Religion is a word and category that has come under considerable criticism over the last few centuries. And this, not merely by atheists or secularists, but by modern Christians, scholars, pastors and theologians. By and large the effort has been to “freshen-up” the feeling and “face” of Christianity in particular, and make it more amenable to Modern man’s sensibilities. Traditional Christian religion was seen as too old and dusty a thing; too transcendent and heavenly; too focused on prayer and piety; too sober and solemn; too strict and structured; too severe and superstitious; and especially too hierarchal and clerical; and many things besides.
In the place of religion was envisioned a very updated and modern Christianity; very collegial and horizontal in focus; truly egalitarian and pluralist. For too long, it was thought, Christianity has focused on religion coming down from heaven (vertical). We must now think in terms of getting it out to the world (horizontal). In terms of rhetoric, this new Christianity would be freed from the “calcification” and traditional “trappings,” of the medieval past. And its paradigm was to be intensely flexible so as to serve the very practical needs of a global humanity and its recently discovered emancipation. But this was no mere adjustment in emphasis, but a change in social function, to better meet the new demands of the Modern world order. The Novus Ordo in the Catholic Church, as well as the eucharistic and conciliar ecclesiology within Eastern Orthodoxy, not to mention that various anti-hierarchical (thus splintering) missionary and missional impulses across Protestantism, were all influenced in one way or another by this modernist spirit.
Now, what if we learned that chivalry was largely an effort to defend and preserve that very religion that the modernists have sought to get rid of? Of course, this would explain why so many have been quick to pronounce that “chivalry is dead,” without any sense of remorse, or even an attempt to honor its passing or appreciate its profound import in Christian history. Chivalry is dead and nobody cares. But this all makes more sense when one realizes how the spirit of chivalry was always intent on holding onto that very thing which the modernist spirit is so intent on letting go: religion.
Kenelm Digby’s wonderful work The Broadstone of Honour (which we’ve been discussing here [part 1] and here [part 2]) has much to say about this religious spirit of chivalry. In fact, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that religion (as they understood it) was at the very heart of chivalry. In those days…
As long as men were in the most noble quest of Chivalry they were charged “to hear Mass daily, if they may do it; and that they take upon them to forsake sin.” Men were even reminded that all the faithful, after being washed in the healing waters of baptism are called priests, but especially the just, who have the Spirit of God and are made living members of Jesus Christ. For these, by faith, which is kindled by charity, immolate on the altar of their mind spiritual hosts to God.
This focus on the altar of Christian religion was not about mere “good style” or “brownie-points.” It had a profound spiritual and social function in heightening the aspirations of all men. For it was precisely nobility that really inspired the chivalric knights of olden times. And it was taught that “He who is illuminated by the Holy Spirit is ennobled with the sovereign and highest nobility.” Digby explains further,
It is the sublime faith and the holy discipline of the Catholic Church which can enable the soul of man to gain the highest degree of elevation of which it is capable in its present state of exile. It is religion which can impart real magnanimity and gentleness to the lower classes, so as to make the most poor and obscure of men susceptible of all the generous and lofty sentiments which belong to true nobility.
So it was that chivalry and religion, rather than seeking to “put down” the “lower classes,” were actually intent on bringing everybody “up,” aiming to draw all men and women to the highest degrees of personal character and nobility of soul.
In this sense Digby says that “religion was above politics,”
In Catholic times men believe that the spirit of Christianity ought to be the spirit of government, that the defense of virtue and holiness ought to be its object, and that the law of God ought to be its rule. “If we consider the end of all civil government, ” says Bartolommoeo Arnigio, “which is no other than to live well according to the divine pleasure in order that we may put ourselves on the road which leads to God, there is no surer rule or more certain way than the religion of Jesus Christ.”
So religion was understood in the traditional sense of Lactantius and St. Augustine who saw religiens as a “binding” agent, as it were; similar to the word “rely-on”; Religion was a reliance upon God (the Divine), and by oblation (offering) placing an “obligation” or “bond” between humans and God. Religion was seen as that which “held/bound” a people together before God. The opposite of religion could be said to be negligens, the loosing of that bond between heaven and earth, which brings about the fraying apart of civilization (witness the modern world). Even at the end of the 19th century, nevertheless, Pope Leo XIII articulated this traditional understanding of religion:
To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice. And this is the same thing as atheism, however it may differ from it in name.
It is clear, then, that we’ve been playing with words, especially words like religion. To say one is “spiritual but not religious” makes absolutely no sense according to any traditional categories. And it makes no sense in today’s world either. Today’s smorgasbord of so-called “spiritualities” is not spiritual at all, but a pretext for self-invented service-to-self (aka idolatry). The result, every time, is the splintering of the self and the splintering of society.
But it was this kind of individualistic and idolatrous fragmentation which the spirit of chivalry fought to guard against. And it was in Christian religion that the strongest bulwark was sought. This is why knights were so intense about it. They weren’t playing around. Digby observes,
On examining the memorials of our Christian Chivalry it will be interesting to remark how the service of God was considered as demanding a perfect and total devotion of mind and heart, of soul and body, how the Catholic faith was the very basis of the character which belonged to the knight, how piety was to be the rule and motive of his actions and the source of every virtue which his conduct was to display. The first precept which was pressed upon the mind of youth was the love of God. “The precepts of religion,” says M. Ste. Palaye, who was certainly not a writer prejudiced in favour of Chivalry, “left at the bottom of the heart a kind of veneration for holy things, which sooner or later acquired the ascendancy.” A love of the Christian faith became the very soul of Chivalry.
And these knights poured themselves out, body, heart, and soul, through their ascetic labor and devotion to religion, for the sake of Christ. As Digby concludes,
Now the religion of Chivalry was altogether the religion of motives and of the heart. It was love, faith, hope, gratitude, joy, fidelity, honour, mercy; it was a devotion of mind and strength, of the whole man, of his soul and body, to the discharge of duty and to the sacrifice of every selfish and dishonourable feeling that was opposed to duty; it was to obey a commandment which was in unison with all the elevated sentiments of nature and calculated most effectually to develop every quality that ought to be the object of esteem and reverence. The knights of old had neither the inclination nor the ingenuity to determine the minimum of love which was compatible with the faith of Christ. They were not like men who think it enough if they love God at any time before death or on the festivals, or if they keep the commandments and do no hate God, or who imagine that this burdensome obligation of loving Him was part of the Mosaic law which is dispensed with by the religion of nature and the Gospel. They had not learned to reason with the sophist of old, saying that religion “is a gracious and an excellent thing when moderately pursued in youth; but if afterwards it be loved over much it is the ruin of men.” They had not subsided into that state of profound indifference to the truths of religion which the eloquent Massillon has compared to the condition of Lazarus when the disciples said: “Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well;” … [Rather] They were slain in battle, they were cut off in the flower of their youth, they were shut up in dark prisons, deprived of the light of the sun and of the solace of friendship; yet they could exult in the words of the Psalm; “For what have I in heaven? and besides Thee what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: Thou art the God of my hear, and the God that is my portion for ever.”
This is the spirit of religion, of true religion; this was the spirit of chivalry; and this has always been the spirit of true Christianity.
God help us.
"We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” — C.S. Lewis