July 6, 2016 Length: 50:34
In this latest episode on the impending Protestant Reformation, Fr. John discusses ways in which the long legacy of pessimism about the human condition and the world in general undermined western Christendom at one of her most critical moments.
Welcome back to this reflection on the crisis of Western Christendom. In the previous episode of this reflection, I spoke about the crisis of papal supremacy that afflicted Western Christendom within the Roman Catholic Church during the late Middle Ages, the period roughly from 1300 to about 1500, and of course immediately preceding the Protestant Reformation. In this episode of the reflection, I would like to look at another theme that brought about a crisis in the Western Christendom of that time, and this theme is traditional Christian cosmology, and the crisis of cosmology that accompanied the growing sense of anthropological pessimism in the West.
As I’ve noted in a previous reflection, anthropological pessimism was not native, was not natural to, traditional Christianity. As a matter of fact, I launched this entire podcast with a reflection on the cosmological optimism of Christendom in its origins at Pentecost. But I also noted along the way, much later after the beginning of the podcast, as a matter of fact when I began or launched the second part of it, that there arose in the West, especially in connection with the influence of St. Augustine there, there arose a pessimism, a theme of pessimism, that grew in strength after Augustine’s death and during the course of the Middle Ages. Here I would like to link up with those earlier reflections and comments about the theme of anthropological pessimism, in part by reminding my audience about some of its features in contrast with traditional Christianity, especially as that found in the Orthodox East, and then talking about some concrete manifestations of it during the late Middle Ages, when it had achieved or had reached its highest level of what might be called its maturity.
So first let me just say a word about traditional Christianity and the human tradition. The doctrine of the Incarnation at the heart of traditional Christianity asserted that man is the image of God and that sacramental communion with Christ brings about the total and complete transformation of the human being, male and female. Baptism, a life of regular communion (Eucharistic communion), bring about the entire transformation of the human being in Christ. And in the East, the doctrine of deification, with its accompanying claims that there is a synergy, a cooperation, between the human and the divine, through the sacramental life of the Church, had always upheld the doctrine of the Incarnation and brought about a very optimistic view of the human condition.
That’s not to say that the human condition was not subject to sin. And the Bible, certainly, the New Testament as well as the entire Christian Tradition, East and West, were very sober and honest about the darkness that covers this world, that has invaded this world, through the influence of the devil, through the manifestation of demonic activity. The world, of course, is overcome by sin, and by itself can never bring about the fulfillment of the optimism that traditional Christianity had, rooted exclusively in the sacramental communion of man with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
So the world was often described as a place of sin, and man would be judged at the end of time because of his sins. The Gospel of Matthew, for instance, chapter 25, speaks about the coming Judge, Christ himself, in the Last Judgment, and the overwhelming sense of fear and power that would come at that judgment. As a matter of fact, this passage—one of the passages from Matthew 25—is read in Orthodox churches every year in preparation for the coming of Great Lent. It’s the Sunday of the Last Judgment. So this certainly was a canonical and regular theme in traditional Christianity, and it is obviously a part of that faith.
The world itself, if we’re speaking about cosmology—the cosmos in Greek, the world in English—was something that regularly in the New Testament was described as a place where the devil and human sin are very commonly encountered. The Gospel of John, for instance, uses the word “world, cosmos” over and over again in this way. For instance, John 1:10 speaks about the darkness of this world, and Christ came into this world; the Word of God became flesh, and the darkness did not overcome Christ. But there was this darkness in the world. But the same Gospel, John’s Gospel, also speaks of the world as a place that God loves, the cosmos as something God loves. John 3:16 famously declares, and is repeated at every Orthodox Liturgy of John Chrysostom, that God so loved the world that he gave to it his only-begotten Son.
So the understanding of the cosmos, the cosmology of traditional Christianity as it springs out of such scriptural passages as John’s Gospel, is a complex one. There is darkness, there is sin, but there is also the goodness and beauty of this world which, after all, according to Genesis, is very good insofar as God created it.
