Birds of the Word

I know what you're thinking. Or, at least, what you should be: what are all those birds doing on a pulpit? I see an eagle, a turkey, a pelican, a crane, a rooster, a peacock, several that look like hawks, more eagles, most likely a dove or three. I'm not much of a bird-watcher, but all of them seem fairly specific, as if it mattered to represent them as true as possible to life.

Here's what the leaflet guide to the cathedral says: "The impressive pulpit in the nave...was originally created for St. Bernard's Abbey to the south of Antwerp. The birds and plants portray the frivolous diversity of creation." Frivolous diversity? Well. That's me told. No point in looking for any symbolism here.

My heart hurts. Here I am, sitting in a cathedral in a city in a diocese (according to the leaflet) all "dedicated to the Virgin Mary," and nobody seems to know why.
Again, from the leaflet, advising visitors on how to approach the experience of being in this magnificent church:
When entering sit down on one of the chairs at the back of the cathedral. Can you feel the majesty? Gigantic pillars support the rib vault above your head. Large stained glass windows filter the light. You are surrounded by opulent works of art. People are frequently reduced to silence by such beauty...
As were, clearly, the authors of the leaflet. Reduced to silence, that is. Are you kidding me? That's the best you can do? "Can you feel the majesty?" Give me a break. No wonder nobody in Belgium knows how to defend the ancient faith. Nobody knows what it means, it is all about feelings, sensations, the surface beauty of art. Heaven forfend we mention something about, say, the massive crucifix hanging over the altar (no mention) or the Ark in the side chapel to the south (not marked on the map).

Judging solely from the pamphlet, nothing particularly sacred happens here. Visitors are invited to "visit the cathedral at your own pace, [and] focus on what draws your attention and be inspired." Pardon me, but inspired to what? You may visit the shop or join a free tour, but please don't take flash photos.

Oh, wait, here's something: "The cathedral was built as a house for God but today it continues to receive the many Catholics who wish to celebrate [no object] and pray here. We thank you for your respect for this sacred space."

Chapel of the Madonna of Antwerp
Now I feel sick. I know, I know, it is just a tourist leaflet. There is no point in making a big deal about the fact that this church is Christian or that what "the many Catholics" come here to celebrate is the Mass. (All the odder, since the pamphlet clearly expects most of the visitors not to be either Catholic or Christian.) Commendably, both of the main side chapels, the one to the north housing the Madonna of Antwerp and the one to the south housing the Ark of the Covenant, are both set aside "only for prayer." And while I was visiting, there was a Mass being celebrated off to the side of the main altar, along with accompanying chant tones played on the organ.

But. "Frivolous diversity." Majesty you can "feel." "Opulent works of art." Exactly why was it so difficult for the authors of the pamphlet to say something about why Christians build beautiful churches in which to celebrate Mass in the first place? Or do they really think that it is all just to inspire people to enjoy pleasant feelings?

