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THE MASTER IN THE FATHERS
AND IN ECCLESIAL TRADITION

(especially in "De Magistro"
by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas)

Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Franco Pierini ssp

 

4. THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES (450-950)

4.1. General view

Due to the scarcity of sources on the subject matter, it is a problem discussed up to now whether, how and when did the ancient "paideia" disappear during the barbarian invasion or whether it gave place to the medieval "discipline." Attention is focused above all on the VI and VII centuries: presence or absence of public school systems? And the discussion moves on to VIII-X centuries: real rebirth of the ancient culture or a completely different reality? Against the supporters of the absence and of discontinuity (H. I. Marrou, E. Lesne) stands the supporters of the presence and of continuity (P. Riché, C. Xodo).(34)

The impossibility of deciding in one direction or another (precisely because the sources are scarce and could not be interpreted in diametrically opposite directions) imposes that there be no generalizations and that be held as certain only what could be based on a clear and adequate documentation.

In some cases (Boetius, Cassiodorus, Isidore of Sevilla, Gregory I) the survival of the ancient "paideia" appears evident; in others (Benedict of Norcia, Gregory of Tours) the traces of ancient education seem almost gone. The first spray of rebirth, paradoxically, come from the Anglo-Saxon world (Bede the Venerable), which decisively influences, with Alcuin of York, the true rebirth, the Carolingian. After then, in spite of the new invasions of Normans, Hungarians and Saracens, there would no longer be any solution of continuity.

Based on what survived, it is nonetheless certain that soon typically Christian schools would appear, but they are quite different from those of the pre-Constantine and post-Constantine period. In the first decades of the VI century, one hears of the first rural ecclesiastical schools (Council of Vaison, 529) and of the first episcopal schools (Council of Toledo, 527). Much earlier, there already exist the monastic schools in the East with the rise of monasticism and then also in the West: here they reach perfection with the Rules of St. Benedict of Norcia, dating back to about 530. During the time of Charlemagne would be formed the "Palatine school," integrated in the imperial court. We need to underline here that the rural and episcopal schools were used almost exclusively for the candidates of the sacred orders or for pastoral or missionary ministry; the monastic schools (which welcome often boys and girls as "oblates") for candidates to monastic life. The aristocrats made use of private teachers, while the people slide more and more to illiteracy.(35)

In the Byzantine world, in the world of Eastern Christianity, the situation could be considered as similar, although less dramatic as in the West.(36)

With such a condition, the real and proper school for the masses could effectively considered gone. We are therefore in a period of descholarization. For all, but especially for the people, the school is by now something else: liturgy, with its teaching done with words (preaching), gestures (rites) and images (paintings, sculptures, mosaics). To the men of the early Middle Ages, therefore, Christ appears above all in the milieu of liturgical context, in the practice of prayer.

Christ Master in the early Middle Ages, the Christ, that is, whom one could listen to, follow and imitate, is not certainly Christ "Pantocrator" who is found depicted on the triumphal arches or on the apses of paleo-Christian or Romanic basilicas: the "Pantocrator" is way above and far beyond every possible imitation. In these centuries, Christ Master is above all the praying Master, hence, the "Interior Master" according to the teaching that comes not only from the West through the work of Augustine of Hippo but also from the East through the work especially of the "Hesicast" tradition which begins and advances with John Scholastico, also called "Climacus" (579-649).

The praying Christ Master is the victory of Catholicism and of orthodoxy over Pelagianism and Arianism which tended to reduce the magisterium and the person of Christ precisely to something subordinate and exterior: subordinate in relation with the Father and hence a simple semi-God or superman; exterior in the relation to man and hence pure and simple source of moral precepts and good examples. The struggle against the Arian barbarians, undertaken by the Church above all in the West, was then a matter of life and death for Christianity. There was the risk of turning Christianity into a philosophical school like the ancient ones or a moralistic organization at the service of the State.

The acquisitions on the "Interior Master" achieved by Augustine appear to be decisive and providential. They, as we know, are confirmed against the so-called "Semi-Pelagians" or the "Marseilles" in the II Synod of Orange in 529.

It is therefore the spirituality of the "Interior Master," of the Master of prayer which prevails on the level of the masses. It is lived through the liturgy, but also elaborated in a special manner by the "Hesicast" theology in the East, which, establishing its roots on the works of Origen, Gregory of Nissa, Diodocus of Photice, Pseudo-Dionisius Areopagite, leads progressively to Maximus the Confessor and above all to the already mentioned John Scholastico or Climacus (579-649), an energetic propagandist of the life of prayer concentrated on the memory of Jesus and on the imitation of his virtues and his sentiments. The growing "monastic" theology of the West does a similar function in this period, represented mainly by Gregory I, the Great (540-604), Benedictine in spirit if not in the formal sense of the word.(37)

Nonetheless, beside the praying Christ Master soon appears, above all in the aristocratic milieu, another type of Christ Master: Christ Friend, brave and loyal, knightly. Represented already as a Roman legionary in a famous mosaic dating back to the VI century, in the Archbishop’s palace of Ravenna (with the right hand he holds a cross resting on his shoulder, with the left hand holding a book with the written the words "Ego sum via, veritas et vita"), the Militant Christ, the Christ Knight fits above all the German-barbarian mentality (38) and finds a simple expression in the literature of the Specula principum, certainly more ancient but especially widespread in the period of the early Middle Ages. A very meaningful example of it is the Manuale by Dhuoda.