But in that post-Augustinian tradition of the West, the world came to be more and more described as a place of brokenness, of almost complete brokenness, over the centuries. Caesarius of Arles was an early Christian Father following Augustine who, fighting against the continued perception of that heresy called Pelagianism, which attributed to the human being the ability to bring salvation to himself—this was Augustine’s main concern in developing his doctrine of original sin and original guilt—Caesarius of Arles had contributed to the institutionalization of Augustine’s pessimistic anthropology at the Second Council of Orange in the West, which occurred in 529.
After that, Augustine was very much the point of reference for so many Western Fathers, including Orthodox saints like Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome. It’s interesting that Gregory, who did develop doctrines in line with Augustine, doctrines which had a pessimistic kind of quality to them, nevertheless is described by George Demacopoulos as one whose understanding of salvation or soteriology was actually that of the Greek Fathers of the Church and not of Augustine. But he was, certainly, a transitional figure in the growing influence of Augustine in the West. As one famous Church historian, writing about 100 years ago, Philip Schaff, put it, he was the last of the Fathers, and the first of the popes: Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome.
And he did actually speak of a purgatorial fire and appropriated other doctrines that Augustine had introduced, emphasizing the rather pessimistic experience of human life in this world. But he nevertheless—Gregory did—softened Augustine’s doctrines of original sin and predestination. Nevertheless, with time and certainly by the Middle Ages, Fathers of the Roman Catholic West, such as Anselm, had fully embraced Augustine, and with it the implicit pessimism that went with Augustine on the human condition and its broader cosmology.
I just want to comment here for a moment, because Augustine is often treated from an Eastern Orthodox point of view as kind of the point when things started to go wrong in the West, and it’s hard not to see things this way sometimes. But I want to bring up what is I think a very interesting study that was made not very long ago by a Jesuit (Roman Catholic) scholar named David Vincent Meconi, as recently as 2013, in a book he wrote called The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification. As I’ve emphasized in the earlier reflection I just referred to, the Eastern doctrine of deification secured the optimism, the cosmological optimism, of traditional Christianity in the East. The Greek Fathers’ doctrine of deification did this, and that doctrine of deification faded. It didn’t totally disappear, but faded from the predominant understanding of soteriology or salvation in the West after the time of Augustine.
Nevertheless, in his work, David Vincent Meconi argues that Augustine actually did hold a theology of deification. He claimed that Augustine—or claims, because he’s still very much alive and writing and thinking about these things—on his book published, again, just a few years ago, he claims that Augustine possessed a doctrine of deification that can be discerned by reading through Augustine’s works, although it’s very noteworthy, I think, that the Latin variant of theosis only is used 18 times in the thousands of pages of theological reflection by Augustine; only 18 times does Augustine use the Latin variant of deification, which is from the Greek word theosis. But he argues, the author does, that Augustine’s doctrine is compatible with the Eastern Fathers. Obviously, he wants to see a bridge created between the Greek Fathers, which are so much celebrated more and more today in Western Christianity, and Augustine. He quotes Augustine as saying, “In order to make gods of those who were merely human, one who was God made himself human.” This is a quote from Augustine.
So a beautiful kind of effort, I think, to find in Augustine a doctrine of deification similar to the Greek Fathers. But certainly the overall impact of Augustine is one toward a more pessimistic anthropology, and with it, cosmology, than is found in the Greek East. I emphasize this again—and I know that my audience will see that I’ve done this many times throughout the podcast—but I do this because the cosmology of traditional Christianity, the cosmological optimism of it, is so very important in understanding the life history of Christendom over the ages, and why Western Christendom came to such a point of crisis, which in this reflection I’m now trying to document.
Let me now turn from the post-Augustinian tradition of the West to a point just before the Great Schism, where we can see these two cosmologies—one optimistic in the East, one grown increasingly pessimistic in the West—side-by-side, a kind of case study of two particular Fathers—one Greek, one Latin. The Greek Father is Symeon the New Theologian, and he lived just before the Great Schism, died in the early 1000s, before the Great Schism. Symeon the New Theologian is known for an ecstatic vision of man’s participation in the life of God, a very good example of hesychasm before that movement, which in another reflection I spent quite a bit of time documenting and discussing as a support for the continued life of Christendom in the East.
