Lauren Mancia on Meditation and Prayer in the Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Monastery

Lauren Mancia (left) and her Brooklyn College students having a class in the Chapter House from Notre-Dame-de-Pontaut at The Met Cloisters, April 2023.

I recently held my last class for a Medieval Christianity course at Brooklyn College. For our final session, we reflected as a group on medieval Christianity’s uses and misuses since 1500. We read about how contemporary American white supremacists, German Nazis, and the planters of the American South all used romanticized notions of the Middle Ages to better model the world order that they hoped to affect.[1] But of all the things we read, the students were most interested in the idea of “neomedievalism,” an international relations theory that, in some iterations, envisions a new globalized world order that is post-nation/post-sovereign states, and is instead organized by a universal political organization parallel to that which was organized by the Church in western Christendom.[2] How international relations theorists characterized (or, perhaps, mischaracterized) the medieval world was less interesting to my students; what preoccupied them was the question of what could possibly serve as “Christendom,” as a universal, overarching system, in our contemporary world? 

After spending some minutes recognizing that post-medieval religious confessionalization made religious unity impossible in the contemporary world, the students then spent the rest of the class period marveling at how the only unifying principle that could potentially invoke universal loyalties in the world of the 2020’s was money. Capitalism had replaced Christendom in their minds; money had become the principle that sparked every political and personal decision in their view. “Because money doesn’t tell you how to live your life the way the Church did,” one student said, “the morality of our society—our purpose for living—is completely messed up.” The students then had a litany of examples of how money had eroded the moral compass of actors large and small: from the United States trading with countries who violated human rights, to cults of celebrity being more important than “truth,” to “everyone’s obsession with superficial stuff on social media,” the students began to articulate a listlessness that overwhelmed our classroom. “No one has any passion anymore, they just want to major in business because they just want to make money in their lives,” one student said. “There’s no community without morality,” another student said. Students who were themselves serious practitioners of religions—mostly, in our class, Muslims and Jews—explained that their faith and their faith community gave them purpose. In reaction to those comments, a third student said “I don’t think Catholicism is the answer, but I kind of wish it was.” The class concluded in a crescendo of remarks that were deeply satisfying—they were using the history classroom as a space of reckoning!—and deeply depressing all at the same time.

It is hard in our present moment to find a way to teach students about history that feels inspiring. Students in 2023 are quite inured to the sense of “progress” that used to propel classrooms of burgeoning historians. 

One solution might be to revel in the invention and beauty that came out of the fruitless struggle of medieval monastic devotion.

I find the monastic examples and processes discussed in my new book, Meditation and Prayer in the Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Monastery: Struggling Towards God, reassuring and inspiring in the face of contemporary culture as my students described it above. Even in an era that had much discomfort and uncertainty, medieval monastic spiritual strivers persisted, re-focusing when they found themselves unfocused, helping each other to keep their mutual eyes on the prize of eventual salvation. The ever-present spiritual longing of monks and nuns gave them directional purpose, even if it also regularly reminded them of their inadequacies. In fact, their inadequacies didn’t ultimately discourage them, but inspired them to work even harder: success and perfection were not everything, and they found meaning in the very fact that they were not perfect and still needed to reach God.  Moreover, rational understanding—just knowing what they had to do—didn’t satisfy them: “I think therefore I am” would not have been enough for Anselm or Bernard. For these monastic devotees, it was the doing that was of prime importance, the enacted, embodiment of devotion, even if it ended in failure, even if it was always going to be fruitless and inadequate proof of a devout actor’s helplessness. Monastic conviction and introspection drove these medieval monastic men and women forward, drove them to reach beyond themselves and their egos, drove them to radically renounce their individual desires, and led them to march towards the divine in common Christian purpose. The devotional priorities refined and articulated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries created an urgency that propelled monastic lives, inspired monastic art-making in text and image, sparked a revolution of how humans conceived of themselves and their abilities, and reminded monks and nuns—at the very least—to regularly be present in what they were doing and intentional about why they were doing it. 

This resolve that characterized the monastic men and women of the 1120’s could inspire the students of the 2020’s.  The monks and nuns in this study did not stop their efforts for prayer and meditation after they botched the idealized game plans they had learned—after they failed to be perfect, or failed, by their accounts, to be even a little successful. Instead, they picked themselves up and made their lives meaningful through an unfulfilled struggle towards God that was the fundamental work of their lives—and that created beauty as a result. Monks and nuns found a kind of transcendence that came with a drive towards something deeply believed (even if never achieved)—the journey was, for them, what allowed for joy, hope, and invention.

Passionate pursuits, presence in action, moral direction, perseverance despite failure, meaningful struggle—these unifying ideals are what my students articulated was missing from our contemporary culture on that last day of class. My new book showcases a distinctly medieval passion in the hopes that it might inspire us to also begin to displace our current mindsets and instead demand a radical submission to a moral force or a passionate cause external to ourselves. With luck, in the twenty-first-century context, that external force will not ultimately be a strongman, or the almighty dollar, or a doctrine of hate, but rather something more hopeful, healing, and beautiful; a spiritual force, perhaps, or a commitment to equality or ecology or societal transformation. Whatever it is, may it be some ecumenical chance at salvation, redemption, and conversion, a promise of heaven for all humankind.

by Lauren Mancia, Associate Professor of History, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

[1] For more on these kinds of studies, see Andrew Albin et al, eds., Whose Middle Ages?: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, (New York: Fordham, 2019); Tison Pugh and Susan Aronstein, eds., The United States of Medievalism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021).

[2] Bruce Holsinger, “Neomedievalism and international relations,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, Louise D’Arcens, ed., (New York: Cambridge, 2016), pp. 165-179.

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