Finding an Ocean of Grace

Scholars, perhaps especially theologians, are ever-looking for sources, the urtexts that form the foundations for our faith. They also look carefully at how our faith was practiced in earlier times, in hope of discerning an evolutionary line back to the days when Jesus walked the earth. They look for evidence in commentaries and stories from earlier eras. Comprehending and communicating these, the thinking goes, will help us live our faith more truly today.

I have always envied those with a liberal arts education. As mine was focused principally on music, which, in my profession, has its obvious benefits, I missed many mathematic, scientific, artistic, and literary adventures. Thus, I have spent my post-collegiate life striving to catch up.  

Early on I developed a passion for the ancient Greek epics, then the lesser known works like Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Over the last few years I have read the three Middle English monuments, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Canterbury Tales, and now, Piers Plowman, which I finished this past April. The latter two I struggled through in Middle English. What meager success I had was thanks to superb scholarly editions with running glossaries and copious explanatory footnotes and commentaries. Among the pleasures along the way were nascent insights into the evolution of our mother tongue and maturing human consciousness.

William Langland (1332 – c. 1386) is generally considered to be the author of Piers Plowman. Little is known of Langland, though the deep knowledge of theology and the church related in the work suggests he was in some kind of religious order. The editor of my Piers Plowman edition is Derek Pearsall, an English born and educated Harvard professor. What struck me most profoundly in his notes was his exquisite command of historical Christian theology. As Piers is an allegory of the Christian life, these notes afforded many important insights along the way. Here are a few:

  • “For no gult is so greet that his goodnesse is more.” This is similar to Langland’s famous quote: Omnis iniquitas qoad misericordiam dei est quasi scintilla in medio maris (All the sin in the world in relation to God's mercy is like a spark of fire in the midst of the sea). I first heard this precept, though in a different form, some 20 years ago at Candler from the renowned preacher William Sloan Coffin. In his sermon, he said, “There is far more grace in God than sin in us.” Ever since, this had been a strong comfort to me.
  • O felix culpa, O necessarium peccatum Ade! (O happy fault and necessary sin of Adam). From Pearsall’s notes: “Necessary because it necessitated the Incarnation…from the canticle sung on Holy Saturday at the blessing of the Paschal candle (Missale 340). An allusion to the paradox of the Fortunate Fall, happily embroidered in one of the most famous of Medieval lyrics, ‘Adam lay ybowndn’. O felix culpa…” Many of us know this theological principle from the English carol “Adam Lay Ybounden,” which is often sung after the first reading in Lessons and Carols services. Yes, song texts are also important sources of historical theological insight. Indeed, the Bible itself, in addition to the Psalms, comprises many song texts.
  • Per Euam cunctis clausa est, et per Mariam virginem iterum patefacta est (Through Eve it (the gate of heaven) was closed to all mortals, and through the Virgin Mary it was opened again). From an antiphon (chant) sung at Lauds (monastic prayer service) between Easter and Ascension. This struck me profoundly as a mirror of the more commonly known, “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” I Cor. 15:22
  • Langland refers to a place in Essex, England, where they had a custom of awarding a side of bacon to any couple who would swear an oath that they had not quarreled for a year! Any takers?
  • In a section where Sloth is personified as a priest, he confesses that he can neither “solfe nor synge…” I am not surprised that the ability to sing would be considered important for a priest in the fourteenth century, as so much of the liturgy was sung, but I am surprised that solfege (the art of sight reading music via fa-so-la) was also considered a necessary skill. It makes sense as the relative complexity of liturgical music needed this level of understanding, and, after all, solfege was born in the church and western classical music evolved from the Christian liturgy. They had, as we do today, much to sing about, for there is a vast ocean of grace that God so generously offers each and all.
  • Ac teologie hath tened me ten score tymes; 
    The more I muse theron the mystiloker hit semeth
    And the deppore I deuine the derkore me thynketh hit.
    Hit is no science sothly bote a sothfast bileue,
    Ac for it lereth men to louie Y beleue theron the bettere,
    For loue is a lykyng thing and loth for to greue.

    My left handed translation (with help from Pearsall):

    But theology has troubled me ten score times;
    The more I muse thereon, the mistier it seems
    And the deeper I divine the more obscure I think it.
    It is no science truly, but is a true belief,
    But as it teaches mortals to love, my faith is therefore the better,
    For love is a pleasing thing and loth to give pain.