The dim periphery (Dennis Aubrey)


We often read in conventional media and blogs alike the statements of people profess to be atheist or agnostics and who equate religions with their evil results. To hear some savant claim that Christianity is simply the slaughter of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or fundamentalist intolerance means that the speaker clearly understands little of the deep currents of history. Are the foundations of American democracy to be judged by self-serving politicians, corporate plunderers, or media pundits who distort every tenet of that democracy in the name of their own brand of patriotism?

Fol Dives,  Notre Dame d'Orcival, Orcival (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Fol Dives, Notre Dame d’Orcival, Orcival (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

As I have said so many times in the past, neither PJ nor I are religious, per se. We were both raised Catholic but we do not participate in the church. But our work in Via Lucis has demonstrated to us that there is something in the world of religion – particularly medieval Christianity – that is profound and moving, full of understanding of the depths of human suffering and compassion.

Tympanum detail, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron)  Photo by PJ McKey

Tympanum detail, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by PJ McKey

There is something very simple that can be seen over and over throughout history – great ideas ignite a flame in the human soul and extraordinary things are accomplished in the shortest time. Athens went from a provincial Greek town into the dominant force in Greece in the space of a century. A collection of 18th century colonies in what was considered a wilderness transformed into the greatest power in the world in less than two hundred years.

The same thing happened in the medieval world. In this particular case, the enflaming idea was not political, as in Greece and America. It was religious. But it was just as liberating, just as powerful, and it had results that were just as astonishing. The 11th century opened on a Europe that was poverty-stricken, desolated by Saracen, Viking and Magyar invaders, ruled ruthlessly by local nobility whose only occupation was war and killing. The countryside was in ruins, there was little commerce or currency, and no order.

Christian monks appeared on the scene, dedicated to poverty and service in the name of their God. They cleared the lands, made the peace, sheltered the homeless, fed the hungry, and rebuilt an infrastructure of roads and bridges that had been left to moulder and collapse. The people of Europe saw these good works and began to believe that the God who was represented on the earth by these men and women in black robes was the proper object of their worship. The life of an entire continent began to look upward and inward to make themselves worthy of such a good and just God who had brought them out of misery. And the people trusted the monks and nuns to stand guard on their souls.

Notre Dame des Croisades, Église Saint Liman, Thuret (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Notre Dame des Croisades, Église Saint Liman, Thuret (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This belief and faith accomplished miraculous things – the five thousand remaining Romanesque churches in France alone are a testament to this. The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are the product of technological advances, but they are also among the clearest expressions of religious faith known to man. Europe turned from an inward-looking barbarian backwater to a civilization that would accomplish something that no other civilization had ever done in history – it would come to dominate the entire world.

But all things carry in themselves the seeds of their own destruction. The Greeks knew this – the drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are built on this understanding. Despite the warnings of these playwrights, Athens collapsed after a short hundred years of glory. Democracy devolved into demagoguery and the glory of Athens was shattered by war, plague and starvation. The medieval Church was not immune to this fate. As the Church prospered, abuses proliferated. Where Athens had its Socrates to proclaim its faults, the Church had its reformers. The Benedictines vowed poverty and when they strayed from this vow, the Cistercians appeared to remind them that things worldly interfered with things spiritual. But inevitably, the worldly overwhelmed the spiritual and the trust of the people was betrayed. Religious reformations and their accompanying wars show how strong was the spirit, but the damage had been done and the material world triumphed.

Église Saint Hilarion-de-Perse, Espalion (Aveyron)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint Hilarion-de-Perse, Espalion (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The bright flame that illumines darkness is a wondrous thing. In the enlightened world, people discover and create new things, confident that this world will continue forever. But other people begin to perceive the attractions of the world at the dim periphery of the light. They move to this shadow world and their operations begin first to distort the visible and, eventually, control it. The words are the same, but the intent and the motivations are not. When people can no longer tell the difference, collapse is inevitable.

Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbaye Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Perhaps these are lessons that we should learn today.

29 responses to “The dim periphery (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I am called to teach World Civilization in the fall. Your synopsis of the place of religion in European history is succinct and exquisite. A+ May I cite your paragraphs for a student discussion? -Charles

  2. Beautifully insightful. Needs to be read and understood by all sentient beings, not just those of us interested in medieval art and architecture.

    • Jay, people are ruled by the same things from age to age. The shame is that our collective memories are so short that even the most horrible events disappear into the past. The shame is also that the best of our history disappears just as quickly.

