Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saint Francis

By Robert West, 233 pages,

Robert West's Saint Francis is not a hagiography that paints an icon-like saintliness around Francis. He examines the spiritual and psychological path of the saint, using original sources and some imaginative fiction.

West excels at showing the intense struggle, as the wealthy merchant's son gradually let go of his romantic visions of worldly knighthood and the party-life with his fellow drunkards of Assisi. Saint Francis had been no saint before he became a saint.

Francis struggled intensely, and went through periods of spiritual ecstasy, especially after momentous occasions as when he gave all his possessions back to his father in front of the bishop and truly embraced Lady Poverty. Over time, he sobered up from his spiritual highs and began attracting followers by preaching with simple language.

On the book's plus side, readers get a sense of the weaknesses of the saint and his real humanity. He needed to be the poorest of the crowd. If another mendicant came along who renounced the world more fervently than Francis, and loved the lepers and other outcasts more, St. Francis would immediately make a dramatic gesture to regain his top position as the poorest of the poor.

On the book's negative side, the author fails to give readers the big view of Francis in his society. While he does give enough information at the personal level, including the ridicule that the earliest Franciscans received, and the irascible nature of Pietro Bernardone, the saint's father, readers get almost no sense of the truly revolutionary work of the Franciscans, who were an example of poverty in a Church at its medieval wealthiest.

Neither do readers get a sense of the larger opposition to this ecclesiastical wealth, and why the Franciscans, unlike other penitential movements such as the Waldensians, were able to convince the Church that they were faithful.

West does give a sense of the intense struggle Francis fought over the issue of poverty, an issue that the saint never totally resolved. Francis strove for total destitution for himself and his order. When he and his brothers had occupied a ramshackle old building or a cowshed for 2 weeks, they would move on. Essentially vagrant and homeless, their form of asceticism could not be easily folded into the institutional nature of the Church.

Francis and his ideals were protected by the bishop of Assisi, some members of the papal curia, and Pope Innocent III, who himself gave much to the poor. Accounts vary as to whether this pope immediately took to Francis and his companions.

Through visions and dreams, which were important in medieval Christianity, powerful men were told by God of how Francis would totally renew the corrupt Church and eventually bring people throughout the world to Christ. Perhaps this reflects the churchmen's anxiety over their corrupt ways, and their desire for a simpler Church.

West gives readers a good sense of the success of Francis and the Franciscans at reforming the Church and renewing Christ's ideal of poverty and self-renunciation. The author also shows that this process took a deep toll on the saint, as he essentially died for his Lady Poverty.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mystics In Spite Of Themselves: Four Saints and the Worlds They Didn't Leave

By R.A. Herrera, 124 pages Eerdmans.

Medieval churchmen were often forced by their times to wear many hats. Needed in government because they were the most skilled and able at bureaucracy, they nonetheless had to perform their church and spiritual duties. While many modern observers accuse such bishops and monks of being power-hungry, in fact many of them did feel called to a life of quiet prayer far from the demands of power and society.

Herrera examines the spiritual side to theological giants, including Saints Augustine (354-430), Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), and Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109).

Despite the sometimes-heavy subject matter, Mystics In Spite Of Themselves is a simple read that introduces basic issues of philosophy and theology to readers. The author weaves biography with theology and philosophy, showing the connection between each of these men and their teachings.

Augustine battled heretics, deepened our understanding of the Trinity, and elaborated on basic Christian concepts of sin, sacraments, marriage, and the Church. The saint echoed ancient Greek findings on the soul including, Herrera notes, "the method of interiorization, the psychology of the outer and the inner man, and the use of erotic language to describe higher realities."

Though Pope Gregory was from a wealthy Roman family, and therefore classically educated, he felt called to contemplation throughout his life. After serving as papal ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople, where he engaged in some of the heated theological arguments there, he returned to Rome and eventually had the papacy foisted upon him.

