Category Archives: Medieval Stuff

Early Medieval Reading and the Derivative Charge

I wrote this chunk of text this morning for the Cassiodorus books. It’s a work in progress. I don’t think it’s fully decided what argument it’s tackling and I have the feeling that it might be astride two related but different topics. In any case, I thought I’d float it out here…

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My middle-school aged daughter plays a literary game with her friends. One person will write a paragraph, then they will pass the paper along to the next person. They, then, write the next paragraph of the story before passing it to another. As young, undisciplined writers, each person often only brings their own ideas and preoccupations and ideas about what makes a story good or fun or funny. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long at all before the evolving story becomes quite silly! Characters appear and disappear at a whim and act with no consistent motives or plans. The attempted tale is usually a disjointed band of paragraphs whose unity is largely based in the fact that they occupy the same sheet of paper, not because of any true storyline or coherent idea.

On the other hand, I used to play that same game with some of my English-major friends in college. One would start with a paragraph and hand it off to the next—just as in the middle-school version. But what happened next would be quite different. A new paragraph would appear, yes, but its construction would arise from the paragraph before it and would interweave themes or structures or details from the previous paragraphs grounded in a knowledge of the previous allusions and intentions and based in a familiarity with the person passing round the page. Sophisticated narratives would arise within minutes as each person brought depth, insight, and an awareness of where the other people were coming from. Not simply a game, these could be experiences of surprising intimacy as we shared our own thoughts and sought to blend our own ideas and feelings with what had gone on the page before us.

The difference between the middle school version and the college version is intentionality, sensitivity, and skill. In both cases each subsequent author is building on the work that has come before. The middle school version usually disregards what has come before or engages it in a cursory fashion—the authors are usually more interested in shaping the story according to their own ideas and desires. The college version allows the plot to unfold as it will, and skillful authors will temper their desires to put their own mark on the story by discerning where the communal plot seems to be taking it, and permitting it to flower in that direction.

Early medieval scripture interpretation is often accused of being “derivative.” That is, it is simply copying that which came before, usually the works of the Church Fathers which are conventionally defined as the writers of the first 500 years. Sometimes the last of the western Church Fathers is identified as Gregory the Great, the reforming pope who died in 604. Others reckon the final Western Father as the Venerable Bede who died around 735.

Is this a fair charge? Well—there’s derivative and then there’s derivative… Some early medieval authors were little more than copyists. And before we dismiss copyists, we’ll remember again that the work of preserving the wisdom of former times was an essential activity in a time where the only books that would survive were those that got copied in the first place!  Others were editors. Yes, they might only have copied down the words of others, but they made intelligent decisions about what material to copy and for what purpose. A skillful digest or extract can preserve the genius of an earlier authors work in far less space particularly if that writer had a tendency to ramble. Cassiodorus recognized his contemporaries Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus in his own day as doing this kind of work. However, other early medieval interpreters had the skill and sensitivity to enter into the work of their earlier partners in reading. They communicated what they found there but also allowed the flowering of the plot line of holy Scripture that their predecessor had noticed.

Relegating early medieval interpretive work to the derivative bin is a modern judgment based on the modern condition. Merely communicating things that other people said is not necessary in our time and place. We can always go back to the original text or look it up on the Internet. There was no such luxury in the early medieval world.Communicating wise things that other people said will always have value. Identifying something profound and bringing it to the attention of others is an important work of communication. In the early medieval world, such work prevented wisdom from being lost when the destruction of written documents was a real danger. In the modern world, careful curation prevents wisdom from being drowned out in an environment of constant communication where the noise-to-signal ratio conspires to fill our ears with the static of frivolity or venality. But building intelligently off the work of our forebearers is just as essential now as it was then. In order to do this well, though, we must steep ourselves in the wisdom of our forebearers, test the wisdom against our own insight and our own repeated experiences of reading and prayer, and then allow the plot of holy Scripture to unfold and flower according to its ways, rather than attempting to force it in the direction we would have it go.

