Persuasion Week Two: Ch. 4-6, vol. I

Welcome back to the Summer Old Book Club with Jane Austen’s Persuasion! Today, I chat for way too long with a very special guest about ch. 4-6 of vol. I.

Today’s conversation partner is John Irwin. John grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and now lives in Denver, Colorado. He is brilliant, empathetic, and deeply creative. He is also my younger brother and one of the most wonderful people you will ever meet! When he was a kid, he wrote elaborate scripts for new Star Wars movies and directed myself, our sister, and our cousins in them (they were high quality). He graduated from the University of Arizona with a B.A. in History, and knows a lot about Genghis Khan in particular. He has watched more obscure foreign movies than anyone else I know, and used to keep a brilliant blog on them that I wish he would start up again, because he is a gifted writer and thinker. John is a tutor for children and adults with reading disabilities in Denver, and is going to teach English in Spain next year. 

John and my daughter

John and I talk Regency-era ideas on class, more character introductions (hello Captain Wentworth), Austen’s meanest (and quite phallic) joke, the wretched Mary Musgrove, and more… be sure to either watch the YouTube video, embedded below, or listen on the podcast service of your choice.

If you enjoy this episode, feel free to share with a friend or to comment with questions or discussion topics you’d like to see. Be sure to subscribe on YouTube, the podcast, or this blog so that you don’t miss the next!

Persuasion Week One: Ch. 1-3, vol. I

The Summer Old Book Club is finally here!

We are headed into (fingers crossed) a better season than most of us have had in a while, so I wanted to do something lighter and more social for the summer. Get out your regency dresses, practice your subtle insults, and prepare to be thrilled by lingering eye contact—we are reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion! I have gathered some friends to discuss this incredible novel with me. These friends include two English professors, a math curriculum specialist for public schools, the aforesaid structural engineer, a tutor for kids with reading disabilities, a documentary maker for NPR, and more. They share in common that they are smart, thoughtful, kind, curious people who are willing to talk about Jane Austen with me. Some of them have never read Persuasion before; some of them teach Persuasion every year to college students! We will read three chapters at a time across these two months. I’m hoping you will join us as well for this summer reading adventure, and I’m giving plenty of advance notice so that if you wish, you can procure a copy and even start reading. Form your own reading groups, or read the novel in an existing book club, and invite friends to listen in on the podcast and have your own discussions (preferably with a glass of summery wine).

This week, Dr. Jessica Ward talks the very first part of Persuasion with me. My good friend Jessica grew up in Texas. She got her doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and specialized in medieval literature like myself. We met while she took a class at Duke with one of my advisors, who ended up being one of her advisors as well. We both work on intersections of theology, ethics, and literature in medieval poetry. Her dissertation was on the role of avarice in late medieval English poetry, and it was pretty amazing. I would know, because we have been in a writing group together for about seven years and we have read a lot of each other’s writing over the years. She is a generous, faithful friend. A gifted teacher and brilliant scholar, she is now Assistant Professor of Early British Literature at Mercy College in New York City. Jessica is married to George and a dog-mom to two adorable shih tzus, who sometimes join us on writing group Zoom calls. 

We spend a lot of time discussing the amazing, sharply humorous beginning of this book and meet all the characters, including our heroine, Anne Elliot. Check out our conversation either on the podcast service of your choice or on Youtube, which I’ve embedded below. I hope you enjoy it. Please leave comments on the video or blog if you have questions or ideas you want to discuss. I’d love to hear them.

A Short Introduction to Jane Austen

Chawton Cottage, from which Jane Austen published the majority of her novels. Image credit: Allan Soedring, via

I am a medievalist scholar by training, but a mega-fan of Jane Austen since I first read Pride and Prejudice at the age of 11, receiving seven stickers on my reading chart for completing it in Miss Frey’s sixth grade honors reading class. It was the Puffin Classics abridged version, with a fetching picture of a Georgian lady and gentleman on the cover and Pride and Prejudice in lilac lettering, and I felt very grown up reading it. Today, I am absolutely thrilled to start the Summer Old Book Club with Persuasion. Of course, we are not looking at Persuasion quite yet, but thinking about the “authoress” herself, the incomparable Jane Austen.

Nothing helps us to read and understand a book more than a study into its author and atmosphere in which it was written. Of course, it’s not necessary—millions have read and enjoyed Persuasion without thinking one moment about the Napoleonic Wars—but we will understand her witty, provocative writing all the more when we have some awareness about the times and places in which she wrote.

Jane Austen’s Short, Impactful Life

Austen was born at Steventon Rectory in Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775. In Lucy Worsley’s wonderful biography of Austen, Jane Austen at Home, she records the words of the naturalist Gilbert White who lived in a nearby village. He writes that it was a particularly harsh winter: dark by 3 in the afternoon indoors, with “copious condensations” running down the walls, wainscots, and looking glasses inside houses. Can you imagine giving birth in a cold parsonage? Jane was born to Cassandra Leigh Austen and George Austen, the village priest. The family was devoutly Anglican and rather Tory in their political sympathies. She had one older sister, Cassandra, and several older brothers. 

In the custom of the time, she was raised by a foster-mother in her early years in the village. Mrs. Austen nursed her babies but then sent them, once they were weaned, to spend days and nights with a nurse. Jane was very shy as a child, an acute observer of the world and often silent, though she played hard with her sister and brothers. She was especially close to her sister, Cassandra, whom she would live with as an adult.

Austen’s family was not wealthy, but she had several rich relations. She wrote from experience in books like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, where the daughters of the family were dependent on the charity of wealthier male family members. One of her brothers had the literal good fortune to be adopted by his rich aunt and uncle, like Frank Churchill in Emma, and he financially supported his sisters and mother once Mr. Austen died.

When Austen grew to young adulthood, she loved a good ball and dancing. She received several marriage proposals but never married. Though there’s plenty of speculation on why, including perhaps an unrequited love as a young woman for an Irishman named Tom LeFroy. Truly, though, we don’t really know why. One thing is clear: as a married woman with children, she would have had far less time for writing and thinking. There was already precious little time for such things. The Austens were not like the Bennets, “able to afford a cook” and a team of servants. Though they certainly had household help, the Austens did a fair deal of the housekeeping themselves. 

And Austen loved to write and think. From her childhood, she had been composing her clever observations of the world around her into fictional forms. In her early twenties, she wrote what would eventually become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. She then wrote what would become Northanger Abbey. Each of these works were substantially revised over many years after their initial composition. 

Once her father retired from ministry, Austen moved with her parents to Bath. After her father died, she and her mother and Cassandra moved again to Chawton in Hampshire, where Austen’s publishing success began. In 1811, after much effort and rejection, Austen published her first novel. She was 35 when Sense and Sensibility came into the world. In 1813 came Pride and Prejudice. 1814 saw the publication of Mansfield Park. And Emma was published in 1815. Fascinatingly, these were all published anonymously, only noted as being written by “a Lady.” The previous works were listed as well on the title page, and no one really knew it was Austen but her close circle of friends and family. 

But Austen’s health was beginning to fail. In 1815 she started writing Persuasion but also began to feel weak and ill. She finished the novel in 1816. She died the following year in Winchester, where she and Cassandra had moved in order to be close to her doctor. Scholars think that she likely died of Addison’s disease, though no one is certain. She was only 41 years old. The following year, her brother published Persuasion and Northanger Abbey together, with her name and a biographical note within. Her work was finally known as her own. But the wild success that we associate with Jane Austen’s novels had not come while she lived. She died relatively poor, leaving all she had to her sister Cassandra.

A Brief Historical Note on Austen’s England

In Jane Austen’s lifetime, England was ruled by George III—yes, that George III, made infamous here in America by being the king against whom the American colonies rebelled. Much, much later, he would be given the most hilarious songs in the popular musical Hamilton. George III was, as the website describes him, “well-meaning” but he suffered from mental illness and eventually went blind and insane. His son became Prince Regent, ruling in his stead, in the last decade of his reign until his death in 1820. The Prince Regent was not very popular. His court was known as a place of decadence and low morals. But he gives his title to the “Regency Period”—what we often call the time period of Jane Austen’s novels, that decade from 1811-1820, though most of them were written earlier.

