The Glory Of The Lord

Medieval devotion to God was based on the Latin Bible, the Sacred Scriptures, heard, read or seen. For a thousand years it formed the imagery through which reality was explored, both as a pantechnicon containing all knowledge and as that to which all learning was to be brought for its elucidation, but above all as a word of God to the soul. It was copied often and gloriously, and studied closely, so that the commentaries upon 'the Sacred Page' (as it was often called) were integral to it. The Old and the New Testaments were read as one single book by one author, God, who spoke to his people both in the time of the Law and in the time of Grace, illuminating the pages of both for the reader by the person of Christ; a comment by Origen (c. 183-c.254) on the text of Genesis summarizes already the medieval approach to Scripture:

If anyone wants to hear and understand this according to the literal sense, he should listen to the Jews rather than the Christians. But if he wants to be a Christian and a disciple of Paul, let him hear what is said according to 'the law of the Spirit', and let him consider what is said about Abraham and his wife and sons in an allegorical sense. We are given such allegories, but it is not easy for anyone to discover all their meaning, so we must pray from our hearts that the 'veil might be taken away'. If anyone wants to be converted to the Lord, 'for the Lord is Spirit', let him pray from his heart that the veil of the letter might be taken away and the light of the Spirit come, as it is said, 'we all with open face behold as if in a glass the glory of the Lord and are changed into that image from glory to glory as by the Lord the Spirit'.

(Origen 1976:61)

This theme of glory communicated through the pages of the Scriptures to the believing heart provided the basis for prayer and devotion; according to Claudius of Turin (died r.830): 'Blessed are the eyes that see divine Spirit through the letter's veil' (1844:617).

The Bible was not read alone; the concept of sacred Scripture was extended in some ways to the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church which were mined by preachers and pastors as well as forming the basis for meditation. This knowledge of the text through symbolic, spiritual commentary affected devotion at every level, usually linking the text with doctrine about Christ or/and interpreting it in relation to the hearer. For instance, in his commentary on Genesis, Bede (673-735) interprets a passage of the Old Testament thus:

'Four kings with five...took Lot the son of Abraham's brother...when Abraham learned that his kinsman Lot had been taken captive.he went in pursuit.and brought back his kinsman.' (Genesis 14:9, 12, 14, 16.) Here we see Abraham as the mystical figure of Christ who by his passion and death redeemed the world from death in battle against the devil.

(1967:186)

There is here interest in the text of the Bible as illustrating redemption in Christ, not in the possible meaning of this passage in its original context. Other commentators took this even further, as in Bernard of Clairvaux's

(1090-1153) comments on the Song of Songs, which show his primary concern both for Christian doctrine and for its apprehension here and now:

'Thy Name is as oil poured forth' (Song of Songs 1:3). Draw near ye nations, your salvation is at hand; the Name is poured forth, upon which when anyone shall call, he shall be saved. The Name is oil which when poured out feeds the flame and gives light to the soul; as oil nourishes the flesh, so does the Bridegroom's name feed those who meditate upon it; and like oil that eases pain when used as medicine, so does this name when we call upon it. Hidden in this Name of Jesus, o my soul, you have a sovereign remedy against every ill. Keep it in your heart always, ready to hand, so that all your love and desire may be centred upon Him.

(Bernard of Clairvaux 1971:111)

The medium through which the glory of the Lord and the light of the sacred page were received was for most Christians not so much through reading written words but through hearing them said or sung, most of all through the poem of the liturgy, with the glory of buildings and ritual reflecting for the eyes the wonder of praise. The concentration of attention to what was prayed and seen to be prayed in church formed liturgy so that the church became an antechamber of heaven. Along with eucharistic celebration went the ordered public prayer of the Divine Office where the continual public reading at fixed hours of the day and night of the prayer-book of the Bible, the Psalms, offered a vehicle for the expression of praise and repentance, as their christological sense was drawn out by context and form.

This sense of glory and the wonder of what God has done in Christ was reflected in the gold of the crosses and the richness of other church ornaments; in the beauty of language, of music, stained glass and painting. The buildings contained sacred space in which, as it were, even the stones cried out in praise, though again and again writers and preachers affirmed that external glory was only of value to God if matched by inner conversion. In a sermon for the anniversary of the dedication of the church at Jarrow, Bede added, after commenting on the external glory of church building and ornaments both in the Temple of Solomon and in his own monastery:

The marvellous workmanship that went into the construction of the Lord's earthly house [has delighted] you as you heard about it and so...these details spiritually understood [should] arouse our minds to more ardent love of our heavenly dwelling place.

(Bede 1990:267)

This sense of the immediate presence of the kingdom of God was linked to a view of history which pervaded both speculation and action. Time which had begun with the expulsion of Adam from paradise was with the coming of the new Adam, Christ, in its final phase; this was the sixth and last age of the world, in which glory was constantly breaking through from the majority of Christians already in heaven to those still on earth. The contact of Christians in this world with the saints was no wistful sentimentality but a practical awareness of their united life in Christ: the saints lived in the 'seventh age' of the world which was thought to run concurrently with the sixth or present age from the birth of Christ until the end of the world; both would find their culmination in the eighth and last 'age', the day of the Lord.

It is appropriate to refer briefly here to the tradition of devotion in these centuries in the Eastern parts of the Christendom, that is, in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, since the sense of the presence of the saints and the awareness of glory were there particularly emphasized. As in the medieval West, for the Orthodox East the Divine Liturgy was, and has continued to be, the source of devotion, with its stress on the dimension of mystery and of glory expressed and made personal by the living significance of symbols, gestures and icons, used as doors opening into heaven. As well as continuing this objective dimension of the early Church, Orthodoxy also fostered an intimate sense of prayer as the heart of religion for the individual, by its tradition of personal spiritual direction and also by stress upon the use of the formula 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner' as the focus of personal prayer, both of which traditions can also be found at times in other forms in the medieval West, but which have a continuity in the East which was lost in the different development of Western history.

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