“Mysteries of the Middle Ages” by Thomas Cahill

“Mysteries of the Middle Ages” by Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill’s book Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe is the fifth volume of his acclaimed Hinges of History series. The goal of this series is to “retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West.”[1] Accordingly this book sought not so much to document historical events as to introduce the reader to the complex world of the Middle Ages and tell the story of how the “combined sources of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures”[2] shaped our modern culture.             Rather than starting at the beginning of the Middle Ages, Cahill begins with a Prelude focused on late antique Alexandria, Egypt, before moving into an Introduction that bridged the gap between the antique and medieval periods. While this beginning seems odd and very circular, it helps the reader understand “by contrast: how different are the seeds from the soil that nourished them, how splendid will be the flowers compared with the seeds.”[3]             Chapter one begins sixty-five pages into the volume with a focus on exploring the medieval fascination with female virginity. Using the life of St. Hildegard (1098-1179 C.E.) as an example, Cahill unpacks the “unassailable assumption…[that] the sacrificial virginity of exceptional religious figures…made them more Christ-like than the rest of us.”[4] Interestingly enough, Cahill follows this chapter with a chapter devoted to love and romantic desire as seen through the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204 C.E.). Though it may...
Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works

Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works

During the 12th century Bernard of Clairvaux was a major force of monastic reform and political intrigue. Known as ‘Doctor Mellifluous,’ Bernard was very active in the “many political and ecclesiastical disputes”[1] of his time including being a major supporter of the Second Crusade. At his core, however, Bernard was a mystic who longed to spend his time “meditating on the love of God” and the “humanity of Christ.”[2] It is this latter side of Bernard that comes out in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics book Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works which contains multiple sermons and letters by Bernard along with his treatise “On Loving God.” The volume starts off with a transcript of Bernard’s sermon “On Conversion” delivered in Paris sometime during the year 1140 A.D.[3] Written – and most likely delivered – with a pastoral heart, Bernard tries hard to convince people that following God is a noble and worthy cause worth forsaking worldly fame and success. After walking through various points of arguments for and against the conversion of the heart, Bernard declares at the end of the sermon that no matter the cost “those whose treasure is in heaven have no reason to fear.”[4] Bernard’s treatise “On Loving God” makes up the second part of the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics book. This treatise was composed between 1125 and 1141 A.D. at the request of Aimeric, “cardinal deacon of the Church in Rome,”[5] who wished to know “why and how God ought to be loved.”[6] Bernard initially answers this question in eight words, “the cause of loving God is God himself”[7], before elaborating on this response in great...
“The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis

“The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas à Kempis

In the late-fourteenth century a young man from the village of Kempen named Thomas Haemerken joined a spiritual renewal movement started a few decades earlier by a Dutch scholar named Geert Groote.[1] The movement was centered around the life of Jesus of Nazareth with adherents devoting “their lives to study and to educating the world.”[2] After years of study, Haemerken, better known as Thomas à Kempis or Thomas of Kempen, would share the Christ-centered values of the movement with the everyone through one of the most famous and widely read devotional books in the world, The Imitation of Christ.[3]              Written in four parts, The Imitation of Christ invites the reader to “study the life of Jesus Christ” so that we may “imitate His life and habits.”[4] To that end, the first part seeks to provide the reader with instructions on how to renounce the values of the world (e.g. pride, material possessions, selfishness) in favor of spiritual soul care and formation. “The greatest wisdom,” Thomas writes, “[is] to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world.”[5] Though this is not an easy message to embrace, it is one worth pursuing as in doing so we “will find peace and will experience less hardship because of God’s grace and the love of virtue.”[6]             The second part of the book focuses on the interior life of the reader through a look at the “deeper aspects of the spiritual life, in which God illuminates our hearts with His truth.”[7] It was this selection that really caught my attention as Thomas’ words on mediation, grace, humility, and the Cross...
“Francis of Assisi and His World” by Mark Galli