Even though the American Revolution happened during Jane Austen’s lifetime, American affairs hardly affect the world of her novels. The Napoleonic Wars instead provide much of the international context of her writing, Persuasion in particular. The Royal Navy played a very important role in this set of wars, fought from 1803-1815. The Battle of Trafalgar, fought at sea, was an important battle in 1805 that the British won under the famous Admiral Lord Nelson. It prevented the threat of an invasion of England itself. 

As an American, I did not know too much about the Napoleonic Wars except that Napoleon seemed to be involved. In reality, these wars involved much of Europe due to Napoleon’s ambition, including Italy, Spain, Russia, parts of Germany, Austria, and obviously France and England. Throughout Austen’s adulthood, the British were periodically at war with any number of countries and alliances. Keep in mind, too, that the British were fighting all over the world due to their rabid colonizing. At the time, slavery was legal in British holdings, and many prominent British gentry and nobility owned large swaths of land overseas. Though Austen never explicitly discusses these wars and Britain’s overseas exploits, we glimpse them throughout her novels: the militias in Pride and Prejudice, the discussion of the slave trade and Britain’s colonies in Mansfield Park, and of course, the very prominent role of the Royal Navy and its companionable officers ashore in a brief respite between wars in Persuasion. Austen herself had brothers in the Royal Navy and took a keen interest in their lives and careers. If you’re interested in learning more, Lucy Worsley’s biography of Austen is very helpful. 

Austen lived on the cusp of a changing world. Industrialization had not yet happened, but the wheels were beginning to turn. Cities were beginning to grow; villages were losing traditional sources of income. The literary world was also rapidly changing. The regency saw the publication of what would become some of the most famous names in English literature: Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth. Perhaps surprisingly, the genre of the English novel was only about fifty years old when Austen was born! We tend to think of the form of the novel as ageless and eternal, yet its creation was relatively new when she was a young woman. Austen herself would shape its form significantly, and her novels show her love for reading and responding to current or past trends in writing, like her satirical take on the Gothic genre in Northanger Abbey, or Marianne’s love of weeping over the poetry of sentiment in Sense and Sensibility.

On Jane Austen’s Writing, and Persuasion itself

In 1928, the novelist Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Austen, “of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” Woolf is right. And this difficulty comes in part from Jane Austen’s sidelining as specifically a writer for women, or a writer of romance. Don’t get me wrong—I passionately love all the Jane Austen screen adaptations, with their sweeping English countrysides, handsome male leads, and majestic country houses. But the real, stunning achievements of Austen’s writing is her unmatched satirical wit and her insight into people as individuals and as members of society. She is a writer for everyone. She is also a writer who is still accessible and readable today, despite having written 200 years ago. I’m hoping that reading Persuasion together will open up insight into humanity, character, and of course, increasing self-knowledge and laughter around the foibles and flaws in every person. While, of course, also enjoying the yearning between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth!

Persuasion was Austen’s last complete book. It differs from those that come before it. It is a little more jaded; the humor cuts deeper with a current of anger. It is a book about the power and limits of conversation and the equal power and limitations of silence. During its composition, Austen’s health fails, her work languishes undiscovered, the books simply are not selling as they should despite an apparent popularity. But, as Virginia Woolf wrote in that same piece, Persuasion also depicts Austen “beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed,” just like Anne Elliot. Next week we begin!

I believe Persuasion is a book meant to be read in conversation, just as Anne discovers someone who listens to her words, believes, and acts upon them. Because of that, this series won’t consist of regular Old Books With Grace lectures. Instead, each week I have a different friend of mine to chat. You’ll be able to either listen on the podcast platform of your choice, or watch a video of our conversation on YouTube. We are going three chapters at a time, and you can see the reading schedule on the Summer Old Book Club tab with my conversation partner on that date. Don’t forget to invite a friend to read along, and do send any questions you want covered, too, either via the comments, or by emailing me at! I’m so excited to read this book together.

Useful and interesting sources:

The Jane Austen Society of North America

Lucy Worsley, Jane Austen at Home

The old classic, Wikipedia, for really anything you’re interested in

Virginia Woolf on Jane Austen, The New Republic, Jan. 30, 1924.

Just for Fun:

My good friend Chelsea made us a personality quiz! Which Persuasion character are you?

A Tiny Gift for You

I decided to take the week off from posting a more fully developed piece, because it was my birthday! But I didn’t want to leave you with nothing, since I’ve been posting every other week. So I decided, like the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings, to give you a gift for my birthday.

I discovered this treasure last year at the start of the pandemic. It’s a recording of Alec Guinness–yes, the original Obi-Wan Kenobi–reading aloud T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Four Quartets. If your idea of a dream come true is a Jedi knight reading aloud mystical midcentury poetry, today is your lucky day! But really, Guinness is a wonderful reader, and the recording (from 1971) is lovely:

Obi-Wan reads Eliot.

I am a little bit obsessed with Four Quartets. When I was 22, I was browsing at a little bookstore near Arizona State University, and I bought a used copy of these poems for $4 (maybe the best $4 I have ever spent). I read them, gasping and underlining and utterly transfixed, and have re-read them regularly ever since. They have been special to me for the last eleven years, and I even had my husband read them aloud to me while I was in labor with each of our three kids (not during the insane last bit of labor, just during some of the tedious walking around, contracting part). They are about life and death, the four elements, history and each person, and they are really beautiful. Please go buy yourself a copy immediately if you’ve never read them.

If you would like to read a poem for the feast of Pentecost, coming up this week, read or listen to Eliot’s wonderful “Little Gidding,” the last of the set of Four Quartets. Imagine the height of the London Blitz. Every night in the darkness, the Nazis pour out explosives and destruction down upon Britain. In the mayhem and death of London, Eliot struggles to write what will become the last poem in the absolutely stunning set of poems, the Four Quartets. Some nights he stands on the rooftop of his publisher, Faber and Faber, with a bucket of sand, ready amongst the thousands of Londoners doing similar things to try and save their city from the rain of flame. In September 1942, he publishes “Little Gidding,” which is haunted by fire in many different varieties, including the inferno of World War II, Dante’s poetic depiction of Hell in his Inferno, and entirely different, life-giving, but no less consuming fire of the Holy Spirit. Check it out, and let me know what you think.

In two weeks, the Summer Old Book Club on Jane Austen’s Persuasion begins with a short introduction to the genius herself, Jane Austen! I’m really looking forward to this new adventure with you all.

“Know Thyself: What Medieval Christians Teach Us About Humility”

I’m very pleased to share a recent article I wrote for Mere Orthodoxy. If you want to learn more about what medieval people, including Julian of Norwich and Bernard of Clairvaux, taught and wrote about humility, check it out here! They have beautiful thoughts on this rather difficult virtue… I have been mulling over these ideas for a long time and believe they have profound relevance for us today in postmodernity.

Henry Vaughan’s The Night

Cover of Silex Scintillans, Henry Vaughan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We are in a funny in-between phase for our various series on Old Books With Grace. A few weeks ago, we finished the Lent Series, “The Many Faces of Jesus,” and I encourage you to go check out those if you haven’t read them yet. In June, we are doing something new, fun, and different: the Old Book Club, starring Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I am going to have some folks come on the podcast with me and we will discuss three chapters of Austen’s fantastic novel at a time. I hope that you will read along and invite a friend or two to read with you. I’m really looking forward to it.

Today, we are going to meditate on a beautiful poem by the seventeenth-century poet, Henry Vaughan. Vaughan was a Welshman living during the tumultuous time of the English Civil War. Henry and his twin brother Thomas were born in 1621. Henry became a physician and Thomas an Anglican priest. In the 1640s, the Book of Common Prayer was banned by the Puritans now in power, and in 1645, Archbishop Laud was executed by Cromwell. By 1655, Anglican services themselves were entirely illegal. Henry Vaughan was a devout Anglican, and his poetry reflects his sense of loss and attempts to establish communion with the Anglican poets who came before him, like George Herbert. During this same period, Vaughan married, had four children, then his wife Catherine died. It was a bad time. 

Yet Vaughan writes some of the most beautiful verse of this period. Saturated in the nature of the Welsh countryside, he finds God outside of the traditional places and spaces which have been barred to him. His great collection of poetry, Silex Scintillans, is united through exploring sources of community and identity as a Christian when the earthly wells of his community and identity, Anglican corporate worship services, have been outlawed and destroyed. And not to diminish the seriousness of what I’ve just written, but it has one of the most awful subtitles of all time: Private Ejaculations. Yes, sadly true.

“The Night,” one of my favorite poems of Vaughan’s, is inspired by John 3:2. The Pharisee Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night to ask him questions. Nicodemus’s nighttime excursion leads to some of the most foundational teachings of Jesus, which in itself is amazing if you think about it. Jesus speaks what becomes John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” in this private conversation. Yes, those words were not spoken on a mountaintop or in a house of worship, but in this midnight interlude between two friends. Let’s turn to Vaughan’s meditation on Nicodemus and Jesus.

The Night, by Henry Vaughan

      John 3.2

         Through that pure Virgin-shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glo-worms shine,
             And face the moon,
    Wise Nicodemus saw such light
    As made him know his God by night.

         Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blinde eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
             When Thou didst rise!
    And, what can never more be done,
    Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

         O who will tell me, where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallow’d solitary ground did bear
             So rare a flower;
    Within whose sacred leaves did lie
    The fulness of the Deity?

         No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty cherub, nor carv’d stone,
But His own living works did my Lord hold
             And lodge alone;
    Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
    And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

         Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busie fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
             Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high Heaven doth chime;

         God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
             His still, soft call;
    His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
    When spirits their fair kindred catch.

         Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice
             Is seldom rent,
    Then I in heaven all the long year
    Would keep, and never wander here.

         But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tyre
Themselves and others, I consent and run
             To ev’ry myre,
    And by this world’s ill guiding light,
    Err more than I can do by night.

         There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
             See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!

There’s a lot here to think about in this rich and dense poem. Let’s walk through it slowly.

Through that pure Virgin-shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glo-worms shine,
             And face the moon,
    Wise Nicodemus saw such light
    As made him know his God by night.

Vaughan begins with a lovely picture of the Incarnation through a metaphor of night and day. Through Mary, the “Virgin-shrine,” a “sacred veil” is drawn over the incandescent glory of high noon. This veil obscures and muffles the unbearable, blinding brightness of the sun at midday so that people can actually look at and face a source of light, the moon’s gentler brightness that illuminates darkness. Divinity becomes flesh and blood and makes itself approachable and visible. As a result, Nicodemus can see and know God.

          Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blinde eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
             When Thou didst rise!
    And, what can never more be done,
    Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

Nicodemus was blessed because he could directly witness the Sun’s descent and ascent, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Vaughan also delightfully puns on the last two lines. Nicodemus speaks at midnight with the Sun, S-U-N—impossible. He also speaks at midnight face-to-face with the Son, S-O-N—also not done anymore, with perhaps a few rare exceptions of mystical writers. 

The next few stanzas hint at Vaughan’s present-day predicament, where he identifies with Nicodemus. It is not among the traditional places of worship that Nicodemus finds Jesus and speaks with him, not among “dusty cherubs,” carved stone, or mercy-seats, which is both the carved adornment at the top of the Ark of the Covenant where the Presence of God rested in the Old Testament. Some English churches also had mercy-seats (sometimes called misericords) where you could lean if you were standing a long time praying, so again we find a double meaning. Instead, Jesus walks among his “living works.” He is described as a flower hiding divinity in solitary ground. And his people sleep, while only the trees and herbs “watch and peep.” 

Such a dense forest of allusions! Vaughan is artfully referring to time past and time present. Jesus has come outside of the Holy of Holies, into the world of nature. Vaughan glances ahead of this moment with Nicodemus, to Jesus praying in Gethsemane, when the whole world, even Jesus’s best friends, are asleep rather than with him in his pain. And Vaughan looks even further ahead, into his own time, when Vaughan himself has been barred from those same dusty cherubs and mercy-seats and carved stone, his beloved parish church and communal worship. But Jesus does not have to be found there. 

I love what Vaughan does next with his imagery of night and day. We all know of the ancient associations of night with fear, ignorance, despair, danger, and evildoing. As someone who has struggled with insomnia in the past, I have dreaded the night. Vaughan turns this age-old imagery upside down, which is extra surprising given the current darkness of his own life.

         Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busie fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
             Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high Heaven doth chime;

         God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
             His still, soft call;
    His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
    When spirits their fair kindred catch.

Night becomes a relief, not a fearful necessity. Its lack of sensory stimulus offers a “check and curb” to the busy-ness, the bustle, the neverending distractions and demands of the day. The silence gives space and retreat to the soul. The night is naturally Christ’s progress, Christ’s prayer time, the time where the stars of Heaven proclaim his glory. And Vaughan gives us a beautiful picture of Jesus. It as if he has been praying at night peacefully in a garden for long hours in stillness. He has been still and silent so long that his hair is wet with dew. He has become part of the garden. And it is also Jesus’s “knocking time,” the time when the soul is finally silent enough to hear his “still soft call.” 

Vaughan compares his “loud, evil days” to this quiet, dark tent of God. I’d imagine if you have young children like me, you can especially relate to “loud, evil days.” Some days it feels like all I do is get frustrated and forget things in the chaos of my house. Mired in unending to-do lists, depressed by the state of the United Kingdom, brokenhearted over the death of his wife, Vaughan laments his distractedness and wandering during the day. But he ends with the most beautiful meditative image of the poem:

         There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
             See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!

Vaughan’s “deep but dazzling darkness” reminds me of an anonymous medieval contemplative writer, who wrote an incredible work called The Cloud of Unknowing. This writer describes how in order to get closer to God, we must ascend into a cloud of unknowing—that is, abandon all our preconceived expectations and images of who God is and how he works in order to open ourselves to his Presence as fully as possible. The unthinkable, indescribable, incomprehensible dazzling darkness of God—who can understand him? And Vaughan thinks of this in the dead of night, but not with fear or apprehension. This deep but dazzling darkness, in which he wishes to become invisible and dim, is in stark contrast to the glaring, headache inducing brightness of the day in which he has no rest or peace. I have this funny image in my head of being wrapped in black velvet, in a cocoon of closeness and quietude that grounds me and hides me from the things that consume me by day.

Next time you are awake at night in bed, let that enveloping darkness be a welcome comfort, especially if you struggle with anxiety, grief, or feel completely burdened by the works of the day. Think of Vaughan and Nicodemus. Await Jesus at his knocking time, with his hair damp from the night air. Take refuge in the utter mystery of God’s deep but dazzling darkness by rejecting the need for busy-ness, for easy explanations, for mastering and controlling the world around you. I am thankful for Vaughan’s reminder.

Dabbling in Word Origins: Whole

Salvador Dali, “Persistence of Memory,” 1931, oil on canvas, 24 cm × 33 cm (9.5 in × 13 in), Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

In college, I reignited my passion for old books and obscure meanings of English words when I took a class on the History of the English Language. The professor was a mean old man who gave these horrifically difficult tests. Most of the questions were from the textbook’s footnotes. I worked really hard and got a B, the only B I got in my English major. Yet I fell in love with it. It was endlessly fascinating to think about the origins and histories of spoken and written languages. In that class, the final assignment was to write a full essay on the history of one, single word, whatever word we pleased. I wanted to choose an ancient English word with beginnings shrouded in the mists of time, where you really had to rummage around in Old English Dictionaries, probably unopened for thirty years, in the unattractive, 1970s University of Arizona library. 

I chose the word “whole.” W-H-O-L-E. I can almost imagine your crestfallen face. The whole dictionary before me, and I chose such a random, even boring word. As a word, it felt old to me, crumbling around the edges, heavy-laden with the past. I wanted to know where that “w” came from. It was also a word with intriguing significance and heft, upon which I wished to think more seriously. More on that in a minute. 

