Chivalry and its Catholic Origins

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For St. Ignatius Loyola as for medieval men generally, knighthood and priesthood were two parallel ways of active masculine sanctity.

Entry to the order of the priesthood  did not mean leaving a warrior lifestyle behind: it meant entering into a tougher arena of combat against him whom St. Ignatius called “the Enemy of Humanity”, the Prince of Darkness, the world of evil, and concupiscence within self in order to raise the flag of  Christ’s Kingdom in self, souls, and society.

It would be a combat that would demand the full exercise of their masculinity and they knew it.

Indeed the poet who wrote the life of the heroic priest Saint Hugh of Lincoln (1135-1200) who conquered the virtue of chastity after a vehement struggle, made it quite clear that here was a man with greater valor in his veins than all those who fought in armor, by starting his biography with the opening words of the Aeneid:  ‘Of arms and the man I sing…’ (The Metrical Life of Saint Hugh of Lincoln)

All the virtues that would make these knights worthy priests of Jesus Christ they had already been striving to live since their induction to knighthood.

They were virtues that had gripped their imagination, memory, and heart during the awe-inspiring ceremonies of induction.

Everything in these ceremonies symbolized the inner meaning of knighthood, and focused one’s attention on the meaning of Christian manhood, honor and purity.

The Vigil of Arms was all about preparation by purification and rebirth through prayer and grace. Six were its parts.

First it required that the candidate’s hair be cut in the form of a priest’s tonsure for he – like the priest – was to have a body for God free from unmanly care about the world’s vanities.

Then he symbolically purified himself of sin through bathing before resting for a while – symbol of the rest of Paradise destined for the man who is pure.

He then donned his garments: firstly a long white tunic symbol of his purity, then a red garment with long sleeves over the white tunic to show that he was ready to shed his blood for the honor of  God; then he donned a black covering to remind himself that all men meet death but Christians do not fear it.

Now he was ready to enter the church. He had been fasting for twenty-four hours in order to purify himself, grow in  awareness of his own human weakness and need for God, recall that he was to be the champion of the poor and defenseless.

Entering the church he knelt before the altar, in front of which he lay down his armor and weapons.  He would kneel or stand in the holy vigil for some twelve hours doing mental or vocal prayer to invoke God’s grace to fortify his conviction: first God and His Holy Church and then – and only then – all else.

At the rising of the sun, he would be ready to make his confession, present himself at the Holy Sacrifice, and receive Holy Communion before being  knighted. Crossing the strong and shining armor covering his chest, he bore the scarf of the lady he loved.

According to the Ignatian ideal, no different is the “Vigil of Arms” of the man who prays and watches from the moment he hears the divine call for the grace to raise himself up to the ideal of the priesthood: Sacerdos Alter Christus. 

As one who is called to be sacramentally another Christ he manfully strives to give himself to God with that love “greater than which no man has”, loving the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind, and with all his strength.

He asks for entry to another order,the sacred order of the priesthood, which is committed to the highest ideal of nobility ever found in the history of humanity, indeed the very touchstone of nobility because it must exemplify the nobility of the greatest hero of history, Jesus Christ.

The priest, above all other Christians, is required to have a personal character made in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ because of the sacramental character conferred on the day of ordination. This character requires that he be like Jesus Christ both priest and victim, ready to give up his life for souls.

Thus, the Christian on the threshold of knighthood and the Christian on the threshold of priesthood are cast in the same mold: the idealism of their intelligence, the generosity of their will, the virility of their manhood is all for Christ in the Ecclesia Militans. 

The man called to be priest knows who he is in his weakness but he also knows, by God, whom he is called to be. For by his sacramental configuration to Jesus Christ he will bind himself like the knights of old to act always in chivalric manner, in season and out of season:  selfless and self-disciplined, courageous and militant, shining example of purity and rugged tenacity, defender of the Holy Catholic Faith, fighter for the civilization of love and creator of the creative minorities who will build a Culture of Life.

 In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo asks Aragorn, also known as Strider: ‘Have you often been to Rivendell?’ ‘I have,’ said Strider. ‘I dwelt there once, and still I return when I may. There my heart is; but it is not my fate to sit in peace, even in the fair house of Elrond.’

Just as it was not the fate of Aragorn, so it is not the fate of the priest to have a peaceful life exempt of risk and danger.

There is inside the heart of every man – forcefully so in his youth – the desire to do great things, to want to change this world for the better, no matter how arduous the struggle and violent the opposition.

Within the male psyche of so many who have crossed the threshold of seminary or monastery there lies the heart of a hero – that vehement attraction to the great-heartedness of the hero, an attraction that can be naturally fulfilled with supernatural energy in the life of the man whose innermost character is called to identification with the greatest hero of history, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

When this identification is wrought, the heart of the hero-priest is like a powerful river which swells from the interior victory wrought by grace and self-conquest  in order to irrigate the countryside of souls and shape the landscape of history with sanctifying grace.