Thursday, April 19, 2007


I am currently rereading Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' for the third time, and if you haven't read it yet, you are missing out on a lot. The title, and indeed the whole of this post, was much inspired by that book, specifically the discussions about the nature of heresy. We in the Church have often been warned to stay clear of heretics; in the old days, priests warned the faithful about Protestants by telling them how these people literally had hooves and horns, and that they spirited away children in the dead of night for their arcane rituals. In more sophisticated areas, a more sober and doctrinal approach is used. But just what exactly is heresy?

If you look closely at the man above, several things immediately jump out. His bloodshot eyes portray an intensity and conviction that could only be received from a 'divine' experience. On the other hand, those same eyes also tell a story of hardship and tribulations. He wears the maroon uniform of a devotee of the Black Nazarene, yet to other eyes, his costume is more reminiscent of the Nazarene's own. Upon his neck hangs a medallion, a charm, more a badge of superstition than true faith. To many, denouncing him as a 'heretic' would be a gut reaction, an act of righteousness, even.

Heresy is actually a very complicated thing, because more so than mere theology, it is concerned more about a specific way of life. A heretic is not simply one who chooses what to believe and what not, because this always comes second after adopting a certain lifestyle. I sincerely doubt if most heretics in the past became heretics because of doctrinal issues. The average Catholic, even in the Middle Ages, had not the capacity or the learning to understand the nuances and subtleties of dogmatic theology; that is a game reserved for the learned. Instead, he concerned himself with devotions and pious practices. Even the three Fatima children, after all, did not have any idea that the beautiful woman appearing to them was actually the Mother of God.

Heresy arises out of a certain need, or rather, the lack of this need being fulfilled. It's common knowledge that Luther never intended to set up a counter church: it was Melanchthon and his cohorts who set about doing this. So what drove Luther to do the unthinkable? Foremost perhaps is his unshakeable notion of guilt. Luther, ever the Augustinian, had a hard time reconciling his faith with his proclivities. Then there is also the fact that the papacy itself abused the concept of indulgences. It is often said that most, if not all, heretics start out as reformers. Being a reformer is in itself not an inherently sinful concept, but like in all things, too radical a change is bound to stir up unrest.

When St. Francis of Assisi and his Franciscans came into the fray, many saw their self-imposed poverty as something to be cautious about. Indeed, the Franciscan controversy is something of a main focus in Eco's book. It is when these reformers seek to impose their way of life on the system as a whole that they become heretics.

If there is anyone holier than a saint, it can only be a fool. Christian perfection is not so much concerned about the maximal as it is about its opposite, the minimal. Perfection in Christianity does not mean having complete knowledge of all the intricacies and inner workings of the universe; rather, it is reverting to the primordial state of innocence that is its very essence. When God created Adam and Eve, they were not born dogmatic theologians, nor did they know all the names of the stars in the universe. They were literally kids with ant farms, who viewed their surroundings as strange and foreign, who dwelt amidst paradise with all the attention of an infant watching a Michael Moore film. They were very much 'fools' in the sense that they saw God for what He is, and did not attempt to 'rationalize' him.

Perhaps the greatest examples of the holy fool are St. Simeon Stylites and St. Simeon the Holy Fool: the latter, the desert Father who dragged the decomposing corpse of a dead dog, threw peanuts at clergymen and feasted madly during the days of penance; the former, who lived for 37 years atop a pillar in sixth century Syria. These were men who did not consume even bread and water during the whole Lenten season and who bound their waist so tightly with a girdle that they had to be soaked in water for several days just to loosen it (in the case of Simeon Stylite). In our time, these two would probably be labeled as lunatics; but their deeds, rather than earning for themselves a place in hell, instead raised them to the glory of the altars. Both Sts. Simeon were fools, no doubt, but it is precisely in this state of innocence where they found sanctity. In the words of Scripture: ""the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong."