Well, contributing to this hesychast movement even before it was thoroughly defined by Gregory Palamas in the 14th century, Symeon emphasized that man experiences total participation in the life of God, that he can experience the uncreated light of God. In fact, I can quote Symeon here on that point. This is what he writes:
Indeed, there is no other way than to know God if not by seeing the light that emanates from him. In the same manner, concerning the subject of the invisible God, the unapproachable glory of his face, the energy and the power of his most-Holy Spirit…
Here, of course, the vocabulary of “energies” is being used that would be so important to Gregory Palamas and other hesychasts.
...in other words, his light, no one can speak of it if he does not see first the light itself with the soul’s eye, and does not know intimately its illuminations and energies.
So this is Symeon the New Theologian, whose writings emphasize the constant experience of spiritual transformation through the immediate experience of divine communion—deification. He spoke repeatedly of the need for repentance, but not a repentance that leads to gloom or despair, but one that leads to joy. He spoke about also the ongoing experience of God’s presence in the believer’s life, in this age, an experience of paradise.
Contrasting Symeon the New Theologian is another Father of the Church, in the West. So here we have someone born before the Great Schism, but who actually ends his life after the Great Schism, and that is Peter Damian. My audience will recall that Peter Damian was featured by me when I talked about the papal reformation, so there’s a reflection in this podcast called the Papal Reformation, where I quote Peter Damian at length as being an advocate for that reformation and the power and influence of the papacy, and specifically Peter’s arguments against a married priesthood in the West and insistence on celibacy. He wrote a famous letter of kind of diatribe against the women that were essentially living as wives with priests in the West before the final and complete assertion for priestly celibacy took hold in connection with the papal reformation of the eleventh century.
So Peter is born in the early 1000s and then dies after the Schism in the late 1000s or 11th century. He had some contact with Byzantine monasticism, coming from Ravenna. His biographer actually claimed that Symeon the New Theologian was such an influence on him. He became the abbot of a Benedictine monastery and assumed great influence, so much so that he was brought into the papal circles of Leo IX, of course, the pope who is responsible for sending Cardinal Humbert off to Constantinople in 1054 and excommunicating the Eastern Church, the Eastern Christians, with the result being the Great Schism of 1054.
He was an advocate for the papal reform movement. He said the following:
Unless the Roman see returns to the right way, it is certain that the whole world will remain in error, and it is necessary that she who was the foundation of the development of human salvation should also be the source of its renewal.
Here assigning, Peter does, a huge influence to the papacy in bringing about the salvation of the world through the renewal of the Western Church.
But Peter also was a proponent, not just of papal supremacy, but of a strong asceticism that was influenced by the Desert Fathers of early centuries, so important in their own way in the development of Eastern monasticism. He, like Symeon, spoke of tears of repentance as being tears of joy, a beautiful statement by him:
O tears of joy! better than honey or the honeycomb, and sweeter than any nectar. You who renew minds lifted up to God with the pleasant sweetness of the inward savor, and water dry and wasting hearts at their very core with the streams of heavenly grace!
A beautiful statement about the way that human repentance can lead to joy. He also had a vision of light. These are his words: “Holy men are able to look even now upon their Creator, by the grace of contemplation.” So here a sense even of that divine light, the uncreated light, that Symeon and other Eastern Fathers, monastic Fathers, spoke of.
But with Peter we also have a very severe kind of asceticism being introduced and advanced and developed in Western Christendom. Here especially one can bring attention to the role played in his piety in self-inflicted pain and punishment, namely through flagellation, through whipping oneself regularly and ritualistically, to produce pain, which, according to Peter Damian, was an effective, if not actually necessary, path toward human salvation. He wrote a book actually entitled In Praise of Flagellation. In it, he claimed that personal sins that otherwise would face judgment at the end of time, according to Matthew 25, for instance, as I mentioned, personal sins are atoned insofar as they satisfy God when they are—I’m sorry: not the sins but the punishment of those sins satisfies God. So if one flagellates oneself, one produces punishment upon oneself that is a form of satisfaction to God who otherwise would punish those sins himself. These are the words of Peter: “I scourge both flesh and spirit, because I know that I have offended in both flesh and spirit.”