If the modern world accuses the early medieval of being derivative, the early medieval world would charge the modern with the error of novelty: that we are constantly coming up with something new simply for the sake doing something new. In our lust for the new and different, we frequently fail to take deep stock of what has come before us and to consider why some paths were taken and others avoided, which avenues will lead to human flourishing and the flourishing of our actual embodied communities rather than games that serve only for intellectual diversion. It’s the difference in attentiveness between the paragraphs of middle schoolers who can’t wait to put their own mark on a narrative rather than a more mature and substantial reflection to see where the plot is unfolding of its own accord.
When we look at early medieval writing, we have to see it against its own environment and understand the pressures that conspired against the handing on of wisdom. We must judge the works we have received with an awareness of the challenges of the time. But—more than that—studying these writings will attune us to that sensitivity of spirit that enters into the forebearers’ works and continue them rather than simply introducing novelty into the discussion for novelty’s own sake.

This is the struggle that faces us and—in truth—the task that I invite you into. As readers of the Scriptures, as interpreters in our own right, we will read better, clearer, deeper, when we learn how to do two things. First, we must learn to listen to our own voices as readers and interpreters, and trust our own abilities to hear with sensitivity the Word within the biblical text itself. We can be channels for the Holy Spirit and to fail to listen to our own interpretive voices may be an unintentional means of muffling the voice of the Spirit echoing within us. Second, we must engage the tradition we have inherited in such a way in order that our own insights will confirm, strengthen, and clarify the directions in which the plot of Scripture—the relationship between God and God’s people—is unfolding in our own places and times. Not coming up with something new for the heck of it or presenting a novel interpretation for its shock value and its ability to scandalize the faithful (a game in vogue in the twentieth-century academy), but building on the generations and generations of faithful witness before us for the enrichment of the whole Body of Christ.

Great Scholarly Anglo-Saxon Prayer Blog

I’ve mentioned before the work of Dr. Kate Thomas, currently at the University of York. She is a medievalist who works with topics like medicine, lived religion, and Anglo-Saxon lay and monastic devotion.

I just discovered that she has a (relatively) new blog called For the Wynn. If you like the kind of topics I frequently discuss here on early medieval spirituality (or that you find on Eleanor Parker’s A Clerk of Oxford [you are reading that and following her on Twitter, right?], you’ll definitely want to check it out!

Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, Dr. Thomas has a link to her excellent thesis about private prayer in the Anglo-Saxon period on her About page.

Advent

I hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving and a good start to Advent. I’ve got some posts in the works that are proceeding in fits and starts. Barring actual substance, then, here are some manuscript pictures!

Advent puts us in mind of the Second Coming and the judgement; suitably, here’s a rendition of the Last Judgement complete with the selected “sheep” at Christ’s right hand and the “goats” being led off by devils, all surmounted by Christ clearly displaying his five wounds from the Carrow Psalter (Walters, W.34 first discussed here):

The Last Judgement

Carrow Psalter f.30v

 

The kalendar page for December is pretty typical for a thirteenth-century kalendar, but does have some items to remark on. Here’s the full page:

Kalendar for December

Carrow Psalter, f.41v

Like most December kalendars, it’s rather spare since Advent was a penitential season. There are a couple of points to make on the feasts at the top of the page…

First feasts of December

Carrow Psalter f.41v detail

I’m at a loss concerning the bishop being celebrated on December 4th. I’d expect St. Osmund or St. Barabara here ordinarily; I’ll have to poke into this one a bit more… I was initially trying to read “Ambrose” here and we do have the “A”, an abbreviated m/n (that’s the line over top the “a”), and a likely “b”, but nothing else fits. And it’s on the wrong day. In any case, the note in red next to his name indicates that this is the last possible day for the first Sunday of Advent.

Nicholas and the Conception of the BVM get gold lettering; these are major feasts—I’d expect nine lessons and special propers. The Octave of St. Andrew falls between them.