Have you ever wondered why many languages have similar sounding words for mother, despite all their differences? Mother, madre, matri, mater, moder, mutter—the list could go on and on. What’s happening here? Many of these languages have very few vocabulary words in common overall. In the list above, I have included words for mother from different parts of Europe and India. This is because scholars of word history theorize that these differing languages all share a common root language referred to by scholars as “Indo-European,” from far, far back in time, to even before Sanskrit, which is 4,000-6,000 years old. Language, like the earth itself, is full of fossilized remnants of the past. We can still notice some of their common origins through these similar-sounding words in very different regions and languages. Like a dinosaur bone found underneath a mall parking lot, some words that we use casually today contain ancient components.

I love this about language. It is one of the reasons why I became a medievalist. English is full of mysteries and wonders.

We can find similarities in English between words. Whole is one of these fascinating fossil words. It stems from an Indo-European root, something similar to “hal,” though of course that’s an educated guess since we don’t have any recordings or written Indo-European from thousands of years ago. From “hal” stems many words: whole itself, as I mentioned. But also health, heal, and hale, H-A-L-E (like in the old saying “hale and hearty”). The word “hail,” H-A-I-L, as in “Hail to the King” also springs from this ancient word-well. Hail to the King is to respect and honor the king by wishing him wholeness and health. And finally, holy, too, belongs to this word family.

Something that I really like about these word games of origins and roots is that they can help us to conceptualize the meanings of these words more clearly than before. Words and their meanings become enriched and expanded as we consider their histories and their relationships to other words. To be whole means not only to have all parts or to avoid fragmentation. It includes health in body and mind, to be hale and hearty, strong. Wholeness even—or especially—entails holiness, that particular wholeness of the spirit.

Considering the interrelationships between these words can help address some disputes among Christians today. Conservative Christians often focus on the wholeness of the spirit—holiness—at the expense of the wholeness of the body or mind. “It’s not a social justice church,” I recently heard one person reassure another who was thinking about visiting their church. But to care for another person’s broken or oppressed body undeniably belongs to Jesus’s project of wholeness that he preaches in the gospels. On the other hand, liberal Christians can forget wholeness of the spirit in their zeal to help heal bodies and minds alienated and wounded by the Church itself. They can sometimes treat kindness, acceptance, or activism as an adequate substitute for spiritual healing through Jesus, rather than the very important components that these are in the project of a whole life. Both these emphases are worthy and require one another in our pursuit of the kingdom of Heaven. We damage ourselves, splintering our own projects aimed at wholeness, when we separate holiness and mental and bodily health. The word whole reminds us through its ancient DNA that we need all these kinds of health for true wholeness. 

To be whole—who wouldn’t want that? As humans, we are fragmented people living in shattered societies. Sometimes our brokenness is advanced by our society, as we are encouraged or forced to suppress certain aspects of the wholeness of our beings in order to better assimilate into whatever space in which we dwell at that moment. The poet Audre Lord wrote in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.” Perhaps you can relate. I know I do. I often feel, especially as a woman, that I am hiding one part of myself while another part is on display. I mother separately from my teaching. Heaven forbid the two mingle. I was fired from an adjunct teaching job on account of my pregnancy—yes, in this day and age. Academia told me in many more subtle ways that being a mother was incompatible with being a serious scholar. Yet, I have always known that I wanted to be both a mom and a serious student and teacher of the past. How can I reconcile these bits of myself? And my personal struggles to unite these disparate aspects of myself are less onerous and dangerous than the identity battles regularly faced by LGBTQ+ friends, people of color, or the impoverished, as Audre Lorde herself knew as a Black lesbian woman. 

We can say with the church on the Left that such individual wholeness is worth working toward wholeheartedly as a society, and we can say with the more conservative viewpoint that we do so even while we recognize its ultimate unattainability in this life. St. Augustine of Hippo, the fantastic fourth-century bishop and theologian, wrote more than perhaps any other medieval or ancient writer about our fragmentation. He understood full, holy wholeness as unreachable because of our existence as creatures dwelling in time. 

Augustine’s theories of being in time are complicated, and I won’t go fully into them here. But in simple terms: we can never gather ourselves all together all at once. Parts of us are in the past. Some of us wish to go back to the past—when we lived close to friends, when we didn’t need to wear a mask in public, before a beloved person died. Parts of us are in the future in the form of our hopes and dreams for fulfillment. Some of us yearn for that future—those of you wishing for a child but no pregnancy yet, waiting for that better job, even those of us waiting for the kids to be older so that we can finally go to the bathroom alone. Carpe diem, we hear. Seize the day; live in the present. But it’s so hard, and parts of us are irretrievably bound up in the past or the future. We are never entirely present, all at once, all the pieces of us united. This isn’t even always bad: to take my earlier example of teacher and scholar, I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if I was trying to wrangle a three year-old simultaneously while teaching that moment. I wouldn’t be a very good mother if I was trying to describe Augustine to a class while my five year-old seeks me out to talk because she has a conflict with another student at kindergarten. Being in the world and being wholly yourself is impossible due to simple chronology as well as prejudice and social pressures.

Augustine uses the simile of a person singing in order to simply describe what he calls “distension” in time. Even in the moment of song, the person’s brain is rapidly working ahead between placing himself anticipating the next sound and line and remembering what came before. Sentences require the same effort. Yet God is completely different. Augustine writes, in the marvelous translation by Maria Boulding:

When a person is singing words well known to him, or listening to a familiar song, his senses are strained between anticipating sounds still to come and remembering those sung already; but with you it is quite otherwise. Nothing can happen to you in your unchangeable eternity, you who are truly the eternal creator of all minds. As you knew heaven and earth in the beginning, without the slightest modification in your knowledge, so too you made heaven and earth in the beginning without any distension in your activity.

Augustine, Confessions, XI. 31, 41

This is a profound comfort to us. What Augustine calls “distension”—what God lacks and what we are never without—can become a burden to us. We try so hard to control what has come before us or what is coming next. And we so often cannot. We are not really even capable of controlling the vast mystery of our interior selves. Augustine gives us a prayer when we feel swallowed up by time, unsure what to do next, how our past defines us, or how to act in our present moment: 

Now as my years waste away amid groaning you are my solace, Lord, because you are my Father, and you are eternal. But I have leapt down into the flux of time where all is confusion to me. In the most intimate depths of my soul my thoughts are torn to fragments by tempestuous changes until that time when I flow into you, purged and rendered molten by the fire of your love.

Augustine, Confessions, XI. 29, 39

Like a lava flow melts disparate rocks and pebbles, we become a molten whole in the fiery baptism of God’s eternal love. Wholeness does await us when we meet Eternity. We pray this prayer in the meantime, perhaps. But until then, let us seek wholeness together and encourage all its varieties in one another in the tension of our present disunity as individuals and as a people. Next time you toast, drink to one another’s health. You can use the ancient term “Hail!” as you lift your glass, remembering its depth and interconnections between spiritual and bodily, mental and total wholeness. 

And by the way, why does whole have a w? Apparently some people strangely pronounced it that way in England for a while, and it lingers on as a completely useless artifact of the bizarre pronunciation, “wole.” There you go—it was likely more satisfying as a mystery.

Jesus as Us: Conclusion to “The Many Faces of Jesus”

Today is the last installment of the Lent “Many Faces of Jesus” series because it’s not Lent anymore! Happy Easter, everyone! 

Before I talk about “Jesus as Us,” I would like to announce what is coming next on Old Books With Grace. In order to work on some book projects, I am temporarily moving to an episode every other week, so don’t worry if you aren’t getting weekly notifications for a bit. For April and May, we will experience a smorgasbord of different episodes—no series, just whatever I’m feeling like. I will do some really fascinating word origin posts, an old hobby of mine, and share a bit of post-medieval poetry. Weekly episodes return in June and July with a new series.