It is a Christian pedagogy which does not yet consider the contemporary polemics regarding Christ’s humanity (the Adoptionism that emerged at the end of the VIII century and fought by the Carolingian theologians, first among whom is Alcuin). But the topic shall become current in the next period.(39) (return to summary)

4.2. Christ Master, knight and prayer, by Dhuoda (about 843)

Dhuoda was a woman belonging to high aristocracy of the Carolingian empire. On June 29, 824, she married the nobleman Bernard of Settimania, and had two sons: William in 826 and Bernard in 841. The husband, accused of betrayal by Charles the Bald was executed in Tolosa in the year 844. Six years later, William met the same destiny. Bernard, Dhuoda’s second son, however, was saved and he became the father of Bernard Planvelue and grandfather of William the Pious, founder of the Cluny abbey and hence the precursor of the Gregorian reform.

Dhuoda, finding herself far from her sons, wanted to address to the older, William, a manual of advises, which is completed on 2 February 843. The heading is: Liber manualis Dhuodane quem ad filium suum transmisit Wilhelmum.(40) During the Carolingian times, this literary genre was started with the work of Alcuin addressed to Count Guido of Brittanny. Others followed it. Dhuoda moved therefore in a well known and consolidated tradition. The book’s originality consists in the fact that the author is a woman, herself the mother of the person concerned.

The content of the Manuale, considered also schematically, appears very meaningful. Dhuoda begins with speaking about the search for God (chap. I), then moves on to deal with the Christian God, or the Trinity (chap. II). Then follow the advises to the son regarding his duties towards the representatives of God on earth, first of all his father, then the other dignitaries, and finally the priests (chap. III). Then follow the advises regarding daily life (chap. IV), tribulations (chap. V), the problem of Christian perfection (chap. VI), death (chap. VII). A rather detailed chapter is dedicated to prayer (chap. VIII); another shorter one, to the meaning of numbers (chap. IX). It concludes with some autobiographical considerations (chap. X) and finally goes back to speak of prayer, in reference to the psalms (chap. XI).

It is obvious from all the discussion that Dhuoda wants to draft what has been defined as "the book of the perfect aristocrat," or the book of the perfect knight, of the member of that "knighthood" which was being formed precisely during the VIII-IX centuries as a class of professionals of the army and of life in the court, before it became established institution in the following centuries, thus generating contemporaneously a real culture, the "knightly" culture, and a consecration also liturgical in form.

Dhuoda often exhorts her son not only to exercise natural virtues but also the specifically Christian ones and to live the beatitudes, the gifts of the holy Spirit, in order that William could be "reborn each day in Christ" (VII, 1), could "grow always in Christ" (XI, 2). Furthermore, she instructs him quite in detail regarding the life of prayer. Often, one could have the impression that Dhuoda considers her son like as if he were Christ in miniature, who must identify himself as much as possible with the true Christ.

In any case, what appears evident from the letter and the spirit of this more unique than original Manuale is the effort to trace the figure of the knight, "stainless and fearless." Virtuous and devote, modeled after Christ understood as example and initiator of knighthood and of prayer. (return to summary)

5. THE HIGHER MIDDLE AGES (950-1250)

5.1. General view

It is superfluous to underline the importance of the historical period immediately before and after the year 1000. As everyone knows, it was a moment of fundamental passage for the whole of Christianity, either in the West or in the East, even if the results were opposite. In the West, the rebirth, started already before the year 1000 (contrary to all the catastrophic legends regarding the end of the millennium), is more or less integral in character: the economy flourishes, the population increases, cities are revived and the first kingdoms are formed; at the same time, the Cluny and Gregorian reforms begin, Christian society is renewed, crusades are organized, the new bases of a new scholastic culture and of a new scholarization are established, until the foundation of the first universities. In the East, on the contrary, the different forms of Christianity are on the defensive and then regressed due either to Islam or due to the aggressiveness of the West.

