For a while, as a university lecturer, one of the schemes I taught on was the Arts/ Science project. Already we had given up teaching Arts students any science- the gap was too great and the hill too steep, plus they didn’t want to do it. But science undergraduates were still being offered arts courses, and I taught quantum physicists about the psychology of religion.
It didn’t last long. The splendid visionary scientist behind the courses died in 1980. No one else picked up the torch. The courses died with him. The chasm grew a little wider.
They unfolded the life of a woman who appeared to be a charlatan, liar, hysteric and expert in self-promotion; and then claimed to admire her. All that mattered it seemed, was that they could identify her as and claim her, as a feminist.
I was reminded of that chasm listening to Dorothy Byrne, the recently appointed President of a Cambridge College talk about a heroine she had picked as the subject for the podcast Great Lives. The conversation was presided over by the sharp but cynical atheist Matthew Paris. I was looking forward to this very much. I have long loved reading St Catherine Siena. She stands high among my prophetic heroines of the (so-called) Middle Ages. Her Dialogues in particular have always struck me with a vividness and an impact that I attribute to their authenticity.
Tramping up and down the Normandy hills, audio fitted nearly in my ear, I kept stopping. Not so much from the need to catch my breath, but from sheer astonishment. “You can’t be so ***** ”…I muttered ruefully to the protagonists.
It wasn’t just that the commentators had chosen a life they didn’t understand, but they inhabited a cultural world with no windows. Not only were they clumsily imposing alien values on St Catherine, but, much worse, they had created a fictional figure who was entirely disreputable in doing so. They unfolded the life of a woman who appeared to be a charlatan, liar, hysteric and expert in self-promotion; and then claimed to admire her. All that mattered it seemed, was that they could identify her as and claim her, as a feminist.
Unable to believe Catherine when she described her visions, they complimented her instead for fabricating something so astutely to her own advantage. But it did not occur to them that someone practicing such levels of deception, either on her community or even on herself, might not be admirable.
They complimented her on the astuteness of having contrived a vision that married her to Christ. How convenient they implied, that she would no longer have to risk dying in childbirth. They ignored the fact that frail and vulnerable from her ascetic life, she died just as early as any mother at the time, in her early thirties. How convenient they trilled, that she experienced a vision telling her to go out and preach the Gospel, as if that would have been an eccentric adventure. “What fun that must have been” they chortled. “What an example she was to feminists” they purred, with her reputation for “flinging herself in opposition to the spirit of the age”. And yet they without any awareness of the irony that there might be anything wrong with the spirit of their own age.
It was not hard to see why they mistook Catherine for a feminist. Alert to any achievement of power and effective influence by a woman they mistook the potency and attractiveness of her holiness for the success of thrusting political ambition. Unfamiliar with the concept of penance they decided her physical frailty must have been caused by an eating disorder.
It is not that the differing categories of vision versus wish-fulfilment, fasting and anorexia, power and influence have no possibility of overlap between them. It was that the world of the supernatural seemed so completely closed to them as a possibility ; and everything, no matter what self-contradictions it created, was categorised as psychological, the sociological and the political.
It seemed sadly odd that these highly intelligent people become unquestioning fundamentalists, unable more than unwilling perhaps, to entertain they thought that not only was there a profound contradiction running through their hierarchy of ethics.
The Catherine they said they admired was a self-serving, manipulative, lying, anorexic fantasist, whom they liked because she had somehow become a young female author whose work lasted, and exercised some influence over the pope. Was the gold standard of the currency of feminist power so valuable that it made up for such a horrible catalogue of human flaw and self-deception?
It seemed sadly odd that these highly intelligent people become unquestioning fundamentalists, unable more than unwilling perhaps, to entertain they thought that not only was there a profound contradiction running through their hierarchy of ethics, but that there were no other narratives, explanations or factors that might account for what had happened.
The capacity to hold together more than one world view, more than one hierarchy of values, more than one narrative of explanation is needed for more than just the reassessment of medieval mystics.
And strangely, more often than not, it is the progressives and the materialists who inhabit the opaque world of fundamentalism. Whether the issues are sexuality, the Latin Mass, abortion, assisted suicide or environmentalism, the driving hostility of mono-culturalism seems to come more from one direction than the other.
Conservatives and traditionalists have no great problem understanding the political, the pragmatic and the secular. But both within and without the community of believers, it seems it is those who inhabit the cultural imperatives of modernity and secularism, who are tone deaf to the melodies of the music of the soul, the spirit and the supernatural, and create worlds of contradiction.
Gavin Ashenden is a former priest of the Church of England, and a former continuing Anglican bishop. He was an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen from 2008 until his resignation in 2017.
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