I have a small ambition: I really want to change the world. I want to save it–or at least, the souls in it. I want to help rebuild and restore Christian culture. Are you with me?
Of course, it’s an immense undertaking that will likely take millions of people, generations of effort, and a constant outpouring of God’s abundant graces. But–this has all been done before! The Europe of the Middle Ages (approximately 600-1300), especially during the 11th and 12th centuries, was the highest flowering of Christian culture and society that the world has ever known. Obviously, they got it right somehow. So, what did they know then that we need to know now?
As an amateur student of history, and one who loves Christ’s Holy Church, I present to you some of the big ideas for Catholic living and building a Christian culture from that great and glorious Age of Faith. May these six things inspire your efforts to building Catholic culture at home and in the world.
In the Age of Faith, people believed in the efficacy of the seven sacraments: they believed that they were, by the express intention and direct action of God, the proper means of each person’s redemption and sanctification. They knew that Christ had redeemed humanity in general by His Death on the Cross, but that God dispenses the graces that flow from Christ’s Sacrifice to each of His followers in particular through the Sacraments.
All this is still true about the Sacraments today, of course. Our Lord and Savior established a Church to guard and dispense these Sacraments. Because people understood how essential the Sacraments were to life in the Age of Faith, each town’s or village’s church was the people’s main locus of social operations. It was so because people knew how to value the work of the Church: the dispensation of the life-giving Sacraments. We need to value them too, and frequently receive them. If we do, this will consequently make the Universal Church and our own parish churches the center of our lives as well.
As Catholics, our lives should center around the liturgy. By “liturgy” I mean more than simply Mass on Sunday mornings–the liturgy includes Mass and so much more. Regular, devout attendance at Sunday Mass alone isn’t enough for a Catholic! We have got to do as they did a thousand and more years ago: really live out the events of Salvation History through observing the liturgical year. These days and seasons in the Church Year commemorate things that have got to matter to us: they need to be topics of thought and prayer and action. We must observe the holydays and seasons, we must fast and feast. Entering into the cycle and rhythm of Church time through prayer and traditional customs will connect you with the Liturgy in its complete sense.
Praying part of the Divine Office with a breviary will help you with this. The Breviary, the one-stop compilation of all the songs, prayers, psalms, and antiphons that had been used all over Christendom for centuries for liturgical prayer, began to appear starting in the 10th century. Based on the Rule of St. Benedict, the Divine Office was used everywhere in Europe with local variations on the standard pattern. The professed religious in convents and monasteries prayed 8 times a day (well 9, if you counted Holy Mass in the mornings). And laypeople were certainly not left out! It was a common custom for all to attend the (sung) service of Vespers at parish churches in the evenings. Technology adds a dimension of ease for us today, allowing us access to the sacred texts wherever we are. There are print books, websites, apps and many resources available today. Join in on the prayer of the Church–it’s still there for all of us Catholics, if we just seek it out!
Just by doing our best to conform to the pattern of the Liturgy, as set out by the Church, we are opening our souls to the beauty of Heaven and forming our intuitive sense of what is beautiful as well….Consequently, our part in making the culture will reflect the beauty of God and this will, we hope, draw others to Him. –David Clayton, The Little Oratory
Only the very best is good enough for God. There is a reason the cathedrals like those at Chartres, Canterbury, and Burgos are so ornate and beautiful. The people who built them had great faith and great love for God. They knew that in order to make something for God, it had to glorify Him. It had to mirror His beauty and grandeur (His own creation of nature certainly does). People crafted beauty into things to signal their specialness and sacredness, their intended use in God’s service. It was exactly like a Scriptural offering of “first-fruits.” Historian and medievalist Eamon Duffy describes the art in parish churches from late medieval England as coming from people who were well-catechized in their Faith; the works and objects besides being of great beauty were rich with theological significance. The laypeople who made them certainly understood the importance of offering God the most beautiful and meaningful gifts they could. And therefore we stand in awe of what they made in His honor centuries later.
We need to remember we are God’s servants, as well as His beloved children. Therefore we must be dedicated to beauty in God’s service. Churches must be sumptuous and beautiful. The music, vestments, vessels, altar cloths, statues, and decorations of all kinds should give Him glory. Everything we do can be made sacred through dedication to God. I believe that everything religious should be decorated. In the Catholic home, this applies to the home altar/prayer corner area, and to all things used around the house that are religious in nature.
Our daily life and our spiritual life are one and the same. Everything we do matters. By this I mean that we have to be aware that every choice we make, even seemingly small ones, can either lead us towards God or away from Him. They knew this in the Age of Faith, and you can see evidence of this in the art of that era. The invisible realities of our Faith are more real than the physical things we see each day (eventually they will decline and pass away, but what is invisible is eternal). The faithful in the Middle Ages sought blessings for themselves, their animals, and their homes; they used holy water; they consecrated their work and their play with continual prayer. We, too, ought to live like this. We too ought to seek blessings as well as Sacraments from our pastors, should use Holy Water daily in our homes, and pray the Angelus at dawn, noon, and dusk. The physical and spiritual are intertwined, and the sooner we appreciate this fact, the better it will be for our progress in holiness.
Latin is our Church’s sacred language. In the Age of Faith, even popular songs often used Latin, because the language of the Church informed and shaped the popular culture! It was universally used in the Church, and even the uneducated were familiar with it. Repetition of Latin words and phrases in the Mass, the Divine Office, and sacred songs that people heard from birth made some Latin accessible to all. From the later Middle Ages in England, the interesting account of one literate tradesman has come down to us: he taught himself to read English, his own native language, by using a prayer book that had Latin on one side and English on the other. He already knew the Latin, you see, and so he used it to teach himself to read the English text he didn’t know!
Just like it was back then, if you are a Catholic today, Latin is your Mother Tongue. Use of the Latin language unites Catholics all over the world, and all through time. Accustom yourself to it: learn to pray in Latin, sing in Latin, and read a little Latin. You will not be sorry!
Monasteries and Convents
Last and most important, here is something that everyone once knew but that almost no one knows now. The basis of Catholic Culture and civilization are monasteries and convents. It’s so hard to understand this now, since we have hardly seen them and experienced their presence in our lives. Benedictine monasteries built and sustained the culture during the Age of Faith. Other foundations soon followed these. In these centers of prayer and penance, the learning, art, copying of manuscripts, and everything the monks and nuns did was consecrated to God.
Monasteries were then, and are now, the heart of the prayer life of the Catholic Church. This is because the entire lives of professed religious are devoted to prayer for the salvation of other people and sacrifices for reparation for their sins–other people, meaning us. And a life like this is a life just like Christ’s, which is why the calling to the consecrated religious life is such a precious gift for those chosen and for all of the rest of us who benefit from their prayers and work.
Of course the simplest, most practical restoration of Christian Culture will be the reestablishment of contemplative convents and monasteries. –Dr. John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture
While we laypeople labor in the world, they will pray that God will make our labors bear fruit, and He will hear their prayers! With this in mind, I urge you to support the (faithful and traditional) monasteries and convents in your country, in order to help build up the culture. Support monasteries, convents, and faithful religious orders with your prayers and your money. Donating to groups that help to pay off student debt for future religious is also a wonderful thing to do! When there are monasteries everywhere, and they are full again, we will see what a Christian culture looks like.
May God grant it.