From the specifically theological point of view, in fact, the Christian East is by now characterized by repetitiveness. The most significant intellectual of the time, Michael Psello (1018-1081), is a little more than an encyclopedic. Instead, the figure of Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022) assumes extraordinary importance. He develops the spiritual current of the Hesicasm, insisting on the imitation of Christ, on the encounter with the Divine Master till the point of "seeing and contemplating him already in this life." It was a spirituality of the Interior and Exterior Master until the point of involving all the senses in the mystical experience.(41)

In the Christian West, instead, we are just at the start of the great cultural adventure which shall cover the whole of the following century. In fact the lines are established not only that which pits the State and the Church against each other in a struggle against the investitures, but also the opposition between mystical-symbolic thought with dialectical-rational thought which shall lead to the sciences and of rather distant knowledge.

Initiator of the dialectic-rational method in the new cultural, philosophical and theological wave is Anselm of Aosta or of Canterbury (1033-1109): he raises the question of the problem of God’s existence and tries to find its necessary solution in logic itself (Proslogion); and he raises the question regarding Christ and tries to find its solution in the need of redemption (Cur Deus Homo?). In this manner the need of God stands side by side with the need of Christ, God-man, who satisfies man’s needs. The pedagogical relationship among God, Christ and man could not be considered in a more narrow manner, granted that the entire Christology is led back to soteriology.

The rationalism of the theological discourse started by Anselm brings, however, to disturbing consequences already in Peter Abelard (1079-1142), granted that the two principal mysteries of faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are reduced to the minimum of the mystery aspect: the three persons are reduced to three properties of an only God (a kind of modalism), the humanity of Christ is reduced to a kind of accidental clothing of divinity (something like docetism). And thus the imitation of Christ (that is, through Christ, of God) turns out to be impossible; and every relation between man-disciple and Christ-God Master turns out impossible.

Also as a reaction to these already very dangerous tendencies of dialectic theology, one can now understand the insistence with which Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) starts to develop the devotion to the humanity of Christ, aside form that to Mary. It is the reprise of the discussion of Ephesus and Chalcedon. But above all it is the ever more concrete and passionate development of the "monastic theology", the perceivable adherence to the Word of Christ in order to arrive at the perceivable adhesion to his very Person, in an attempt of identification between disciple and Divine Master similar to that promoted by Simeon the New Theologian. And everything is based on love and on the principle that "the lover imitates the beloved." (42)

The two currents of philosophical-theological thought, in spite of errors and condemnations, nonetheless proceed in their own course, stimulated also by cultural contacts with the Byzantine, Jewish and Muslim worlds which bring to sensational rediscoveries of ancient Greek and Roman authors, above all Aristotle. The Aristotelian metaphysics (his logic was already known) enters the West through translations, not always correct, and leads to the formation of the so-called "Latin Averroism", a kind of rationalism already ready to distinguish, if not detach, itself from faith and Revelation. But also monastic theology, while developing an arbitrary and obtuse allegorism applied mostly to the history of salvation, overturns the divine pedagogy in history, the sense of providence: thus the passage from ingenuous and imaginative legends of many chroniclers of the period (for example, Rodolfo Glabro, 985-1049) to real apocalyptic writings of Gioacchino da Fiore (1130-1202). In both cases, either in the rationalistic tendency brought to exasperation or in the exaggerated symbolist tendency, the right rapport between man-disciple and God who makes himself Teacher in the Scriptures, in Christ, in the Church end up being brushed aside.(43)

The need was to start all over again from zero, from an attitude of a most radical readiness. And this was the witness of Francis of Assisi and of his "poverty." (return to summary)

5.2. Total imitation of Christ Master in Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

Francis of Assisi, from that authentic medieval man that he was, possessed most sharply the sense of symbol. And the fundamental gestures of his life were two, all of them extremely symbolic: the gesture of stripping himself naked before the bishop and the towns people of Assisi in 1206, at the start of his new life; and, twenty years later, in 1226, the request before he died that he be buried naked in the soil of the Portiuncula. In both cases as if by sacred representation, the gesture of total stripping of self as symbol of total poverty and at the same time a symbol of total availability for the "sequela Christi" is brought to work. Hence: Francis, total imitator of Christ, God and man, and therefore Master.

Francis is an attentive and diligent disciple, careful about details and demanding: he seeks to reproduce within himself, over himself and around himself all the aspects of the earthly magisterium of God. No one before him had had a devotion so detailed towards the earthly Christ, towards the humanity of God.

However, granted that Christ’s humanity, the historical one, in spite of everything is no longer present on earth, Francis expands his discipleship, his imitation of the Master, into two opposite directions: to see and adore the Master’s presence in every man (even in the lepers), in every creature (hence also in fierce animals); to identify himself even with Christ (stigmatization in 1224).

The fact has been pointed out that Francis, in his prayers and in his writings, directly addresses himself to the Father, more often than to the Son, to Christ. The reason is that Francis feels one with Christ, with the Son. And thus the experience of Christ Master in him was truly total.(44) (return to summary)

Continued: The lower Middle Ages (1250-1500)

return to summary

 

           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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