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The Bonds of Love: St Peter Damian’s theology of the spiritual life by Gordon Mursell

12 May 2023

More to an unappealing figure than meets the eye, says Robin Ward

ST PETER DAMIAN was an Italian Benedictine whose long life (1007-72) and prominent position as Cardinal and Bishop of Ostia placed him at the centre of the spiritual and canonical reorganisation of the Latin Church which began in response to the “pornocracy” that co-opted the papacy in the tenth century, and which culminated subsequently in the rigorist autocracy of Pope Gregory VII.

He lived in an iron time, and left a controverted legacy: Dante places him as one of the most prominent of the souls in heaven in the Paradiso, a reformer and ascetic, while more recent scholarship has been repelled by the ferocity of his attitude to homosexuality in the Liber Gomorrhianus, and disgusted by the prominent part that flagellation evidently played in the spiritual rule and governance of the monasteries under his rule.

Until the publication of Jean Leclercq’s magisterial The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A study of monastic culture in 1961, interest in the monastic theology of the Middle Ages did not extend much beyond St Anselm and St Bernard. Without the authority of the patristic age or the acuity of the scholastics, less familiar figures seemed to have little to offer. Gordon Mursell has been brave, therefore, in dedicating many years of study to the work of St Peter Damian, much of which is not available in English, and engaging with a very considerable body of more recent scholarship from Italy and Germany. In doing so, he is frank about the shortcomings of his subject, but not to the detriment of the legacy of spiritual teaching about the ascetic life to be found in his writings.

The book gives us a thematic treatment of Damian’s spiritual teaching rather than a chronological account of the literature that he produced, a judicious decision given the inaccessibility of much of it to the general reader. Themes treated include more specifically theological ones, such as the doctrines of God, creation, and the Church, and ones more specifically related to the ascetic and monastic life, such as the life of the cloister, the call to the eremitical life, and preparation on earth for the life of heaven. The historian Barbara Tuchman once pointed out that medieval people seemed to live much more uncomfortably than they needed to, and it is hard to escape the same conclusion here: a spirituality of repeated prostrations, endless repetitions of the Psalter, and hours of self-flagellation can seem like the piety of the madhouse.

But Mursell draws the sting and harvests the honey, in a way that allows us to see why it was that Dante could see in this stern, unbending figure a saint worthy to be placed next to Benedict himself in the order of beatitude. Despite all his austerities, there is a lyrical beauty in Damian’s apprehension of the purpose of it all: “it is just as though we are catching a glimpse of his home, seeing the awesome glory of the king through hidden cracks in the wall, while all the time our bodies are outside, exposed to stormy winds and ferocious downpours.”

St Peter Damian led a hard life in bleak time, and the exaggerations of his character are all too evident. But Mursell has done a painstaking and perceptive work of critical excavation here to rescue an attractive and intriguing kernel of spiritual sweetness from an unprepossessing husk, in which the austerities of the desert and the monastery do not beat themselves in vain against the bare walls of the cell, but come to a lyrical consummation in the preaching and writing of a Doctor of the Church.

Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

The Bonds of Love: St Peter Damian’s theology of the spiritual lif
Gordon Mursell
The Catholic University of America Press £78
Church Times Bookshop £70.20

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