After the intensity of “The Many Faces of Jesus,” and headed into (fingers crossed) a better season than most of us have had in a while, I wanted to do something lighter and more social for the summer. In June and July, Old Books With Grace will be doing Summer Old Book Club. Get out your regency dresses, practice your subtle insults, and prepare to be thrilled by lingering eye contact—we are reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion! I have gathered some friends to discuss this incredible novel with me. These friends include a creative writer, two English professors, a math curriculum specialist for public schools, the aforesaid structural engineer, a tutor for kids with reading disabilities, a documentary maker for NPR, and more. They share in common that they are smart, thoughtful, kind, curious people who are willing to talk about Jane Austen with me. Some of them have never read Persuasion before; some of them teach Persuasion every year to college students! I’m really excited. We will read three chapters at a time across these two months. I’m hoping you will join us as well for this summer reading adventure, and I’m giving plenty of advance notice so that if you wish, you can procure a copy and even start reading. Form your own reading groups, or read the novel in an existing book club, and invite friends to listen in on the podcast and have your own discussions (preferably with a glass of summery wine).

Back to “Jesus as Us.”

One of the more enduring and popular medieval traditions were the plays performed on the feast day of Corpus Christi in towns like York, Coventry, Chester, and others. Guilds—the organizations of different tradespeople and artisans—performed plays depicting the Bible, from Creation to Revelation, outside, on elaborate floats and sets that moved through the streets of the towns. An especially charming feature of these plays is that the content of the play often loosely determined the guild in charge of it. For example, the “fysshers and marynars,” fishermen and sailors, put on “The Flood” at York. More soberly, the “shermen,” the folk who sheared cloth, performed “The Road to Calvary,” in an echo of the sheep sheared before slaughter. The “pynneres,” the makers of pins and nails, and the painters depicted the raising of the cross. The butchers, who certainly had access to a lot of blood, put on the mortification of Jesus on the cross and his death. Some plays were elaborate, and some were simpler. All were performed over the days commemorating Corpus Christi, the summer feast of the Body of Christ that especially honored the Eucharist.

These plays brought liturgy to life; biblical history unfolded in your time and place, enacted by and through your neighbors’ bodies before your eyes. Perhaps your friend was Jesus on the cross, your enemy was Jesus teaching in the temple, or your uncle was Jesus harrowing Hell. And at the same time, you were the one who drove the nails into Jesus. Your friend was a mocker at the crucifixion. And so on. When you stop to think about it, such representations were profound, particularly on the feast of Corpus Christi. The Body of Christ in God’s broken earthly kingdom of fifteenth-century York, England reenacted the saga of Christ and his body in first-century Palestine. These plays vividly remind their viewers through their strange literality—you are Corpus Christi, and so am I. Through the miracle of the Eucharist, we are united in Jesus’s resurrected body. 

Both the orthodox and the heterodox recognized Jesus in their very bodies. For the orthodox, it was in the consumption of the Eucharist and in their communities. For the heterodox, we can look to the fifteenth-century Lollard woman, Margery Baxter, who argued against the use of images in worship, including the crucifix. In one dramatic gesture, she threw out her own arms and declared, “this is the true cross of Christ, and you ought and can see and adore that cross every day here in your own house” (from Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich, 1428-31, Norman P. Tanner). Julian of Norwich and others walked a middle way of these perspectives in visionary accounts that showed us that we can both adore the crucifix and realize that we are the Body of Christ, not even allegorically. There was never a moment in which we were without Christ, because he is with us in our very flesh.

This reminds me very much of a poem that is not medieval, but I’m going to share it with you anyway. It’s by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth-century Jesuit poet, and one of my favorites.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

--Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

Hopkins brilliantly writes of creation. As bells were made to ring, and sing out their names in the ringing, as kingfishers shine in the light of their dives to catch fish, as dragonflies hover like magic jewels over still ponds, Hopkins believes that all things rejoice in their particular selves, in their creation. What I do is me, for that I came.

But Hopkin’s second stanza is even more moving. When we love, when we give grace, when we practice justice, in God’s eye we are Christ. “Christ plays in ten thousand places”—in us, radiant in loveliness as we learn to love like him. Such love is what we were created for. I think of Hopkins often, because I find Christ playing in faces and eyes not his all the time, both in fourteenth-century England and twenty-first-century Colorado. I receive these glimpses of Jesus in their deliberate actions, when the “just man justices” or a friend “keeps all [her] goings graces.” 

I also think of God’s image, appearing in the most broken folks and appalling situations. I am simultaneously heartbroken and uncomfortable to remember the image of God in the souls of both the victims of mass shootings and the shooter, hidden and fractured though it may be. What a different world it would be if I, and my fellow Christians, treated everyone with the consciousness that they were the image of God, as they were, in all their ragged obscurity. We are certainly not capable of this love on our own. We can’t just educate ourselves into it, though learning about others and listening to their stories helps more than any other human effort. I am learning how to pray for the eyes of God to help illumine our visionary capacity for seeing Jesus’s face in others. 

I hope that throughout this series, you’ve glimpsed Jesus in surprising places and unfamiliar faces. I also hope that the series has revealed to you some of your hidden beliefs about him. It has for me. Thank you for reading and following along. Share with a friend or leave a comment if you enjoyed it; I really love to hear from you. Next time, it’ll be something new and different. Don’t forget to scrounge up a copy of Persuasion for the Summer Old Book Club!

Jesus in Mortal Suffering: Late Medieval Poetry and Art

Image: Fra Angelico, The Crucifixion, fresco at San Marco, Florence, ca. 1438-1450

In many ways, the specter of the passion has been lingering in the corners and hovering around all of the prior images we have examined together in this Lent series. In Jesus the Judge, angels holding the instruments of his passion—nails, crown of thorns, spear, cross—swarm around him in triumph on Judgment Day. In Jesus Our Lover, the brokenhearted lover-Jesus offers his body to show his commitment to the lost souls he so adores. In Jesus the Knight, the cross and his death and hell comprise the great joust and battle that the knight undergoes to rescue the helpless. In Jesus of the University, Thomas Aquinas wonderingly asks if the Passion was necessary. In Jesus Our Mother, Jesus’s Passion becomes the agonizing labor pains that bring forth new life. In the Institutional Jesus, Jesus’s blood constitutes a narrow gate only that only those that the institution deems as correct can pass through. And now here we are, finally, to face the Cross, the most ubiquitous image of Jesus in the Middle Ages, and to gaze on the broken body of Christ with the medieval faithful. Today, we prepare our hearts for Good Friday.

I had a hard time writing this post for two main reasons. One is that this image is everywhere in medieval literature. Picking out particular words and imagery to focus on felt like drinking from a fire hose. The other is that this is the representation of Jesus to which we are the most accustomed of all the medieval and ancient images of Jesus. It’s shocking that the image of someone being nailed to wood and slowly dying can become commonplace, but we are incredibly used to it. Crucifixes and crosses are still in churches; we see art depicting Jesus’s broken body all the time. We are not like the character Maeby Bluth in my all-time favorite TV series, Arrested Development (not the reboot, naturally). When she realizes religious kids get to skip school sometimes, she asks, “Do you know where I can get one of those necklaces with the “t” on it?” Unlike Maeby, we know what the “t” on all those necklaces actually represents. But with that familiarity, we can become inured to the depths of that “t.” So today, let’s allow this image to become strange again to us. I’m going to give you a series of vignettes to hopefully help us enter into the medieval mindset of approaching Jesus on the Cross. 

It is Good Friday in the late fourteenth century. You live in medieval London and are attending your parish church on this most holy day. You stand alongside your neighbors during the service because there were no pews back in the day. Maybe you sit or kneel on the ground occasionally when your legs get tired.

At the front of the church a crucifix has been erected. All the parishioners take turns “creeping to the cross,” crawling on their knees to kiss the wooden image of Jesus suffering. Imagine getting down on your hands and knees, young and old, to creep forward to this image of pain and divine love. You move forward slowly, with your neighbors and family on your sides. There may be some dignified jostling but this is the high point of the holy year, and everyone is solemn. There, in front of you, is the crucifix. You get there and pause for a moment, looking at the decoration on it, gazing at Jesus’s painted face, his pierced hands and feet, the thorn of crowns on his head. Then you kiss him, where your neighbors have kissed and touched, and you turn around and crawl slowly back to your spot. Perhaps you are thinking of the ache in your knees. Perhaps you are watching another person who recently lost someone to death, the death you know has been destroyed by the very cross you just venerated. Maybe you are keenly aware of a neighbor you keenly dislike performing the same ritual over to your right. Or maybe you identify with Christ’s pain because you also know love and suffering, and the tears drip down your face as you ease your body back into the crowd of people.

