Conveying Psalm Commentary?

Ok, y’all—I need your help…

As I’ve been saying, I’m working on this book on the Psalm commentary of Cassiodorus. Right now I’m wrestling with how to present the way that he structures his commentary and give readers a sense of the experience of reading his commentary. He goes about things in a very novel way (especially for an early medieval exegete!) in that he has a four-part structure that he always uses: an introduction that discusses the superscription, then a breakdown of the psalm into its divisions (often grouped by speaker), then a phrase-by-phrase analysis (which is all that most typical patristic/early medieval exegetes do), then a summary that often underscores a moral or doctrinal point.

In particular, I want to make sure that readers get a flavor of the phrase-by-phrase process, but—honestly—I think people are only going to want a limited taste of this stuff. I’m intending to do a fairly close reading/exposition of five or six psalms to convey a complete sense of what he’s doing. Right now I’m trying to gauge how in-depth to go on each one.

So, I could do this a couple of ways. The one I’m leaning towards is to take a “representative” psalm and do a really thorough breakdown of it in excruciating detail to give my readers a sense of how he does what he does. Then, when I discuss other psalms just do a summary of the main points. However, another option would be to do something like that but also to include a chart on the 5-6 psalms that show what he’s doing with each phrase and then the narrative summary.

What do you think—do the extra psalm structure charts/outlines sound like overkill or a helpful way to grasp this rather alien reading strategy to modern lay readers?

Posted in Patristics, Psalms | Tagged | 8 Comments

The Famous or the Holy?

The editing work is done on A Great Cloud of Witness (hence AGCW) and it is off getting printed. I believe it will be available from Church Publishing next month. Once again, the Official Calendar of the Episcopal Church is Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2006. AGCW has no official standing in the Church. It is merely a devotional resource that can be used or not as a person or parish wills. It is incorrect and misleading to say “Today the Church celebrates…” referencing contents of AGCW. And yet, it is still under discussion within the SCLM as we try to work through what an Episcopal Calendar is and is for.

I have ranted before that the post-Vatican II reworking of the “new” Book of Common Prayer give us in some places—like the Calendar—the appearance of catholicity but without the substance. No where is this more obvious to me than the Calendar. What we have in the Calendar section looks like a sanctoral kalendar, and there are many who use it that way. However, the broad majority of the Episcopal Church does not interact with or utilize the Calendar as a sanctoral kalendar in the Catholic fashion.

Now—clearly—I don’t know the mind of the whole church. What I’m going by here are recent debates I’ve had over individuals in the Calendar and applications—formal or informal—for additions to the Calendar.

I was having a discussion with one senior clergyman formerly on the SCLM over John Calvin (May 28th in AGCW). The most telling moment was when he responded to one of my queries with “I don’t care if people don’t like him—he’s important!”

I’m currently in discussions with a liaison from my diocese to include Origen of Alexandria into one of our calendrical lists. The case being put forward recognizes that Origen was a very important early Christian figure and theologian who has been unfairly treated over the centuries and who deserves to receive his due. I’m largely sympathetic here. Origen got dragged into a complicated tangle of theological and personality conflicts a couple of centuries after his death and was judged as a result of how that played out. De Lubac is absolutely right on the importance of Origen to Christian spirituality and especially Origen being at the heart of most renewals of monastic/ascetic theology.

Not to pick on anyone, but a comment here exemplifies the logic that I’m seeing—wondering about Stephen Langton who gets the credit for the modern scheme of chapter divisions that we use in our modern Bibles.

Do we select individuals because they are “important” or because we think or hope that they should be “famous” or do we select them because they are holy? (And what is or should be the relationship between the two?) And that—right there—is what I would point to as the difference between a catholic perspective on the kalendar versus a protestant one.

I believe that a catholic perspective looks on the names in the kalendar chiefly as examples of lives living out Christian maturity, exemplifying the sacramental path of discipleship. These are our very present fellow members of the Body of Christ who strengthen us with their prayers now and who give us direction and encouragement by their lives and how they participated within the mysteries of Christ. Holiness therefore is the primary consideration and criterion.

A protestant perspective identifies the people who church folk should know. The folks we want to be famous (whether they are currently or not). Importance is therefore the primary consideration and criterion.