In fact, Peter’s followers often went to excesses. One abbot of a monastery under Peter’s influence, one monk would regularly flagellate himself to such a degree—he would stand all night long in vigil, reading the psalter and whip himself many times with his psalm—that he actually disfigured himself. With time in the high Middle Ages, a flagellant movement or movements would occur in the Roman Catholic Church, where laity, lay people, would actually go on pilgrimages, and along the way they would flagellate themselves. They would come to public towns and stand in the marketplace and flagellate themselves, for their sins and the sins of the world, believing that by inflicting physical pain on themselves, they were somehow satisfying God’s wrath and anger.
I want to emphasize that the Roman Catholic Church officially looked on these movements with great suspicion and in some cases even condemned them, so this was not some sort of normative Roman Catholicism or piety, but it was a feature growing out of the pessimism about the human condition in this world that Peter Damian, as much as he participated in the joyful experience of paradise in this world, nevertheless opened the way toward.
My final comment here in this section of the episode about the human condition, the very, you might say, in the Western sense, the very pessimistic anthropological condition, is a book written by one of the most famous popes of the high Middle Ages, a book which went through many editions and became widely read, as much as can be a best-seller, of the late Middle Ages. And this book was written by none other than Pope Innocent III, the one who launched the Fourth Crusade which, against his orders, sacked Constantinople, and the one who also launched the Albigensian Crusade, which brought about so much violence and bloodshed within Western Christendom. Pope Innocent III wrote a book before he actually became a pope, entitled On the Misery of the Human Condition. It in some ways represents the very pessimistic anthropology which kind of took over in Western Christendom during the Middle Ages and especially the late Middle Ages. Let me quote one statement by Pope Innocent III from On the Misery of the Human Condition. His book is kind of a never-ending, just a complete reflection, assertion, of the misery of all human experience in this world, and this is a representative statement from it.
Let me elaborate upon this point (he writes, early in the work): man has been formed of dust, clay, ashes, and—a thing far more vile—of the filthy sperm. Man has been conceived in the desire of the flesh, in the heat of sensual lust, in the foul stench of wantonness.
Notice he here attributes to the sexual relationship even of a husband and a wife, joined through the sacrament of marriage, he sees this as something fundamentally broken and sinful, which was, in fact, how Augustine viewed acts of sexual intercourse between a husband and wife. Even if it produced children, it was in its very essence an act of concupiscence or evil desire, and therefore was sinful. So different from a more traditional Christian understanding of the sacrament of marriage, which was consecrated by Christ himself in the second chapter of the Gospel of John and praised in other parts of the Tradition of the Church.
He (man) was born to labor, to fear, to suffering, and, most miserable of all, to death. His evil-doings offend God, offend his neighbor, offend himself. He defiles his good name, contaminates his person, violates his conscience through his shameful acts. His vanity prompts him to neglect what is most important, most necessary, and most useful. Accordingly, he is destined to become the fuel of the everlasting, eternally painful hellfire, the food of voracious, consuming worms. His destiny is to be a putrid mass that eternally emits a most horrible stench.
So this is Pope Innocent III, On the Misery of the Human Condition. The curse of anthropological pessimism, growing up in the West, and not sufficiently modified by the doctrine of deification in the West over the course of many centuries, now by the late Middle Ages, as this book by Pope Innocent III is widely copied and distributed and read, this curse of anthropological pessimism became more and more pervasive in Western Christendom, creating what could be called a cosmological crisis in that civilization.
Now, the other point I want to make here is that, with this preoccupation with the misery of the human condition, during the late Middle Ages there grew a preoccupation with death, with human death. This to some extent was just naturally understandable because Western Christendom went through so many experiences that featured death on a mass scale. There was the 100 Years’ War, for instance, though it killed a lot fewer people than the 20th-century wars did. Of course, there [was] incessant feudal warfare taking place, but perhaps most emblematic of the constant experience of death was the Black Death, the bubonic plague, that in the middle of the 1300s killed in some cases 30% of the population of Western Christendom. How could that civilization not reel in the face of so much death?
