The night Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies may be the one time that the church was one.
My mother’s favorite chapter in the Bible was the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus in John 17. This chapter is a prayer of Jesus that believers may share the kind of love and unity that he shares with the Father. “May they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
There is a sorry irony about John 17, however, for if it is a chapter we Christians love, it is surely one we fail to emulate. Among the least attractive aspects of Christianity is the divisiveness woven into the warp of church history. Worse yet, many church divisions occur for reasons that, at least in the judgment of later generations, seem petty rather than substantive. It is tempting to conclude that Christians don’t take Jesus’ prayer seriously. I don’t believe that is the case. Most Christians, I think, take the prayer seriously, and probably even pray for its implementation.
In my judgment, our failure is rooted in two other factors. First, I think we take “May they all be one” to mean “may they all be like us.” If I constitute the epicenter of the Kingdom of God on earth, and others are not like me, then they are obviously not at the epicenter, and maybe not even be in the circle of faith. We make ourselves rather than Jesus the measure of unity.
Second, I think we assume “May they all be one” should be understood formally— uniformity on things like church order, liturgy, polity, and so forth—rather than confessionally, i.e., unity on the essential elements of faith.
There are endless mutations of traditions, divisions, factions, and experimentations in church history, but has there ever been a time when the church was united, truly one? I am aware of an extraordinary moment when deep divisions and distrust were, if not overcome, set aside for a worship service in which it can be said that the church was finally—perhaps for the last time—united.
Happy 400th anniversary of not-quite-a-milestone in science!
I’ve got to admit: Google’s Galileo logo on Tuesday was pretty cool. The site explained that it celebrating the “400th Anniversary of Galileo's First Telescope.”
Well, that’s accurate in its generality if not in the specifics. On August 25, 1609, Galileo first demonstrated his “spyglass” to officials in Venice. He apparently created it sometime earlier.
Yes, that's an annoying nitpick that completely misses the point of the celebration. Let's call Google close enough. But far less accurate are many of the other big “facts” that went through people’s minds when they heard of the anniversary this week.
1. Galileo invented the telescope.
No. Others had figured out that if you put two lenses together you could see distant objects. Dutch lensmaker Hans Lipperhey applied for a patent in 1608. Galileo’s was better. But it wasn’t his first. As he :
About ten months ago a report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass by means of which visible objects, though very distant from the eye of the observer, were distinctly seen as if nearby. [The report] caused me to apply myself wholeheartedly to inquire into the means by which I might arrive at the invention of a similar instrument. This I did shortly afterwards, my basis being the theory of refraction. First I prepared a tube of lead, at the ends of which I fitted two glass lenses, both plane on one side while on the other side was one spherically convex and the other concave. Then placing my eye near the concave lens I perceived objects satisfactorily large and near, for they appeared three times closer and nine times larger than when seen with the naked eye alone. Next I constructed another one, more accurate, which represented objects as enlarged more than sixty times. Finally, sparing neither labor nor expense, I succeeded in constructing for myself so excellent an instrument that objects seen by means of it appeared nearly one thousand times larger and over thirty times closer than when regarded with our natural vision.
Well, eventually, anyway. National Geographic describes the version that Galileo took to the Venetian leaders like this: “Made of wood and leather, Galileo's telescope had eight-times magnification, a convex main lens, and a concave eyepiece that—unlike other telescopes of the period—presented the image the right way up.”
By the way, the word telescope wasn’t used until 1611.
Where shaving was accompanied by psalm-singing and bloodletting was more frequent than bathing.
Last week was a good one: we spent it at our friends' Wisconsin cabin, enjoying swimming, boating, fishing, tubing, and even a close encounter with a bald eagle.
What made the week even better was the book I took with me to relax with on the dock as our kids swam. This was Christopher Brooke's The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist/HiddenSpring, 2003).* A few samples:
The razors for shaving were kept by one of the monks under the chamberlain's jurisdiction, locked in a box in the cloister near the door to the dormitory. At the appointed time he organized a group of monks in two rows in the cloister, one row to shave, the other to be shaven, and the task was performed to the accompaniment of a psalm. (79)
"â€˜As to our baths,'" says a chronicler, "â€˜there is not much that we can say, for we only bath twice a year, before Christmas and before Easter.'" (79)
Once a month or so all the monks had a blood-letting and a holiday, when they could enjoy the less arduous, more relaxed routine of the infirmary, where meat might be eaten and a briefer round of services attended. (80)
In every large community the fishponds were vital, providing some relief from the salt fish that seems to have played a heavy role in the monastic diet. (81)
How to excavate a usable medieval past.
