Dreaming the Dreams of the Eldest Daughter
(The Remnant, June 30, 1995)
“The nights are light in summer, so that at midnight the beholders are often in doubt whether the evening twilight still continues, or that of the morning is coming on.” (St. Bede the Venerable)A pilgrimage always creates a peculiar “time out of time” for its participants. It allows them to pray and to nurture exalted Christian thoughts and dreams freed from the distractions of so-called normal life. When the pilgrimage in question happens to be the grand Pentecost weekend procession of thousands of traditionalists from Paris to Chartres and Chartres to Paris, the noble Christian thoughts and dreams accompanying the prayers of the wanderers are suggested by the whole history of the tribe of the Franks, the Eldest Daughter of the Church, the first among the barbarian tribes to convert to Roman Catholicism, the ancestor of contemporary France, the Low Countries, and Germany. The present article is a meditation upon some of the tales told by that history, inspired by the three days of last month’s Pilgrimage to Chartres, and, potentially useful, given recent events, for the encouragement of dejected contemporary Catholics.
Frankish history passes on to its students much basic information regarding the development of the idea of the pilgrimage as an essential theme in Christian life. More than that, however, it also offers them vivid proof that the dreams which Catholics once dreamed actually did once become the political and social pillars supporting a brilliant civilization. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it feeds a substantive hope that such a progression from dream to reality may be possible yet again—if, that is to say, we would really take to heart the lessons that a truly Catholic history teaches.
The Franks settled in the provinces of a deeply Romanized Gaul which had already grown fascinated with pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the latter fourth century. Two Gallic writings of the 300’s, the Peregrinatio ad loca sancta and the Itinerarum Burdigalense, describe a well-trod pilgrimage circuit that involved not only sites in Palestine but visits to the pioneer monastic communities of Egypt and Syria as well. These works provide valuable information on everything from church discipline, liturgy, devotional life and architecture to the imperial transport system and the amenities available to the first pilgrims. They are also an introduction to a concept that many early medieval religious thinkers were eager to emphasize: the need for each of us to recognize that we are all wanderers through a fleeting earthly existence, and that even a brief moment on pilgrimage enables us to treat this basic but neglected truth seriously.
Unfortunately for the newly Catholic Franks of the late 400’s, the shattering of the Pax Romana reduced their own pilgrimage goals to local destinations. Nevertheless, pilgrimages to the shrines of men like St. Martin of Tours and St. Julian of Brioude aided mightily in the development of popular understanding of Christian doctrine. Pilgrims often came to such sites to benefit from the miraculous powers of the bones of the saints which could be touched at them. They could not help but see in the wondrous cures effected in such humble locations and through such lowly means the broad consequences of an Incarnation transforming nature in Christ. All space and time appeared to have had been stirred by the fleshly entrance of the Almighty into history and His offer of supernatural grace. Pilgrim exaltation was so great on the feasts of the saints whose tombs were visited that these were days, as one Frankish source noted, on which the whole of the holy Catholic Church rejoiced and danced together.
Grand visions of a special, incarnational pilgrim mission entrusted to the tribe of the Franks emerged with the rise to kingship of the Carolingian Family of Pippin (751-768). The Carolingians managed not only to restore unity to much of the old western part of the Roman Empire and see Pippin’s son, Charlemagne (768-814), crowned as its ruler, but also to mix the impossibly disparate elements now composing it into a new Catholic culture. This hard won mélange reflected influences from Byzantium, Egypt, Lombard Italy, Visigothic Spain, Ireland, and Britain. Alcuin (735-804), the great English Benedictine, responding to Charlemagne’s call to head his so-called Palace School of Aix-la-Chapelle, well expressed the heady long-term hopes that such efforts amidst half-barbarian, illiterate, and often violent peoples encouraged in the educated Catholic elite:
“If your intentions are carried out, it may be that a new Athens will arise in France, and an Athens fairer than of old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teaching of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy. The old Athens had only the teachings of Plato to instruct it, yet even so it flourished by the seven liberal arts. But our Athens will be enriched by the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit, and will, therefore, surpass all the dignity of earthly wisdom.” (Epistle 170, cited in C. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Image, 1991, p. 65).> Special Frankish Carolingian pilgrim responsibilities in a world in the process of transformation in Christ were deduced from four treatises popularized by the literary Renaissance noticeable in this New Athens: The Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, the Divine Names, and The Mystical Theology. These works were all written by a Sixth Century Syrian and had long been mistakenly associated with texts of Dionysius the Areopagite, the First Century Athenian convert of St. Paul. Now, by the 800’s, the identity of that author was confused still further, this time through equation with the proto-martyr of Paris of the same name, the much beloved Saint Denis (i.e., Dionysius). New translations and studies of the so-called Pseudo-Dionysian corpus, doubly hallowed as the product of a hero both ancient and homely, then flourished in all major Carolingian centers, from western France to central Germany.