There was in fact a preoccupation with death, and as I say some of this had natural causes like the Black Death of the bubonic plague, but some of it grew out of the anthropological pessimism and other features of traditional Christianity there. In traditional Christianity, death was experienced as victory. Christ’s death was the ultimate first-fruits of all human death. Christ’s death led to his resurrection. Death was experienced and represented in the early Church as victory, especially as found in the accounts of the martyrs of the Church.
But new patterns of death arose in the late Middle Ages, and these new patterns have been documented by historians, such as one French historian named Ariès. He wrote a kind of essay on new patterns of dying that cultural anthropologists can discern in the late Middle Ages. What he claimed was there was a transition during this period of time from the theme of victory, as found in early Christian understanding of death and continued very much to be the theme in the Eastern Church—from victory to judgment. He spoke in his work about an “accelerated eschatology,” to use a fancy word, of the late Middle Ages, by which was meant judgment came at the point of death, personal judgment at the point of one person’s death, that historically Christianity had supported an understanding of judgment that would come at the end of time, as Matthew 25, which I mentioned earlier, speaks about the second coming of Christ and the great and fearful judgment that will take place at the end of the cosmos, the end of the world. But now, more and more, judgment is accelerated. That eschatological experience of judgment is accelerated from the end of time to one’s own personal demise on his or her deathbed.
Now, according to Ariès, arises in Western civilization the deathbed experience, when someone’s whole life flashes before their eyes and they are confronted by their sins, especially, and the need to repent for them, atone for them at the point of their death. This was supported very much by the whole system of penance and repentance that existed in the West at this time. I’ll say more about that in just a moment. So death now ceases to be an experience of victory and becomes one of judgment, of impending doom for the individual. There arose books actually to deal with this and to document this development. One book was called The Art of Dying, and it was just one of many representative examples of the preoccupation with death and dying that began to characterize Western Christendom on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.
This preoccupation also was expressed in the rise of a new iconography. You might call it an iconography of pessimism, and this iconography is known as the dance of death. There arose at this time in the late Middle Ages pictorial representations of people who had died being led off to their judgment. This is called the dance of death. It featured kings and common people, men and women, bishops as well as priests—everyone, the whole human race, being led off inexorably to their judgment through death. The most famous example of such a painting is in Paris on the wall of the cemetery of the innocents in Paris. There was painted a famous image of the dance of death.
But I find more interesting a representation within an actual church itself that was made at this time in a church of the Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje in modern-day Slovenia. This Roman Catholic church was built and its iconography was painted in the late Middle Ages, just on the eve of the Reformation, and it features on its southern wall within the church an image of the dance of death. Recently in my historical blog where I try to talk about more modern features of Christendom and its history than I do in this podcast so far, I actually featured and show an image of exactly this icon, this mural painting. Listeners can go to my historical blog to look at it—that blog is simply johnstrickland.org—and take a look at it. You’ll have to go back a few entries to find it, but it is very striking.
Very striking to contrast this with the very glorious and victorious iconography found in churches such as those in Ravenna like Sant’ Apollinare, which I’ve talked about and I actually feature on that historical blog on the home page. The main picture is the image from that church built in Justinian’s time in Italy, Orthodox Italy, showing women marching toward the kingdom of heaven on the north wall, facing the altar, oriented toward the kingdom of heaven or paradise, even in this age through their liturgical worship. In this church of Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje in Slovenia, you see almost the opposite emphasis. On the southern wall you see people leaving the church, their orientation or dis-orientation is toward the western entrance of the church. They are not marching forward to the kingdom of heaven represented in the east, but they are marching out of the church toward death. It is a striking and very interesting contrast with the early Christian image of the experience of paradise in Christendom.
This is an example, a kind of iconography of pessimism that arose around the preoccupation of death at this time. Another example is hymnographical. It is at this time in the late Middle Ages—high Middle Ages, late Middle Ages: it becomes very popular that the famous hymn called the Dies Irae is composed and disseminated and becomes very widely popular in the Roman Catholic West. Dies irae: day of wrath, the opening phrase of which is:
Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with sybil’s blending.
