Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mystagogy - Part 5

History Progresses, Mystagogy Declines 
          The sun shown brightly over the forests and fields of the fief that Sunday morning in the summer of the year of our Lord 1165.  A young mother was preparing to take her family to Mass at the nearby stone church.  Their parish was small and poor, located in the outskirts of a diocese in Barvaria.  The priest was uneducated.  He had memorized the parts of the Mass, but he was unable to explain them to the parishioners, most of whom were serfs attached to the fief of a local knight.  The people were poor and largely illiterate.  Their lives were harsh, unpredictable, and often short.  They had faith, indeed, and perhaps that was what helped them survive the hard work, the hunger, the numerous diseases, the unpredictability of the weather, and the severity of their human lord.  The young mother who was preparing her three little children for Sunday Mass certainly believed in Jesus Christ.  She knew He was the Son of God Who had come to earth to save humanity by His death and Resurrection.  She had been baptized as an infant, but she received the Eucharist only once a year at Easter time.  She even believed that the Mass was the right way to worship God, but like most of the other parishioners, she was not really sure exactly what went on during the liturgy.  She knew that the Bible was read, but since it was proclaimed in Latin and not in her own language, she could not understand it.  She would never have dreamt that she could be like the disciples she had heard about once, the ones who had walked along with the Lord and listened to Him explained the Bible.  She also knew that the priest consecrated the Eucharist during the second half of the Mass and that the Eucharist was the Body and the Blood of Jesus, but she did not know why or how.  Her faith was simple but not very deep.  In fact, even as she prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom she had a strong devotion, she still often practiced many of the old superstitions passed on to her by her mother and grandmother, like charms to ward off the “evil eye.”  The young mother took no time to reflect on all of this.  One of her children was crying, and she had to get the family to Mass.  They could not be late. (75)
          What had happened in the years between the age of the Fathers and the era of this medieval woman?  What had become of the rich mystagogy of earlier days?  In this study, we can only paint a broad, rather impressionistic picture of the centuries following what many even today think of as the “Golden Age” of the early Church (ignoring, or at least downplaying, the persecutions and heresies that plagued early Christianity).  In looking at the decline of mystagogy throughout the ages, we are by no means suggesting that the Church of the medieval or early modern eras was not the Body of Christ, and we must also recognize that there were many in the Church who retained a strong grasp of the unity of liturgy, Scripture, and mystery.  The smallest glimpse at the writings of saints like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Bernard, and Francis de Sales shows us this.  But, unfortunately, many ordinary “Catholics in the pew” were deprived of the post-baptismal teaching that would have introduced them to the depths and riches of their faith.  We shall examine a few of the reasons for this deficiency in mystagogy.
          Our whirlwind tour of Church history begins with the 313 A.D. Edict of Milan, by which the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion.  The Church was no longer to be persecuted by the pagan government of Rome; in fact, it was to be tolerated and, to some extent, even favored by the Romans.  The Church that had flourished by the blood of the martyrs now had to cope with civil interference and more organized and widespread heresies like Arianism.  This was the era of the great councils, Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, and Ephesus.  It was a time when the Church was formally defining and articulating its faith. It was still the time of the Fathers and their mystagogy, too, but times were changing.  Soon Rome was invaded by a host of barbarian tribes.  The empire had stretched itself too thin, had become decadent at its highest levels of society, and was gradually crumbling from the inside out, making it the perfect target for attackers like the Visigoths in 410 and the Huns and Goths a few decades later.  The empire collapsed miserably, and in 476 the last of the Roman emperors was deposed.  The Church now had a whole new set of peoples to convert to Christianity, peoples who had no experience with the Greco-Roman culture, peoples who had no experience with philosophy or the liberal arts or Scripture, peoples who were, well, barbarians. The bishops’ teaching had to change to accommodate their new audiences.  Before long some of the barbarian rulers, like Clovis, the king of the Franks, were converted, usually more for political reasons than anything else, and their subjects converted with them…or else.  The bishops now had people lining up for immediate baptism, and the long process of the catechumenate ending in the Easter Vigil rites faded into the past.  Mystagogy faded with it, for how could the bishops truly explain the integral nature of liturgy, Scripture, and mystery to a group of new converts who were converting immediately on the pain of death?  Indeed, times were changing. (76)
          As the Church moved into the Middle Ages, she began to experience widespread internal corruption and difficulties.  After all, she is human as well as divine.  Her bishops were sometimes more concerned about jockeying for political position than shepherding their flocks. Many of her priests were uneducated and even illiterate.  Certainly the Church enjoyed moments of reform, especially in the realm of monasticism, and certainly Christians built impressive monuments to the faith in this era of the great cathedrals.  But were the common people being taught the depths and riches of their faith?  Did they read and understand the Scriptures?  Did they often have the typology of the Scriptures, the rites of the liturgy, and their mysteries of their faith laid open for them?  Sadly, no.  They did not.  Further, changes were beginning to take place in the Church’s intellectual milieu as great scholastics like Albert and Thomas began to be challenged by the likes of William of Ockham, who helped to introduce the so-called via moderna in the fourteenth century.  This philosophy viewed God as an arbitrary, authoritarian figure rather than a loving Father and denied the existence of metaphysical universals.  The shift from a worldview incorporating both faith and reason to a worldview based on reason alone was beginning.  Human reason, human knowledge, human experience, and human sensory perception were fast taking the place of faith, mystery, and revelation.  The mystagogy of the Fathers, with its focus on God’s well-orchestrated divine economy and on the invisible realities signified by visible signs, no longer fit into this new perspective. (77)
          The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century brought another rupture to the integration the Fathers so cherished.  Luther’s emphasis on sola scriptura denied the validity of Sacred Tradition and Magisterial authority, and while Luther retained the liturgy, at least in part, many of his successors, like Calvin and Zwingli, scrapped it altogether.  For a large part of the Christian world, the unity of liturgy, Scripture, and mystery was completely dissolved.  The pope and bishops worked hard to defend the Catholic faith at the Council of Trent, and they did an excellent job of it, but they had little time left to spend on reviving the mystagogy of earlier days.  Christendom lay in ruins, its unity shattered, and this situation opened the door for the next phase of decline, the so-called “Enlightenment,” the emergence of “scientific” rationalism.  This new movement, at best, privatized religion, relegating it to the realm of the subjective.  At its worst, it was openly atheistic and denied the supernatural altogether, insisting that empirical observation and human reason must reign supreme.  Philosophers, scientists, and psychologists like Kant, Hegel, Darwin, and Freud firmly asserted their rationalistic ideas. Mystery was no more. In fact it was a bit of a dirty word for the rationalists.  The liturgy was just a set of superstitious practices that certainly did not hide any invisible realities.  Scripture was a mere fiction; God could not possibly have intervened in history, if indeed there was a God at all.  Of course, most people in the Church did not think this way, at least not completely, but rationalism had a way of extending its influence even into the Church. (78)

75. Cf. John Laux, Church History (Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1989; Hutton Webster, Medieval and Modern History (Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1919); Carlton J.H. Hayes and Parker Thomas Moon, Ancient and Medieval History (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947).
76. Cf. Laux; Alan Schreck, The Compact History of the Catholic Church (Cincinnati: Servant Books, 1995); Alan Schreck, Class Lectures, Theology 603: Historical Foundations (Steubenville: Franciscan University, 2008).
77. Cf. Scott Hahn, Class Lectures, Theology 610: Theology and Ministry of the Word (Steubenville: Franciscan University, 2004); Laux; Schreck, History; Schreck, Lectures.
78. Cf. Hahn, Lectures; Laux.

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