Pseudo-Dionysius expands upon certain aspects of Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, developed in detail in the latter’s dialogue, The Republic. This allegory spoke of the cave dweller who had escaped from unthinking fixation on the vague, shadowy images visible on the back wall of his dark abode, which up until this point had provided him all that he knew about the world at large. His liberation came from “turning round” (i.e., converting), an action which revealed that the shadows he took for reality were actually cast by substantive figures outside the mouth of the cave. This revelation gave the convert the desire to, in effect, go on pilgrimage: to find and embrace the reality casting the shadows, something which could only be done by traveling upward and outside into the full light of day. A number of Church Fathers taken with Plato’s arguments had shown that all one had to do to complete his message was to continue this pilgrim quest for light beyond nature, all the way to God, the Father of Lights, from whom every good and perfect gift flowed. A life of “turning around”, or conversion, could thus be depicted as one, lengthy, vertical pilgrimage through nature to an eternal homeland with the supernatural God.
The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius emphasized the hierarchical, structured order essential to the successful completion of the majestic plan of God on the grand cosmic scale. Such hierarchy and structure could be seen operative everywhere in Creation, from the life of the angelic hosts downward. How could one not deduce from this omnipresence of hierarchical order the need to subject the earthly pilgrimage of individual Christian believers to a similar visible, communal, hierarchical organizing hand? God’s Providence had entrusted that task not just to the Church, but to a Church protected by the Franks in general and the Carolingians in particular. If the Carolingian King-Emperors took their responsibilities as hierarchical organizers of the communal line of march through nature seriously, then all that men could humanly do to ensure the successful completion of the purifying pilgrimage to the Father of Lights would be done. God could ask no more of mankind.
But the Carolingians failed to perform their regal and imperial tasks efficiently and piously, and for a number of formidable reasons. The Franks, like other German barbarian tribes, really needed time to be able to digest the heady concepts of ordered hierarchical government and transforming spiritual mission being taught to them. Divisions within the Carolingian Family itself did not allow for this, the lands of Charlemagne soon being split into three and more warring parts. Frankish soldiers expected personal rewards for their efforts. A divided kingdom, competing for their labors, allowed warriors to play one Carolingian against another for ever higher stakes, and even to seek power illegitimately on their own behalf. Persistent Viking, Saracen, and Magyar onslaughts wreaked still further havoc with the established hierarchical order, encouraging parochial responses to unexpected local forays. This increased the need for hasty, haphazard recruitment and the rise to importance of self-interested castlekeepers and soldiers of fortune with no philosophical tie to celestial hierarchies. Even popes, bishops, and monks were seduced into this carnival of diffuse military activity, their lands robbed and given to others if they could not be lured away from their proper tasks to the work of blood and iron. The grand mission of the Franks under Carolingian rule lay in ruins. The organized Dionysian pilgrimage to the Father of Lights disintegrated, its participants shading their eyes from the glare of all too complicated Truths, and running for cover to the simple, brutal verities of the back of Plato’s cave. All seemed lost. The late 800’s and 900’s present the picture of a totally disordered, violent, purposeless jungle that only a libertarian or neo-conservative warmonger could find appealing.
Still, Tenth Century Frankish lovers of the ordered pilgrimage to God did not give up a dream whose failure would evoke permanent cosmic consequences too dreadful to contemplate. Nevertheless, they were divided in their understanding of what needed to be done to relaunch the community and its individual pilgrims on the line of march. Three distinct approaches to this difficult enterprise gradually came to debate the shape of the project in question.
One of these was argued by influential northern prelates, among them Bishops Adalbero of Laon and Gerard of Cambrai. Very conservative in outlook, such men saw the task of reconstruction as one of simply getting the traditional political hierarchy firmly back into the saddle. They looked to the reordering of the wrecked pilgrimage of life under the direction of new King-Emperors emerging by the late 900’s out of the leadership of the eastern part of the Frankish realm, that region which can now be called the Kingdom of Germany. These bishops held fast to the idea that the task of restoring and guiding the pilgrimage of Christian believers lay with the ruler and his advisors alone. It was up to them to support it politically, to do the prayer, fasting, and penance which were its spiritual sustenance, and to designate the soldiers who were permitted to defend it. Everyman’s job was limited to physical labor and reproduction. His was not allowed to advise or fight, and his spiritual purification was to be achieved inertly and indirectly, with no effort on his part, through the sanctification of his political and spiritual superiors.