So—what is it that we have? Or, what is it that we think we have? Honestly, I think that our first efforts towards the Calendar that we currently have reflect a confusion on this point. Take a look at these two paragraphs. They come from Prayer Book Studies IX (1957), the first published work on the Calendar as the SLC considered revising things…

The choice of commemorations in the proposed Calendar of this Study has been made primarily on the basis of selecting men and women of outstanding holiness, heroism, and teaching in the cause of Christ, whose lives and deaths have been a continuing, conscious influence upon the on-going life of the Church in notable and well-recognized ways. There are included martyrs, theologians, statesmen, missionaries, reformers, mystics, and exemplars of prayer and charitable service. In every instance, care has been taken to list persons whose life and work are capable of interpretation in terms morally and spiritually edifying to the Church of our own generation.

In the list of primary criteria, holiness receives top billing. Importance is in here—as to some degree it must—but the ranking places holiness over importance.

The next page, though, has this:

It has often been remarked that the Prayer Book provides the parish priest with an excellent teaching manual for the study of the Bible, the doctrines and ethics of the Church, and, of course, the principles and practices of worship and prayer. It has lacked but one thing, an adequate instrument for teaching the history of the Church. The present proposal should do much to meet this need. With the names on this Calendar arranged in a historical, or topical order, the parish priest or teacher will have a convenient guide and outline of Church History from its beginnings to the present time. Such a study should greatly reinforce the other teachings of the Prayer Book, as they are exemplified in the lives of the saints.

This is fundamentally an argument for importance. This is Calendar as tool for catechesis, not tool for mystagogy. This is a tool for teaching dates and individuals, not for presenting paths of holiness. What if this paragraph had been written differently to say something like this:

The Prayer Book contains liturgies and provides directions for the worship of the Church. It provides texts for the Church’s daily praise of God and for the celebration of the sacraments as the God-given means of grace. However, what it did not contain up until this point is how this pattern of worship creates and molds lives that are lived primarily outside of churches. The Calendar that we present here teaches Church doctrine and sacramental theology by the ways that these people lived out their lives in the world, conforming their hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies to the call to die daily to self, to daily take up the cross, and follow Christ.

Now that would be Calendar as mystagogy rather than Calendar for catechesis. But that’s not what we got, and that’s not how we see it now.

When I was faced with the dilemma of the Calendar, I saw a cross-road with two major choices. First, try to change the perspective of the Episcopal Church to understand the Calendar as a mystagogical tool first. Second, meet the Church where it was but try to direct it towards what I understand to be the more complete understanding. AGCW goes the second route. It foregrounds the important and significant but also states quite clearly that it is not and is not intended to be a sanctoral kalendar. It embraces the catechetical role. Had it been approved, it would have much more clearly put the responsibility for sanctoral recognition and use at the local level, not the Church-wide level. But it wasn’t. And now we need to figure out where to go next…

Posted in Anglican, Saints | 6 Comments

Thinking about Saints on Kalendars

When I was a pious young Lutheran lad, some elderly person at our church gave away their library piece-meal. They’d leave books on a table to be picked through and taken by anyone who wanted them. Through this means, my parents inherited a whole bunch of books that they likely never expected to have…

One of the treasures that I scavenged was The Lives of the Saints by Omer Englebert, a work that fed into my growing interest in the medieval Church and pre-Lutheran Christianity that would eventually take me down the Canterbury Trail. Organized by day, this book introduced me to a whole host of figures I had never heard of who lived in ways that were utterly unfamiliar to a 20th century suburban protestant.

I would dip into the book every once in a while, look up the day’s date and see what saints were listed there, reading about them and wondering at them. Even now after who knows how many moves around the country, it’s still one of the books on my bookshelf—one quite close to my computer in fact. (The value/utility quotient of books in my office can be directly calculated by their distance from my computer…)

Looking back at this book from where I stand now, most of the saints in the book fall within a fairly defined set of strata. There is an Early Martyr strata. These were the martyrs of the 1st through the 4th centuries who were persecuted, tortured, and executed by the state—usually the Roman state. There are literally several of these provided for every day of the year.

Then there is an Ascetic strata. There’s a band of folks who fell from around the 5th century to the 11th century who were mostly monks, hermits, or founders of monastic orders. You get some ascetic bishops sprinkled in there too. You usually see at least one of these a day.

Then there’s the Teachers strata. From the 12th through the 15th centuries there are theologians and mystics of various sorts. They tend to pop up a few every week.

Last, and most sparsely, you have the Counter-Reformers. These are folks from the 16th and 17th centuries who were Jesuits or something similar who fought the spread of the Reformation in various ways. You get one or two of these a week.

