The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century and Its Guardian Angels
Any Christian interested in the springtime of western Christendom—and the absurdity of Enlightenment denigration of the “Dark Ages” along with it—should pick up the Harvard historian Charles Homer Haskins’ classic work, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. This justly celebrated text, published and republished since 1927, catalogues the manifold intellectual and cultural achievements, as well as the general spirit of rebirth and hope, characterizing what was an overwhelmingly religion-driven age, Catholic to its very core.
A Formidable Challenge
Even if the renaissance in question brought up many problems that profound thinkers and saints would be forced to struggle to overcome from the 1100s down to our own time, these dilemmas emerged in the midst of a commitment to one unified goal: the need to fulfill the message of the Incarnation by transforming all things natural through the supernatural teaching and grace of Christ. Aside from its consequences for civilization in general, what that commitment engendered was a substantive respect for the complexity of social life and the central importance of the individual person within it underscoring our purely naturalist contemporaries’ celebration of “diversity” and “human dignity” for the empty sloganeering that it really is.
Every era has its key movers and shakers—its “guardian angels”—and I would like to call attention to two of these with respect to the twelfth century renaissance, the first of whom is unfamiliar to most of us: a professor at the budding University of Paris known in his day by the name of Peter “the Cantor” (d. 1197). Peter Cantor insisted that transformation in Christ required ecclesiastical guidance not of some undifferentiated mass community, but, rather, of a multifaceted network of societies with immensely varied vocations in life, each made real through the work of its individual members, and each presenting peculiar obstacles to holiness. In short, the Church had to construct as many supernatural pastoral ladders to heaven as there were distinct natural human activities, socially organized, but always with the awareness that it was the individual representatives of these activities who were destined for eternal life.
It was this project of individual redemption through recognition of different pastoral approaches to diverse social vocations that Innocent III, perhaps the most famous and grateful pupil of Peter Cantor, took up at the end of the century. Innocent applied it to individual Christians in general by means of a more refined spelling out of the basic social activity of the Church as a whole in the Fourth Lateran Council. He also utilized it in dealing with more specific concerns, as with his support for institutional guidance of persons engaged in higher education, men and women committed to St. Francis’ life of Apostolic Poverty, and even the special pastoral labor involved in redemption of those who had fallen into the unacceptable “profession” of ladies of the night. If time and space permitted, it would be equally possible to demonstrate that the great scholastic systems of men like St. Thomas Aquinas are characterized by their concern for individual minds, souls, and redemption, but always in the context of a rich and diverse social order that cannot be reduced to one, monolithic Leviathan.
St. Bernard’s Heroic Witness
Our second and much more famous protagonist in this task of sanctifying the individual through a natural world of varied human vocations is St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Yes, it is true that the great saint’s suspicion of the possibly secularizing effects of the work of contemporary philosophers illustrates the kind of battles that emerged as a result of the century’s mobilization of all of the manifold natural tools at man’s disposal. Nevertheless, he served as a “guardian angel” for one of the most dangerous and destructive of the many human social groups whose individual members were in desperate need of redemption; the group that historically was the very first target for transformation in Christ: the military, whose natural soldiering vocation had to be redirected from its march to hell to the service of a just cause that might actually aid it in its own peculiar ascent of Mount Carmel.
This labor—so politically incorrect in our own time, which loves to deal with its most difficult problems by refusing to acknowledge them as such—began in the tenth century through the monks of Cluny and their efforts to turn the existing, anarchic soldiery, sarcastically labeled “the malitia”, into an honest Christian militia. They accomplished this work by convincing at least some members of the malitia to abandon their evil ways and use their arms to guard otherwise helpless pilgrims on the perilous road to the shrine of Santiago de Compostella in Spain instead. This enterprise ultimately gave birth to the crusading movement, the justification for which lay in its call to protect pilgrims en route to Jerusalem, to defend an Eastern Roman Empire under renewed threat from the Moslems, and to recover a Holy Land unjustly taken from the Christian world five hundred years earlier. And it was this work that also led to the creation of the Knights of the Temple, those “fighting men of prayer” who dedicated themselves to the safeguard of worshipers coming to King David’s city and found their own individual guardian angel in St. Bernard. Our guardian angel took up this role in a letter to Hugues de Payens (c. 1070-1136), the Templars’ founder, entitled In Praise of the New Knighthood. Eager to aid the Knights both in their recruitment as well as in their hunt for material support, he expressed therein his admiration for their ability to root their peculiar natural vocation in its proper supernatural end.
