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.

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