Identifying with Jesus in his suffering was an imaginative exercise often encouraged by medieval thinkers. Many folks, lay and clerical, imagined a Jesus on the cross who spoke to them personally. Here’s a sermon from Easter Sunday, recorded in the Speculum Sacerdotale, a sermon collection. Imagine the crucifix in the church as the parson speaks, visible for anyone to look at as he urges them to listen to Jesus’s words from the cross to them:

Listen, man, listen to me,
Behold what I suffer for thee.
To thee, man, well loud I cry;
For thy love thou seest I die.
Behold my body how I am hung
See the nails how I am through stung
My body without is beaten sore
My pains within be far more.
All this I have suffered for thee.
As thou shall at Doomsday see. 

--Speculum Sacerdotale, ed. Edward H. Weatherly, p. 112

This little poem embedded in a sermon is one example of an extremely popular genre of poetry where a suffering Jesus shows his wounds and speaks to someone passing by, revealing his love for them. This emphasis on the cross as evidence of divine love was more popular than satisfaction theory, the idea that the cross somehow satisfied our sinful debts and made us right with God. Medieval people certainly believed in many models of satisfaction. However, by the late middle ages, especially outside of specialized university theology, people considering the cross laid much heavier emphasis on receiving the emotions connected with Jesus’s human suffering and love than on thinking through Jesus’s divine intervention. 

In another late medieval, anonymous poem, the voice of the viewer wrestles to reconcile love with love’s suffering:

Christ maketh to man a fair present—
His bloody body with love burnt.
That blissful body his life hath lent
For love of man that sin hath blent (blinded).
O! Love, love, what hast thou meant?
I think that Love to wrath is went.

Thy lovely hands love hath to-rent (torn)
And thy lithe arms most tightly stretched.
Thy breast is bare, thy body bent,
For wrong hath won and right is shent (ruined).

Thy mild bones love hath to-draw (think of drawn and quartered)
The nails, thy feet have all to-gnawe;
The Lord of love love hath now slawe (slain)—
When love is strong it hath no law.


Love, love, where shalt thou be?
Thy dwelling place is taken from thee:
For Christ’s heart, that was thy home,
He is dead—now thou hast none.
Love, love, why doist thou so?
Love, thou breakest mine heart in two.

Love hath showed his great might,
For love hath made of day the night.
Love hath slain the King of Right,
And love hath ended the strong fight.


Love maketh, Christ, thine heart mine,
So maketh, love, mine heart thine.
Then should mine be true all time,
And love in love shall make time end.  

-from Medieval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology, ed. R.T. Davies, pp. 139-140

This poem is an elegy for what the speaker perceives as the death of Love. Wrath reigns supreme. It seems as though right is ruined and wrong has won. And the strangeness really emerges in that the speaker understands love as having slain love. Christ’s love and his submission to death allows the death of love. Much of the poem is spent grappling with the bizarre fact that Christ’s love sent him to death. There are more stanzas, but I have cut them for the sake of space. With the resurrection, the speaker realizes that love is not dead but in fact has triumphed. The speaker concludes this description of love’s suffering in the cross by asking for love to grow in his or her own heart. 

This love-oriented, emotional response to the cross developed later in the Middle Ages. We can watch transformation through some examples in art. A particularly interesting, less emotional depiction of the crucifixion comes from a now-destroyed twelfth-century manuscript called the Hortus Deliciarum, a sort of medieval encyclopedia developed and written by a nun named Herrad of Landsberg (see below). In this depiction, Jesus looks sad, and blood does drip from his hands and feet, but it’s a fairly calm scene. Almost all the figures in the frame gaze at him, including some of the dead coming out of the ground, and a solemn moon and sun. There are also some symbolic, theological elements: the veil is being ripped above Jesus, and a female figure, Ecclesia, riding on a four-headed beast that represents the gospels, holds up a cup to catch the water and blood pouring in a graceful arc from his side wound. The two not looking at Jesus on the cross are the thief who rejects Jesus, and a figure for the old covenant, who clutches the stone tablets of Moses but hides her eyes. It’s a scene meant to provoke theological reflection and instruction about salvation. This portrait is not meant to portray the ravages of bodily suffering nor be “realistic.”

Herrad of Landsberg’s Hortus Deliciarum, ca. 1180

We can contrast this depiction with some art from the later middle ages. A fresco from Fra Angelico painted sometime between 1436-1445, on the walls of the Convent San Marco in Florence, shows a more “realistic” scene. The two Marys weep with their eyes covered and facing away from the unbearable sight. Christ’s blood has run down the cross and started pooling on the ground. It seeps into the Earth, as if to redeem the very soil. It reminds me of Julian of Norwich’s description of her vision of Jesus’s blood, seeping down from his face in supernatural abundance to redeem the whole world and its people. She describes this blood vividly; it patterns and pools like the scales of a fish, dripping and covering her vision. And Fra Angelico’s fresco as well as Julian of Norwich’s vision belong to a larger trend. In general, portrayals of the crucifixion became more focused on the blood and the wounds of Jesus, more focused on Christ’s suffering (and Mary’s, too), and geared to provoke more of an emotional response in the face of this bodily violence and pain.

Fra Angelico, The Crucifixion, fresco at San Marco, Florence, ca. 1438-1450

Another famous, powerful depiction of the crucifixion is the altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald at Isenheim, from the very tail-end of the medieval era. It is a massive piece, with Christ on the cross looking close to life-size. This Christ is in absolute agony. His fingers curl and flex in torture around the nails embedded in his palms. Mary, his mother, looks like a corpse herself as she swoons, paler than the white clothes she wears. Mary Magdalene’s own fingers, as she clasps them in prayer, take on the same shape of suffering as Jesus’s, flexing too in bodily, catastrophic grief. Jesus’s face is turned slightly away as his head droops. He is on the verge of death. The crown of thorns, unruly, scrapes his neck. His lips look dried out; he thirsts. His body is covered with incredibly realistic sores. These sores and their realism have made the Grunewald Altarpiece at Isenheim the source of many discussions, because it was painted for the monastery of St. Anthony there. The monks there were known for their hospital, which cared for plague victims and those suffering from skin afflictions like leprosy. Jesus’s marks on his body look remarkably like those skin conditions. Patients at the monastery could look at Jesus and see the God who looks like them, who partook in their suffering, who dwelt among them. Jesus suffers with you. Jesus suffers like you. Jesus suffers for you. 

Matthias Grunewald and Nicholas Haguenau, Altarpiece at Isenheim, ca. 1512. Photo by Vincent Desjardins. Source.
Close up of the crucifixion, Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1512.

I looked at quite a bit of medieval art and read a lot of strange medieval poetry to prepare for this piece. In that process, I accidentally came across an actual photograph of a crucifixion from the early 20th century, and it was honestly horrific. It brought home to me the shock of the crucifixion as never before. How could it be that something so hideous brought forth salvation? An innocent man was butchered by the united powers of the best human hopes for order, peace, and justice in the world: religion and government. And this corrupt, ugly act, transformed by Christ’s voluntary suffering, communicated and wrought the most beautiful and unexpected thing ever encountered in our world: unconditional, salvific love and peace for all. No one could have guessed it. No one saw in advance how this would be transformed into the gift of life. Though his best friends had heard promises from Jesus, even they couldn’t envision how beauty could come out of suffering so deep, rejection so immense, ugliness so overpowering.

