Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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New book explores impact of sacramental Christianity
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the March 20, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
Thomas Cahill (Author photo)
Thomas Cahill may be best known as the author of the bestselling book How the Irish Saved Civilization.
Cahill, whose latest book is titled Mysteries of the Middle Ages, grew in up New York and attended Jesuit schools there. “They taught me languages and ancient civilization,” he said, “in a way that probably no one else was doing at the time; we really did learn enough Latin and Greek to read the classics in those languages, and then French and a little German, not to speak of English literature. That really has been extremely important to me and the work that I’ve done.”
Thomas Cahill’s latest book is the fifth in a series that began with How the Irish Saved Civilization followed by The Gifts of the Jews, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. The books make up the Hinges of History Series. “We didn’t announce the series until the first one came out and became successful, which happened pretty quickly, and we were off to the races,” Cahill said.
Speaking of his latest book, Cahill says that the “mysteries of the Middle Ages” that his book is about “are largely sacramental mysteries. The word ‘mystery’ originally had nothing to do with detective fiction. It comes from a Greek word that referred to the secret rites performed in honor of the goddess in ancient Athens, and to this day we don’t know what they did – they remain mysteries. When Christianity came along, the Greek church called the things that it did publicly ‘mysteries,’ and that meant the celebration of the Eucharist, processions, all sorts of things. These were called mysteries not because they were secret, because they were not. The one thing that the early Christian church was determined to do was to be public and not to be secretive. The Gnostics were secretive, but the orthodox Christians were not. They called the Eucharist and so forth ‘mysteries’ because Greek Christians, particularly, thought that these things had a trance-like purity to them. To this day, if you’ve ever been to an (Eastern) Orthodox liturgy, you’ll know what I mean. It has a kind of intense purity, and what are called ‘mysteries’ in the East and called ‘sacraments’ in the West.”
Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Cahill said, “is largely about how the sacramental life of Christianity in the West influenced new ideas.” For example, the “iconographic emphasis” on the Blessed Virgin Mary during the Middle Ages “became a huge change in the cultural life of Europe, so that for the first time women had an importance that they had never had before....”
So, Cahill said, Christian attitudes toward the Virgin Mary “gave rise to feminism in its original sense; women become important in a new way, and I use two women in particular to point this out – one a secular figure, the other a religious figure."
The secular figure is Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France and then of England, who lived from 1122-1204. Cahill described her as “an extremely self-directed woman who was a lot more than the wife of the king. And following Eleanor of Aquitaine came many other women who modeled their lives on her, particularly queens and duchesses and what not, in a way that had not been true in the preceding ten or eleven centuries. So it really was Christianity that gave rise to feminism.”
The religious figure Thomas Cahill discusses is St. Hildegard of Bingen, (1098-1179). Of her, Cahill writes that “Her advice and her prayers were sought by the kings and queens of her day ... and to all she gave what succor she could, as well as frank counsel. No one, in the end, was beyond the reach of her criticism, not even the emperor himself.”
We can easily see the connections between Christianity and feminism, Cahill said, when we look at the status of women in the Muslim world and in the Far East. “There are very different cultural forces at work in those places. The whole emphasis shifted in western civilization in the Middle Ages, thanks to these insights.”
Cahill, whose book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter was published in 2004, suggests that, in fact, Christianity can get along without all the Greco-Roman philosophical baggage that it took on early in its history. “The Greeks so separated body and spirit, and it continues to be not just a theoretical problem but a practical problem within western Christianity, particularly within Catholicism. The separation of matter and spirit I think leads to some pretty peculiar practices and peculiar distortions of imagination. There has been plenty of correcting of this at certain levels, but not at the official level.”
Cahill’s biography of Blessed Pope John XXIII, reprinted last January in paperback by Penguin, was originally published in hardcover in 2002.
(Thomas Cahill will discuss his book at Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave., Spokane, on Monday, March 31, at 7:30 p.m.)