Others we love, part 2

CH 116

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Consolation of Philosophy

For about 1,100 years, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (c. 523) was a best-seller. Medieval students studied hand-copied manuscripts, several hundred of which still exist. It was translated into the vernaculars of all western European nations, including Old English by Alfred the Great (who also translated Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, p. 14). 

Boethius (c. 480–524) was a high-ranking Roman, a Trinitarian Christian, and an adviser to the sixth-century Germanic king, Theodoric, who denied the Trinity. Corrupt, jealous courtiers persuaded the king to thrust Boethius into a filthy prison where he faced torture. Medieval readers could sympathize.

Boethius imagined Lady Philosophy entering his cell, posing difficult questions and drawing thoughtful answers from him: why do bad things happen to good people? Is free will possible? What is the nature of evil? Boethius’s answer to the last question is that evil is perverted good, but God is continually bringing good out of it. 

The Consolation’s popularity came from its compelling blend of dialogue and poetry, philosophy and feeling. Prisoners in centuries to come imitated it, but none measured up to the original. Through it, one could say God worked good out of Boethius’s sufferings. —Dan Graves

Sermons on the Song of Songs

The twelfth century was the century of love. Aristocratic culture embraced courtly love, wherein a knight devoted himself to an often unattainable lady. Religiously, western Europe was rocked by the rise of the Cistercians, committed to refocusing monasticism on community life characterized by love. Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), a French nobleman, made Clairvaux one of the most famous monasteries in Europe, advised popes and kings, promoted the Second Crusade, and opposed controversial theologies of the day. But today we remember most his writings describing the Christian journey to deeper love of God.

Bernard delivered sermons on the Song of Songs to his monks beginning in 1136—bold and passionate ones, especially for an audience of celibate men. One describes the spiritual life as a progression from the “kiss of the feet” (acknowledging our sinfulness), to the “kiss of the hand” (Christ’s grace enabling us to live the moral life), to the “kiss of the mouth” (spiritual intimacy, not with an unattainable lady, but with the attainable Christ).

Edwin Woodruff Tait, consulting editor, CH

Revelations of divine love

Medieval anchorites lived in austere cells attached to parish churches and took vows to spend their lives in solitude and prayer. The woman who lived next to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich abolished her original identity so completely that we know her only as Lady Julian of Norwich (1342–1416). A famous spiritual adviser in her own day—people traveled miles to see her—she left to posterity the Revelations of Divine Love (1395), a series of visions following a severe illness. 

One of her most memorable visions sums up her spirituality (literally) in a nutshell: the whole universe as “a little thing like a nut” held in the protecting and nurturing hand of God. She referred to Jesus as “mother,” not as a rejection of masculine language, but as a dramatic way to highlight his devoted love; she clearly struggled to reconcile hell with her belief that “all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

When modern “progressives” tell me that God is love, all they are saying is what their culture has taught. But when a medieval ascetic, shut up in a tiny cell, has lurid visions of the discolored body of Christ on the cross, and on the basis of those visions tells me that the self-giving, all-forgiving love of Jesus is the ultimate truth about the universe—then I dare to believe that it just might be true and all may indeed “be well.”—Edwin Woodruff Tait

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By various

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

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