It is commonplace to note that for the last century or so, we have separated ourselves from death and suffering. Caring for the extremely ill, death, and preparing bodies for burial used to happen regularly in homes and the normal places humans lived their lives one hundred years ago throughout as long as people have been in existence. Now these events usually take place in hospitals, hospice, and funeral homes, supervised by a specialized team of people. Moreover, death in general was far more ubiquitous for medieval folk. Sure, we know everyone will die. Everyone loses loved ones at some point. But the average age of mortality in medieval England was about 30 years old, according to scholars of the Middle Ages. To put this number in perspective, most people who lived to 21 lived to about 55 years old. The reason why that first number is so low is because the childhood mortality rate was so very high. So many people, if they were lucky enough to make it to adulthood, lost a child. And the medieval era suffered a series of terrible plagues, including the Black Death, which wiped out a third of Europe in 1348, and came back in waves every few years to destroy communities. Death was everywhere. Medieval people made images of the cross that echoed their lives and deaths back to them. It was not just a mirror image to their pain. The bloody body on the cross was a promise and a companion to them in the precarious frailty of everyday human existence. I know you cannot see a way out of this now, speaks the crucified God to his medieval watchers, but Love will be triumphant over betrayal, abuse, isolation, pain—and death itself. I feel what you feel. I know what you know about both the pain of the spirit and the body. Look on me and love.

Because of the pandemic and social upheaval, this is the closest we as Americans or Westerners have been in at least fifty years to the broadscale medieval understanding of the ubiquity of suffering in this life. For many years, we have not been this collectively aware of the fragility of the body, both the communal body politic and our individual skin, bones, sinews, breath. 

I have hope and sadness when I consider the cross. Hope is both a practiced habit and a gift, as medieval people knew full well. I hope that out of this mess we can practice a hopeful honesty in looking at ourselves in our limited bodies governed by our limited minds. Perhaps we will work towards recognition of who we are as embodied, mortal people, good and evil, ignorance and good ideas intermingled in each one of us. Gaze at the crucifixion and reflect on what Jesus says to each of us, the watchers in the complicit crowds at his passion. I hope that the pandemic will, in its aftermath, prompt reflection on what a crucified God means when he tells us to love.

Think of these medieval poems with which we began, where Christ speaks to you, a viewer, from the cross. What do you think he says to you? 

I really love the hymn by Stuart Townend, “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us.” It includes the line, “It was my sin that held him there.” Medieval people like Julian of Norwich or the anonymous lyric poets would have countered and heard Christ say, “It was my love that held me there.” Does this change your idea of the cross and how you approach it? 

Give yourself time and space to mourn this week. Cry. Listen to sad music. Weep with those who weep—for the murders in Atlanta and Boulder, for the victims of the pandemic, for Jesus on the cross, for the ways in which you’ve been wounded. Embrace the medieval tradition of recognizing love in suffering in the figure of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. 

Jesus the Good Medieval Christian: Nicholas Love and the Institutionally-Approved Christ

An image of Canterbury Cathedral from 1890-1900, public domain.

Welcome to the Lent series of Old Books With Grace, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” We only have two left before Easter! Check out the previous installments either on the blog or podcast. I must warn you, today I am really embracing the self-reflective, penitential nature of Lent. This episode is more about what we do to Jesus than about Jesus’s character and love for us. It is necessary to cultivate awareness of the gap between the two. But before we meet Jesus, the nice medieval Christian, we must undergo a short history lesson.

In fourteenth-century England, something interesting began to happen. There was a huge upswell of interest in devotional texts. People began to read more. More texts were produced to aid individual devotion, like Books of Hours, which directed you in prayer at specific times of day, contemplative works like those by Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, and Julian of Norwich, penitential texts, which helped you to prepare for confession through identifying your sins and cultivating contrition, and lives of Christ, a genre which helped people envision the life of Jesus by encouraging loving meditation on the events of the gospels. Many of these genres had long existed in Latin versions, but to have them in English was a surprising new development. They—and their ideas—were accessible to literate people like never before. 

Alongside this wave of English devotional and contemplative writers, a new, radically reforming theology sprung up, initiated by John Wycliffe. At the time, Wycliffe and his followers were called “Lollards.” Wycliffe began as a powerful critic of the English church’s corruption and wealth and as a proponent for translating the Bible itself into English. Eventually, many Lollards actively proclaimed that the wealth and property of the church should be stripped and given to the poor and to the government, that transubstantiation, the belief that Christ’s very blood and sinews were in the Eucharist, not bread or wine themselves, was not true, that the church’s hierarchy should be abandoned, that lay people should have total access to scripture in their own language, that women could preach publicly, and other questionable ideas. At first, many powerful lay people were drawn to this articulation of the church, some from authentic belief and others from the canny realization that they stood to profit from taking away the church’s property. In the Middle Ages, the church owned nearly a third of England. Wycliffe had some influential protectors, like the son of the King, John of Gaunt. But by the early fifteenth-century, the English church hierarchy went into a protective mode. Unlike Continental Europe, England had not burned heretics at the stake or killed people for heterodox beliefs in general. But this changed in 1400, when Archbishop Arundel, the head of the English church as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry IV, allowed heretics to be burnt at the stake for the first time in England. Ecclesiastical control also tightened over which books should be circulating and encouraging lay devotion. The devotion of people outside of the clerical professions was of course good, but the church understood it as needing to be carefully monitored and controlled. Otherwise, it could erupt into heretical Lollardy. So Arundel issued a set of proclamations, the Oxford Constitutions of 1407, then the Lambeth Constitutions of 1409. These proclamations heavily regulated preaching and writing, and especially the translation of scripture into English.

Into this fascinating historical moment came Nicholas Love’s book, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ. Nicholas Love was a Carthusian monk, who worked hard on reforming his brothers and monastic practice in England. Approved by the English church hierarchy, Mirror retold scenes from scripture in English, as food for “simple souls” to meditate upon. In other words, it fulfilled the need for English access to the stories of scripture, but the message was safely mediated by the authority of clerics. As Michael Sargent, Nicholas Love’s editor today, tells us, it is easy to float along with narratives of progress and believe that Love was a repressive, reactionary joy-killer. But Love was actually trying to reform the church in response to crisis. Let’s take a look at how he interprets scripture for the “simple souls,” especially women and the uneducated, of the English church.  

A beautiful manuscript page from The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ by Nicholas Love. Manuscript by the scribe Stephen Dodesham, ca. 1475. Image public domain.

We can look at an example. Matthew 4:11 reads, “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.” Nicholas Love expands:

After Satan was reproved as a false tempter and utterly driven away, holy angels in great multitude came to our Lord Jesus after his victory…And then spoke the angels, “Our worthy Lord, you have long fasted, and it is now your time to eat. What should we obtain for you?” And then he said, “Go to my dear mother, and get what matter of meat she has ready. Bring it to me, for there is no bodily food that I like so much as her cooking.” And two angels went forth, and suddenly appeared before Mary, and with great reverence greeted her on behalf of her son. And so the angels took the simple food she had planned for herself and Joseph, with a loaf, and a napkin, and other necessities, and a few small fishes. And the angels came back and spread the towel on the ground and laid the bread thereon, and mildly stood and said grace with our Lord Jesus, awaiting his blessing, and he sat down.

Now, pay attention here, especially you that are solitary. Have in mind, when you eat your food alone without fellowship, the manner of this food, and how lowly our Lord Jesus sits down to his food on the bare ground, for there he had neither table or cushion. Take heed how courteously and how soberly he takes his food, despite his hunger after his long fast. The angels served him as their lord: one brings his bread, another his wine, another the fishes, and some sing as his entertainment a sweet song of heaven. And thus they comforted their lord, as belonged to their state as angels, with much joy mingled with compassion. This fellowship you have too, though you see it not, when you eat alone in your cell, if you are in charity and especially when you give your heart to God as you ought to, in the manner of the Apostle, who says to us that when we eat or drink or do any other thing, we should do it all in the name of our Lord.

pp. 73-74, my translation of The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ edited by Michael G. Sargent

I am rather fond of this section. It is quaint, and we gently smile at it. It feels authentically medieval. It connects us to a cultural moment of thinking about Jesus as a man with surpassingly excellent table manners, despite there being no table and no other guests, who is no gourmand but prefers his mother’s simple cookery. It ends with a comforting message that you too are accompanied by the angels when you eat or drink alone. I really like that. Yet, even in these charming moments of envisioning the good son Jesus who loves his mother’s food, we see a Jesus who is a good medieval Christian. He is domestic, he is a fan of the Virgin Mary’s cooking above all else, he would fit right in at any medieval court with his dainty eating habits.