On the other hand, Fra Dolcino was an Italian preacher burned at the stake for his exagerrated view of poverty as inspired by the Franciscans. The difference here is that Dolcino knew exactly what he was doing; he sought to change the whole life of the Church into what he thought it ought to be, and even engaged in violence in the process. He sought the abolishment of the feaudal system as well as the death of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and could very well have been the first Communist, what with his emphasis on holding property in common. Dolcino, however, was more foolish than he was a fool; the difference lies in the fact that his reformation was not only antithetical to doctrine and dogma, but even to the basic principles of society.

Perhaps an even more pertinent example is Girolamo Savanorola, the Dominican friar who earned the particular notoriety of rebuking Alexander VI to his face, and was subsequently burned at the stake. Yet Savanarola was also very much a fascist, who ruled Florence with an iron fist; under his rule, many priceless works of art, as well as countless books, were put to the torch, in an episode otherwise known as 'the bonfire of the vanities'. When Savanorola was finally captured, he wrote many beautiful pieces of literature, among them his infamous 'Infelix Ego' (which, by the way, has been set to music by many Renaissance composers, which he so vehemently despised in life). As the flames consumed his mortal flesh, and as he was preparing to expire and surrender his soul to eternity, one has to wonder: was it with the conviction of a martyr or the arrogance of a heretic that he died? And when St. Lawrence uttered 'Manduca, iam coctus est' while being roasted on the grill, was it with the virtue of the just or the arrogance of the wicked?

I no longer know the answer, nor do I want to know. Under the torture of the Inquisitor, the suspected heretic may utter what the Inquisitor wants to hear, instead of what really happened. Heresy, then, is almost always a reform or purification; but when change threatens to change the Church itself, and when reformers attempt to justify these with their authoritarian versions of 'the good old days', it is then that the reform becomes dangerous, and must be quelled. To this, I can only say one thing: Penitenziagite!

To see the '3D' version of this post, look at this gallery: Black Nazarene


Daniel Mitsui said...

Another excellent essay, but I should note that Simeon Stylites and Simeon the Fool are actually two different saints...


Daniel Mitsui

Archistrategos said...


Thanks for the correction! I forgot about that.You have an excellent blog yourself!

God bless!

matt said...

It's a good book [after your suggestion I picked it up at the library, after intending to do so for some time] -- but I just read that, apparently, the book was called by the Vatican a "narrative calamity that deforms, desecrates and offends the meaning of faith"! So far I have been unable to discern either pro- or anti-Catholic sentiment in Eco's writing... but I'm not that far in. It's a delightful read so far, and I hope it continues to be so!

Archistrategos said...


I think it's because Eco is a Postmodernist that the book has gotten so much flak. I personally thought that Eco handled the material deftly, and his meditations on the nature of heresy and the didactic nature of Gothic art was spot on. He is also a Medievalist, which explains why the book is so rich in almost everything.

Though Eco is an atheist, I get the feeling that the Church is still 'in him'. If I remember correctly, he was a staunch Catholic before, though he somehow lost his faith for reasons I don't know. But the book itself is the quintessence of erudition, and is defintely one of my all-time faves. :)

matt said...

I would agree with you -- it is quite a rich work!

The same article I mentioned from which the Vatican quote deriding the book came mentioned that Eco considers himself a theist without religion, but it would seem the Church is indeed still 'in him' -- here he mentions how he still feels "the horror of sacrilege" when "some of my colleagues take the sacraments without their believing in the Real Presence, and therefore without their having taken confession beforehand."

Archistrategos said...

Speaking of which, his book 'Belief or Nonbelief?', co-written with S.E. Carlo Maria Card. Montini, (I'm assuming the second article is from said book) is also a good read. Alas, I've not had the chance to read it in as a whole yet, but from what I remember (I had it on loan from the library a mere three days!), it was also quite an intellectual heavy hitter.

matt said...

Many thanks for that book recommendation, I'll be checking it out myself.