Well, I promised to report back on the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies, and so I will, at least for a moment before turning to another set of lenses on a "usable medieval past."
In a word, the congress was overwhelming. With over 3,000 scholars and over 600 sessions (averaging 3+ papers each) stuffed into a few days, many of them on topics very esoteric and technical, my head was swimming. Navigating the sessions became an exercise in close reading and careful exegesis of the program-book. Fortunately, more often than not I did manage to hit pay-dirt.
I attended sessions on everything from pleasure in medieval scholarship (turned out to be heavily laden with queer theory--didn't know that from reading the program book) to the Cistercians Aelred of Rievaulx and Bernard of Clairvaux.
If we move beyond a piecemeal approach to medieval Christianity, we can mine the rich vein of its spiritual, intellectual, and practical resources.
This weekend I am attending the 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. This is the largest and most prestigious international gathering for medievalist scholars, convening over 3,000 scholars in over 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops, and performances.
Frankly, though I am no medievalist, just thinking about being there is making me drool.
What's an American church history geek doing attending a meeting that will feature hundreds of highly technical papers in a field I hardly know, based on texts in languages I've never learned - Latin, Old English, Old Norse?
Maybe it's the new monastics' fault.
Wrinkle cream becomes the latest in a long, long line of products sold to support monastic communities.
A tiny band of Teresian Carmelites in Massachusetts made the news recently with an unusual business plan: to sell a high-end wrinkle reducer online. "My first thought was, ?What are people going to think about nuns and monks making cream for your face?'" Sister Nancy Connors told AP reporter Stephanie Reitz. "But it's a good product, I use it every day and I believe it will help people."
Though the before and after photos on the website are impressive, there's nothing particularly miraculous about the cream's origins. Several years ago, scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School stumbled across a substance in human hearts that happens to revitalize the skin. A friendship between one scientist's wife and the monk on the other end of the monastery's prayer line led, eventually, to the business partnership. The cream is exclusively promoted on the monastery's website, alongside offers for Spiritual Enrollments and Adopt-A-Carmelite.
Contemplation and commerce have existed side-by-side since the beginnings of monasticism.
My own views would have been terribly out of step in the church's earliest centuries.
I've been working on a cover story for Christianity Today on the spirituality of travel. In any investigation into what the church has historically taught about travel, there's one subject that absolutely unavoidablesomething that's pretty disturbing to a committed Protestant like me.
Most of my queasiness, I think, is purely theological. I'm pretty much with Calvin in his critique that
the first abuse, and, as it were, beginning of the evil, was, that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory. ... It is of no use to discuss the point whether it is right or wrong to have relics merely to keep them as precious objects without worshiping them, because experience proves that this is never the case.
But part of me, honestly, is also simply put off by the notion of getting close to dead body parts. I'm a queasy man by nature.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I read a church father's defense of relics that acknowledged that dead bodies are indeed repulsive. Interestingly, he found this as evidence of why relics were so holy. Everyone is turned off by dead bodies, he said. But every year we have these huge celebrations of the martyr, with his remains on display, and no one is the slightest bit disturbed. Something holy must be going on, he concluded.
I wasn't sold, but I did enjoy a bit of my reporting rabbit trail trying to understand why the early church was so nearly unanimous in their support for the cult of relics.
Christians were by no means the first people to honor the bones of their fallen. The Old Testament tells of Moses taking the bones of Joseph out of Egypt. (Hebrews 11 places Joseph's directive on this point among the great faith acts of history.) 2 Kings tells of an unnamed dead man hastily thrown into the grave of the prophet Elisha who immediately "revived and stood on his feet" upon touching the holy bones.
And in the early church, the martyrs were at the top of the holiness list. Revelation, after all, told that those "beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God ? will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years."
Writing around A.D. 200, Tertullian famously claimed "the blood of the martyrs is seed [for the church]." Whether he meant it as metaphor or not, the literal blood of the martyrs was precious, with Christians sometimes mopping up martyrs' blood with their own clothes. After Polycarp was killed in A.D. 156, his church circulated a letter about his martyrdom:
This headline seems to fall in the "man bites dog" category. From a professor (also dean and VP) of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, we expect precise articulations of Reformed doctrine. Defenses of biblical inerrancy. Disquisitions on the priority of theology over experience.
We don't expect a spirited exhortation to read thousand-year-old mystical texts.
But that's just what we get in Carl Trueman's article Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics. And it's worth reading - whether you share Trueman's Reformed stance or not. In a nutshell, after acknowledging difficulties, he enumerates four reasons we should read such luminaries of the Middle Ages as Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. For those wanting to cut to the chase, here's my brief commentary on Trueman's article.