Monday 3 December 2012

Message from the President

I began academic life as an historian of religion and of religious culture. I specialized in thirteenth century religion and in particular the so-called “begging” orders, the Dominicans chief among them. I have focussed an indefensible amount of time on a particular Dominican Thomas of Cantimpré (1199-c. 1260) and his rollicking practice as storyteller. His works come in two kinds: 1. collections of materials gathered with preaching and penance in mind, and 2. saint’s lives. His preacher-oriented “Book of Bees” (Bonum universale de apibus) has delighted me for nearly thirty years. What a potpourri of tales from what a vast scramble of sources! I doubt it would provide a modern preacher much that he or she could use but summer camps would have ghost stories aplenty to add to their usual repertoires.

The Protestant in me has always been curious about Thomas of Cantimpré’s saint’s lives. They raise questions about sanctity. What is a saint? What is a vita (a life)? What is the writer of a saint’s vita trying to do? How does he or she go about her work? How is the result like and not like a biography or some other modern genre of writing? There is a lot I could write about and have albeit in scholarly locations that are hardly vacation spots for the average curious intellectual traveller. Let me just pick out one chain of features that might be of interest or perhaps even delight.

Hagiographers (writers of saint’s lives) were not writing biographies as we think of the term. O, it is true that in the twelfth-century there were hagiographers of real literary and psychological depth who wrote “humanistic” vitae that presented the saint as at one and the same time a human person such as one might meet on a nearby street or hear tell of in the stories emanating from the courts of society’s high ones, kings and bishops, or from the outlandish and deserted regions separating human communities from each other, hermits or wandering preachers. But this “humanistic” style was a passing fad; most vitae made no pretence of capturing the human individuality of the saint. What hagiographers were interested in were what one can call “saintly situations”: acts and events that were in and of themselves spiritually spectacular. Such acts and events called attention to themselves; they contrasted with ordinary expectations. They bespoke the presence of something amazing, that a heavenly Circus had arrived beyond our most expansive ken, right there, do you see it, just beyond eyesight. They marked a person in ways the community had noticed. They marked a person as discomfiting, bringing one face to face with something both terrible and sublime, the presence of God, active and caring, and ever so other than our ordinary experience and expectations surrounding divinity and its ways in the world. A vita recorded this spectacle-stratum of a saint’s living, reminding or informing the reader that around this woman or man, around these deeds and events, the pungent aroma of the Spirit wafts, a Spirit whose intentions for us humans is ever more than we can fathom, cracking open this world so that we catch a sniff of the next in what is already present unperceived in our ordinary perceptions of what is to be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched.

And stories like these, over-the-top and disturbing, collected around saints. There were always far to many to be included within a single and coherent vita; a hagiographer had to choose. A Dominican like Thomas of Cantimpré chose in terms of two criteria. Stories were to be divided between two groups: 1. stories that shocked and awed the hearer, leaving her gobsmacked by wonder, and 2. stories that sparked a sense of longing, that put one in touch with what-might-have-been, with what-might-still-be, with an existence more exalted if only one’s living were more thickly graced, if only one worked to be more available, if only one aspired to receive and bless such divine outpouring, if only (and this is really the only thing—the rest just followed) the Spirit would in its wisdom deign to pour out. The wonderful is connected to the resulting desire, but is also distinct. There are things one would harm oneself to long for. Hagiographers often seem to embrace the modern television warning: This is the work of a trained professional; please do not try this at home. In addition, there are wonders one simply must learn to long for, for one’s personal and one’s community’s spiritual good. The hagiographer reflects on all this and writes to help the community of faith learn the difference, learn to live in the active and incarnate presence of God right here and now, and to cope well with the resulting wonder and desire.

And here is the point at last: things of amazing wonder and the desire to live up to the example of such spectacular Presence—they are the stuff of Jesus’ life as well, or so they were to medieval readers of the Gospels. The Gospels too are filled with situations that bespeak the in-breaking of the divine into our daily existence, that bespeak a presence that discomfits and disrupts our expectations, that brings us close enough to the breath of the Spirit that we inhale its wonder and long to be graced by its movement in our lives. The Gospels as medievals like Thomas of Cantimpré read them placed the attentive and devout reader in such a spot that she could not but long to be worthy, to conform herself to the presence of their protagonist, the Christ, in her life. And that applied not just to persons; it applied to communities too. At the advent of Advent 2012, I ask you to consider this prayer: May the ICS and its community be gobsmacked by the presence of the Christ of the Gospels, discomfiting its expectations and inspiring a ever renewable and renewed desire to conform itself in all its works to the intimate presence of the Christ. May ICS incarnate the Incarnate One, embracing his presence with all the trust of a young first-time mother struggling to do right even in the muck of a Bethlehem stable. That will be my prayer this month. I invite you to join me as and if you will.

For the President,

Bob Sweetman