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
That’s how the hymn begins. Now, there are definitely traditionally Christian themes of optimism and hope in this hymn, but the overall emphasis is upon doom and God’s wrath bringing judgment upon the human being. It is in fact, I might note, exactly this hymn, rendered in Gregorian chant form, that I feature now at the ending of every episode of my podcast. So you can listen for that at the end of this episode if you haven’t heard it already. Day of wrath, dies irae.
The final point I want to make in today’s episode is that, in addition to the curse of anthropological pessimism and also in addition to the preoccupation with death, both of which emphasize or brought attention to the crisis of anthropological pessimism, of traditional Christian cosmology generally, we have very visible by the late Middle Ages in the West a system of repentance that we could call a penitential system, a systemization of penance, of ways of going about repenting of one’s sins, that contributes to this pessimism. During the Middle Ages, there arose in the West a very formalized approach to Christian penance. Of course, repentance had always been at the heart of Christianity. Christ began his ministry by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Paradise, the kingdom of heaven, is entered through repentance, and this is a lifelong process for every Christian. But in the West there arose a very formalized system of repentance, of penance, that emphasized a kind of penitential piety. This can be seen in the inflation of penance that took place in the high Middle Ages and continued to develop in the late Middle Ages.
The turning point was probably about 1215, when, during the pontificate of the same Innocent III who wrote On the Misery of the Human Condition, a council was held called the Fourth Lateran Council, sponsored of course now, as all councils were, by the pope, in 1215, this council actually institutionalized, legally, canonically, the requirement of an annual confession for all Christians in good standing. This brought about a greater systemization of penance that required a heightened role for the clergy, to obtain absolution through canonical confession.
Now it was necessary for one to go to a priest and to obtain absolution from that priest, and the clergy’s role, of course always very important in Christendom, now became more and more formalized in a legalistic kind of manner. This was connected to the institution of plenary indulgences that only priests could offer by the authority of the pope. These plenary indulgences first appeared after the Great Schism during the pontificate of Urban II, during the First Crusade, which he launched. Again, I have a reflection talking about the role of the Crusades in post-Great Schism Western Christendom. There also arose a doctrine connected to indulgences and the role of the clergy in obtaining absolution, a doctrine of the treasury of merits, as it was known, related to Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastic theologians of this time. There is a belief that one can tap into an almost bank account kind of understanding of merits that one can acquire, and this will assist them in the judgment that is impending against them from God.
There arose around all of this a kind of calculus of penances. Confessional manuals began to appear that relate particular sins to exact penances that have to be offered for satisfaction of those. A very legalistic kind of piety arose now, penitential piety arose. Along with it arose the emphasis on “good works” as they were known, such as pilgrimages which now, instead of being an experience of the kingdom of heaven in this world, going to a place in this world that has been filled with divine grace, now pilgrimages are formalized acts of penance that pay off, atone for, satisfy sins that people have committed. A pilgrimage might be assigned by a priest as a penance for certain acts of sin, great acts of sin, and people would go on pilgrimages in order to atone for their sins rather than to experience paradise.
Some of these things, then, in this penitential system, were centered upon penance and the experience of penance. But also, the doctrine of purgatory began to assume great importance. We could even talk about the culture of purgatory. I talked about the birth of purgatory in Roman Catholic piety in another reflection, but here I’ll just remind listeners that this is very post-Schism medieval doctrine that had its origins in the Roman Catholic Church during that time. Now purgatory assumed within the culture of Western Christendom a great importance. People had the near-inevitable certainty or prospect of purgatorial punishment after they died. And purgatory was conceived as equal to hell itself, only without despair. I talked about the purgatory of St. Patrick in an earlier reflection, and the experience of horrendous suffering there. There is a rise in purgatorial iconography in the paintings of this time, and of course famously Dante in his Divine Comedy dedicated one entire book, the Purgatorio, the Purgatory, to this theme.