A bit lower down, we see one of the liturgical entries that will survive into the first BCP:

Middle feasts of December

Carrow Psalter, f.41v detail

The entry on December 16th is the “O Sapientia” that signals the start of the O Antiphons. Again, note that the sequence begins on the 16th, not the 17th (the now standard Roman Catholic date) meaning that the Marian O Antiphon that we find in the Sarum tradition was likely included in the sequence used in this region. Of course, this makes me wonder how widely this usage was found. I should probably check some German, mid-French, and Italian souerces of similar date and compare…

Sarum Rite Material Update: The Risby Ordinal

If you are interested in historical English liturgy, then you ought to be checking for new material over on Dr. William Renwick’s Sarum Rite page on a regular basis. The number of sound files as well as text/music files are truly staggering.

One of the relatively new items definitely deserves a highlight. John Hackney has done a transcription of the revised Sarum old ordinal (the Risby Ordinal) found in BL Harley 1001.  As much as I love and respect W. H. Frere, his edition of this text was and is simply untenable. The work presented here is terrific and has a great set of footnotes accompanying it as well.

If medieval English liturgy is your thing, be sure to download it.

Floating along with St. Brendan

Now—in something completely unrelated to prayer book revision plans, I have a new post up at Godspace. This one is a musing around the concept of pilgrimage, and my way into it is a brief meditation on the Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. If you’ve not encuntered this text before, I’d urge you to do so. It’s quite fascinating. I have a feeling I will drill into it quite a bit deeper at some point in time.

But that time is not now.

Too many other plates in the air at the moment…

The Carrow Psalter: At the Beginning

It started out a grey and rather yucky day in Baltimore. I decided we needed some pretty pictures. So—here are some pretty pictures. They’re from the Carrow Psalter. It’s a psalter written in East Anglia, the Norfolk/Suffolk/Cambridgeshire area part of England that used to be the heartland of the old Danelaw. Written in the mid-thirteenth century, it appears at Carrow Abbey (near Norwich—still within East Anglia) at some point in its fairly early history. And, yes, this is abbey where Julian of Norwich was said to have received her training. (Indeed, if a certain expert on Julian wants to weigh in further, that would be much appreciated!) Could she have seen or even used this psalter? Who knows. I’d like to think so!

In addition to the Julian connection, I like this book because of one of the saints who figures prominently in it is St. Olaf. Here we’re likely seeing some of the old cultural connections from the Anglo-Scandinavian character of the Anglian area. It’s significant to me as I’m an alum of St. Olaf College.

Finally, I picked it because this book’s shelfmark is W. 34. The “W” signifies that it is one of the holdings of the Walters Art Museum, meaning that this book currently sits 1.7 miles away from my house…

Here’s the url linking to the full manuscript from the Digital Walters: W.34, Carrow Psalter.


PeterAndPaul

The psalter opens with this full page spread of Peter and Paul with facing collects. Following traditional iconography, Peter has the keys, Paul has a sword and is bald on top. The collects are relatively straightforward. The Early Church knew of the dust-up between the two described in Galatians 2, but the tradition describes them patching up their difficulties and the story is told of their joint martyrdom in Rome. Liturgically, the two are connected because whenever a feast of one was celebrated, the collect of the other was included as a commemoration immediately thereafter. That’s basically what we have here—the collect from the Chair of St Peter followed immediately by the commemoration of Paul.

BarnabasAndJohn

Here’s the next full page spread. If you can see up at the top above the figures, they are labelled St. Barnabas and John the Evangelist. However, if you look very carefully at the second collect, you may notice something odd. It mentions “gemini” (twins) and names both John and Paul (beatorum iohannis et pauli). Yeah—it’s the wrong John and Paul… Somehow the scribe has inserted the collect for the 4th century martyr brothers John and Paul who have an ancient titular church in Rome built over their tomb (which was also one of the “stations” where papal masses were held), and who are celebrated on June 26th. Not John the Evangelist.