Getty, MS Ludwig XV 3, fol. 2
Here is what the twelfth-century cleric Hugh of Fouilloy said about why he depicted the dove in all its beauty and colors*:
Desiring to fulfill your wishes, dearest friend, I decided to paint the dove whose wings are silvered and the hinder parts of the back in pale gold (Psalm 67:14), and by a picture to instruct the minds of simple folk, so that what the intellect of the simple folk could scarcely comprehend with the mind's eye, it might at least discern with the physical eye; and what their hearing could scarcely perceive, their sight might do so. I wished not only to paint the dove physically, but also to outline it verbally, so that by the text I may present a picture; for instance, whom the simplicity of the picture would not please, at least the moral teaching of the text might do so.... 
Because I must write for the unlettered [Hugh addressed his work to a nobleman who had become a lay-brother in a monastery], the diligent reader should not wonder that, for the instruction of the unlettered, I say simple things about subtle matters. Nor should he attribute it to levity that I paint a hawk or a dove, because the blessed Job and the prophet David bequeathed to us birds of this sort for our edification. For what Scripture means to the teachers, the picture means to simple folk. For just as the learned man delights in the subtlety of the written word, so the intellect of simple folk is engaged by the simplicity of the picture.
This is what medieval clerics did when they wanted to "dumb down" their exegesis: they drew pictures. Let's look at what Hugh says about his "dumbed down" picture.
If you sleep among the midst of the lots, you shall be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and the hinderparts of her back with the paleness of gold (Psalm 67:14). 
The silvered dove is the Church, expert in the teaching of divine eloquence, which, by analogy [with the dove] is said to have a beak of preaching, by nature divided, in which it may collect the seeds of barley and corn, that is, the maxims of the Old and New Testaments. 
Aha! Maybe the sculptors of the pulpit for St. Bernard's Abbey had a purpose in putting birds on a pulpit from which preachers preach.
It has a right eye and a left eye, the moral and the mystical sense [of Scripture]. It observes itself with the left eye [the moral sense], but gazes upon God with the right [the mystical sense]. It has two wings, the active and the contemplative life. When it is at rest, it is covered by these two wings; in flight it is lifted up to the heavens by these two [wings]. We fly when we transcend with the mind; we are at rest when we are temperate with [our] brethren. Inasmuch as feathers are set into the wings, the feathers are the teachers, adhering steadfastly to the wings of right action and divine contemplation.
Nothing yet about the "frivolous diversity of creation." Let's keep reading.
The dove is any faithful and simple soul: [the bird] with silvered feathers, [the soul] revealed in its virtues by report of good reputation. [The dove] collects as many seeds for its food as [the soul] takes models of righteous men in order to do good deeds. [The dove] has two eyes, right and left, that is to say, memory and perception. With the latter the soul foresees the future, with the former it weeps for past deeds. Our fathers in Egypt closed their eyes, for they did not understand the actions of God, nor were they mindful of the abundance of His mercy. Now [doves] have two wings, the love of one's neighbor and the love of God. One wing is extended in compassion toward the neighbor, the other is raised to the Lord in contemplation. From these wings grow feathers, that is, the virtues of the soul. These feathers shine with silvery brightness when, through report of good reputation, they offer to listeners a sweet tinkling like silver.
I'm still having trouble finding any frivolity here. I see something about virtue and how to live well; I see something about the faculties of the soul and the difficulties of perception; I see something about attending to things that are to come and things of the past, if you will, science and history; I see something about how Christians understand themselves as one with the fathers sojourning in Egypt, although they differ in the way in which they interpret the Scriptures; I see something about compassion and contemplation and the love of God. I see the beauty of God's creature, the dove, but nothing frivolous. Perhaps the leaflet authors didn't mean the doves.

Oh, look, Hugh has something to say about some of the other birds on the pulpit.
On the difference between the tame and the wild hawk: Interpreted allegorically the wild hawk both seizes and eats the bird taken, because any wicked person continually disturbs the actions and thoughts of simple folk. But the tame hawk is any spiritual father, who seizes the wild birds whenever he draws laymen to conversion through preaching. 
On the pelican: I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness (Psalm 101:7). The pelican is an Egyptian bird, living in the wilderness of the River Nile. This bird is reported to kill its chicks with its beak and to weep over them for three days. After three days it pierces itself with its beak, and sprinkles the chicks with its blood. And thus those whom first it killed, it restores by a revitalizing aspersion of blood. In a spiritual sense the pelican signifies Christ, Egypt the world. The pelican lives in the wilderness because Christ alone deemed it worthy to be born of a virgin without union with a man. Furthermore, the wilderness of the pelican [signifies] that the life of Christ is free from sin. 
On the cock (quoting Gregory the Great): "There is something else to be carefully observed in the cock, because when at the moment he prepares to give his call, he first shakes his wings, and striking himself, he makes himself more alert. This we see clearly if we closely observe the life of the holy preachers. Indeed, when they begin the words of a sermon, they first prepare themselves by holy actions, lest, being sluggish within, they should with their voices urge others [to be the same]. But beforehand they shake themselves by lofty deeds, and then they make others eager to do good deeds." 
On the peacock: For Solomon's navy...once in three years went across the sea to Tharsis, and brought from thence gold, and silver, and elephants' teeth, and apes, and peacocks (3 Kings 10:22).... The fleet of Solomon is sent once in three years across the sea to Tharsis. Solomon's fleet is the virtue of confession. In this fleet we are carried through the sea of this world, lest we be drowned. Therefore, the fleet is sent to Tharsis, which [fleet] is said to bring back from there gold and silver, the tusks of elephants, monkeys, and peacocks. There is said to be gold and silver in Tharsis, that is, men famous for wisdom, skilled in eloquence, who, while they call upon and search out the joy of the present world, know themselves, and while they come from Tharsis to Jerusalem with the fleet of Solomon, in the peace of the Church they are made purer through confession. From this purest gold King Solomon made golden shields (3 Kings 10:16). The golden shields are those who live a pure life and defend others from the attack of the Devil. Also from the aforementioned silver are made silver trumpets, that is, the teachers of the Church.... The peacock has a fearful voice when the preacher threatens sinners with the unquenchable fire of hell. It walks with an easy gait whenever he maintains humility in his actions. It has a serpent-like head while his mind is maintained in the care of experienced caution. But sapphire color on the breast denotes the desire for heaven in the human mind.... 
On the eagle (again quoting Gregory the Great): "By the word 'eagle' the subtle discernment of the saints is represented, whence so likewise is the prophet [Ezekiel] while he described his vision of the four Evangelists in the form of animals (Ezekiel 1:5-10). Among these it is the fourth animal, that is, the one symbolizing St. John, which left the earth in flight, because by subtle discernment [St. John] penetrated the innermost mysteries by comprehending the Word." Likewise, they who still deliberately abandon worldly things, like the eagle and St. John seek heavenly things through contemplation.
Now, there are many things we might call this exegesis, but simple is unlikely to be the first adjective that springs to mind. Nor, I would venture, would most of you call Hugh's interpretation dumbed down; rather, more likely, over-elaborate, pretentious, elitist, or obscure. More generous readers might suggest imaginative or colorful, albeit, my guess would be, with certain reservations: "Too much allegory; this is not what the Scriptures mean."