Such cultural moments can be much uglier. We can look at Mary in the Annunciation. The Annunciation is the name for when Gabriel the angel comes to Mary to announce that she will bear Jesus. Nicholas Love draws some conclusions from Mary’s initial silence when Gabriel comes to her:

Here then you can take Mary as an example, first to love solitary prayer and departing from humankind so that you may be worthy of the presence of angels. Furthermore, you may take from this to love to hear wisdom, keep silence, and love little speech, for that is a profitable virtue. For Mary heard first the angels speak twice before she answered them. And therefore, it is an abominable thing, and great reproof to a maiden or virgin to be a “great jangler” (excessive talker)…

p. 25, my translation of Mirror, ed. Sargent.

This example is particularly ironic, given that the world-changing power of the Annunciation does not come from Mary’s feminine silence. Humankind’s participation in redemption emanates from Mary’s vocal consent as a woman to bearing the Messiah in her womb.  But Nicholas Love cannot see past his cultural ideals of silent, assenting femininity. 

Or we could turn to the Last Supper. In Nicholas Love’s portrayal of the night before Jesus’s death, he focuses on the initiation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He describes it with beauty and passion, and ends with conclusions for people to meditate upon. And, as he details the kinds of things we should draw from this episode in Jesus’s life, he turns specifically to the Lollards, the heterodox folks of his medieval English church. The true disciples 

..left all their bodily reason and wit, and rested only in true belief in their lord’s words as said before, save Judas that was reproved for his falseness and unbelief, and therefore he received the blessed sacrament to his damnation.

 And so do all that be of his party now, the which falsely believe and say that the holy sacrament of the altar is still bread and wine as it was before the consecration, because it seems so to their bodily feeling…they are more reprovable than Judas, for they do not see Jesus’s actual body next to the sacrament as he did, and therefore it is easier for them to believe, and more to their damnation…

p. 151, my translation of Mirror, ed. Sargent.

The gloss on the side of this text makes the aims of this section clear: “contra Lollardos,” against the Lollards. The Last Supper—the poignant beauty of a last shared meal, the introduction of the Sacrament, the uneasy calm before the storm and darkness of the crucifixion—has become watered down to become a controlling device of dissidents. When he depicts the Sacrament that unites the Body of Christ, Nicholas Love, working with religious authority and Archbishop Arundel, weaponizes it. In these particular moments, The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ reveals to us an inability to envision Jesus as anything other than a very good, actually the best medieval Christian ever, and a common and devastating need to produce and control the “right” response to the gospels. 

As usual, we cannot feel superior as we read. You and I are also incapable of fully interpreting Jesus outside of our own time and space and bodies. We all want to impose our version of Jesus on the world, with all our good intentions about it. Nicholas Love was a reformer of lax practices in the church; he was trying to make the church better and save it from what he saw as dangerous. We are all Nicholas Love. The real challenge is identifying when and where. We have all been guilty of fitting Jesus neatly into our culture and our concerns, instead of heeding the strangeness of his call. We domesticize him. We think of him like ourselves. He’s a nice American Christian. Depending on your own background, you probably think of him in your own terms. In my subconscious imagination of Jesus, which I am constantly trying to purge, he is like an open-minded Presbyterian or slightly conservative Episcopalian—probably educated at a good school though he eschews displays of wealth, doesn’t drink too much but certainly enjoys a glass of wine, he definitely votes, even in his local elections, has good table manners just like Nicholas Love suggests, subtly attentive to and avoidant of offending others. He used to hold some distasteful Calvinist doctrines but thankfully he’s outgrown them. In other words, he is a lot like me. And the point is, it’s not like I actually think these ideas or express them, as Nicholas Love does, yet it’s how I feel about Jesus. Maybe in your head, you have more of a Baptist Jesus (doesn’t dance, let alone drink) or a Roman Catholic Jesus (drinks a lot, especially in college) or Unitarian Jesus (is cool with smoking pot occasionally). 

Alongside our domesticization of Jesus, we adapt him to the needs of our agendas—just like Nicholas Love. The Jesus with excellent table manners is cut from the same cloth as the silent Mary of the Annunciation, a lesson to loudmouthed women. The Jesus with excellent table manners leads to the Jesus whose Last Supper, instead of inviting even Judas to consume the Body of Christ, condemns Lollards to be burnt at the stake. The zealots of the New Testament, waiting for Jesus to violently seize the throne and create a new state cleansed from Roman oppression, faced bewildered disappointment when he died an ignominious death. Jesus was fully supportive of slavery, and not just any slavery, but a slavery predicated on the pseudoscience of Black people as inferior and thus fitting as slaves, according to antebellum slaveholders and religious leaders of the American South. And both Puritan English settlers of North America and Catholic Spanish explorers of South America shared the firm conviction despite their differing faith practices that Jesus was an ardent colonizer who supported their efforts to gain wealth and land by decimating indigenous people. Whatever institution is in power at that moment, and whatever counter-movement operates, left or right, medieval or modern, they find space for a convenient version of Jesus. 

But if, as I mention above, we are incapable of seeing Jesus outside of our own bodies, times, and spaces, how are we to break the spell of our own persuasive voices and versions of Jesus? Moreover, interpretation and application of the Jesus of scripture to our current times is both necessary and unavoidable. How does one live with love for God and neighbor in the world today, the world of the pandemic, of the internet, of many different things not explicitly addressed in the New Testament? Interpretation, sometimes creative and often difficult, needs to happen. We have to use these time-bound brains and bodies to enter into life with Jesus. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can. We must acknowledge that to some extent we will always be unable to fully moving beyond our own viewpoints. But what we can do is listen to the voice of the Body of Christ also working on interpreting scripture and living in the world, in different times, places, and bodies than our own. We can pay attention to where they challenge us. I gave Nicholas Love short shrift today but listening to even Nicholas Love can teach us a lot about both the mistakes of the church of the past and how much his church and he himself did love Jesus. The voices of the past tell us of our own littleness and our limitations as we think about ourselves, our histories, our obsessions and our loves. Medieval Christians speak to us of the importance of self-examination, of contrition and confession. Self-examination may be especially called for if you find that Jesus agrees with you on everything. Jesus is a radical, but he is his own radical—he doesn’t belong to anyone’s platform. 

With God’s grace, we can also consciously work to free ourselves from the need to control others through our versions of Jesus. So much of our adoption of different versions of Jesus can be traced back to our desire to get others back in line. Nicholas Love adapts his materials for Mirror out of the need in his time to control the Lollards, or control otherwise unruly women.  

There is a fantastic recent interview in Plough Magazine with Stanley Hauerwas, the eminent theologian and Christian ethicist. The interviewer notes that many Christians are very concerned about the loss of Christian influence and power in today’s society. Hauerwas responds:

Well, I actually think that one of the good things that is happening today is precisely the loss as Christians of our status and power in the wider society. That loss makes us free. We as Christ’s disciples ain’t got nothing to lose anymore. That’s a great advantage because as a people with nothing to lose, we might as well go ahead and live the way Jesus wants us to. We don’t have to be in control or be tempted to use the means of control. We can once again, like the first Christians, be known as that people that don’t bullshit the world.

Stanley Hauerwas, interview in Plough Magazine

This week for your Lenten practice, embrace the penitential spirit of Lent. How have you fit Jesus into a neat cultural box of your own making? How have you used Jesus to control others, in politics, in relationships? Identify these places in your mind and actions, and confess them to someone you love and trust.

If you have the time in your life, pick up some Christian writing or art from a different time than your own—and the nineteenth century can be just as helpful and challenging as the fifth century, no need for chronological snobbery. How do the faithful and imperfect people of the past domesticize Jesus or make him into an instrument for their own purposes? How does their insight into Jesus challenge you?