By the early 17th century, England's ecclesiastical and religious revolution appeared to be established and consolidated.
Orphaned in adolescence, Richard was nevertheless able to study at the Charterhouse School and then Pembroke Hall at Cambridge University, where he was formed by the high church spirit and practices propagated by William Laud, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. The Laudian movement tried to find a way to root the independent English church in the aesthetic, disciplinary, and to some extent spiritual traditions of classical England, thereby steering a "middle way" between Calvinist Puritans and "papists" while supporting English nationalism and the prerogatives of the king. In this milieu, Richard developed simultaneously a keen poetic expressiveness, an expertise in ancient and modern languages, and a deep religious devotion. In 1636 he received a fellowship at Peterhouse in Cambridge and then was ordained to ministry and began serving at a nearby church, Little Saint Mary's. He had already begun writing the poetry that would secure his place in the history of English literature.
Peterhouse was one of more vibrant centers of the high church movement and its efforts to reclaim devotional traditions, including statues, crucifixes, traditional forms of liturgy and prayer, and other practices which were denounced by Puritans as popish superstitions. Crashaw embraced all of them with passionate fervor. At the same time, he became a regular visitor to the informal monastic community at Little Gidding headed by Nicholas Ferrar. Crashaw's great desire was to live a devout life specially consecrated to God, given over to the love of God (Laudism also emphasized love, in contrast to the rigid Protestant insistence on "faith alone"). While his life and friendships at Cambridge pointed him in this direction, Crashaw's heart yearned for something more radical, something a "middle way" could not provide.
Then, at some point, he discovered the writings of Saint Teresa of Ávila. Here was a mystical testimony to God's love that transcended his own religious ardor and his poetic imagination. This was likely the decisive moment in Richard Crashaw's spiritual journey to the Catholic Church. He wrote three poems about Saint Teresa, and the grace of faith led him beyond any possible concerns about worldly rivalry between England and Spain (for "'tis not Spanish, but 'tis Heaven she speaks!"). Meanwhile, war was breaking out among his countrymen. In 1644, the Puritan faction took Cambridge, destroyed the beauty of his Little Saint Mary's, and forced him into exile. Shortly thereafter, Crashaw entered the Catholic Church, went on pilgrimage to Rome, and died at Loreto in 1649.
John Janaro "Richard Crashaw." Magnificat (January, 2021).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2021 Magnificat
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