Though he was an able bureaucrat who saved the city of Rome and the entire south of Italy from the barbarians, he also found time to send missionaries to England and to write theological and spiritual treatises. He borrowed heavily from Augustine's Platonism.

Despite his worldly power, Gregory never fully became a man of the world, teaching: "The human soul should move toward a participation in the life to come, which is one of unalterable stillness, a peace which is both light and silence."

Yet this thinking did not make him indifferent to the world's suffering. He aided the poor whenever he could.

Herrera's writing offers a crystal clear picture of the active and contemplative paths of Christian living as taught by Gregory. As many ancients and medievals, he valued the contemplative over the active, one reason why the Benedictine life became so widespread in the Middle Ages. It was regarded as the highest form of Christian living.

By Anselm's age, the barbarians had long settled down in Italy and elsewhere, and Christendom, under Pope and Emperor, had taken deep roots.

Anselm fought with the king over the power to appoint bishops and over clerical exemption to the law, and the subsequent implementation of canon law there. Not surprisingly, he was exiled on more than one occasion. Lacking Gregory's bureaucratic skills, this allowed him to lead a life of prayer and to write his influential theological treatises.

Though these churchmen made great contributions to the Church, they did so under obedience to a higher power. They would have preferred a more contemplative existence.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Book That Made Your World

By Vishal Mangalwadi, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Mangalwadi takes a Protestant view of history, honoring Wycliffe, Hus, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant world in general for advances in science, human rights, politics, and economics. Hope is the great lesson of the Bible, and Protestants, as Bible-readers, developed a fuller reading than the medieval church had.

Not a bad understanding, but it shows Mangalwadi's bias against Catholicism. For instance, many leading modernizing developments, such as science, came out of Catholic Italy and France. The author does discuss the great medieval achievements in science and learning, yet makes oft-repeated generalization, such as that the Church closed learning during the middle ages. It didn't - people from all walks of life were educated in universities and simpler schools.

Also, he makes the oft-repeated generalization about the Crusades, including the error that the Crusaders killed all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. A more updated reading of those wars would have shown him that, no, the crusaders didn't kill everyone, and that they were no more vicious than others at that time.

This book has excellent parts, and avoids bashing the west. The author makes startling assertions that would offend many people, such as the claim that the Bible made modern India. We need more of this kind of thought-provoking, free (rather than p.c.-driven)-thinking. He also avoids romanticizing the west, warning against Kurt Cobain nihilism, showing that suicide is the rational result of nihilism.

A timely book that could use a more balanced approach at times regarding Catholicism.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades

By Rodney Stark, 276 pages, Harper One.

"The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God's battalions," concludes Stark after vigorously defending the ideals and actions of the fighting men and their ideal.

God's Battalions takes on centuries of Crusades-bashing, starting with Protestants, then Enlightenment thinkers and their followers, and secularists and feminists, who went one step further and began to highly esteem the Muslim opponents, above all Saladin.

Stark shows how this negativity is a profound, even willful misreading of the Crusades.

First, the Crusades were not the first step in European colonialism. Stark notes that a colonial relationship is one of economic inequality, where the colony is exploited by the mother country. The crusader states set up after the First Crusade were an enormous financial burden on all of Europe, as people, especially the noble houses directly involved, mortgaged or sold land, and were subjected to heavy taxes to support the new states.

Europe at the time was enjoying economic prosperity and growth and therefore had the means to pay for this, but Europeans never gained financially from the Crusader states.

Second, Stark shows that the Crusaders, contrary to their current image, were not more vicious and intolerant than the Muslims they were fighting. Each side adhered to common fighting practices of the day.

Thus the Crusaders killed many in Jerusalem in 1099 because the city had fought off the Crusaders' siege rather than entreating for peace. Likewise, Saladin did not kill the inhabitants of Jerusalem when he took it over not because he was nobler than the Crusaders. Rather, the people of Jerusalem eventually sued for peace, which meant, by the custom of the day, that they could live.

Third, by far the most important argument, Stark notes time and again that Muslims were continuously provoking Christians into the Crusades. He traces how they had taken over lands that had been Christian for centuries. The Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries went across north Africa and up into Spain by force, yet those today who attack the Crusades avoid judging this violent seizure.

In other words, critics of the Crusades do not hold Muslims to the same harsh standards of judgment.

Hardly mentioned by these critics, in the decades leading up to the Crusades, Muslims provoked the Crusades by continuously massacring the constant flow of Christian pilgrims going to Jerusalem. Survivors back in Europe would tell tales of woe, and countless families suffered deep losses when their members were killed on pilgrimage. European Christians were outraged.

Stark does show how the Crusades also developed out of the problems facing Christian Europe at the time. Pilgrimage played a central role in the life of Europe at the time. Some sins, especially of the knightly nobility, could only be expunged, according to the confessors, through pilgrimage.

The knights of the day were violent men who loved to kill, so they always had blood on their hands and a soul to cleanse. The Crusades thus became part of the penitential ideal.

God's Battalions is a much needed answer to the never-ending wave of Catholic-bashing.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


By Norbert Wolf, 96 pages large size, Taschen.

In this excellent art book, Wolf discusses the life and work of perhaps the greatest German artist, Albrecht Dürer, a multi-talented artist whose woodcarvings, paintings, and even sculptures reached as far as Italy. There, he has been considered a master of the Renaissance, as Wolf shows.

The author gives readers a solid introduction to the artistic world of late medieval Europe in which Dürer lived. This background played an important role in the German's development as an artist, as through his travels to Italy, France, and Germany he came into contact with the great artists and artistic movements of the day.

Dürer, like other artists, was deeply influenced both by the Church and by the Renaissance. His work follows the familiar motifs of the time, including innumerable paintings of the Virgin with Child, and images from the Bible such as Christ Among the Doctors, which portrays a young Jesus with long hair arguing with aggressive, old men surrounded by innumerable books. His young, innocent face contrasts with their demeanor.

Many of the artist's paintings were portraits of members of the local leading German families. Wolf introduces Dürer's city, Nuremberg, to the reader, as the leading German city of the time, especially culturally. Dürer's father had moved there from Hungary to work as a goldsmith, later briefly apprenticing his son, the future artist.

These portraits are among his most famous works. Portrait of a Young Man depicts a young, wealthy mover-and-shaker of Nuremberg dressed in a fashionable hat, fur-lined jacket, and expensive white shirt. The man's piercing eyes seem alive, enhanced by the realistic features of the man's face, including eyebrows, whispy moustache, and uneven facial skin. Unafraid to portray the aging, diseased, or dying, the reverse of the painting portrays "a repulsive hag," according to the author.

Dürer moved among the leading patricians of the city, and worked on projects for the municipality itself. He painted the emperor Maximillian, as well as a woodcut for the emperor from 1515, the largest woodcut ever, according to Wolf, depicting Maximillian's family tree. The woodcut, reflecting the artistic precision the painter learned as a goldsmith apprentice, was actually carried out by a team of artists under the master's direction.

Wolf explains well the meaning behind many artworks, such as perhaps Dürer's most famous, Rider, which, depicting a medieval knight on his horse, has inspired countless people:

"The protagonist of the picture, his visor raised, is looking down the path ahead. His profile is sharply drawn, his face darkly energetic. He seems heedless either of the skeletal figure of Death right beside him, holding out an hourglass containing the trickling sands of time, or of the Devil approaching from the rear. The fantastical scene is set in a ravine between rocky cliffs."

Nuremberg adopted the Lutheran reforms but never lost sense of its artistic heritage. Luther himself never opposed religious art as strenuously as the Calvinist reformers, so Dürer was allowed to continue his work, as he also supported the reformation.

Durer, in fact, was a true Christian humanist: "In the spirit of the Renaissance, he believed that the beauty of the gods of classical antiquity should set the supreme standard in art, even where the subjects portrayed were Christian."