  3. Your beautiful images bespeak the power of faith that set medieval people free. Dark powers incorporated in demons and devils are powerless toward the light and the serenity of saintly figures. This is Salvation in an image. Yet is also tells us that fear was constantly represented and part of daily life. It nourished a deep undercurrent of fear about damnation in perpetual torture and was used as a tool of control by the church. There are theories that the excesses of the crusades and early progroms can be related to this pervasive basis of collective fear that sought liberation through violence. Just a theory. Birgit Urmson, art historian

    • Birgit, it seems that there is an inevitable slide of any great idea into a parody of itself – the fear of damnation was certainly part of the medieval religious imagination, but just as important were the links to the divine through relics, prayer, and saints. Push-pull. But humans manipulate these forces for their own purposes. There is ample evidence of collective unconsciousness, but I am always suspicious of theories that operate independently of more human motivations.

      Thanks for your comments.

  4. Dennis, this deserves prolonged reflection, but I’ll weigh in for the brief moment I have now. Once again, Paul Tillich’s work comes to mind immediately, in particular, his discussion of the demonic in Chapter 3 (“Life and its Ambiguities”) in his Systematic Theology (Vol. III), “In religion the ambiguity of self-transcendence appears as the ambiguity of the divine and the demonic. The symbol of the demonic does not need justification as it did thirty years ago, when it was reintroduces into theological language. It has become a much-used and much-abused term to designate antidivine forces in individual and social life. In this way it has frequently lost the ambiguous character implied in the word itself. Demons in mythological vision are divine-antidivine beings. They are not simply negations of the divine but PARTICIPATE IN A DISTORTED WAY IN THE POWER AND HOLINESS OF THE DIVINE. (my bolding) …

    Tiliich goes on to say distinguish between tragedy and the demonic :”A main characteristic of the tragic is the state of being blind; a main characteristic of the demonic is the state of being split.”

    He goes on to speak of the Roman Empire “which became demonically possessed when it vested itself with divine holiness and produced the split which led to the antidemonic struggle with Christianity and the demonic persecution of Christians.”

    All of this leads me, however, to invite further reflection re: claims to pure light as well as those who are attracted to the shadow world ” at the dim periphery of the light.” It seems to me that the light is everywhere; so is the ambiguity.

    Your photos and commentary also brought to mind almost immediately the words of I John: “I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him (Christ) and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother/sister is in the darkness still. Whoever loves his brother/sister, abides in in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother/sister is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

    Thus, it seemed to m, the tragic and the demonic are inevitably linked. And the operative word for Christian ethics is to “abide” (to live characteristically, though not without faltering) as people of the Light.

    • “Participate in a distorted way in the power and holiness of the divine” – that is powerful, the understanding that it is not other, but is part of. That is, to me, the entire argument about humanity. Much for me to think of here, Gordon. Thanks again for striking the spark.

  5. Thank you for this post. Yes, the flame of the love of God burned brightly in most of the hearts of the clerics of the medieval centuries, and as a result, the world was changed for the better. That flame is still burning, it can never go out, no matter how hard the human ego (individual or cultural) tries to extinguish it. Tom Woods’ book on the role that the Church played in the rise of Western Civilization is an important read. Glad to see you’re back at the keyboard. Peace.

  6. People tend to regard institutions which have become perverted from their origins as if they had been so from the outset – denying that a movement can be borne up by the enthusiasm of those who perceive its fruits to be good.
    Thus the millenarianism of the eleventh century….the gratitude of being spared the end of the world so expected for 1000 AD….the will to make the world more fit for the second coming – whenever that might be.

    • Exactly, Helen. I hadn’t mentioned that force that you referred to – the fear of the first millennium. That gratitude for being spared was a great part of the religious revival. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. oh my – well written , i am L.D.S. and you write with great understanding and deep spiritual insight.

  8. Well written, and I am curious too as to what kind of dialogue this will provoke in the classroom. Thanks so much for Via Lucis.

  9. Dennis, you who made a hobby of capturing the lights and shadows of churches, do you really feel that Romanesque churches were drawing the faithful to the light? I would say that of the Gothic style, but to me the Roman atmosphere brings the pilgrims from the sun-drenched trails of dust, into the cool darkness of contemplative silence, closer to the night of the tomb, maybe for a more spiritual reflection…

    • Joel, you are absolutely right in your differentiation between Romanesque and Gothic. The Romanesque is primarily monastic in origin and it was designed for contemplation and reflection. While light was an important metaphor, we must also remember that half of the offices occurred at night. My own personal metaphor is that the Romanesque is a sheltering space, the cupped hand of God. Thank you for making this observation.

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