Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Monasticism and the Medieval vision of Glory
There was darkness. There was cool fresh earth, rich with the seasons that it had beheld. There was a seed. A seed waiting, sleeping. There was a whisper, born on the wind. And then there was rain; and with it, a sunrise. And the seed was sleeping no longer.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and that life was the Light of men.” (The book of John chapter one, verses one through three).
Five hundred years. It was half of a millennium since that same, that pure Light walked this earth with the feet of a man. We, proud, blind to lies of our own time but ruling judgement on times past look back to this period and call it “The Dark Ages”. The eyes, however, of that age saw it differently. They saw glory, a divine dance, a golden harmony. Far from thinking themselves drowning in darkness, they seemed to see light woven into the very fabric of the universe. There was a golden chain connecting God the creator to the lowest creation, and along it’s length there was a place inherent for everything in existence. There was a purpose for every small and intricate detail of life. And life itself, while it lasted, was but a part in the much larger dance of the cosmos. The Medieval universe was well ordered, and finite. As C.S. Lewis says in regard to the construction of the Ptolemaic universe:
“The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.”
At the heart of every age, of every season of this earth, there are beliefs spoken and unspoken that shape nations and histories. They are the soil that feeds the roots of a tree growing with the rings of a multitude of years and times. When one looks to the pillars that stand as monuments to a given time in the history of this earth, one must first look at the ground upon which they are built. The support of their base. Though it is a tradition birthed long before that age; before, even, Christianity itself. Monasticism rose as one of the pillars standing tall in those “Middle Ages” straddling the two millennia this earth has known since Christ. In fact, monastics did much to shape common and religious everyday life for well over a thousand years quite prevalently beginning in that time. To look at the cosmology of the Middle Ages is to see some of the feast that gave life to the seed of a mighty tradition still very much alive in our own time. There is a particular detail of this, though connected to a multitude of cosmological layers, that is most interesting.
To the medievals, everything that existed had a ‘kindley stead’-a place to which it inextricably belonged by its very nature. In leu of this fact all matter, staying true to its respective kind, had a ‘kindley enclyning’. An inclination leading back to the place of its origin. Unless forcibly kept from its stead by some power outside of itself, it would always make its way back to the place of its belonging. Flames, for instance, (impure, here on earth) always rise in an attempt to return to the pure, unadulterated fire that separates earth, water, and air from the sphere of the moon. It is there that they belong and first found their being. One must only begin to study the vast tapestry that is the Ptolemaic universe and the cosmology of the Middle Ages, to see countless examples of this ‘enclyning’. Following this, it would reason clearly that the human soul, too, has such a stead and, consequently, just such an ‘enclyning’. In the words of Boethius:
‘All men on earth from one source take their rise; One Father of all the world all things supplies. To Phoebus, rays; horns to the moon on high, To earth its men, as starlight to the sky. To lodge in bodies, souls from heaven he leads; All mortals thus are sprung from noble seeds…’
Beyond all spheres and lesser influences, the human soul longs to return to the caecum ipsum, the very heaven. The glory of God. Our soul is as a flame seeking that pure fire. That same Light that once came down to us and offered us the home of our true yearning.
A monastic life is ideally a life lived as if that journey to our ‘kindley stead’ had already been completed. It seeks to live as closely in accordance with our proper place in the chain of being as is possible on a fallen earth. The monastic tradition is in a way a direct answer to the ‘kindley enclyning’ of the human soul. It is little wonder, then, that it should so flourish in the richness of the Medieval worldview. The intricacies of the monastic life are, at their core, tied to that same strong sense of purpose and place that vitalized the cosmology of the Middle Ages.
A seed living and waiting, burst forth in its season. A tradition growing into an ancient tree, its roots drinking deeply of a cosmology of glory inherent and its branches reaching up towards the very heaven.