A second faction was composed of activists from the more disturbed areas of the southern Frankish lands, where the German or any other King’s power was either unknown or totally meaningless. Men like the Bishop of Narbonne placed no faith in traditional rulers who could not control local renegade officials, or renegade officials whose usurped power itself then disappeared easily into the hands of castlekeepers and other militant riffraff. Instead of looking to an illusory hierarchical order guided by impotent kings to relaunch the proper procession to God, they turned to a total mobilization of their various flocks against the many disturbers of the peace around them. One sees in their thinking a kind of early liberation theology. They seemed to presume that a “diocese in arms”, hurled into battle against the forces of evil behind the relics of its favorite saints, would automatically ensure the movement of men back towards God, as though the Christian People as a mass need not fear falling prey to its own temptations and its particular demagogic sins.
The third suggestion came from out of a variety of different Frankish monastic communities. Most important among these was the Burgundian abbey of Cluny, founded in 910 with the backing of a local count who allowed the monastery to go about its spiritual business without disturbance. A succession of powerful Clunaic abbots took sophisticated advantage of this initial grant of independence to construct a network of reformed Benedictine houses supported by an equally extensive and eclectic grid of friendly political authorities, from castlekeepers to counts to the new King-Emperors of Germany. Religious clout was added to their armory by adopting SS. Peter and Paul as patrons, and thereby linking the Clunaic network and its goals with Rome and the Holy See.
Central to the Clunaic plan for relaunching the pilgrimage to God was the awakening of all men to their need to work actively for its success. Each and every human person in the line of march was called upon by it to pray, fast, and do penance. Such tasks were not the province of King-Emperors and their advisors alone. All were called to the holiness symbolized by the Feast of All Saints, a Cluny favorite. The success or failure of any individual along the path to sanctity impacted upon the viability of the whole communal pilgrimage of the People of God. Carolingian inspired efforts to guide the procession failed precisely due to their insufficiency in this regard. They would fail again if resuscitated unaltered. Inchoate mobilizations of “dioceses-in-arms” were equally doomed. All men were sinful, and the recruitment of The People under the banner of their local saints for the violent overthrow of bad authorities was useless if unaccompanied by a painstaking, life-long dedication to attainment of the personal sanctification of each member of the Christian community.
Cluny had no quarrel with the Dionysian concept of the need for hierarchically-organized public guidance of the pilgrimage to God. Nevertheless, what counted most in its eyes was not who the hierarchs were but whether they wanted to carry out their tasks properly and had real power to do so. For Cluny, the transformation in Christ of whoever constituted the effective leadership of a given land was the primary key to success in aiming a population to the Father of Lights. This, ironically, was the same theme that the first Carolingians had themselves happily taken over from St. Isidore of Seville to justify their replacement of their incompetent Merovingian predecessors.
In any case, it was for this practical and spiritual reason that Cluny placed a premium upon the need, first and foremost, to arouse the wretched mass of renegade counts, castlekeepers and soldiers of fortune who had usurped authority in much of Western Europe to some sense of the responsibilities their de facto political role demanded of them. They had to be taught to pray, to fast, to do penance, and to live the life of Christian saints in the realms under their control, where the writ of kings and emperors did not run. If they, the worst of the troublemakers, could be made to take up their Dionysian tasks of pilgrimage ordering in the full Clunaic understanding of them, the peace necessary for the rest of the population to make spiritual progress would be provided.
Cluny used two means to achieve its goal with the upstarts. The first, a via negativa, involved a mischievous illustration of the threat that could come from a mobilized “diocese-in-arms” if someone were revolutionary enough to evoke it. Abbots of the Burgundunian monastery traveled widely. Wherever they went, they celebrated solemn masses attended by the whole population of a given region. The abbots then delivered fire and brimestone sermons regarding the evils of warmongering and social injustice to arouse the mass of peace loving men to fever-pitch, aiming their ire at the troublemakers present. Some of the latter were sincerely moved to repentance by the preaching; most were alarmed by the violence that could be unleashed against them or the long term consequences of being branded contumacious public sinners. The result, in both cases, was the agreement to take solemn open oaths to support what was called the Peace and Truce of God. Such oaths, in effect, defined combatants and non-combatants and led to a limitation of the effects of previously uncontrolled warfare.
