Archives For The Medieval Church

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I think so little of church gargoyles that I included the subject in an as yet unpublished book set in the medieval period.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

I don’t have much of a gift for drawing, but I often find the simplest artwork quite engaging. Nor do I understand the mathematics necessary to become an accomplished architect—yet I definitely appreciate the majesty of finely designed buildings.

This, I recently learned, is another thing that I have in common with Jack Lewis.

We lunched at Wells after seeing the Cathedral. . . . I am no architect and not much more of an antiquarian. Strange to say it was Uncle H. with his engineering more than our father with his churchmanship that helped me to appreciate it; he taught me to look at the single endless line of the aisle, with every pillar showing at once the strain and the meeting of the strain (like a ship’s framework inverted); it is certainly wonderfully satisfying to look at. The pleasure one gets is like that from rhyme—a need, and the answer of it following so quickly that they make a single sensation. So now I understand the old law in architecture, “no weight without a support, and no support without an adequate weight.” (Letters of C.S. Lewis, 7 August 1921).

Lewis aptly describes how large cathedrals are built. Many “regular” churches display similar construction, albeit in more modest proportion. Like admiring the stained glass common to many houses of worship, gazing at their structural beauty can cause us to “lose ourselves” for a moment. Sometimes massive columns or graceful arches can even spark within us a sense of awe.

Awe inspiring architecture takes varied forms. It can be conveyed by simple scale. I have yet to visit Hagia Sophia (a dream I hold), but I have visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame. With the souvenir shops tastefully hidden away, it’s probably their age that most touches me.

The awareness that my brothers and sisters in Christ have offered prayers in each for nearly a millennia or more is sobering. And, I believe our wonderful friend C.S. Lewis was equally impressed by that fact.

Yes, huge sanctuaries are impressive, but a church does not need to be massive to impress. There is a modest church in Cambridge, England which my wife and I visited several times. It is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it was inspired by the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Crusaders who had worshipped in Jerusalem carried home the vision of the simple edifice, and it was built in Cambridge around 1130.

When we lived in England, the congregation there was vibrant and reaching out to those without hope. Apparently shortly after we departed, it “outgrew” the facilities there and had to relocate to a larger building.

I don’t recall Lewis specifically mentioning this parish, although I can’t imagine him teaching at the University there and not at least visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And when he entered the holy place, I can easily picture him joining me in admiration of the artistic symmetry of the arches and columns, “with every pillar showing at once the strain and the meeting of the strain.”

Compassion Fatigue

April 1, 2012 — 6 Comments

Jesus at GethsemaneI just returned from a weeklong gathering with a group of armed forces chaplains. They represented all the branches—Army, Navy & Air Force. (The Navy provides the chaplains for the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard in the United States.)

I retired four years ago, after nearly a quarter century as a chaplain in the Air Force. I miss the people, the esprit de corps, and the awareness of doing something truly important.

On the other hand, I miss neither the innumerable meetings nor the rank consciousness of some chaplains. (Sadly, to some chaplains their rank insignia is more important than the religious symbol they bear.)

I’ve been privileged, in my semi-retirement, to serve my denomination on our national Ministry to the Armed Forces committee. We determine which of our pastors should be allowed to serve as military chaplains. It was in that capacity I attended our annual conference for “our” chaplains.

As always, we offered a first-class program. This one was conducted by Doxology and our speakers were a veteran pastor and a gifted psychologist. They covered a lot of ground during the week, but one of the subjects they began with was helping us assess our own degrees of “compassion fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue is experienced by many people in the so-called helping professions. Medical personnel, first responders and (especially) those in the ministry give so much of themselves without adequate replenishment, that they often end up spiritually exhausted.

It’s easy for critics to judge someone who is genuinely fatigued, because they can become impatient and irritable. People may accuse them of trying to do everything “in their own strength,” rather than relying on God’s grace and anointing.

In his famous prayer, Francis of Assisi asked, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” This is precisely how most clergy view themselves. But, to more precisely focus the petition, we might pray, “Lord, make me a conduit of your grace.”

If you understand the distinction . . . you can see how even regarding ourselves as God’s instruments or hands or voice in the world, can compel those in the ministry to serve until they drop. So much for the Puritan work ethic. Few of us pause adequately for the rest and renewal we require.

C.S. Lewis described just how costly this love for others can be.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (The Four Loves.)

You may well be on the verge of compassion fatigue yourself, assuming you care deeply about the suffering of others. If you are, I encourage you to join me in identifying times and places to pause and rest in the presence of God. Scheduling opportunities to meditate on his word and listen for his still small voice as we communicate with him in prayer, will refresh and strengthen each of us.

These precious moments won’t occur accidentally. We need to be intentional in carving them out of our too-busy schedules. But, when we do so, we are spared the pain and numbness of compassion fatigue. We can continue to love others, despite the vulnerability, and still remain healthy and whole.

Prepare for Commentary

September 30, 2011 — Leave a comment

Your Mere Inkling

Following the last post by your humble scribe, the senior copyist of the Scriptorium insisted that from this point forward he be allowed to comment on each post as it is penned. His comment for the last post was:

“A gifted author could certainly have found a more suitable illustration for his column. While the one you chose does, indeed, correlate to the premise of your text, the image itself is mildly unsettling.”

Who am I to disagree with one who wore the tonsure two decades before I was even conceived? So, I have acquiesced to allowing him to review my future posts before they are actually “published” to the web. I understand this sounds a bit like censorship, but trust me–I will continue to write whatever I desire to write and allow his comments to fall out how they may. So, bear with me as we now anticipate occasional addenda from Brother Hieronymus . . . May his comments be few.

†††

Our CommentatorAddendum First:

I’m certain you would like that, but I recommend against hoping your dream will come to pass. I am not one to overlook my divinely appointed duties. By the way, gifted communicator, did you seriously require 163 words for your post?