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Screaming tongues and silent aching

by
13 May 2016

David Bryant praises the vibrancy of the medieval mystic Jacopone da Todi’s writing

Triumph over adversity: an image of Jacopone da Todi by Paolo Uccello in Prato Cathedral, Italy

Triumph over adversity: an image of Jacopone da Todi by Paolo Uccello in Prato Cathedral, Italy

THE Italian poet and mystic Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306) was a man of great verve and courage. His bizarre and, at times, outrageous lifestyle earned him the sobriquet Jacopone, or Crazy Jim.

Born into a wealthy family, he studied law and became a successful advocate. He did not hold an untarnished reputation: greed and worldliness were the powers that drove him. Then came a rude and brutal awakening.

He and his wife, Vanna, were invited to a public tournament. During the celebrations, part of the grandstand collapsed, killing her. He rushed to the site, only to find that she was wearing a hair shirt beneath her costly garments — she was vicariously suffering for the misdeeds of her husband.

From that moment, his life took on a dramatically different guise. He gave away all his money, and lived as an ascetic, joining the Third Order of St Francis. The shock of his wife’s death led him to engage in extraordinary and visionary acts, reminiscent of the practices adopted by the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

He dressed in penitential rags, and cowered as the village children shouted his nickname from the rooftops. He crawled along the street wearing a saddle, and bridled as an ass; and, on one occasion, appeared tarred and feathered at a wedding in his brother’s house.

 

AT THIS time, a violent quarrel had broken out between members of the Franciscan order. Some — Jacopone among them — voted for a return to the stricter life of the early Franciscan movement. They were known as the Spirituals. Pope Boniface VIII stood firm: there were to be no revolutionary changes in the order.

Jacopone responded with a series of violent denunciations in his poetic work Lauds, using inflammatory and sometimes vitriolic language that still has the capacity to draw us up with a start: “The day you said your first mass, Darkness fell over all the land; Such a storm came up not one candle was left burning, There in the church where you stood at the altar.”

Not surprisingly, he was given a prison sentence, and, to his great distress, was punished with excommunication.

He asked for papal pardon, but it was withheld. Grief set in. “Let me hear your mighty voice proclaim ‘Old man arise, let your sore torment be turned into song.’”

 

IN FAIRNESS to Jacopone, the Church of his time was deeply corrupt and grasping. Italian clergy were interested in material goods, and ignored people at times of famine and poverty. Kings spent their time fighting wars instead of improving the lot of their people. “The Church weeps and weeps in torment to have sunk so low. Their one concern is for ecclesiastical offices. They have sent poverty into exile.”

The overriding theme that permeates Jacopone’s poetry is the love of God. His rapturous utterances reach an emotional frenzy, and have something of St John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, and Mechthild of Magdeburg about them.

There are two faces to this love. Sometimes, it comes over as exultation, aflame and burning: “Tongues are screaming. Love unbearable grips our hearts.”

This love can take on a silent, aching dimension that is no less telling. This love is far more tenuous and brittle, and always it hovers on the brink of extinction because of its frailty.

“If the one who has some light, whose candle flame wants it to burn in peace, he must keep it hidden well. He should close every door so that the wind does not blow in and quench his spark.” This love is transforming, giving us new heart and hope, sailing boldly across the seas of our distress. It is a medicine for every ailment, a cure for the gravest ills, a soothing balm when we are hurt.

 

THERE is a vibrancy and an immediacy about Jacopone’s writing, as Evelyn Underhill recognised in her “spiritual biography” of him (Jacopone da Todi, 1919). Although it is unlikely that he wrote the hymn “Stabat Mater Dolorosa”, which used to be attributed to him, at its best his work sails above all that is negative and destructive: the change it makes to human behaviour can be dramatic. “Come, people, come. And marvel at what you see. Yesterday the soul was hell, Today it is paradise!”

Under its sway, pride is routed, and anger is cast out. Avarice is exiled, and lust takes flight. At this point, we will be “living in love together just as the angels live”. But there is a warning attached. We need to be wary of the materialistic and nihilistic attractions of the world which hover around us so temptingly. For Jacopone, they are insubstantial and fruitless, and will finally be overcome by God’s immeasurable love.

It would be a loss to relegate Jacopone da Todi and his Lauds to a medieval irrelevancy. He brings a rich understanding of prayer and contemplation to today’s Church. Our love of God is often passing, lacking fire and resolution; Jacopone reveals something different that is dynamic and exhilarating, riding roughshod over life’s troubles. It is unquenchable.

When we have wept over life’s disappointments, tragedies, fears, and desperation, we have not done so alone, even though it might feel that way. Despite every sense of rejection that creeps, Job-like, through us, through all our pain, God is there, triumphing over it all.

Jacopone describes it with elation: “Amiable, delectable love, love inconceivable and beyond conception! Love, divine fire, playful, laughing love, never stinting, giving lavishly.”

There can be no greater gift in the world than being called to share with God in the madness of divine and human love.

 

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire (Features, 11 September 2015).

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