Mystical Life is Bonded to Asceticism
The chivalric spirit flows from the mystical spirit as naturally as water from its spring, as indeed occurred historically with chivalry, born from the springs of medieval Catholicism.
But in a sense the mystical is also dependent on the chivalric. Why? Because chivalry is a form of Christian virile asceticism, virile because it came into existence for the sake of men. Asceticism is naught else but the Christian’s obedience to Christ’s command “If you wish to follow me, take up your cross”.
Since the Christian, incorporated to Christ’s Mystical Body, participates in Christ’s divine life he must allow that life to penetrate the very depths of his thinking, willing, desiring until he becomes configured with Christ, transformed into Him.
However, the divine life immediately meets with obstacles in man’s heart and mind: the Axis of Evil empowering man’s gravitational pull downwards towards egotism and self-destruction. The Christian must react; he must recognize that his life on earth is one of combat in order to acquire the self-mastery necessary for the divine life to triumph in him.
This combat is “asceticism”: a pedagogy of self-discipline for the sake of attaining the virtues as they are found in the life of God Incarnate. Asceticism in its fundamental principles is unchanging and universal, transcending time, space, and the sexes. However, in the application of the principles of asceticism one must use wise judgment making clear-cut distinctions according to time, place, age, health,temperament, circumstances ‒ and according to whether the person is male or female.
Asceticism and Chivalry’s Origins
This is where chivalry enters the scene. Chivalry, as C. S. Lewis has remarked, has meant different things throughout history ‒ “from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train”.
However, as a spirit, an ideal, and an ethos, chivalry has a very sharply-defined meaning.
It was born from the womb of Catholicism in medieval Christendom. Chivalric spirituality is not a secular spirituality imposed upon Christianity. It is not alien to the spirit of Christ, a foreign body introduced, consisting of trappings and superficialities from a bygone medieval era that has no further relevance to modern man.
No. Chivalry is a spirit that was born from the womb of Catholicism at the beginning of the 11th century but which was conceived within the womb as early as some 500 years after the earthly life of Our Lord and Savior. Chivalry is a mighty oak that grew from the soil drenched by the blood of Christ
Chivalry is quintessentially Catholic as becomes evident from a study of its historical origins. It was formed during the Middle Ages between circa A.D. 700 and 1100 in a struggle to vanquish a society in which, as a preacher of the time remarked, “men have claws and live with the wild beasts”. Neither warriorhood nor war knew the meaning of restraint among the Germanic tribes, Magyars and Vikings; neither for that matter were the “civilized” Romans much better.
It is thanks to the Church’s herculean struggle by her sacraments, prayer, rites, laws, discipline and asceticism—yes, and also by condemnations and excommunications ‒ that she eventually forged a new ideal of soldierhood. It was the paradigm of the man who fights for justice, in justice, thus turning soldierhood into a pathway for achieving Christlikeness.
Priests imbued the ceremony of admission to knighthood with a Christian mystique in which through unforgettable rites charged with mystic splendor they etched the ideal on the soul. Candidates thus were fully aware that good health, physical strength, and expertise in the skills of warfare were not enough to be a true knight.
The aspirant to knighthood heard from the Church’s lips the call to self-conquest before conquest, to “protect the weak, defenseless and helpless, and to fight for the general welfare of all”—unto heroism. He learned that his life had to be a relentless quest to subject his passions to the spirit; that chivalry was the sure route along which masculinity could be purified through the sacraments, prayer, and the cardinal virtues of wise judgment, self-conquest, courage and justice. An unbending sense of right and wrong anchored in the unchanging precepts of the Natural Law interpreted by the guardian of that law, the Church, had to mark his actions.
Asceticism and Chivalry’s Mystical Depths
Chivalry came into existence for a very precise purpose. Its designers, principally priests of the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, designed it as a form of asceticism, and one that was designed specifically, uniquely, and exclusively for men. It is masculine to the core. Not in the sense of being prejudiced against womanhood since in the history of the world there has never been an institution that has required the male to act with so much veneration for the female. But it was masculine to the core because it grew from Catholicism’s struggle to baptize the spirit of the barbarian warrior.
The medieval chivalric ideal achieved what no other ideal for masculinity had ever achieved anywhere in history for it made, as C. S. Lewis remarked, a double demand on human nature, bringing together “two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate towards one another”:
“The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maiden-like, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.” (C. S. Lewis, “The Necessity of Chivalry”)
Chivalric spirituality is drawn from the contemplation of the God-Man. It is the result of taking seriously the fact that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity truly and really became not only human but specifically man. As man he is the perfect man, model of all masculine virtues. What medieval chivalric spirituality did was to gaze long and hard at the God-Man and to look long and hard at the male with his psychology, his strengths and weaknesses, his duties towards woman, spouse, offspring and society; man as he exists in his fallen human nature; man as he is called to be as a son of God by the grace of baptism. Rising from his knees before Jesus Christ Crucified medieval man composed chivalric spirituality which is, therefore, in its essentials, not medieval but perennial, not European but cosmopolitan, an ever-valid expression of the Christian and Catholic wisdom.
Chivalry reached its peak expression in the warrior-monks, the Templars, thanks to a monk with the spirit of a warrior, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the author of their statutes. It influenced St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic and countless other leading Catholic figures of succeeding centuries. And it certainly influenced St. Ignatius of Loyola, forming the heart and mind of the youth Íñigo de Loyola. The language, images, and expressions of his aspirations and ideals, of his love of God and his following of Christ were all drawn from the culture of chivalry.
Hence, the mystical is the source of the chivalric. For it was this mystical sense of the Catholic Faith through the traditional liturgy that during the Dark Ages after the collapse of Roman civilization, inspired the creative minorities of Catholicism with the ethos that came to be known as chivalry.
By it the hearts of Catholic men from Louis IX and Godfrey de Bouillon to Dominic, Francis, Ignatius and Francis Xavier accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord; by it they vowed their intellectual, moral and physical strength to Christendom; and by it today Ignatians vow themselves to win the hearts of the greatest possible number of men and women to the Truth of the Savior and to the foundation of a society with a Catholic soul.