Catechism of Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Table of Contents:

  1. Question One: What is God like?
  2. Question Two: What is creation like?
  3. Question Three: What are humans like?

Note: This Catechism of Medieval and Renaissance Literature is for an 8th grade literature class that I’m teaching. (Subject to Revision)

Question One: What is God like?

John, the exile on Patmos, says:

Around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say:

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

We moderns do not associate consistency with liveliness and power, but medievals understood God to be perfectly consistent because He is completely and powerfully alive. As the colossal G.K. Chesterton says:

It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy. …The variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. …If his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. …The sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.

…A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Although consistent, the true God is also mysterious and surrounded by paradox, as G.K. Chesterton further says:

Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break. …In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world. …They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Question Two: What is creation like?

As G.K. Chesterton says:

In a hundred forms we are told that heaven and earth were once lovers, or were once at one, when some upstart thing, often some undutiful child, thrust them apart; and the world was built on an abyss; upon a division and a parting.

As Jesus says:

I tell you, if those singing praises to me become silent, the stones will cry out!

As one of the psalmist says:

All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
…Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together.

As King David said:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their utterances to the end of the world.
In them He has placed a tent for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber;
It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.

As Isaiah the prophet says:

The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

As the Lord God says to Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

As John of Damascus, a Syrian monk, says:

I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? …And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? …Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is.

As C.S. Lewis says:

Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that pre-Copernican astronomy is true. Look up at the sky with that assumption in mind. The real difference between living in that universe and living in ours will, I predict, begin to dawn on you. …You will be looking at a world unimaginably large but quite definitely finite. …We find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God.

…The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.

As G.K. Chesterton says:

A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? …I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance.

As C.S. Lewis says:

I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chap­ter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.

As Shakespeare says:

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanished?

Question Three: What are humans like?

Our interior lives are far greater than our own understanding, as the beloved African Bishop Augustine says:

All these doth that great receptacle of memory, with its many and indescribable departments, receive, to be recalled and brought forth when required; each, entering by its own door, is hid up in it. And I discern the scent of lilies from that of violets while smelling nothing. …These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are nigh me heaven, earth, sea, and whatever I can think upon in them, besides those which I have forgotten. There also do I meet with myself, and recall myself,—what, when, or where I did a thing, and how I was affected when I did it. There are all the things that I remember, either by personal experience or on the faith of others.

…Great is this power of memory, exceeding great, O my God—an inner chamber large and boundless! Who has plumbed the depths thereof? Yet it is a power of mine, and appertains unto my nature; nor do I myself grasp all that I am. Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? Is it outside and not in itself? How is it, then, that it does not grasp itself? A great admiration rises upon me; astonishment seizes me. And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves.

…But where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? Where do You there abide? What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it.

Likewise, the Christian Saint Macarius in the 4th century says:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. ….It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

As C.S. Lewis says:

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. …This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love.

As the song of Beowulf says:

They lived brightly on the benches of Heorot
caught up in laughter till a creature brought them
fear in the night an infernal hall-guest.
Grendel circled sounds of the harp
prowled the marshes moors and ice-streams
forests and fens. He found his home
with misshapen monsters in misery and greed.

As C.S. Lewis says:

You can’t help feeling stronger when you look at a place where you won a glorious victory, not to mention a kingdom, hundreds of years ago.

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