Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Alcuin to Higbald and the Christian View of Temporal Disasters

To what degree is it appropriate to view temporal calamities as a chastisement from God? A mass shooting, an abuse scandal, a tragic death from disease, a national tragedy. We have all grappled with these sorts of events. We know that all things that happen are permitted by God for some purpose in His grand providence. Saying such seems to be coolly received these days, as people have a difficult time attributing any non-positive act in the world to God's agency—even though we know from revelation that God destroys cities, sends plagues, marks people for destruction, and once flooded the entirety of human civilization. What is an appropriate way to view these sorts of tragedies?

I will begin by going back to a letter from the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin to the monk Higbald, penned around 793. At the time Alcuin was heading up Charlemagne's educational reforms from Aachen, and his old friend Higbald was abbot of the renowned monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. Lindisfarne had just suffered a devastating attack from the Vikings. Many monks had been killed or enslaved, and the monastery church was pillaged and desecrated. News of the raid shocked the Christian world. When Alcuin heard about it, he wrote his old friend a letter to console him in his sorrow. 

The letter is interesting because Alcuin's method of consolation is to remind Higbald that calamities are a reminder of God's love. I will cite the letter at length, because I find it to be a very interesting window into the minds of these 8th century monks and how they processed the reality of evil:

You who survive, stand like men, fight bravely and defend the camp of God. Remember how Judas Maccabaeus cleansed the Temple and freed the people from a foreign yoke. If anything needs correction in your way of gentleness, correct it quickly...Do not glory in the vanity of dress; that is cause for shame, not boasting, in priests and servants of God. Do not blur the words of your prayers by drunkenness. Do not go out after the indulgences of the flesh and the greed of the world, but stand firm in the service of God and the discipline of the monastic life, that the holy fathers whose sons you are may not cease to protect you. May you remain safe through their prayers, as you walk in their footsteps. Do not be degenerate sons, having such fathers. They will not cease protecting you, if they see you following their example.

Do not be dismayed by this disaster. God chastises every son whom he accepts, so perhaps he has chastised you more because he loves you more. Jerusalem, a city loved by God was destroyed, with the Temple of God, in Babylonian flames. Rome, surrounded by its company of holy apostles and countless martyrs, was devastated by the heathen, but quickly recovered through the goodness of God. Almost the whole of Europe had been denuded with fire and sword by Goths and Huns, but now by God's mercy is as bright with churches as the sky with stars and in them the offices of the Christian religion grow and flourish. Encourage each other, saying, "Let us return to the Lord our God, for he is very forgiving and never deserts those who hope in him."

And you, holy father, leader of God's people, shepherd of a holy flock, physician of souls, light set on a candlestick, be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you. May your community be of exemplary character, to bring others to life, not to damnation. Let your dinners be sober, not drunken. Let your clothes befit your station. Do not copy the men of the world in vanity, for vain dress and useless adornment are a reproach to you before men and a sin before God. It is better to dress your immortal soul in good ways than to deck with fine clothes the body that soon rots in dust. Clothe and feed Christ in the poor, that so doing you may reign with Christ. Redemption is a man's true riches. If we loved gold we should send it to heaven to be kept there for us. We have what we love: let us love the eternal which will not perish. 

When our lord King Charles returns from defeating his enemies, by God's mercy, I plan to go to him, and if I can then do anything for you about the boys who have been carried off by the pagans as prisoners or about any other of your needs, I shall make every effort to see that it is done. Fare well, beloved in Christ, and be ever strengthened in well-doing

I find it fascinating that Alcuin thought the appropriate response to the tragedy was to remind Higbald of things that offend God, as well as point out that the horrific murder of the Lindisfarne monks should be construed as an act of love, as "God chastises every son whom he accepts, so perhaps he has chastised you more because he loves you more."

Alcuin is here offering a classical explanation for evil that comes from St. Augustine: temporal misfortunes fall equally on the good and evil; the difference is not in what befalls, but in how people respond to it. The purposes for suffering amongst persons are distinct, despite the external similarity in the nature of the ills. In City of God, St. Augustine says:

There is, too, a very great difference in the purpose served both by those events which we call adverse and those called prosperous. For the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world's happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness.
Yet often, even in the present distribution of temporal things, does God plainly evince His own interference. For if every sin were now visited with manifest punishment, nothing would seem to be reserved for the final judgment; on the other hand, if no sin received now a plainly divine punishment, it would be concluded that there is no divine providence at all. And so of the good things of this life: if God did not by a very visible liberality confer these on some of those persons who ask for them, we should say that these good things were not at His disposal; and if He gave them to all who sought them, we should suppose that such were the only rewards of His service; and such a service would make us not godly, but greedy rather, and covetous.

Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor (St. Augustine,
City of God, Book I, Chap. 8)

Of course, pointing this out is generally not welcome advice when a friend is suffering. A person who just lost a child to leukemia does not want to be told they should use the occasion as an opportunity to grow in holiness. They want empathy more than anything else. And to be fair, Higbald and Alcuin were monks whose charism is to learn to see God in every aspect of life. But so, too, must we lay people, in our own way. While we must always extend empathy and compassion to those who are suffering ("weep with those who weep", Rom. 12:15), in our own hearts we should bear in mind that God's love for us does not preclude us from suffering terrible calamities, personally or corporately. 

The real take away is this: when something bad happens, the question we should be asking is not "Was this a punishment from God?" The answer to that will differ for every single person. But if we are in Christ, we must affirm that "all things work together for good to them that love God" (Rom. 8:28). Is that something we really believe? Have we really internalized that maxim? Or is it just something we repeat because we don't know what else to say in the face of calamity? I am by no means where I need to be in my spiritual life, but I do know my peace is much greater to the degree I can really cry Romans 8:28 from the depths of my heart.


philipjohnson said...

Excellent piece of writing my friend.You explain the nature of suffering in the Catholic mindset.If i suffer some malady ,or disaster,it behooves me to offer it up to God in atonement for our sins.With the hope that remission in Purgatory is awaiting.God Bless.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this, it is helpful in all states of life. I would also recommend as further meditation on the subject the bookd "Why must I suffer" by Fr. Remler


Thanks be to God always

Anonymous said...

I find explanations like this sufficient for car crashes and cancers...but we are dealing with something more which tempts me to doubt.

We have all heard that God, when He is truly angry with his people will send them wolves rather than pastors.

Here in the US, at least, the people have always voted down issues like abortion and gay marriage, when given the chance. These crimes are thrust upon us by the courts and duplicitous politicians.

It is so bad today, that every single institution in the world, is run by evil people who hate God, and hate the people under their charge.

So it is not enough that we have a fallen nature and tend towards sin. It is not enough that we are tempted constantly by evil angelic powers who are super-intelligent and have access to our imaginations and never sleep. It is not enough that we are surrounded by the general misbehaviours of our fellow humans and the weakness of the flesh, and all the things that make the World a dangerous place for our souls.

No, it is not enough.

In these times, we also have every single institution, world wide, run by human devils that actively seek to corrupt us, destroy our families, and enslave us. It is these human devils that control politics, media, war, economics, education, art, music, commerce, entertainment, leisure, science, healthcare, law, infrastructure, and so on. And these human devils have all the money, all the power, and all the voice, far above any simple sheep.

On top of all that, the Catholic Religion is almost completely shattered. The Hierarchy is cowardly at best, shameful most often, and heretical at worst. There are no two priests that preach the same thing. A close look at the Novus Ordo, the TLM, and the Byzantine rites appear to be almost completely different religions. (Although at the moment, the Sacraments seem to be relatively preserved.) Constant Scandal makes evangelization very difficult, if not impossible. And us sheep, to whom most of these questions are way above our paygrade, are forced to walk the line between deciding what is true, and becoming protestant/our own pope.

Yet God wills all men to be saved.

And the saints assure us that most souls will perish into an eternal hell.

I don't know why we all don't collapse in despair.

We have no Saints, no Signs, and no Signal Graces. Just a book the purports to be God's Word, though we are often told by the "experts" it is no such thing. We have an institution that purports to be Divine, but its leaders and teachers display tendencies that are more diabolic. And we have a world that has, for the most part, forced God out of their daily lives, more through ignorance than choice.

How are we supposed to save our own souls, let alone help save those of our children, our loved ones, our neighbors, and others?

Or do we just wait for God to smite us, write off all the sinners of whatever category, and hope to rebuild if we live through whatever is coming?

Thoughts like these terrify me.