Cluny’s via positiva centered round a substantive teaching of these unruly, untraditional forces. It discovered an innovative means of doing so through use of a traditional tool, the pilgrimage, in this case the increasingly popular hike to the tomb of St. James the Greater at Compostella in western Spain. What better way of demonstrating the correct function of authority to men in love with physical coercion then by giving them a soldiering mission that was truly justifiable; that of defending unarmed pilgrims against bandits and marauding Moors? What better context for catechizing the brute, for transforming his “profession”, for teaching him to pray, to fast, to do penance, and to see all of life as a wandering to God than the rather lengthy “time out of time” that the pilgrimage to Compostella offered?
Lessons taught through the two Clunaic paths ultimately had their effect. Renegade counts, castlekeepers, and other soldiers were shown the way to a Christian knighthood honed still further on those “armed pilgrimages” we call the Crusades. More traditional emperors and kings, already awakened to their cosmic responsibilities in earlier ages, were sharpened in their understanding of what these really entailed. The Roman Church, herself reformed and renewed through the inspiration of the Burgundian abbey, used the more peaceful atmosphere that its spirit engendered to apply what was learned to every other sphere of the life of Christendom. For the whole history of the High Middle Ages, from the 1000’s through the 1200’s, is, in effect, one enormous effort to transform the rest of the variegated pilgrim population of Christendom in the same manner that its rough and tumble soldiers had been won for the work of God. Its achievement was stunning. A New Athens was indeed created, and one characterized by a thoroughgoing hunt for communal and personal sanctification. Alcuin’s dream had become a reality.
No Catholic can ever deny the fact that the omnipresent danger of sin makes even the most finely-honed pilgrimage a permanently threatened enterprise. The medieval pilgrimage to God failed partly by falling prey to is own special temptations and sinfulness. Nevertheless, that pilgrimage was also consciously fought by an alliance of heretics, money men, and unscrupulous power seekers who refused its incarnational dream and wished that no one had ever taken even a single step towards achieving it. Rather than attack a dream that had sunk too deeply into the consciousness of the West directly, however, this alliance coopted much of its language of hope, progress, and perfection, perverting it to serve its materialistic ends. The world that it created is the flat, spiritless universe that we in the United States and the European Union inhabit today; a world not on pilgrimage but on a dull and seemingly unstoppable sleepwalk to nowhere.
This brings me to a recent event, noted at the start of this article, one which ought to give even traditionalist Catholics all too familiar with political defeat a little glimmer of hope: the rejection by France of the soulless, technocratic European Constitution. Is it really a total accident that this rebuff came first from the most self-conscious of the heirs of the Kingdom of the Franks? I think not. Those of us on pilgrimage to Chartres saw the remnants of Frankish Catholicism, the modern standard bearers of the incarnational dream, still in vigorous action, against a false Europe as much as against falsity in every other revolutionary regard. Their voice played a powerful role in the anti-constitutional movement.
Admittedly, the rejection of the Constitution was by no means a completely Catholic and logical slight to the heretical and materialist forces dominating the revolutionary West for half a millenium. The coalition making for a negative vote was one built of many disparate groups, motivated by everything from racial fear to anarchistic dislike of all governmental interference, good as well as bad. Still, it revealed in the population responsible for it a continuing capacity for detecting a fraud, for thinking outside of the ideological perimeters which are set for us in every more insistent ways, for opening eyes and ears to a different message than the narrow one that we are ever more pervasively fed. It revealed that stubborn pride in the cultural achievement of the New Athens which appears in the French spirit of even the worst of anti-Catholic elements, a French spirit that cannot fully shake the glory of the vision that it once wholeheartedly loved and actually placed it on the road to somewhere.
Disparate and violent elements, seemingly impervious to cooperation and domestication, were already once painstakingly put together by Catholic Franks, Carolingians, and Clunaics who understood how they could be purified of their sinful characteristics and transformed in Christ on the pilgrimage to God. Perhaps this vote is Providence’s contemporary nudge to dejected Catholics to take heart, thwart the work of our materialist pilgrimage wreckers, and relaunch the line of march yet again. Perhaps the anti-incarnational European Union will be the first casualty of a militant Eldest Daughter of the Church back in the game once more, and till the final count this time round. And perhaps when she is done dismantling that Old World farce she has to face, she might stir up a little missionary fervor. Then the Eldest Daughter might get her Catholic American sibling to put down its freedom fries, and move to the Father of Lights humbly alongside her . Procedamus in pace. The morning may be coming on after all.
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