9th Grade: Matter and Spirit in the Dark Ages

Greetings,

After our test on Rome we will begin to transition out of Roman civilization into the medieval world.  This transition will involve rebuilding civilization along a whole new foundation with a different view of reality and consequently, society.  Early next week we will examine the question of the relationship between the physical and spiritual reality, and to what extent (if any) they can be separated.

Can a physical thing be a spiritual thing at the same time?  Or vice-versa?

The modern west tends to view reality in binary form.  We have a spiritual world and a physical world and for the most part the two live separately and do not mingle.  But the medievals would answer the above question affirmatively, and for them the divide between the physical and spiritual had much less rigid separation.

As an entry point into their mindset, we might think of mankind itself.  We are physical and spiritual beings.  Our bodies and souls have a mutual relationship.  We cannot separate them, just as we cannot extract the sugar from the eggs in a cake mix once we mix them together.  We exist as physical and spiritual beings simultaneously.

Medieval people applied this concept to many other areas of theology and life in general.  The elements in the eucharist can be both the body and blood of Christ and bread and wine at the same time.  Certain physical places were holy and important to see on pilgrimages, which were spiritual journeys often undertaken barefoot.  God’s presence hallowed certain physical objects, and God used them in various ways.  The medievals called them relics, and some Biblical examples of this might be Moses’ staff, the cloaks of Elijah and Jesus, and Paul’s handkerchief (Acts 19:12).  The saints don’t reside “out there” so much as they dwell in the here and now as a cloud of witnesses.  The presence of God and the saints link Heaven and Earth and we should (according to early Church doctrine and practice) ask the saints to intercede for us in prayer, just as we ask those on Earth to pray for us.

These theological ideas did not stay purely in the spiritual life of Christians, but impacted the values and shape of society in unique ways.  As we might expect these theological ideas took some time to trickle down into society itself, but eventually we will see their impact when we examine feudalism.

This week we also looked at the chaos in Europe after Rome’s fall.  As the only transnational organized group, the Church inevitably ended up bearing the brunt of the load in bringing about the return of civilization.  At first glance, the proliferation of monasteries has little to do with the recovery of civilization.  But monasteries performed at least 3 crucial functions to aid civilization:

1. Geographical Stability

As this map indicates,

the 5th and 6th centuries saw a great deal of chaos.  Semi-nomadic barbarian tribes wandered and fought as they went.  At bare minimum, civilization needs a defined location upon which to build.  Monasteries provided that, not only be dedicating themselves to prayer, but also to agriculture.  Farmers have to stay put and establish roots to successfully grow crops.

2. Refugees

With barbarians on the move many lost their homes and families.  Monasteries often served as places of refuge to care for, or possibly even educate, thousands of unfortunates.

3. Manuscripts

Many of you, like me, grew up in a time when parents said something akin to, “If we ever have a fire the house, the first and only thing to grab is the photo album.”  As a kid, this never made sense to me.  How about grabbing the tv?  But my parents had the right idea.  Part of our identity means having a connection to the past and those around us.  We don’t just exist as individuals in the ‘now,’ we know who we are based at least in part on our connection to others.

Monks copied many manuscripts such as the Bible and Church fathers, but also other Latin texts from Rome’s past.  We owe a great deal of our ancient Latin literature today to monks from the 6th-10th centuries preserving and copying them.  These books, I think, helped enhance their collective cultural memories.  It helped them connect to a past, reminding them that not all was lost.

The prevalence of monasteries raises the question of what exactly civilizations build upon.  Many critics of the Church accused Christians of “dropping out” by going to monasteries.  This withdrawal showed a heart that did not care.

In his monumental work, The City of God, St. Augustine asks his audience what exactly makes civilization work (among other topics).  It is not, he argues, a good economy, a powerful military, or even a workable political system.  What makes civilization tick is an established pattern of interacting with others both within and without one’s borders.  These interactions get formed from our values, and our values come from what we worship.

Perhaps monasteries can be viewed as a civilizational act of faith, akin to tithing.  They declare that we put our roots in the worship of God, in prayer and in praise, and not in our economy, our military, etc.  Only after recognizing the source of all things can things be properly enjoyed and properly used.  Rome, like nearly every other civilization, mistakenly believed that enough power, enough effort, enough careful application of resources, could hold things together.  They put the cart before the horse.

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