Great Cloud Of Witnesses

This understanding of the glory of the Lord and the nearness of Jesus was joined by a third feature, an urgent sense of the use that could be made of the relationship with the saints, those who were known to be already alive to God in Christ. The theology of intercession was developed in this period especially in the increasing number and scope of prayers for the dead. In the one household of faith, the prayers of the saints were woven into the fabric of daily life at every level, but also increasing responsibility was felt for those who had died but had not yet attained their place in glory. The doctrine of purgatory and the intercession of the saints produced an almost materialistic fervour for the accumulation of merit before God for oneself or one's friends, alive or dead. The offering of indulgences, that is, the use made of the accumulated merits of Christ and the saints for remission of the punishment for sins of those on earth, underlined this attitude, and the building of chantry chapels for prayers for the founders after their death was a result of this very practical and personal approach to religion. This attitude in devotion can be seen most of all in the growing cult of the saints, which can be observed in a number of ways: in accounts of their lives and miracles, in the increasing numbers of pilgrimages which focused on relics of the dead saints, and in the miracles associated with them at shrines.

In the early Church, the liturgical celebration of Christians through the year had revolved around the central mysteries of salvation: incarnation, redemption and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but this had been expanded by the liturgical celebration of the death of those who were seen to be closely conformed to Christ, that is, saints. The first stage in the cult of the saints concerned the people mentioned in the Bible as being closest to Jesus in his earthly life, the Virgin Mary and the apostles. After them came the early martyrs and then those who were held to have shown the charity of Christ in their earthly lives and deaths in every part of Christendom. This accumulation became so extensive that the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 set up a sifting process for the canonization of saints, which centred on the accounts of their lives and their miracles. Popular curiosity about the saints was not, however, easily controlled. Where accounts of the lives of early saints, including biblical characters, did not exist, they were invented; they provided food for the imagination and so for meditation at all levels of society.

Pre-eminent in the cult of the saints was the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Scripture, her place was definite but discreet, always associated with her son; in a sense, hers seemed to be a secret life, not a matter for public speculation. But with the increased interest in the humanity of Jesus in the eleventh century, devotion demanded more. The Protevangelium of James, dating from the second century, had speculated about her parents and named them Joachim and Anna; later centuries were to treat Mary as if she were a contemporary about whom everything could be known and from whom everything could be expected. Since by her flesh she had given human form to God, so all humanity was now seen as included in her flesh. Her growing cult presents a panorama of medieval life and devotion. The prayers of Anselm included three to the Virgin Mary and were replete with carefully wrought theology, as well as with emotion; in them the place of Mary in relation to her son was clearly defined and stirringly presented.

Popular devotion gradually lost sight of the theology in favour of the emotion, to such an extent that Mary was seen as embodying the compassionate love of a saviour and Jesus as administering the severity of a judge, a severity which only his mother could ameliorate. This was not in contradiction to but rather an extension of the increased pity for his sufferings, since the pain Christ endured on the cross was increasingly seen as a condemnation of human sin which had caused it. Miracle stories about the Virgin proliferated with astonishing rapidity, producing a literature numbering thousands of examples and embodying the desire of ordinary people for favour and patronage, to be specially favoured by a powerful and loving one, however sinful and hopeless they might be. It was a devotion for everyman, and it lay at the centre of popular religion for at least five hundred years. The figure of Mary was seen in contemporary terms, as a great lady, a young mother, a desirable girl, who would always be on the side of those who expressed love for her. This devotion could be expressed in prayers such as the Hail Mary, in the saying of the rosary, or in the devotion of the Five Joys of Mary, as well as in the new feasts of the Virgin and the widely used Little Office of the Virgin. An example of the extent of popular confidence in Mary and the power attributed to even the smallest stirring of devotion to her is the story of the thief Ebbo: in the course of a career of crime, he was said to have been devoted to the Virgin and was in the habit of saluting her even on his marauding expeditions. He was caught and hanged, but Mary held him up for two days, and when the executioners tried to fix the rope more tightly she put her hands on his throat and prevented them, until finally he was released.

