Paper: The Transformative Role of Emotion in the Middle Ages: Deliverance from Lukewarm Affections

This paper was presented in March by Elizabeth A. Dreyer at The Holy Spirit & the Christian Life conference which took place at the Regent University Center for Renewal Studies. Virginia Beach, VA. The paper will be included in a volume on The Holy Spirit & the Christian Life to be published next year by the University of Notre Dame Press. Here are the opening paragraphs:

The story of the affections in Christianity is rich, complex and ambiguous. The conviction that emotion is primarily an obstacle to the spiritual life has had many lives, housed in a variety of historical and cultural dwellings. Some Christians are conscious of this negative assessment, countering with intentional engagement in spiritual practices, ethics, and mission that take the affections into account. Others remain unaware of how emotion has been marginalized and suppressed. Still others have interiorized a fear of emotion and defend its exclusion from doctrine and spiritual practice.

Perhaps it is most accurate to describe Christian attitudes toward the affections (and related issues such as the body and sexuality) as ambiguous and filled with tension. It is puzzling that the Christian tradition often failed to see all aspects of the created world as holy, blessed by creation and incarnation. How can any created reality be suspect, much less condemned? One explanation lies in a confused, narrow, and erroneous association of sin with feelings, bodies, and sexuality.

On the other hand, we know that in its early centuries, Christianity was influenced by dualist philosophies that pitted matter against spirit. Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism were groups that viewed the emotions as dangerous energy that needed to be harnessed. Plato’s reasonable charioteer whipping uncontrolled emotions into submission has had a long run in western culture. These pessimistic views of the body and the affections contributed to a gradual withdrawal from the radical consequences of creation and incarnation – everything is holy.

But Christianity’s neglect and harsh judgment of the affections is not the whole story. This volume documents many examples in which the affections are prominent. Among them is the rich medieval mystical tradition. The goal of this essay is to approach medieval mystical texts through historical, spiritual, and theological lenses, conscious of how contemporary skepticism and discomfort regarding religious emotions can hinder our ability to appreciate the beauty of intense, intimate, spiritual encounters with God.

In sublime, poetic descriptions of the heights of affective engagement with God and the world, medieval mystical texts give us a glimpse of a fuller, more passionate spiritual life. To what biblical sources did mystics turn to articulate their all-encompassing encounter with divine love? How did they embrace or reject emotion’s role in the spiritual journey? How did they see the relationship of the affections to reason and understanding? What is understood by “mystical marriage”? In the end, we ask what aspects of this tradition we might bring forward and what should be left in the past?

These spiritual/mystical texts are also deeply theological, even though the form of this theology is not of the ordered, academic, scholastic variety. The affective language, imagery, poetry and metaphors invite us to reflect on how our ideas about the nature of God, redemption, the world, and the human person would change if we took emotion into consideration.

I begin with a brief description of the current scholarly conversation about the affections. This is followed by an exploration of some key themes related to the affections in Christian medieval mystical literature. Then, from an enormous range of texts, I examine two specific “moments” of affective piety in the thirteenth century of the European Middle Ages: the erotic spirituality of the beguine, Hadewijch of Brabant (c. 1230-1270), and the affective meditations on the Passion of Christ by Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1217 – 1274), professor at the University of Paris and later General of the Franciscan Order.

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