Friday, February 6, 2015

Medieval Catholic History Through a Glass Darkly

Pilgrimage may involve traveling from point A to point B, but it is hardly one-dimensional.

In The Age of Pilgrimage, Jonathan Sumption demonstrates that from the time of the desert Fathers until the Reformation, a period spanning about twelve hundred years, the nature of pilgrimage changed “from private austerity to popular enthusiasm and thence to abstract ritual.”

In another summary statement, the author notes that “Pilgrimage, like almsgiving, had begun as an accessory to the moral teaching of the Church, and ended as an alternative.”

These conclusions—and the four hundred pages of closely researched detail leading up to them—are challenging for a person like myself who has walked the Camino de Santiago and is planning another pilgrimage on foot to the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal.

But as a spiritual advisor told me recently, the Catholic Church and its history are “messy,” and being a happy Catholic, as I am, means learning to live with the mess.

Sumption has done a neat thing: looking at the entire history of medieval Christianity through the lens of the pilgrimage. But he has done so through a glass darkly. I imagine that’s because of who Sumption is himself.

The author began as an Oxford history don and (I presume) an Anglican if not an agnostic. His is clearly not a Catholic perspective, although he avoids some of the more obvious anti-Papist attitudes of Sidney Heath’s history, which I recently read.

Moreover, Sumption left the history game for the bar and now holds the highly prestigious position of Queen’s Counsel (QC). As such he has become fabulously wealthy and is officially known as Lord Sumption. So the reissuing of his book may have as much to do with his prominence and even celebrity in England as with its scholarship.

If I had to level a simple criticism, it would be this. The Age of Pilgrimage is religious history without a true sense of interiority. Great saints and mystics, from Anthony of the Desert to 14th-century mystic Bridget of Sweden, are featured not for their personal spiritual experience but rather as counterpoint to the mass movements that swirled around them.

By tracing the history of pilgrimage—from the early cult of saints, to the frenzied competition for their relics, to the miracles reported by those in contact with relics, to the indulgences granted to encourage pilgrims to visit these shrines, to the final absurd abuse of indulgences by the enfeebled papacy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—Sumption implies that the Reformation was virtually a historical necessity.

Of course, he seems to say, the Catholic Church was upended in the sixteenth century! Just look at all the crazy activities Catholics indulged in, forcing Luther’s hand and Henry VIII’s hand too!

Having finished The Age of Pilgrimage, I have turned to The Book of Margery Kempe and will soon pick up Piers Plowman. These books, like Sigrid Undset’s biography of Catherine of Siena, will give me an inside look at Catholic experience in the late medieval period.

What Sumption misses is the inner life of his pilgrims—not those pilgrims who took part in mass movements like building crusades and group flagellation, but pilgrims who held on to an authentic interior life.

The Age of Pilgrimage presumes to judge medieval pilgrims without ever walking a mile in their holy shoes.

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