Interest in later saints included the same kind of curiosity about the details of their lives as was directed towards the Virgin Mary. Increasingly, the question asked about saints was whether these people revealed the love of Christ in terms that could be understood by their contemporaries. Hagiography has always been concerned with the ways in which a saint's life has conformed to that of the basic pattern of Christian sanctity, Christ, but there was growing interest after the eleventh century in what the saints had actually said and done in their earthly lives. This humanistic change produced the lives of Anselm of Canterbury, Aelred of Rievaulx, Hugh of Lincoln and many more, and began a trend which contributed eventually to the modern understanding of biography.

A large part of accounts of the lives of saints concerned miracles which in this period became a major part of the authentication of a saint. A saint's contemporaries could attest the power of divine charity at work during his life, but what mattered even more was that the power and mercy of God should be expressed by miracles, signs of God's work through him, both alive and dead. There was a growing literature of the miraculous, a concentration on shrines and then on handbooks of miracle stories compiled for preachers and for the devout, illustrating themes for meditation.

Frequently, though by no means always, miracles were connected with relics, fragments remaining from the earthly life of the saint, ranging from the whole body to splinters of bone, dust from the tomb, fragments of clothing, or water in which the bones had been washed. Allied to the cult of miracles, then, was the cult of relics which proceeded most clearly of all from a very practical desire for contact with eternity. The bones of the saints, especially the martyrs, were held in great reverence from early times as the remains of places where divinity had been manifested and which would still, since the saint lived on, provide a visible and tangible link with Christ through his holy ones. The sick and those in other kinds of need came or were brought therefore to the tombs of the saints and often allowed to sleep there, to touch the bones, to drink water mixed with dust from the tomb, and to offer prayers in words and by means of gifts. The focusing of devotion on the shrines of the saints was a local and spontaneous phenomenon throughout Europe for the whole of the Middle Ages, and one which was to provide most problems for the theologians of the sixteenth-century Reformation.

Another aspect of the cult of the saints was pilgrimage, which had always been a factor in Christian spirituality but which was, as we have seen, given a new direction by that great feature of the Middle Ages, the crusades, and by an increasing freedom for travel. The Pauline image of Christian life as a quest for another country, a pilgrimage towards man's true home of heaven, took on a very practical and external form. In order to go to 'the Jerusalem which is above', pilgrims went first of all to the actual Jerusalem on earth, especially on the expeditions which were later to be called crusades but which were at first referred to as 'journey' or 'pilgrimage'. The call of Pope Urban XI in 1095 for all Christians to attempt the deliverance of Jerusalem from the hands of the Saracens highlights many of the themes already noted in medieval devotion. The Holy Land to be rescued was the land of the Bible where Adam was created and the glory of God was manifested to men in Christ; it was also the place where Christ would come again in glory. Especially important was Jerusalem, which was seen (as in the Hereford Mappa Mundi) as the centre of the world. Since it was the place where the earthly Jesus had lived and suffered, it offered supremely one of those chinks between heaven and earth where contact with heaven was especially available. Pilgrimage there carried the promise of full absolution from sin and gave a chance to the ordinary Christian to become part of the spiritual warfare of Christ and his saints by doing the one thing that was possible for a militarily orientated society, to fight for the release of captives and the protection of poor pilgrims, even when it involved killing and destruction.

Besides Jerusalem, the great places for pilgrimage were Rome and Compostela, where the bones of the apostles Peter, Paul and James afforded other well-tried locations for access to heaven; and among later shrines Canterbury, with its new martyr Thomas Becket (c.1118-70), was at times their rival in popularity on an international scale. But there were also local shrines for pilgrimage, some containing fragments of the bones of the early martyrs, others with the bodies of later saints of local repute, which were appealed to for healing and for support in matters of justice, in a fashion which could become a demand for favour rather than a petition for mercy.

It is sometimes said that in the later Middle Ages Church life was at a particularly low ebb, with the complex and materialistic side of popular religion obscuring the realities of belief and theology. Serious-minded people have always criticized formalism and hypocrisy in religion, and this was certainly so in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but such criticism does not necessarily mean that dissent from orthodoxy was widespread. Yet it is true to say that increasingly in the late Middle Ages the most vigorous understanding of Christian life seemed to be found on the fringe of the formal structures of the Church. It is possible to see this as a time of widening gaps, with, on the one hand, a highly efficient and centralized administration in the papacy, international in scope, with a minute and detailed code of law, precise doctrinal formulations and an over-organized clergy, and, on the other, the growth everywhere of independent personal piety, literate and deeply versed in the Scriptures, present in lay life rather than monasticism. Sometimes this vigour took the form of heresy. In England, for instance, this was most usually found in forms of Lollardy, the movement associated with John Wycliffe (c. 133084). Whatever truth there may be in this picture, it can also be said that the late Middle Ages were also a time of great Christian vitality, which issued in robust criticism of hypocrisy but also took the form of mysticism and piety.