“Thus in a wondrous and unique manner they appear gentler than lambs, yet fiercer than lions. I do not know if it would be more appropriate to refer to them as monks or as soldiers, unless perhaps it would be better to recognize them as being both. Indeed they lack neither monastic meekness nor military might. What can we say of this, except that this has been done by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes? These are the picked troops of God, whom he has recruited from the ends of the earth; the valiant men of Israel chosen to guard well and faithfully that tomb which is the bed of the true Solomon, each man sword in hand, and superbly trained to war.”
A New Knighthood
In the long run, this “new knighthood” proved to be just as multifaceted as the Renaissance Christendom world in which it was born, also creating a whole new genre of chivalric literature in its train, one that sang of the Christian soldiery as a force defending all that was beautiful, deserving of love, and generally weak in consequence. In doing so, it also aroused in its “guardian angel” a conscious desire to adopt—and purify—this often rather capricious troubadour tool, utilizing its theme of romantic love to lead the soldiers under his guidance to the deepest form of loving union: that sought by God Himself with each and every individual soul. Hence his commentary on the Canticle of Canticles and its symbol of human love as a ladder conveying us to the loving union God set out to achieve on a higher level through the Incarnation:
“But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given. To love so ardently then is to share the marriage bond; she cannot love so much and not be totally loved, and it is in the perfect union of two hearts that complete and total marriage consists. Or are we to doubt that the soul is loved by the Word first and with a greater love?
Because we are carnal and born of concupiscence and of the flesh, our love must needs come from the flesh. If this love be well guided, it will gradually become, under the influence of grace, a spiritual love, for “that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards, that which is spiritual” (I Cor. 15:46).
Our twelfth century renaissance knew that redemption of distinct individuals through the diverse social institutions organizing their varied vocations in life gains its crucial aid from the revelation and grace coming through the Mystical Body of Christ the Incarnate Word. Hence, it cannot come as a surprise that a man like St. Bernard would probe these for an ever- deeper understanding of their treasures. Such probing led this “guardian angel” to a study of the real guardian angels, to whom, as Fr. Pierre Pourrat says, “Christian piety had hardly directed its attention” before his homilies on the subject. (Christian Spirituality, II, 60).
In a characteristic application of twelfth century developments, the Abbot of Clairvaux does not discuss angels as watching over us in some monolithic fashion, but with clear distinctions. As Pourrat indicates, he sees angels as the protectors not only of the Church as a whole, but of each and every single Christian edifice in its own way, so much so that “the heavenly spirits, in choir, blend with the psalmody of the monks” (p. 60). Marvelous as this is, their protection is distinguished still further, with St. Bernard proclaiming his astonishment with God that “His angels, those sublime spirits so happy and so near His throne, His familiar and, we may say, His intimate friends” are given the task of protecting each and every individual in each and every one of their vocations in life. (p. 60) His exhortation to us to honor these extremely personal protectors and the incalculable aid that they offer to us can be summarized in the homily that is read in the Breviary on October 2nd:
“Although we may be but little children, and the way that remains for us to pass over before we reach salvation be very long, and not only very long but also full of danger—for all that, what is there for us to fear, who are guided by such guardians? It is impossible for them to be overthrown or seduced, still less for them to seduce us, they who keep us in all our ways. They are faithful, they are prudent, they are powerful; wherefore fear? Let us follow them, let us cling to their footsteps, and we shall thus abide under the protection of the God of heavens.
“Shouldst thou foresee a grave temptation or fear a great trial, invoke thy guardian, thy guide, thy refuge in oppression and in distress. Call on him and say, ‘Lord, save us, for we perish.’ He does not sleep, he does not slumber….O my brethren, may your guardian angels be your intimate friends; be unceasingly with those who, when you often think of them and devoutly pray to them, guard and console you every moment.”
I may be wrong, but I believe that the Church has generally counseled against our attempting to dwell any further on this magnificent reality, as, for example, by “naming” our individual guardian angel. Perhaps this is deemed much too arrogant on our part. Perhaps it is due to the fact that our guardians themselves carry out their labors as members of their own diverse angelic societies, and, that it is best to make clear that they, just like we ourselves, can only be what they are meant to be individually through the communities that God has placed them in. Perhaps any human project of personalizing them further than Scripture, which has named only a few angels, would cheapen their grandeur and work for us, just as the naturalist demand for individuals to think and act purely on their earthly plane alone actually cheapens and destroys us in the Divine plan.
Whatever the case may be in this regard, it strikes me as particularly fitting that in the mysterious Providence of God, the development of devotion to our guardian angels should have been left to the twelfth century. For nothing can be more aesthetically complete than seeing how a renaissance that achieved its work by plunging into the “dirt” of all earthly vocations marred by sin—the particularly “dirty” one of soldiering included—discovered, as it went about its labors, that all of the angels of God were there beside them, individually aiding each and every man and woman to be truly reborn and transformed in Christ.