“Francis of Assisi and His World” by Mark Galli

The book Francis of Assisi and His World is a relatively small book packed with full color pictures of relics, paintings, maps, and buildings from the time of Francis of Assisi. While this format is uncommon among theology/history books, it makes sense considering it was written by the Managing Editor of Christianity Today magazine, Mark Galli. Though different, the format does fit with Galli’s goal of helping the reader “understand the modern medieval Francis” by giving them a “glimpse of life in the Middle Ages.”[1]             The textual style of the book built upon the graphical format of the book and helped tell the story of Francis. Though Galli consulted a “great deal of scholarship”[2] in researching the book, he chose to keep the text concise with a moving narrative. This choice worked incredibly well as I found myself fully engaged with the material while pictures of Assisi and Francis swirled around my head.             Content wise, Galli divided the story of Francis into thirteen parts that follow the general time progression of the saint’s life. The first nine chapters dealt mostly with the more historical events of the saint – i.e. his time as a knight, when he disowned his father, the founding of the Franciscan order, etc. Chapters ten through twelve focused more on Francis teachings and life reflections though they still followed the basic timeline of his life, especially the time after he stepped down from leadership and was preparing to die. Galli uses the last chapter not only to give the reader a sense of what happened to the Franciscan order after Francis death, but...
Francis and Clare: The Complete Works

Francis and Clare: The Complete Works

Saint Francis (1182-1226 C.E.) and Saint Clare (1193-1253 C.E.) are two of the most famous saints in the history of Christian Spirituality having “captured the hearts and imaginations of men and women of all nationalities and creeds through the centuries.”[1] Both saints grew up in the Italian city of Assisi around the same time though it is unclear if they knew each other before 1212 C.E. when Clare pledged herself to Christ in the presence of Francis and the bishop of Assisi.[2] In the years that followed this pledge, Clare and Francis became joined together in the minds of their followers as they lived out the ways of Lady Poverty.             The volume in question contains all the known writings of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare. The first half of the book is focused on Francis displaying the twenty-eight works firmly established as written by Francis along with five dictated letters/blessings.[3] The most famous of these works is “The Earlier Rule” which help establish and guide the Order of Friars Minor (i.e. the Franciscans).[4] Saint Clare’s writings make up the latter half of the book. Included in this selection are her four letters to Blessed Agnes of Prague as well as “The Rule of Saint Clare” that guided the actions of the Order of Poor Ladies.[5]             While the writings of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare were interesting from a historical view point, I have to admit that I wasn’t personally impacted by their writings. Their radical dedication to Lady Poverty, while honorable, isn’t something that tugs on my spirit, though I do embrace material simplicity which...
Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis

Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis

Born in a small town in central Italy, Saint Bonaventure entered the Franciscan Order in 1243 C.E. at twenty-six years of age while studying at the University of Paris.[1] Fourteen years later he was elected as the Minister General of the Order, a position he would retain until his death on July 15, 1274 C.E.[2] Throughout his career, Bonaventure was a prolific writer whose writings covered multiple genres including sermons, administrative writings, scholastic treatises, spiritual works, and lecture series.[3] The volume currently under review contains three of Bonaventure’s spiritual writings (The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis), which, when taken together, “offer a comprehensive picture of Bonaventure’s Franciscan spirituality.”[4]             Bonaventure’s mystical masterpiece The Soul’s Journey Into God is the first work offered in the volume. Drawing off St. Francis’ vision of a winged Seraph, Bonaventure develops six stages of illumination (one stage per wing of the Seraph) through which “the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevation of Christian wisdom.”[5] Written in seven chapters, the work serves a summa of mystical theology in that it brings together all the “major strands of Christian spirituality”[6] during the Middle Ages.             The second work included in this volume is The Tree of Life, which is a “meditation on the life of Christ, based on the Gospel accounts of his birth, public ministry, passion, death, resurrection and glorification.”[7] The work is split into three parts focused on the mystery of Jesus’ origin, his passion, and his glorification. Within each of these parts, Bonaventure uses the image of a tree bearing twelve...