The delineation of ways of prayer, thought and feeling had been undertaken since the eleventh century by many theologians from Anselm onwards. But besides the analysers of prayer there were also visionaries and mystics such as Hildegard (1098-1179), the abbess of Bingen in Germany who expressed her insight in images of colour, warmth and beauty, which have recently become known through recordings of some of her music. This breaking through of heaven was beyond intellectual words and concepts, and it seems that it was especially open to those, such as lay-brothers in religious orders and women, who had not had their minds limited by academic systems: as Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in a letter to Hildegard:

How could I presume to advise or teach you who are favoured with hidden knowledge in whom the influence of Christ's anointing still lives so that you have no need of teaching for you are said to be able to search the secrets of heaven and to discern by the light of the Holy Spirit things that are beyond the knowledge of man.

(Bernard of Clairvaux 1953:46)

In the following centuries, the life of Christian piety produced more written works analysing and giving instruction about the life of prayer, such as the writings of two German Dominican mystics, Master Eckhart (c.1260-1327) and Johann Tauler, (c. 1300-61) and in the Low Countries, Jan van Ruysbroeck (1291-1381), a Canon Regular whose community at Groenendael became prominent in the movement known as the 'Devotio Moderna', which produced a classic of spirituality in The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis (c. 13801471). Such writings were associated with the group known as the Brethren of the Common Life, and those who followed this way were concerned primarily with a deep personal piety which concentrated without structures on the inner search of the individual for illumination in prayer. Many of their writings were in German or Dutch rather than Latin and they urged the need for the words of the Scriptures to be made widely available by translation into the vernacular. Manual work had a large place in the lives of those involved in this movement; they were shoe-makers, schoolmasters, lace-makers by trade—town-dwellers of the new lower middle class. They were sometimes called 'Beguines', and an English chronicler reported 9000 in Cologne, following ordinary lives under a private vow of celibacy, while continuing their everyday work.

There was a sombre background to the times, with increasing violence and pain and death. In the various outbreaks of the plague known as the Black Death around 1350, one third of the population of Europe died. A series of wars between England and France, 1337-1453, arising out of the claim of Edward III to the French crown, became a dynastic clash of Plantagenets and Valois, in which, at the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, and the siege of Calais (1356), great numbers died on both sides. Joan of Arc (1433) gave a new and plainly religious focus to the French side of the conflict, with her heavenly guidance and patriotic piety, and was herself a victim of the brutality of these wars. Trade rivalry and the rise of the towns added to the general decay of the countryside and the beginnings of urban overcrowding, with its attendant ills in the new and more dreadful poverty of the unemployed.

During this time of rapid and disturbing change there was also, however, a notable and vigorous growth in devotion. There were in England, for instance, alongside the major secular poets, Langland (1330-86) and Chaucer (13431400), five influential writers of literature in the vernacular that was both mystical and popular: Richard Rolle (1300-49); the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing (c.1345); Walter Hilton (1330-96); Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1413); and Margery Kempe (c.1373-c.1433). All were connected in some way with the increasing numbers of lay-people undertaking a life of devotion in solitude.

Earliest in time was the northern hermit and preacher, Richard Rolle. He was born at Thurgaton in Yorkshire, was educated in Oxford and possibly in France but became impatient with the formality of the schools, which he soon left in order to become a hermit back in Yorkshire. He illustrates the popular unrest with academic learning and the desire for a more personal following of Jesus. Rolle was a prolific writer and preacher, both in Latin and English, and was best known in his own day for treatises such as The Fire of Love and The Emending of Life. His English religious lyrics have found a permanent place in vernacular literature. He was an exponent of affective mysticism, depending on bodily feelings in prayer, such as heat, sweetness, and song, which he described thus in his Fire of Love:

In the beginning of my conversion I thought that I would be like the little bird that languishes for love of his beloved but is gladdened in his longing when he that it loves comes, and sings with joy and in its song languishes in sweetness and heat. It is said that the nightingale is given to song and melody all night that she may please him to whom she is joined. How much more should I sing with great sweetness to Christ my Jesus that is the spouse of my soul through all this present life that is night in regard to the clearness that is to come, so that I could languish in longing and die of love.

