I encountered Hero (full name: Hero Jarvis) in a Regency-era mystery, When Falcons Fall, by C. S. Harris. Hero and her husband, Sebastian St. Cyr, have the following conversation while looking at the ruins of the (fictional) Benedictine priory of St. Hilary in England. Hero begins the dialogue:
“What I wouldn’t give to have seen it before Good Ole King Henry got his greedy hands on it.”
“You mean, back when it was still crawling with smelly monks who delighted in burning witches and heretics and thought women the spawn of Satan?”
She laughed. “Yes. Then.”
This passage reads a bit like an archaeological dig that unearths layer upon layer of history. Here I am in the twenty-first century, reading a novel set in the early nineteenth century. In the novel, one character refers to the sixteenth century (the Dissolution of the Monasteries), and another counters with a reference to preceding centuries (the smelly monks of the Middle Ages). The last two references deal with the history of Christianity in particular.
I laughed alongside Hero when I read the passage. In its dig through history, I found a well-intentioned dig at some of my most cherished beliefs. People who know me know that I love the era of the smelly monks. This period defines my ministry as a writer and speaker in spiritual formation. I regularly invoke the wisdom of the Middle Ages—including those monks Sebastian mentioned—to guide our walk of faith today. Medieval Christians believed their world to be in intimate connection with God; unlike us, they saw no division between the sacred and the secular. I’m convinced that such a worldview can help us become better attuned to the presence of the divine in our own lives. For me, the medieval approach to faith and spirituality is so formative that I can’t imagine doing Christianity without it. I see the world through rose window-colored glasses.
I’m not above chuckling at my rather myopic view of history. And so, reading When Falcons Fall, I was grateful to Hero and Sebastian for helping me to laugh at my unbridled enthusiasm for the medieval era. I need the reminder that all those monks I have a crush on were just a bunch of smelly humans.
The novel’s passage reminds me that these spiritual forebears stank in other ways, too. Sebastian’s remark about monks is meant to be humorous, but it also made me wince. Could it be true that the communion of saints I champion includes monks who were not only smelly but also misogynistic heretic- and witch-burners? Well, yes.
Those rose window-colored glasses of mine have smudges on them.
I struggle, in my ministry, to come to terms with the underside of history. A case in point is my regard for the women mystics of the Middle Ages. I enjoy pointing people to the work of lesser-known mystics such as the French beguine Marguerite Porete (ca. 1250-1310). In fact, Porete’s mystical treatise, The Mirror of Simple Souls, contains one of my favorite prologues of all time, notable for its audacious call for humility:
Theologians and other clerks,
You will not have the intellect for [this book],
No matter how brilliant your abilities,
If you do not proceed humbly.
And may Love and Faith, together,
Cause you to rise above Reason,
[Since] they are the ladies of the house.
In her treatise, Porete goes on to talk about the human will becoming united with God’s will through love. But Porete didn’t get the humility she requested. Not only were her books burned; she herself was burned at the stake for heresy in 1310. Her fate becomes even more tragic when considering the fact that scholars remain uncertain why Porete was accused of heresy when similar figures, such as Catherine of Siena, were not.
On several occasions, I’ve quoted Marguerite Porete without calling attention to her fate. Perhaps that is understandable in short-form discussions on social media. But I know that I can’t simply pluck Marguerite out of her circumstances, as much as I would sometimes like to do. She comes wrapped in a package called the Middle Ages. The medieval era produced the culture that gave us her writings and that also burned her at the stake. I don’t get one without the other.
Dipping into Marguerite Porete’s story and others like it, I wade through a sea of contradictions. History is beautiful. It is terrible. It inspires me. It causes me to doubt. I should study it more. I should give it up. That last set of contradictions makes me pause. Some Christians, including respected seminarians and spiritual writers, have counseled me to leave the history of the Church behind. Way too much baggage to make it worthwhile, they say.
But if that were the case, I’d also have to give up on my faith, which, to be honest, is just as cumbersome. How many times have I said one thing and done another? How often have I cried, “I do believe; help my unbelief?” In my life, the kingdom of God is very much a “now and not yet” affair.
Professing history is as messy as professing faith. Both require me to embrace a sometimes unbearable tension. When I examine my faith, I see mostly a desperate need for God. Similarly, when I excavate the Middle Ages, I see both grace and the need for grace. Alongside my delight in figures like Marguerite Porete comes grief at the way they came to an end.
That’s why the fictional Hero is a kind of hero to me. She’s my alter ego, someone who is learning to accept the grief along with the grace. She helps me scrub off some of the tint on my rose window-colored glasses and get a clearer view of the past. My beloved Middle Ages, like history in general, is hardly an unending string of heroes; it’s the story of people occasionally getting things right despite the mess their world is in.
And when medieval folks get things right, it is glorious. Monks and mystics can point us to the divine presence in our life and help us, as Marguerite Porete tried to do, get closer to God. When the medievals get it wrong (sometimes dreadfully wrong), it leads to grief and lament, which are also key parts of Christian faith and ministry. The underside of history helps us to acknowledge that all of history yearns for the kingdom of God. The story of humanity will be a tale of the now and not yet until the day God ends that tension by proclaiming, “Right this very second!” I can’t give up on history any more than I can let go of my own struggle for faith.
For a clear view of God I’ll have to wait for new specs in heaven. In the meantime, I’ll keep learning from those smelly monks, trying to get a glimpse of the kingdom through all the smudges.