I gained a sense of the scope of the Church Catholic from this book, and I think it’s one that still shapes me today. First, what I learned from this book is that you can’t talk about the history of the Church or its past without stumbling over the bones of martyrs. Before anything else is said and done, there are multiple martyrs every day of the year: that’s a basic reality of who the church is (as sketched by this book…). The perennial drumbeat that underscored every reading for every day is that the faith was worth dying for—and there were the names and dates to prove it.

Second, another daily reminder was that faith in the gospel led lots and lots of people to embrace a kind of life that I couldn’t even contemplate. A young suburbanite couldn’t comprehend the life of a hermit; it wasn’t on the radar for me. But the fact that so many people chose it as a means of expressing the gospel in their lives made me sit up and take notice: truly engaging this gospel thing made people make some really hard and uncomfortable decisions. Fidelity to the gospel takes precedence over creature comforts.

Martyrs and hermits are not part of contemporary American life. However, encountering them so frequently in this book put them into my mental map and, in doing so, taught me some very important things about the Church and about the demands of the Gospel.

Turning from this kalendar, then, to something like Holy Women, Holy Men or the soon-to-be-issued A Great Cloud of Witnesses gives me something of a sense of spiritual whiplash. There are a whole lot fewer martyrs and not terribly many hermits. A whole different set of strata appear here. More “19th century founders of Dioceses” and “Progressive Pioneers.”

I’m not judging—I’m just noticing.

One of the drivers of recent kalendar revisions in the Episcopal Church is something that I’ll call “relatability.” You won’t find this in the official list of criteria, but it’s the notion that there should be sufficient people in the sanctoral kalendar who act and live like me. Martyrs and hermits may be great and all, but what about doctors and lawyers and professionals? Accordingly, the single greatest influx of people into a trial kalendar was the add of 2009 that introduced 117 new individuals. In line with the “relatability” criterion, 79 were from the 19th and 20th centuries. To be completely clear, over half of these (42) were clergy falling either into the “missionary” or “pastor” categories, but it also added 11 “prophetic witnesses,” 8 “artist/writers,” and 5 unallocated “saints.” Accordingly we now have modern doctors and teachers and bureaucrats in the collection. (I haven’t seen any secretaries or construction workers or cooks or janitors.)

One of the central functions of a sanctoral kalendar is the notion of social memory. Social memory is the phenomenon by which a group’s present social identity is shaped by the way that it chooses to remember the past. It’s like Collective memory as described here, but this entry doesn’t make the clear connection to how this memory is linked to present identity formation and identity politics. My thinking around this issue was sparked by Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making by Elizabeth Castelli (who argues that the Early Church talked more about martyrdom than practiced it).

One of the criticisms that I heard of Holy Women, Holy Men when we were rethinking it and working towards A Great Cloud of Witnesses was that it was engaging in identity politics. I do think that’s true. I also think that it’s completely unavoidable. All kalendars are engaged in identity politics. That’s what social memory is about: leveraging the past to talk abut our present identity. There is no way to disentangle identity politics from a kalendar. Some kalendars are more aware of it than others, perhaps. Some are more overt about it than others.

Creating, maintaining, and using a sanctoral kalendar is a formal act of social memory. Putting together a list of people from the past says something about us now, about who we look up to, about what kinds of qualities, characteristics, and charisms we think are important. My old Lives of the Saints does that in one way; I think that A Great Cloud of Witnesses does it in a rather different way.

Or, rather, they hit us in different directions. They approach the goal from different paths. Lives of the Saints takes a “volume” approach. That is, I learned about the shape of sanctity and gospel fidelity by the sheer number of examples of certain kinds of witnesses. A Great Cloud of Witnesses takes a more “individual” approach—look here’s a person we remember.

Again, I’m not advocating one way or the other at the moment, I’m noticing.


Posted in Anglican, Saints | 4 Comments

Jerome and the Two Paulas

I’m picking up where I left off with Caesaria and Radegund, but going back in time, heading to the beginning of the 5th century…

Radegund and Caesaria were part of a larger movement sweeping through the church, a movement that would shape the contours of the Western Church for several centuries. The principles of this monastic movement were forged in the deserts of the East, in Egypt and Palestine. Their communication to the Latin-speaking West begins with the great translator Jerome. Jerome is one of those teachers known as the “Church Fathers”; from this term, “Fathers” (pater in Latin) we derive the label for both the kind of theology that they did and the period in which they wrote: patristic. The patristic period is usually defined as the first five or six centuries after Christ and these writers receive special emphasis in certain church circles because they lived within the same fundamental thought-world as the very first Christians. They existed within that Greco-Roman milieu that brought the church to birth and were native inhabitants of the languages and customs in which the church arose. For centuries, then, especially since the rise of historical consciousness in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Church Fathers have held a special status because they still lived on the far side of what Lessing referred to as the great ditch of history that separates our present age from the time of Jesus, his disciples, and the first generations of the Church.

One of the questions that has arisen in recent years, though, asks the very obvious question: where were the women? If we revere the writing and thinking of the Church Fathers—where were the Church Mothers? What were they writing or thinking or doing? Despite some of our conceptions about the place of women in the Late Antique world, there were women writing works of theology and spirituality; one of them—Proba—will appear later within the circle of Cassiodorus. What we learn from Jerome and his letters, though, is that large sections of the work of the Church Fathers would never have been accomplished if it were not for the encouragement, support, and considerable financial assistance of the Church Mothers.

In particular, Jerome lived and worked in close relationship with a set of interrelated families guided by wealthy Roman matriarchs. While we have letters that Jerome wrote to popes and theologians, most of his letters were written to these women and their relations. He served them as a spiritual advisor and as a translator. Most of the biblical commentaries for which Jerome is known were either written by him or translated from Greek sources at the behest of three women in particular, Paula, Eustochium, and Marcella. Paula was the great matriarch of the XXX clan. Widowed at age ? After bearing five children, she embraced the new ascetic spirituality coming from the East, fostering it among her children and grandchildren, before embracing it wholeheartedly to the point where she moved to Bethlehem to build and then rule the women in the double monastery where Jerome would also live and work.

One of our best windows into the lives of the Church Mothers are the letters of Jerome where he described how they served God. Among his many letters, some are explicitly formational. In these works he lays out a vision for how exemplary members of the various roles within the church ought to be educated and behave. Other letters are encomia, letters of praise written to grieving family members on the death of a loved one, recounting their fame, their virtues, and their qualities. These tend to be somewhat idealized portraits—Jerome is likely exaggerating to a degree—but still provide valuable insights into how the devout women of the period lived and served. The letters that appear back-to-back with modern editions of Jerome’s letters neatly encapsulate the advice he gave and what he witnessed in the lives of the great Mothers of the Church and the emphasis that he and they placed upon the psalms. The three themes we found in Caesaria’s letter to Radegund, the centrality of the psalms, the importance of literacy, and the connection between the psalms and the gospels are found within these letters as well. The first is Letter 107, written to Laeta, the daughter-in-law of the matriarch Paula who wishes to raise her daughter (also named Paula after her grandmother) as a virgin of the church. The second is Letter 108 is his encomium of Paula upon her death, written to her grieving daughter Eustochium.

Letter 107 is a broadly directive letter giving Laeta directions in a host of areas about the best way to raise her little daughter for her role as a virgin within the church. He gives instruction on what sort of friends and maids she is to have, and what kinds of toys she is to be given to play with. In particular, Jerome is very insistent upon the importance of literacy—literacy with a clear purpose:

Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the styl[us] upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. . . . The very words which she tries bit by bit to put together and to pronounce ought not to be chance ones, but names specially fixed upon and heaped together for the purpose, those for example of the prophets or the apostles or the list of patriarchs from Adam downwards as it is given by Matthew and Luke. In this way while her tongue will be well-trained, her memory will be likewise developed.

Jerome advises that the young Paula be taught to read and write from the earliest age, and focused upon the Scriptures. The training of the memory is important and Jerome will become even more specific about how that facility ought to be put to use: “And let it be her task daily to bring to you the flowers which she has culled from scripture. Let her learn by heart so many verses in the Greek, but let her be instructed in the Latin also.” Because the Scriptures were found in Latin and Greek, Jerome thinks it best for her to have equal command of both languages.

While Jerome wants little Paula to memorize pieces of Scripture every day, this discovery ought to take place within a clear program for biblical knowledge. There is a specific order that Jerome believes best for encountering and understanding the many parts of Scripture:

Let her treasures be not silks or gems but manuscripts of the holy scriptures; and in these let her think less of gilding, and Babylonian parchment, and arabesque patterns, than of correctness and accurate punctuation. Let her begin by learning the psalter, and then let her gather rules of life out of the proverbs of Solomon. From the Preacher [Ecclesiastes] let her gain the habit of despising the world and its vanities. Let her follow the example set in Job of virtue and of patience. Then let her pass on to the gospels never to be laid aside when once they have been taken in hand. Let her also drink in with a willing heart the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. As soon as she has enriched the storehouse of her mind with these treasures, let her commit to memory the prophets, the heptateuch [the first seven books of the Bible], the books of Kings and of Chronicles, the rolls also of Ezra and Esther. When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before: for, were she to read it at the beginning, she would fail to perceive that, though it is written in fleshly words, it is a marriage song of a spiritual bridal. And not understanding this she would suffer hurt from it. Let her avoid all apocryphal writings, and if she is led to read such not by the truth of the doctrines which they contain but out of respect for the miracles contained in them; let her understand that they are not really written by those to whom they are ascribed, that many faulty elements have been introduced into them, and that it requires infinite discretion to look for gold in the midst of dirt. Cyprian’s writings let her have always in her hands. The letters of Athanasius and the treatises of Hilary she may go through without fear of stumbling. Let her take pleasure in the works and wits of all in whose books a due regard for the faith is not neglected. But if she reads the works of others let it be rather to judge them than to follow them.

This is nothing less than a full program of instruction, moving through the Scriptures and also through the most important writings of the orthodox Church Fathers. Many clergy have a worse education than that which Jerome prescribes for this little girl! Note, though, the sequence in which the Bible is studied. Jerome insists that she begin with the Psalms. After the Psalm come the wisdom literature of the Old Testament; immediately thereafter she is presented with the Gospels “never to be laid aside.” Let’s also note his intention in directing her to these books. As he mentions in connection with the prophets, he is not intend solely that she read them—he expects that large portions (if not the totality) be committed to memory.

The Psalms are the first books to be encountered, the first books to be learned. That is because they will form a central aspect of little Paula’s devotions for the rest of her life. Jerome prescribes the round of what would become the standardized Divine Office as the monastic movement matured:

She ought to rise at night to recite prayers and psalms; to sing hymns in the morning; at the third, sixth, and ninth hours to take her place in the line to do battle for Christ; and, lastly, to kindle her lamp and to offer her evening sacrifice. In these occupations let her pass the day, and when night comes let it find her still engaged in them. Let reading follow prayer with her, and prayer again succeed to reading. Time will seem short when employed on tasks so many and so varied.

All of these hours of prayer are, as the first mention intimates, sessions with the Psalms. Every day, at every point of the day, she is to pause and sing psalms to God. Not only will this habit form her in worship, it will also ensure that the psalms become a central vocabulary of both thought and praise.

If Jerome’s Letter 107 describes what he thinks the ideal monastic upbringing looks like, Letter 108 is an ideal depiction of the monastic life well lived. He describes the elder Paula’s life in glowing terms and, though no doubt exaggerating a bit, cannot be too far from the mark as he writes to her own daughter who lived with her and succeeded her as head of the women’s monastery in Bethlehem. This is a very lengthy letter not least because he gives a description of Paula’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in excruciating detail. After describing this journey, and the generosity of Paula, he describes how she ordered the double monastery that she built. Although the women were dived into three groups along class lines, they all worshiped together: “At dawn, at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at evening, and at midnight they recited the psalter each in turn. No sister was allowed to be ignorant of the psalms, and all had every day to learn a certain portion of the holy scriptures.” The memorization that Jerome enjoined on the younger Paula is affirmed in his depiction of the elder Paula: “The holy scriptures she knew by heart, and said of the history contained in them that it was the foundation of the truth; but, though she loved even this, she still preferred to seek for the underlying spiritual meaning and made this the keystone of the spiritual building raised within her soul.” At the center of these remained the Psalms. While the memorization of Scripture in both Latin and Greek is mention in the Letter 107, both Paula and her daughter Eustochium took it one step further when it came to the Psalms. Jerome writes:

I will mention here another fact which to those who are envious may well seem incredible. While I myself beginning as a young man have with much toil and effort partially acquired the Hebrew tongue and study it now unceasingly lest if I leave it, it also may leave me; Paula, on making up her mind that she too would learn it, succeeded so well that she could chant the psalms in Hebrew and could speak the language without a trace of the pronunciation peculiar to Latin. The same accomplishment can be seen to this day in her daughter Eustochium. . .

Jerome could hardly be exaggerating here; as he was writing the letter to Eustochium herself (as well as for a larger audience), he could hardly make up the fact that she and her mother both had the psalms memorized in Hebrew!

Jerome’s letters 107 and 108 became important sources for the monastic movement in the West. The educational program and the ideal of the ascetic life that he puts forth in his directions for the younger Paula and the depiction of the life of the elder Paula were to inspire generations of Christians for centuries. It’s quite likely that these very letters gave inspiration to Caesaria and Radegund as they administered convents of their own. And, again, at the center is the constant experience of the psalms, the literacy necessary to dig the most out of them, and the connection between the psalms and the person of Jesus revealed in the gospels.

Posted in Monasticism, Patristics, Psalms | Tagged | Comments Off on Jerome and the Two Paulas

Podcasting Pause and Reflection

Due to several swiftly-approaching deadlines, I’m taking a hiatus from recording the St. Bede Psalmcast for a bit. We’ll see how long “a bit” turn out to be…

I’ve enjoyed doing the podcast. It’s certainly done what it was supposed to do, providing a venue for enforced research for my Cassiodorus/Psalms book. For that alone it’s been beneficial.

I’ve found some aspects of it frustrating as well. Chief among them is that I find it oddly detached from listener data and feedback. I use Soundcloud but it is also pushed to iTunes. I can see how many listens each episode has received on Soundcloud, but have no idea about the iTunes side. I literally have no idea how many people are or aren’t listening to it. Apparently the proper way to do it is to use a self-hosting solution that runs through subscription services so that you can track the number of file downloads directly from the server—but I didn’t do that when I set it up. Hence, I lack data to get a clear sense of when and why I get listeners.

Too, despite Soundcloud having the capability for comments and posting episodes here on the blog, I’ve received very little feedback on the show and its content. I don’t know if I’m connecting with my audience because I know very little of what my audience likes or doesn’t like. Looping back to the original purpose, yes, it helped me do structured research for my book; what it didn’t do was give me a sense of what my book’s target audience thought of what was being produced…

All in all, I like podcasting. If anything, I think the St. Bede Psalmcast might be a little too structured—I’m wondering if a more free-form podcast might be more engaging, particularly if it’s not “purpose-driven” in the same way that this one was. In any case—that’s it for a while, anyway.

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Radegund and the Psalter

I’m focusing a lot of energy right now on my Cassiodorus/Psalms book and not getting a whole lot else done… I’m hoping to post here more regularly, but at the moment, most of my thoughts are occupied in the early medieval psalter… So here’s something from that!

I’ve been pondering why non-fiction books like The Art of Fermentation and Salt: A World History can become NYT Best Sellers. It has to do with well-told stories and effective hooks.  Reflecting on this, the story that I want to tell here is about far more than a single late patristic commentary on a single book of the Bible. Thus, I’m doing some experimenting with a starting hook to draw readers is, suggesting why this topic might actually be interesting after all… Here’s a shot at it—let me know what you think!

Radegund was furious. Of this, there can be no doubt. Her husband had crossed her for the last time, and she set a plan in motion to free herself from him once and for all. Within a short time she had the two letters that she needed: the one giving her leverage and the one that confirmed her spiritual path.

Sixth-century France was a hard place to be a woman. The land was in turmoil, Franks, Burgundians, and Lombards struggled for power, and violence spilled out from Italy as the Roman Emperor in the East tired to reassert his authority over his lost lands in the West. In addition to the perennial dangers of sickness and death in childbirth, war brought increased threat of rape and violent death along with its constant companions, famine and pestilence; the Plague of Justinian, one of the first recorded worldwide pandemics, swept through the Mediterranean world in the 540’s devastating Constantinople, Italy, and ravaging Gaul. While war and its effects are always hardest upon the poor, nobility was no guarantee of safety: Radegund’s life was proof of that.

Born a Thuringian princess, her uncle betrayed and slaughtered her father and took her into his household while she was yet a small child. But her uncle’s betrayals bore bitter fruit as spurned allies, the four sons of the Frankish king Clovis, sacked Thuringia, and Radegund—now 11—was carried off, fated to be the wife of one of the victorious brothers, Chlothar. Imprisoned in a villa in the north of modern France, Radegund learned reading, writing, and religion before she was married to Chlothar as his sixth wife in the year 540 at the age of 20.

By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. And, indeed, why would it be? Chlothar had been part of the original alliance that had killed her father, and he was marrying her largely to legitimate his claim to Thuringia. While Clothar was an indifferent Christian at best, Radegund was fiercely devoted to her faith and ascetic ideals—including virginity. While Chlothar’s women bore him seven legitimate children and there were rumors of many more unacknowledged offspring, Radegund remained childless. The joke around the palace was that Chlothar’s latest wife was a nun, not a queen.

The last straw came right around the year 550. Chlothar’s men murdered the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal line: Radegund’s brother. Radegund was furious, and refused to put up with it any more. She fled the palace, triggering a set of events that she had apparently thought through beforehand and cultivated strategically as she suffered through her unhappy marriage. She wrote letters to the most influential bishops in the area—undoubtedly some of her almsgiving in the years before had predisposed them in her favor whether for pious motives or base ones—and shortly she had in hand a letter that history still possesses. She proposed the establishment of the first religious community for women in the Frankish Empire where she would live according to Rule of Caesarius of Arles. The letter, signed by a host of prelates, supported her plan. It included the most dire threats for any woman who took religious vows and then wished to forsake the community and return to the world and marriage. Conversely (and more to the point) it likewise threatened anathema and damnation to any man who would attempt to remove any of the women from the religious enclosure.

The other letter that Radegund had been looking for was the blessing of Caesaria II of Arles. Caesaria, abbess of a convent in the Visigothic city of Arles, was the successor of the the first Caesaria who had been the sister of the influential bishop and theologian Caesarius of Arles. Caesarius had written a rule of life for his sister’s community, and in this letter, Caesaria II not only sends her community’s rule to Radegund as the queen had commanded, but also gave her advice based on her experience. In commending the rule, Caesaria wrote this line which neatly captures three central themes, not just of Caesaria and Radegund’s lives and spirituality, but of the time and place that we will be considering. She wrote: “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters; let all hold the psalter in memory and, as I have said, be zealous to carry out in all things what you read in the gospel.”

The first key element here is the emphasis on the psalms. This phrasing here—“hold the psalter in memory”—could simply mean something like “don’t forget about the psalms” or “don’t forget to say the psalms,” but it doesn’t. Instead, it means “make sure that everybody has all of the psalms memorized.” Looking back over the rest of Caesaria’s letter it’s quite obvious that she was following her own advice. The letter is littered with Scripture quotations; over half of these come from one book of the Bible: the Psalms. Likewise, she wasn’t telling Radegund anything new, either. The brief “Life of Radegund” written by her friend and correspondent Venantius Fortunatus mentions the psalms early and often as a part of her spiritual life as well as her devotion to singing the “hours,” a form of liturgical prayer grounded in the recitation of the psalms. Fortunatus gives us glimpses of Radegund’s future describing how, as a child, she would organize the other children and lead them into the chapel in a procession singing the psalms. Later, she would duck out of royal banquets to attend the worship of the hours, singing psalms as she left and checking to make sure the leftovers would be given to the poor.

You can only imagine how the psalms would have spoken to Radegund and sustained her as she endured her situation, married to the man responsible for the deaths of her father, uncle (however traitorous), and brother. How many times might Psalm 94 (“O Lord God of vengeance, O God of vengeance show yourself. Rise up, O Judge of the world; give the arrogant their just desserts…”) have passed through her head as she lay in bed next to her husband.

The second key element in Caesaria’s letter was the emphasis on literacy. While the phrasing sounds a bit odd in English, “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters,” the double negatives have an emphatic sense in Latin, underscoring the importance that everyone—no matter what their origin or social station—be taught how to read. As we continue, we’ll explore the close connection between the psalms and literacy in the early medieval world. Indeed, one of the terms for being literate was to be psalteratus: knowing your psalms. In a world where literacy was not common, and where women’s literacy in particular was not prized, the insistence on making sure that women of all classes within the community are able to read is a fascinating one.

The third key element is the mention of the gospels in relation to the psalms. Modern Protestants in particular may have a number of assumptions about the early medieval church, one of which is that the Bible was rarely read and even more rarely understood. Yet Caesaria makes it plain that she expects Radegund and all of the women to be reading the gospels as their most fundamental source for instruction:

Though it be holy and good and laudable that you desire to live by the Rule, there is no greater, better, more precious nor more splendid doctrine than the reading of the gospel. See this, hold this, which our Lord and master Christ taught by words and fulfilled by example, who made so many miracles in the world that they can not be counted, and sustained so many ills from his persecutors through patience, that can scarcely be believed.

The words and examples of Jesus are central to the ideal this holy woman lifts up.

Out of all of Scripture, these two sections—the psalms and the gospels—are given special attention. Coming from a liturgical perspective this is hardly surprising because in commending these texts to Radegund, Caesaria is highlighting the two central texts of the two central forms of worship in the church of that time. The Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) centered around the psalms; the Eucharist (or the Mass) centered around the gospels. But, coming from a spiritual perspective, Caesaria and Radegund would have both deeply believed that the two sections of Scripture were inextricably bound together: the heart and soul of Jesus was not just laid plain by the Gospels but was complemented and completed by the psalms. The Gospels made manifest his outward words and deeds; the psalms made manifest his inward thoughts and feelings. We will see exactly how this logic works as we go, but understanding and appreciating this link is crucial for grasping the medieval perspective on Jesus.

And Radegund? She got her community. In fact, her husband even donated the land the land for it. (After a friendly bishop had threatened him with excommunication if he wouldn’t come through!) Originally named the Abbey of St. Mary, you may have heard one of the songs celebrating its name change. In 567, Radegund and her abbey received a relic of the True Cross from the Byzantine Emperor. In honor of the event the name of the community was changed to the Abbey of the Holy Cross and Radegund’s friend Fortunatus wrote a hymn for the occasion, Vexilla regis prodeunt, translated in many hymnals as “The royal banners forward go.” When Radegund died in 587, she was buried in a chapel near the abbey. Soon venerated as a saint, the chapel was renamed the Church of St. Radegund and remains a parish church today in Poitiers.

Despite the hardships of her life—perhaps because of the hardships of her life—Radegund’s faith remained strong and powerful. Her life story recounts episode after episode focused on care for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the neglected. She used her power to create a safe space for herself and other women—rigorous and not without its own challenges to be sure—but a place where learning and faith and female authority would be respected for centuries to come. And her experience of the psalms lies at the center of it all.

Posted in Church History, Medieval Stuff, Monasticism, Patristics, Psalms | Tagged | 3 Comments

New GrowChristians Piece

I’m continuing my “Secrets of a Pew Whisperer” series over at GrowChristians. The latest post is here: Explaining the Game.

This time, I’m wrestling with one of the complaints I hear—that adults don’t like that their kids interrupt them from worshiping. I’m suggesting that we look at it in a different way… Are they interruptions or teachable moments?

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Lectionary commentary podcasts?

For whatever reason, my wife and I were discussing lectionary-based podcasts over the weekend. Naturally, my St Bede Psalmcast is a podcast connected to the Revised Common Lectionary, but clearly isn’t an exposition of the readings in any sort of depth; I touch on the “main” readings only so far as I need to to talk about the psalm.

Here’s the question that came up when we were talking, though: what sort of podcast resources are out there for Episcopal preachers?

The only one that she listens to is the Working Preacher podcast. It has a Lutheran perspective and comes from Luther Seminary. We have a soft-spot for this one because one of the hosts, Dr. Karoline Lewis, was one of my colleagues in my PhD program (and was one of the TAs in my first New Testament course in seminary!)

What else is out there? What do you listen to—or would you listen to if it existed?

Posted in Anglican, Scripture, Tech | 2 Comments

St Bede Psalmcast Episode 14: Psalm 49

Welcome to Episode 14 of the St. Bede Psalmcast! Today we’ll be talking about Psalm 49, the psalm appointed for Track 2 for Proper 13 which this year falls on July 31st, 2016. We have a pretty extensive talk about Wisdom Literature to set up the psalm and its place within the “Wisdom in Revolt” tradition. We also talk about Death and conclude that there’s nothing fun about dying in Babylon. Some background on Cassiodorus sets up his enthusiastic recommendation of this psalm and the broader discussion about wealth, focus, and purpose.

Posted in Anglican, Psalms, Spirituality | Tagged | Comments Off on St Bede Psalmcast Episode 14: Psalm 49

Podcast Interview!

In lieu of an episode of the St. Bede Psalmcast this week, I bring you an hour-plus interview where I discuss Reading Matthew with Monks with Dr. David Grubbs. I’ve been listening to the Christian Humanist and Christian Humanist Profiles for a while, and was quite pleased to be offered an interview to discuss the book.

Here’s the interview!


Posted in Liturgy, Medieval Stuff, Monasticism | 1 Comment