After these two there are four more full-page spreads each having two saints—mostly apostles—and a collect. The sense you get is that the psalter begins with the 12 apostles (2 saints, 6 pages, sure, why not?). Except that Barnabas was a companion of Paul, not an apostle, and the last pair includes a very generic and surprisingly well-groomed John the Baptist. Luke’s list of disciples is being followed but we’re missing Philip and the second  James (and, of course, Judas Iscariot would round out the Twelve count but Paul is in his place. No Matthias either.)

So—there are some pretty pictures from interesting manuscript that raise a variety of questions! Hopefully we’ll dip back more into this psalter in the future.

 

A Treat for Alcuin’s Day

Happy feast of Alcuin!

Obligitory collect rant…

If you did Morning Prayer today according to the Episcopal scheme you probably saw this collect…:

Almighty God, who in a rude and barbarous age didst raise up thy deacon Alcuin to rekindle the light of learning: Illumine our minds, we pray thee, that amid the uncertainties and confusions of our own time we may show forth thy eternal truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

…which has to rank among my least favorites. “Rude and barbarous age”? Really? Here’s the one I’ve proposed in its place:

Almighty God, who didst raise up thy servant Alcuin as a beacon of learning: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that in our generation we may show forth thy praise, for thou didst call us out of darkness into thy marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Light remains the theme, but I think this one works a bit better than the other.

Ok—here’s an Alcuin-related treat for those of you with an interest in the early medieval stuff. Over the past month or so, I’ve been slowly working through this dissertation from the University of York: The Meaning, Practice and Context of Private Prayer in Late Anglo-Saxon England (PDF). Here’s the abstract:

This thesis is a detailed discussion of the relatively neglected subject of private prayer in late Anglo-Saxon England, mainly focusing on three eleventh-century monastic codices: the Galba Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton Nero A. ii + Galba A. xiv), Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii + xxvi) and the Portiforium of St Wulstan (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 391). Chapter One provides a background to the following chapters by introducing a wide variety of English and Continental texts from the ninth century. This chapter demonstrates the many different prayer genres, prayer guides and attitudes to prayer which would be inherited by the late Anglo-Saxons. Chapter Two, which focuses on private adaptations of the canonical Offices, examines the different manuscript contexts in which private prayers were found. It argues that series of prayers were combined into increasingly sophisticated ordines for personal devotion, and that it was from these that the Special Offices arose. Chapter Three applies these concepts to prayers to the Holy Cross. After a discussion of the evidence for prayer before a cross, and involving the sign of the cross, it examines private prayer programmes based on the liturgy for Good Friday and those from which the Special Office of the Cross developed. Chapter Four turns to private confessions, arguing that these prayers were somewhat different from those hitherto discussed. It therefore begins with an exploration of the many kinds of confession which existed in the late Anglo-Saxon church, before examining a number of private confessional prayers in detail. Throughout this thesis, emphasis is placed on the bodily experience of prayer in its time and place, and upon the use of each text as it is found in the prayerbooks of eleventh-century England.

Alcuin is a major figure in the first two chapters. Alcuin’s letters speak quite a bit about private prayer in connection with the psalms, and the thesis investigates a major treatise attributed to Alcuin, De laude psalmorum.

I’ll be writing more about this thesis and the material it works with in the future, but if you have the time and interest, I highly recommend it!

On the Collect for the Departed

A whole bunch of things are swirling around in my brain around the dead, saints, and theology thanks to discussions about the SCLM report, the talks I’m going to be doing in Atlanta next weekend (more on this in a little bit!), and the latest edition of the Collect Call which focused on the collect for the Departed.  If you’re not listening to the Collect Call and/or recommending it to your parishioners, you really ought to be. Brendan and Holli do a great job of looking at the collects and discussing the theology in them in a very accessible way. A few points, some in response to the episode, others that I just think need to be said…

1. Baptismal Ecclesiology!!

I don’t like it when certain liturgical, biblical, or theological phrases are co-opted by church politics and their functional meaning is reduced to address a very specific issue. I’ve often said that I fear this is the case with the phrase “baptismal ecclesiology.” A plain and literal meaning of this phrase means that we are talking about Church as it is fundamentally and uniquely formed by Baptism and the necessary and inherent corollaries of that fact. The way that it tends to get used in church talk, though, is to indicate either a construct of the church as a non-hierarchical institution (oddly, this perspective seems to be insisted upon by certain priests and leaders who impose it in a hierarchical kind of way…) or following the catch-phrase for Integrity “all the sacraments for all the baptized” promoting the full inclusion of lgbt folks in the life of the church.