Finally, here, let me bring attention to the theme in Western Christendom in the eve of the Reformation: calling people to repentance, how, as more and more emphasis was placed upon the penitential system in the West and the role of the clergy in bringing people to atone for their sins and obtain satisfaction through the working out of penances. The call to repentance became very important, and it became taken up by that new cadre or order of clergy known as the mendicant monks, the mendicant orders of monks, the Franciscans and the Dominicans especially, who left monasteries behind and intermixed with the world in an effort to bring the Gospel to the world and to serve other purposes. I talked about the transformation of Western monasticism in the Middle Ages earlier in the podcast.
Here let me just bring attention to the role now played by itinerant preachers. It’s a remarkable feature of late medieval Roman Catholic piety that many of these mendicant monks, Franciscans and Dominicans, traveled around Western Christendom, preaching repentance to people, calling on them to repent, sometimes participating in those flagellant societies or groups that appeared, but there’s a long list of very brilliant and very influential Roman Catholic mendicants who play a role in this: Vincent Ferrer, who died in 1419, made tours of Western Christendom, kind of missionary tours, to bring people to repentance. Another is Bernardino of Siena, who died in 1444. Another is John of Capistrano, who died in 1456. And finally—well, not finally, but another is James of the Marches, who died in 1476. So these are just a few of the examples of these saints who traveled around, calling on people to repent. We have in their piety, the piety they tried to instill in the West, all of the features of the cosmological pessimism that I’ve described so far in today’s episode.
There was a deep pessimism about the human condition and of the overall cosmos that they communicated. As a matter of fact, in their writings they largely brought into being what came to be known later in the Protestant Reformation and beyond as the “hellfire sermon” that emphasizes man’s impending doom before a wrath-filled God. Let me quote one of these preachers that I just mentioned. This is San Bernardino, who died in the middle of the 15th century. This is what he wrote, or this is what he said, proclaimed, publicly: a good example of the growing pessimism of a sinful humanity in a broken world facing a wrath-filled God. It contrasts the God of love and kindness and mercy with the God of vengeance, emphasizing that the God of vengeance is perhaps the more important understanding of God than one of mercy. This is what San Bernardino wrote, speaking to his audience.
Yes, you wretch, God is good, God is merciful, and infinitely better and more merciful than you imagine or could possibly imagine. At the same time, learn that this same God, so good and so merciful, threw from the heights of heaven down to the lowest depths of hell the third part of the angels, these lovely and noble creatures, merely for a sinful thought, conceived in a moment and without any other moment in which they might do penance. It is the same God who banished Adam from the earthly paradise for eating a fruit against his injunction, who condemned him to endless woes and just as swiftly condemned his descendants to the flames of hell.
This same merciful God condemned his own Son to die on the cross for the expiation of sins he had not committed, but especially this good, kind God will see throughout eternity an almost infinite number of poor souls languishing in the blazing pits of fire, making horrible shrieks and eternal howls. And he will never even think to deliver them from their agony, nor be touched with the least compassion for them. Therefore, learn if you do not know this already, that when you say that God is good, you speak true, but you have not spoken the entire truth, for you must add that he is just, that the extent of his kindness equals that of his justice, that just as he is infinitely good so is he infinitely just, and that the strictness of his justice primarily touches those who will have abused his goodness, and that to offend him and so they will have to endure a wounded mercy and angered justice.
What severe words of hellfire San Bernardino threw at his audience on a regular basis! And it was this piety, this pessimistic piety, taking place in this crisis, this crisis of traditional Christian cosmology in the late Middle Ages that of course influenced the early Protestants who grew up within it. I’ll just end today’s episode reminding my audience of the words of Luther, who encountered this kind of piety and shivered at the thought of his unworthiness before God and the impending doom and destruction that he faced before he launched the Protestant Reformation with his new understanding of penance, something I described in the anecdote in the beginning of the reflection of the podcast, the very words of Luther himself in the face of this crisis of traditional Christian cosmology. “Love God?” Luther asked at that time. “I hated him.”
Join me next time, when I complete this reflection by looking at the Protestant Reformation and the impact it had and the contributions it made to the crisis of Western Christendom.