(Rolle 1927:190).

Devotion to the person of Jesus Christ especially in his passion found a new and delicate expression in Rolle around the 'Name of Jesus', another popular devotion of the times both personally and liturgically, which he expressed in prayers like the following:

Hail Jesu my creator of sorrowing medicine;

Hail Jesu my saviour that for me suffered pain;

Hail Jesu help and succour, my love be aye thine;

Hail Jesu the blessed flower of thy mother virgin.

(Rolle 1939:269)

A little later in time and less popular than Rolle, Margery Kempe was in some ways the most typical of her age. She was noted for an emotional understanding of religion very similar to that of Rolle. Born at King's Lynn in Norfolk, she married John Kempe in 1393, and had fourteen children. A severe mental illness followed the birth of her first child during which she had a vision of Christ and thereafter regarded herself as especially bound by devotion. It was not until 1418, when she was 45, that she left home and undertook a life of pilgrimage, accompanied by visions and ecstatic experiences. These were dictated by her (she could not read or write) and form the first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe. It has survived in only one manuscript, which was only recognized as such in 1934. Of immense interest for the history of popular religion, it is of less note for Christian theology and prayer. Margery was an emotional person who wept often and publicly; her 'cryings' were the thing for which she was most famous, as she wrote of herself (in the third person):

And this creature had great compunction, with plentiful tears and much loud and violent sobbing for her sins and for unkindness towards her creator.. .Her weeping was so plentiful and so continual that many people thought that she could weep and leave off when she wanted and therefore many people said she was a false hypocrite and wept when in company for advantage and profit.

(Kempe 1985:48)

Margery travelled widely, to Palestine, Assisi, Rome, Compostela, Norway, Aachen and Danzig. She had heard of, and perhaps had had read to her, the works of Hilton and Rolle and she visited Julian of Norwich, to whom she says she spoke about herself:

She told her about the grace that God had put into her soul, of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation and very many holy speeches and converse that our Lord spoke to her soul and also many wonderful revelations, which she described to the anchoress to find out if there were any deception in them for the anchoress was expert in such things and could give good advice.

Margery does not appear to have heard of Julian's work, The Revelations of Divine Love; she records Julian as listening with courtesy and recommending obedience, charity and above all patience. There is a great contrast between this emotional, affective, talkative woman, and the wisdom of Julian, Hilton and the Cloud Author but, in many ways, Margery reflects the eager and vigorous devotion of the times as truly as do her more restrained contemporaries.

Julian of Norwich also, like Richard Rolle and Margery Kempe, was a mystic outside the institutional boundaries of monasteries and convents. She lived at the end of her life as a solitary in a room built onto the wall of a Norwich church dedicated to St Julian, from which she perhaps took her name. She wrote two works, one a longer version of the other, called Revelations of Divine Love. The title itself indicates the direction of her writings. They explore the way in which God loves mankind rather than giving instruction about how prayer and life can be directed to him. She could be regarded as the first theologian to write in English. The continued importance of devout women, whether in their concern for guidance about prayer or as visionaries and mystics, was a striking feature of medieval Church life. Among the most influential were the nuns of Helfta, Catherine of Siena (1347-80), Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) and Bridget of Sweden (1303-73)—and Julian was to some extent in this tradition. She developed her record of a visionary experience of the cross in a lifetime of thought and commentary on the central mysteries of salvation. Her quiet confidence in the promises of God is a firm counterbalance to the morbid despair that was prominent in her time:

In this endless love we are led and protected by God, and we shall never be lost;

for he wants us to know that the soul is a life, which life of his goodness and grace will last in heaven without end, loving him, thanking him, praising him.

(Julian 1978:284)

Her use of the image of motherhood in discussing the second person of the Trinity was extended and detailed and took up a tenuous earlier tradition with new insight. Her confidence in God's love was the result of a life of struggle to understand how love and judgement could be held together in God, and her conclusion that 'love was His meaning' and that 'all shall be well' was neither facile nor sentimental, but the product of hard and anguished thought and prayer.

Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich were the serious and sustained theologians of the group, but Hilton's The Scale of Perfection was more definitely a book of instruction than was the work of the other three writers. The Scale (scale=ladder here) covers a whole range of teaching about a life of prayer. As with so much spiritual writing, he says it was done at the request of others, in this case an anchoress (= hermit). He wrote to his 'spiritual sister in Jesus Christ' with advice she had asked for about prayer and spiritual life, drawing on his own experience to do so. A firm and clear picture of the life of prayer emerges, carefully arranged, set out with gentleness and tolerance, though with the austere theme of the mystics. In order to reach the vision of peace (which is the literal meaning of the word 'Jerusalem'), one must go through the 'night of murk': 'We may never come to the full knowledge of God till we know first clearly our own soul.' The way to this is as follows:

You should draw your thought in yourself as much as you can, away from all material things and then...if you wish to find Jesus you should suffer the pain of this nothing...for right inside this nothing Jesus is hidden in his joy.

(Hilton 1991:125)

Hilton was reserved about the emotional and affective devotion connected with Margery Kempe and Rolle, and he may have had Rolle specifically in mind when he wrote:

Hearing of delightful song, feeling a comfortable heat in body, or perceiving light or the sweetness of bodily savor. These are not spiritual feelings...even when they are best and most true, they are still only outward signs of the inward grace that is felt in the powers of the soul.

The most brilliant and original of all these writers was the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and other related pieces, some very short, the most important of which is The Book of Privy Counsel. The Cloud of Unknowing was a response to a request for help, in this case from a wouldbe solitary of 24 years of age who asked the author for advice about prayer. The writer was a clear and decisive person, full of wit and acute observation, with no time or patience for sentimentality and hypocrisy. He wrote in a racy English prose style with a single theme, which he explained with wisdom, patience and confidence, offering specific guidance about the way of prayer which is called 'apophatic' (because of its emphasis on the utter transcendence of God and his unknowableness by human faculties—he 'cannot be spoken about'):

No man may think of God himself. Because he can certainly be loved but not thought. He can be taken and held by love but not by are to smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love.

(Cloud 1982:130-1)

While presenting a theme of great and mysterious import, he was always briskly alert to the dangers of pride and for those following a life of prayer:

Labour and toil as much as you can and know how, to acquire for yourself the true knowledge and experience of yourself as the wretch you is his good pleasure to be known and experienced by a humble soul living in this mortal body.

Like Hilton, he warned against reliance upon Rolle's 4heat, sweetness and song', and recommended a way of prayer in which any knowledge through bodily senses was to be purified by darkness:

If ever you come to this cloud, and live and work in it as I bid you, just as this cloud of unknowing is above you, between you and your God, in the same way you must put beneath you a cloud of forgetting between you and all the creatures that have ever been made.

The Cloud author insisted that the way of prayer he described was not to be undertaken lightly but only by those called to it by God, not those qualified by learning or self-confident ability, but those seriously seeking God; the work's present popularity in an equally anti-intellectual age is therefore not surprising.

All these writers were representative of their age, with their freedom within structures, their intense care for the interior life of the individual, their use of the vernacular, and their positive sense of the love of God towards humanity. At a time when the institutions in Church and State seemed to many distant and incomprehensible, delight in the Lord and his works remained alive among such vigorous but basically ordinary people.

In considering the devotion of Western Christians to Christ it should be remembered that there was throughout the Middle Ages a coherent understanding of spiritual reality, an indissoluble link between thought and prayer within a social and historical reality which was not separated from inner devotion and aspiration. It is not the case that theological speculation formed popular practice but rather that the theologians were also men of their time, and addressed themselves to questions which arose out of their situation. They too were involved in what we distinguish as 'popular devotion' and were able to articulate the universal sense of belonging in thought and in prayer to a continuing and living tradition. With regard to this lively tradition of prayer, it is possible to apply some words of the humanist and scholar, John of Salisbury (1115-80):

We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants; by their aid we can gaze further than they did. Clinging to the ancient treatises we rediscover their finer judgements banished from memory by ages past, forgotten by men, and raise them as from death to new life.

(John of Salisbury 1855).

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