Now, personally, while I totally support the roles of bishops, priests, and deacons and acknowledge an inherent hierarchy there, I am for a less hierarchical practice of being church. As I was saying to a clergy friend on Facebook, as a layman I do get tired of “clergysplaining”—when someone dismisses me on the basis that they wear a collar and I don’t. Also, I do support the full inclusion of lgbt folks in the church. However, the apparent attempt to reduce the term “baptismal ecclesiology” to these two specific referrents drives me crazy.

If we say that we are interested in and care about a true baptismal ecclesiology, then it means thinking through all of the various aspects of what that means—and that was one of my big beefs with Holy Women, Holy Men. This collect gets it exactly right:

Eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life: Give to your whole Church in paradise and on earth your light and your peace; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have served you here and are now at rest, may at the last enter with them into your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This is precisely an expression of baptismal ecclesiology! The church consists of all the baptized, not just the-baptized-who-happen-to-be-bodily-living-right-now. This is part of why getting our theology of sanctity and saints right is important! All souls who have been baptized are, in the words of Colossians, “hid with Christ in God” and are plugged into the life of God in a greater and grander way than before. The physically dead still remain part of our community—which is the entire logic of church-yard cemetaries.

We need to be thinking and talking about baptismal ecclesiology in its broader sense and not just allow it to be narrowed for use as political language.

2. When to Use This Collect

The collects for Various Occasions grew out of the old notion of votive masses. Briefly, with a multiplication of priests who were each bound to say a daily mass, early medieval monasteries and cathedrals needed something else to celebrate other than the Mass of the Day from the Temporal cycle as that mass could only be celebrated once. The solution was votives. Masses were said for particular intentions and a standard weekly pattern evolved:

John Beleth in the thirteenth century describes a series of votive Masses once said (fuit quoddam tempus) each day in the week: on Sunday, of the Holy Trinity; Monday, for charity; Tuesday, for wisdom; Wednesday, of the Holy Ghost; Thursday, of the Angels; Friday, of the Cross; Saturday, of the Blessed Virgin (Explic. div. offic., 51).  (Ibid.)

These changed over the centuries as certain causes and personages waxed and waned in the church’s favor. However, take a look at these and then at the first several items appointed for Various Occasions: “Of the Holy Trinity,” “Of the Holy Spirit,” “Of the Holy Angels,” “Of the Holy Cross,” etc. Coincidence? No.

One of the most common votives throughout history in the Christian West was the Requiem—the Mass for the Dead. It was said for a particular person on the day they died, the third day after they died (in token of the resurrection), then on the anniversaries: the week (7 days later), the month (30 days later), and then yearly from then on. In some times and places, the Mass for the Dead for the community (rather than for a specific individual) was said on any ferial day. In some places, the pratice was to do a solemn Requiem for the whole community on the first Friday of every month. Some priests were paid stipends in wills to say daily Masses of the Dead for wealthy benefactors.

Most modern Christians tend to look askance at these sorts of practices, and—partly due to Reformation polemics—tend to see the last practice of bequeathing masses as a bald tactic by the Church for diverting the fortunes of the faithful into their coffers. I’m not saying that there isn’t truth to this critique, but I also have to point out that, due in part to this focus, the medieval church had a far better sense of the expanse of a baptismally-shaped church than we do!

In addition, the Offices for the Dead were supplemental versions of the Office prayed in addition to the regular hours on behalf of the dead. In some places, these offices were done at particular set times, in others it was done every day. Again, thinking of late medieval wills, some of the wealthy set aside money to be paid out to poor men who would pray the Office of the Dead daily for them.

This constant prayer for the dead generally and specific dead individuals helped retain a sense of community through time, seeing the living and the dead in close communion. If we were serious about a baptismal ecclesiology, this might be a practice worth considering. Hence, I include both the Traditional form and a Contemporary form of the Offices of the Dead at the St. Bede’s Breviary. Note that the aforementioned collect is the one used in these offices.

3. No Prayers for the Dead in “I Will Bless You…”

Huh… I hadn’t realized that. I’ll have to poke around and find out what’s up with this.

 

 

Reading Matthew with Monks: Physical Edition!

When M, the girls and I got back from the Boston Marathon late last night, there was a slip indicating that a package was waiting for me at my neighbor’s house. After taking the girls to school this morning, I went by and collected it. And here’s what it contained:

IMG_20150422_121307_kindlephoto-711982728

Fifteen copies of my first full-length single-authored book!

As a few of you may remember, I originally started this blog ten years ago to provide an outlet for both thoughts and distractions while working away at my dissertation. That process finished in 2009 with my defense, and then officially with my graduation in 2011. Now, that work is being made public in (hopefully) a more accessible form than than the dissertation in this handsome publication from Liturgical Press.

I’m ecstatic that this work is finally here, and the fact that it is exists is, naturally, the result of a lot of patience and prodding from both my wonderful wife and also my incredible dissertation director who was kind enough to write the Foreword for the book.

I’ll have more to say about it later, most likely, but I’ll leave you here with the Table of Contents:

  • Introduction (Introductions to Hermeneutics, Reading Cultures, and Ælfric)
  • Chapter 1: How Monastic Living Shaped Reading
  • Chapter 2: How Monastic Praying Shaped Reading
  • Chapter 3: The Temptation and the Beatitudes (Ælfric’s sermons on Matt 4 and 5 put into context and placed in conversation with modern commentators)
  • Chapter 4: Two Healings and the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens (Ælfric’s sermons on Matt 8 and 25 put into context and placed in conversation with modern commentators)
  • Conclusion: Bringing Early Medieval Voices into the Conversation
  • Chapter 4:

It had been showing in a “pre-order” state on its page on Amazon; now it says “Temporarily out of stock.” In any case, it exists now in physical form!

IMG_20150422_121425_kindlephoto-711159151

Drifting Thoughts

  • I think modern Christianity simply doesn’t get “allegorical” interpretation as practiced by the Church Fathers & Mothers and their early medieval interpetive heirs. At its heart, allegorial/spiritual/mystical (the last two were the terms they most frequently used of their own activities…) is an intellectually engaged form of spiritual play. It’s a game—but a reverent, thoughtful one. Spiritual Sudoku. A couple of passages here from Augustine that ground this for me:

7. But hasty and careless readers are led astray by many and manifold obscurities and ambiguities, substituting one meaning for another; and in some places they cannot hit upon even a fair interpretation. Some of the expressions are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness. And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty. For why is it, I ask, that if any one says that there are holy and just men whose life and conversation the Church of Christ uses as a means of redeeming those who come to it from all kinds of superstitions, and making them through their imitation of good men members of its own body; men who, as good and true servants of God, have come to the baptismal font laying down the burdens of the world, and who rising thence do, through the implanting of the Holy Spirit, yield the fruit of a two-fold love, a love, that is, of God and their neighbor—how is it, I say, that if a man says this, he does not please his hearer so much as when he draws the same meaning from that passage in Canticles, where it is said of the Church, when it is being praised under the figure of a beautiful woman, Your teeth are like a flock of sheep that are shorn which came up from the washing, whereof every one bears twins, and none is barren among them? Song of Songs 4:2 Does the hearer learn anything more than when he listens to the same thought expressed in the plainest language, without the help of this figure? And yet, I don’t know why, I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burthens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love, and none among them barren in that holy fruit.

8. But why I view them with greater delight under that aspect than if no such figure were drawn from the sacred books, though the fact would remain the same and the knowledge the same, is another question, and one very difficult to answer. Nobody, however, has any doubt about the facts, both that it is pleasanter in some cases to have knowledge communicated through figures, and that what is attended with difficulty in the seeking gives greater pleasure in the finding.— For those who seek but do not find suffer from hunger. Those, again, who do not seek at all because they have what they require just beside them often grow languid from satiety. Now weakness from either of these causes is to be avoided. Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite. For almost nothing is dug out of those obscure passages which may not be found set forth in the plainest language elsewhere. (Augustine, On Christian Teaching 2.6.7-8; copied from New Advent’s edition)

14. In all these books those who fear God and are of a meek and pious disposition seek the will of God. And in pursuing this search the first rule to be observed is, as I said, to know these books, if not yet with the understanding, still to read them so as to commit them to memory, or at least so as not to remain wholly ignorant of them. Next, those matters that are plainly laid down in them, whether rules of life or rules of faith, are to be searched into more carefully and more diligently; and the more of these a man discovers, the more capacious does his understanding become. For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life—to wit, hope and love, of which I have spoken in the previous book. After this, when we have made ourselves to a certain extent familiar with the language of Scripture, we may proceed to open up and investigate the obscure passages, and in doing so draw examples from the plainer expressions to throw light upon the more obscure, and use the evidence of passages about which there is no doubt to remove all hesitation in regard to the doubtful passages. And in this matter memory counts for a great deal; but if the memory be defective, no rules can supply the want. (Augustine, On Christian Teaching 2.9.14; copied from New Advent’s edition)

For Augustine, the interpretation of obscure parts of Scripture is about pleasure and delight—that’s the language he’s using here. The thrill of intellectual discovery comes when you figure out the puzzle. Have you learned something you didn’t know before? Well, no—not as he sees. it. The obscurities teach nothing that isn’t already said plainly; but it’s a lot more fun to find it in the obscurities!

The other key thing here is the place of memory. Read so as to memorize, and then you can ruminate on those passages that are obscure to you (or, sometimes, that you choose to treat as obscure even if they may have some easier referents…). Spiritual readings are the result of a lengthy process of mental mastication; you have to chew on them for a long time with great attention to detail.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic, particularly with regard to the aims and boundaries of interpretation—i.e., keeping readings on track and what constitute valid and invalid spiritual readings, that I won’t get into except to note that Augustine explicitly orients all good reading on an axis of either 1) promoting charity or 2) restraining vice and that he envisions it within a community of practice bounded by worship: the creeds and sacraments are the ultimate controls.

  • I’ve seen a number of references on Facebook and elsewhere to a Guardian piece on Matthew Crawford that you should definitely read if you haven’t already.   The key pull-quote here is: “Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind.” When I read this, my mind jumped immediately to John Cassian’s Institutes. In his treatment of the eight principal vices and the corresponding virtues, he starts with Gluttony. I’ve been struck by this. Gluttony is one of the sins this least discussed yet most openly practiced by Western consumer culture. While Cassian tends to speak of it in the literal sense with regard to fasting and such, I read it in the broader sense to include all forms of unnecessary consumption. Yes, some consumption is necessary for life—this isn’t gluttony. Gluttony, the vice, is when consumption occurs for its own sake or for a purpose other than the legitimate needs of the corpus (whether individual or communal). I haven’t thought through this yet, but my subconscious informs me that there’s a deep link between what Crawford is saying about distraction and the spiritual ill that is Gluttony.
  • I saw a great image on Twitter today that I had to retweet. https://twitter.com/NCS_Chaucer/status/573905286424961024/photo/1 First, I love this page, its type, and layout! This is from 1896 and I see it in line with the whole pre-Raphaelite/Arts & Crafts/Morris movement that has ties into Victorian medievalism that buoyed catholic sensibilities in the C of E as well as the graphic arts. I can’t see this page without finding in it a great debt to the late medieval Books of Hours tradition. Again—it makes one think…