Sometimes the Christian tradition really drives me nuts. Not with what it teaches about God or the soul or virtue or prayer or the holy; all that is excellent. But how it confuses everything with this talk of "the simple," cutting off its nose, as it were, to spite its face. You want to know why that leaflet that the cathedral hands out to its viewers is so insipid? Centuries upon centuries of authors like Hugh of Fouilloy trying to make the complexities of God's self-revelation through the incarnation of the Word comprehensible to the unlettered, the simple, the Everywoman and man. At least in the Middle Ages preachers still believed in giving their flocks something substantive, teaching them about virtue and the contemplative life and how compassion depends not just on feelings, but also on intellect. Preachers in the Middle Ages took as their purpose to explain, even to the simple, how the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the New; they didn't confuse them with lots of historical criticism about reading the texts for the contexts in which they were originally written.** They gave them the meat of what it meant to say that God had taken on flesh in the womb of a virgin, becoming present to the world through her as once he had made himself present in the worship of the Temple. They did not shy away from insisting that God likewise became present through the bread offered at the Mass, such that the faithful ate not just in remembrance, but in substance the very flesh and blood that he had offered out of love for humanity as a sacrifice on the Cross. They talked not of "social" justice, but of God's, calling the penitent to confession so that they might reform their lives through penance and thus grow in virtue. They warned of wickedness, the wickedness of speaking ill of one's neighbor and of the failure of compassion; for those taking the cross to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land, they warned of the dangers of doing so without first acknowledging one's sins. When they spoke, they spoke in the language of Scripture, which they had ruminated over day after day for the whole of their lives. And when they looked upon creation, they saw not a "frivolous diversity," but a meaning-soaked whole, every creature made by God lifting its voice in praise of its Creator--except, when fallen into sinfulness, man.

And then came the Reformation, and the preachers insisted that the medieval clergy had neglected to preach (they hadn't); and then came the Enlightenment, and the philosophes insisted that the medieval clergy had wallowed in superstition (they hadn't); and then came the nineteenth century, and the university professors insisted that the medieval clergy made up their exegesis on a whim (they didn't); and then came the twentieth century, and the scientists (or, rather, their boosters in the academy) insisted that the medieval clergy believed only in magic (they didn't), and Europe's faith died. And all the while the preachers kept dumbing their message down, lest the faithful be scared away by the rigors of theology and virtue. Okay, I give, it is slightly (but only slightly) more complicated than this.

But. But we in the West are presiding over the death of one of the most exquisite theological cultures the world has ever known, such that great cathedrals like Antwerp's welcome their visitors with the most platitudinous bilge: "Have you come to admire this Gothic bishop's church and its splendid works of art? Have you come to pray or are you looking for a quiet place for reflection?" How about this instead: "Are you looking to encounter the Living God whom Isaiah beheld seated above the seraphim, who cried out to one another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory' (Isaiah 6:3)? Have you come to worship the Creator of Heaven and earth, and to sing his praise with all the creatures in Creation (Psalm 148)? Are you looking to behold God in his glory, who humbled himself so as to enter into his creation that he might restore it to the goodness in which it was made? Or have you come to pray for forgiveness of your sins that you might love your neighbor more perfectly, even as you love God?" 

We keep talking about how we all need to be "respectful of other cultures." Here's a novel thought: how about we start with our own?

*The Medieval Book of Birds: Hugh of Fouilloy's Aviarium, ed. and trans. Willene B. Clark (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992).
**Okay, not quite true; they did try to teach them about the historical sense, but they did not have the criteria of authorship we now use.


Popular posts from this blog

Medieval History 101: The Unauthorized Version

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

Safe Spaces vs. Sacred Spaces and the Purpose of University Education

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist