looking at] Christian activities which are, in a sense directed toward this present world . . . would find that this religion had, as a mere matter of historical fact, been the agent which preserved such secular civilisation as survived the fall of the Roman Empire; that to it Europe owes the salvation, in those perilous ages, of civilised agriculture, architecture, laws, and literacy itself. He would find that this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighbourhood.