Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Biased History of Pilgrimage

I have been wishing this week that I could perform a Vulcan mind meld with Eric Metaxas and Jonathan Sumption. Metaxas’s new book Miracles is thrilling to the committed Christian like myself, but it takes a lot for granted, as the subtitle suggests: What They Are, How They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life. 

Metaxas lays out the case for miracles in the first half of the book, then describes real-life miracles that have occurred to people he has known. While Miracles is inspirational and quite convincing to me, I wish Metaxas showed a touch of Jonathan Sumption’s skepticism and scholarship.

Sumption’s subtitle for a book on miracles probably would be They Don’t Happen, So Forget About It. 

I am reading Sumption because he wrote a definitive work on a subject I am intensely interested in—The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God. Published in 1975, it was reissued in 2003, proof that it has held up to scrutiny. It has more than one hundred pages of end matter. Sixty-seven pages of footnotes cite sources mostly in Latin and French. This is real scholarship, but scholarship with a beef.

Sumption has a beef with those darn superstitious Christians. The Oxford historian pretty much writes off the personal experience of any Christian person who lived before the eighteenth century, when “people were prepared to concede to nature any power of her own, or to attribute the workings of the natural world to anything other than divine intervention.”

Before launching into the history of pilgrimage on page 122, Sumption dispenses with the notions of miracle and relic and even saint. All result from a flawed world view prevalent among Christians between the desert hermits of the third century and the glories of the Enlightenment.

Sumption’s first sentence sets his whole work in motion: “The world which the mediaeval pilgrim left behind was a small and exclusive community.” There follows a brief explanation of the early parish and of the parishioner who “‘belonged’ in a very real sense to his church, and lived his whole life under its shadow.”

Sumption’s bias is already on display here. I do not think of my parish as casting a “shadow” over me. I would use other metaphors.

More on the importance of the parish in the medieval mindset: “The Lateran council of 1215 reinforced this dependence on the parish by making every layman confess his sins at least since a year to his parish priest, and to no one else.” Given this oppressive parish milieu, Sumption notes that the mendicant orders of the 1200s (Dominican and Franciscan principally) were popular in part because “they offered an escape from the stifling framework of parish life.

“Pilgrimage offered another escape.”

There. Pilgrimage was an escape from hum-drum medieval parish life. And, Sumption notes, it was made necessary by another sad fact of medieval life, the misconception that evil is a real force in the world

For this, and our conception of the devil in particular, Sumption says we have to thank St. Anthony of the Desert (251–356), whose feast the Church celebrates today.

This vision of the Devil makes its first appearance in the writings of the desert monks of the third and fourth centuries and particularly in one of the most influential saints’ lives ever written, the Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius. During his twenty years in the desert, St. Anthony . . . was perpetually conscious that ‘the air around him was full of evil spirits.’ The Devil frightened him at night, aroused carnal desires in him, tempted him to return to the comforts of civilization, and even struck him blows. The Devil commonly appeared to St. Anthony as a ‘little black boy, his appearance matching his mind, with flashing eyes and fiery breath, and horns on his head, half-man, half-ass.’ This is probably why the Devil is so often described by mediaeval writers as a ‘negro’ or ‘Ethiopian.’

This groundwork is laid in the earliest pages of The Age of Pilgrimage. Reading on we find that the desert fathers like Anthony were some of the earliest non-martyrs to be canonized by early Christians; and that they themselves were the destinations of many early pilgrimages. That is, knowing St. Anthony and other desert hermits for holy men and women, early Christians traveled to Egypt to kneel at their feet.

Then, when saints like Anthony died, those darn superstitious Christians settled for second best: To visit St. Anthony et alia in death and touch their bones and bring home their relics. The whole medieval hunt for relics and trade in them (sometimes fraudulent) now comes up for lengthy scholarly ridicule. By page 122, when we finally turn to pilgrimage, its entire raison d’être has been exposed as bunk.

So my wish for the Vulcan mind meld:

I wish Sumption had just a touch of Metaxas in him. The result might be a study of medieval pilgrimage that is not only scholarly but mildly sympathetic.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.