Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Forerunners of the Reformation

The lay Modern Devotion Movement, the Franciscans, and the Mystics all have one thing in common: They sought a religious life apart from the clergy-led local parish. This isolated community ideal which was located apart from the local parish challenged the authority of the church. It meant that the local parish, which was connected to the Roman Catholic hierarchy, was not supplying all that was needed for salvation. Additionally, these movements resulted in the average lay person identifying spiritual communities as superior to the local parish. Lay people flocked to these religious communities in great numbers and this confronted the authority of the church.

The Modern Devotion Movement wanted more than what the church was giving them. They saw clergyman and Bishops who were corrupt and not true followers of Christ. Bishops were elected by political rulers. Family members were elected to be clergyman by family simply because they were family members. It was common for the clergy to have concubines! In response to this, the Modern Devotion Movement sought to live truly Christian lives apart from the local congregation. The institutional church did not like this because it caused skepticism towards the hierarchy of the church.

The Modern Devotion Movement also wanted to take a spiritual stand against the gross materialism of the age as the Pope and Bishops were living in abundant wealth. This was hardly similar to the poverty and persecution experienced by Christ and the Apostles. Popes Alexander III and Innocent III transformed the papacy into a significant commercial power. The Modern Devotion Movement fled from this and created their own religious community without excessive materialism. Many lay people joined this movement and also fled from the local church. Great numbers of lay people flocked to these communities and the integrity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy was defied.

The Franciscans also lived holy lives apart from the clergy led local parish. They preached publicly without being ordained clergyman. People noticed the difference between their preaching and that of the wealthy and worldly clergyman. They wondered if the preaching of the clergyman was even Christian. Conversely, they saw in the Franciscans a lifestyle that conformed to Jesus and His disciples. Additionally, the Franciscans actually cared for people. They heard confession of sin from lay people. This was all occurring without the Franciscans being ordained. Lay people flocked to the Franciscans as a source of their Christian spirituality. They did not flock to the clergy led local congregation. This challenged the authenticity of the clergy, because great numbers of lay people were hearing sermons and confessing their sins to the Franciscans who were not ordained.
The Franciscans also challenged the gross materialism of the clergy. St. Francis promoted a radical poverty ideal based on his individual interpretation of Matthew 10:8-11. In Matthew 10:8-11, Jesus tells his disciples to “receive without pay” and to “give without pay.” Furthermore, Jesus states: “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper, in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff.” Inspired by this, Francis lived an extreme life of poverty and did not allow his followers to own property or touch money except when needed to care for the sick. Against the prevailing nepotism of the day, the Franciscans taught that virtue and deeds—not birth—determined a person’s worth. To make matters worse, St. Francis had a tremendous experience that validated his way of life over and against the institutional church. Ozment writes: “On September 14, 1224, while at the hermitage of the order on Mont La Verna, Francis, climaxing a long prayerful vigil, miraculously received stigmata, that is, wounds in his hands and feet like those of one who had been crucified” (100). The stigmata seemed to validate the poverty ideal of the Franciscans and confronted the lifestyle of the secular, wealthy, and worldly clergy. The clergy did not want to be poor and lose their power. The Franciscans made them uncomfortable because they directly challenged their lifestyle.

The Franciscan ideal became all the more explosive when Joachim of Fiore saw a prophetic-spiritual meaning in passages such as Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 and Revelation 14:6. He interpreted these passages to mean that there would be “a time when the church’s pastors and teachers would be superseded by an eternal gospel addressed to mankind come of age” (104). He believed that this would be a new world order that would go be beyond Judaism and Christianity. Furthermore, Joachim historicized the doctrine of the trinity to express this new world order. The time from Adam to Christ, also known as the Old Testament, was the age of the Father. The time from Christ to Joachim’s lifetime, also known as the New Testament, was the age of the Son. The culture of the age of the Son was led by clergy. Conversely, the age of the Spirit was “to be communitarian, as monastic values penetrate society at large” (105). Many Franciscans believed that Revelation 14:6 referred to St. Francis and he inaugurated this new age of the Spirit. This understanding of history amplified the community ideal apart from the priests by giving it biblical, historical, and dogmatic weight.

The Mystical Tradition also sought a more authentic spirituality away from the local parish. The Mystical Tradition affirmed that people could be one with God apart from the clergy. They believed one could become perfect if they isolated themselves from the world and waited upon God. A spiritual coming of Christ in the soul could occur through prayer and meditation. One could have a mystical union with Christ in isolation apart from the institutional church. This isolationist ideal held that monks and nuns had the most potential to be perfect. This challenged the authority of the church, because if one could find God without the Catholic hierarchy, then what need is there for the local congregation?

More concretely, Bonaventura’s Mysticism asserted that the mind could undergo labor in order to reach communion with God and have mystical peace. Ozment writes: “In the first stage of the journey the mind beholds God through his traces in the world at large” (124). The world is seen as a sacrament where God is present by which man is given to contemplate, reflect upon, and meditate on. After the first stage, the mind is then to “look deep within itself and behold him [God] through his image imprinted on its natural powers of memory, intellect, and will. Like the external world, man himself is a sacrament of God’s power and glory” (125). However, God can only be beheld from within, insofar as the mind is reformed by grace. After following God’s traces in the world and from within the mind is able to “transcend itself and approach God” (126). When the mind beholds the trinity it reaches the “perfection of the mind’s illumination” (126). This understanding challenged the authority of the church because it meant that the mind was able to have communion with God through sacraments which were not dispensed by the local congregation.

The spiritual traditions’ criticism towards the worldliness of the church was a help because it challenged the corruption of the church and prepared the way for the Reformation. Jesus said: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple….any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27, 33). This life of renunciation described the authentic Christianity of the spiritual traditions and was antithetical to the secular ambitions of the Roman Catholic Church. The spiritual traditions sought a life of repentance which conformed to the life of Jesus Christ. They truly wanted to live holy lives because they knew it was God’s commandment. They challenged the church to repent from its idolatry and worldliness and return to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. By doing this, the spiritual traditions caused skepticism towards the hierarchy. And when Martin Luther wrote his three great treatises in the early 16th century, the hearts of men and women across Europe were ready for Reformation.


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