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How the Church Has Changed the World: The Heart in Pilgrimage

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

A young man is sitting at his desk, his quill poised above the parchment while he glances toward a French poem at his side.


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chaucerGeoffrey Chaucer
c.1343-1400

He feels the power of verse rising in him, and wants to learn it wherever he can, in Latin, French, and Italian — though his language is English.  How to turn those jewels into English, the good, rough, ready English of peasants and plowmen!  Less so of the court in London, where the Plantagenets speak mainly French.  Here in Lancaster he fell between the two, as did the good duke John of Gaunt and his wife, Blanche.

"A gift for my lady the duchess," he muttered.  "A gift for my lady, from our Lady."  And he wrote (I'll translate a little):

Zechariah calleth you the open well
To wash the sinful soul from all its guilt.
Therefore this lesson I should learn to spell:
If not for thy soft heart, we would be spilt.
Now, Lady bright, since thou both canst and wilt
Be to the seed of Adam merciful,
Bring us unto that palace that is built
For penitent —

He rubbed it out and tried again: For every penitent and pitied soul.  He furrowed his brow and shook his head.

"Geoffrey," said the Lady Blanche, beautiful and young, approaching him from behind, "are you writing a love letter?"

Geoffrey Chaucer looked up and smiled.  "Yes," he said.

Man of the world

Chaucer wasn't the first great poet of the English language, for English, like every other language in the world, had its poetry — the universal art of mankind, until our own poetry-starved and beauty-parched time.  But he was the first English poet to acquire real renown.  Not a lot of income, and perhaps not domestic peace.  Nor peace at large, for the French rulers in England were at odds with the French rulers in France, in that off-and-on conflict that in some ways both nations lost, the Hundred Years' War.  Chaucer fought in that war, and had to be ransomed by the king when he was hardly twenty years old.  He must have been good at languages and of smooth and gentle talk, because Edward III sent him to Spain, and then to France a few times, and to Italy, mostly on diplomatic missions. Italy — think of it.  England was a poor country, its wealth largely dependent upon raw wool, shipped to Flanders to be made into cloth, then to the rich Italian cities for finishing, dying, and trading with the East.  When Chaucer arrived in Florence in 1372, what we call the Renaissance was like a rising sun, rosy and blushing.  Greek scholars had escaped from the Fourth Crusade's overthrow of Constantinople, and they brought with them their learning and their manuscripts.  Giotto had set painting on its path toward the full realization of the image of God in human form, as we would see in Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian.  Italy was dominated by families growing wealthy from international trade; Marco Polo's travels to China were well in the past.

They would be pilgrims, because we are all pilgrims.  "I shall have them go from this world to the next.  I shall have them go to Canterbury."

Dante had died in 1321, and the great poet and story-teller Boccaccio was living in Florence, the first man who ever gave lectures on Dante at a university.

What must their meeting have been like?  Boccaccio's most famous work was his Decameron, ten stories in each of ten days, told by seven young ladies and three young men who had fled from plague-ridden Florence in the dreadful year of 1348 and taken abode in a villa in the country.  Stories — fanciful, chivalric, bawdy, grotesque, philosophical, noble; the old man had a trove of stories in him.  And the young man?

"I have stories too," I imagine him saying to himself, amid the glory and the shame, the wealth and corruption, of Italy.  "Roman stories, French stories — and English stories, for English poetry." 

Chaucer had seen much in his travels and in war, and because his family wasn't wealthy — and because he lived in the Middle Ages — his view of mankind was broad.  "How shall I people my tales?" he might have asked.  With everyone, was the answer: men and women, good and bad, rich and poor, wise and foolish; a country parson, his brother the plowman, a Christian knight, an Oxford clerk, a five-times-married woman on the lookout for number six, a drunken miller with "a thumb of gold" for hooking on the scales and cheating his customers, a choleric reeve, a country franklin who "was Epicurus' own son," a huckster pardoner selling pig's bones for relics, a monk who liked hunting hares and pretty ladies more than praying, a doctor who worked hand-in-glove with a druggist so each could enrich the other…. Everyone.

Nor would they be off to a villa.  They would be pilgrims, because we are all pilgrims.  "I shall have them go from this world to the next.  I shall have them go to Canterbury."

In the light of the risen Christ

"April is the cruelest month," wrote T.S. Eliot at the beginning of The Waste Land, thinking of Chaucer, and of modern man's having nothing to hope for from spring.  But comedy, not tragedy, is the true note of the Christian poet, as Eliot came to know, and comedy was Chaucer's specialty, as it was Dante's.  And what is a comedy?  The poets of Chaucer's time had a ready and straight answer.  If you begin in misery and end in happiness, that's a comedy.  Thus the whole story of mankind is a comedy, not a tragedy.  It begins with the Fall and ends in glory.  Easter has heaven-formed the earth.

So Geoffrey Chaucer, late in his rather tumultuous life, sets his pen to the vellum and begins:

When April with his showers soft and sweet
Has pierced the drought of March down to the root,
And bathed each vein with liquor of such power
It brings to birth the early bud and flower,
When the west wind also with his gentle breath
Has sent its spirit, in every hold and heath,
Upon the tender crops, and the young sun
Has in the Ram half of his passage run,
And little birds make livelong melody,
Who sleep the whole night through with open eye —
So Nature pricks them in their lusty rages —
Then people long to go on pilgrimages….

For we are all on pilgrimage, always, and we hope to see round the last bend in the highway the spires of heaven, the city of God.

And he must have roared with laughter at the anti­climax.  "A long winter, a hard dry Lent, and then, why," he says, with a trace of a smile, "the longing for holiness comes upon men and women, knaves and saints, and they have to get out of the house and be on the road."

For we are all on pilgrimage, always, and we hope to see round the last bend in the highway the spires of heaven, the city of God.

"Who else shall I put among these pilgrims of mine?" he asks, and it comes to him.  A burly old fool, a plain awful teller of tales, a fellow sometimes slow of wit, or is it that he hides his shrewdness and his piety under a cover of simplicity?

"I shall be one of my pilgrims," he says. 

The sacrament of the open door

I can't imagine how our secular schools can deal with Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, which we cannot understand without the knowledge that we are on a journey toward judgment.  Or they can't imagine it either, and that is why they now appear to avoid it altogether.  Like so much of our Christian heritage of art, music, and literature, it has been forgotten on the roadside and left to die.

But Chaucer knew what he was doing, and so The Canterbury Tales ends with a long prose sermon by the good Parson, on penitence, and how to make a good confession, so that "men shall understand what is the fruit of penance, and according to the word of Jesus Christ it is the endless bliss of heaven, where joy has no opposition from woe or grief, where all of the hurts of this present life are past, were dwells security from the pain of hell, and the blissful company of saints who rejoice each one in the other's joy, where the body of man that was once foul and dark is clearer than the sun, and that was once sick, frail, feeble, and mortal is now immortal, and so strong and so whole that nothing may harm it."

Who for such an Easter would not walk through the door of penitence?

Who for such an Easter would not walk through the door of penitence?  Chaucer ends with a prayer in his own right, thanking Jesus and his "blissful mother, and all the saints of heaven."  "I beseech them," says he, "that they henceforth until my life's end send me grace to bewail my guilts and to study to the salvation of my soul, and grant me the grace of true penitence, confession, and satisfaction to be done in this present life, through the kindly grace of him who is King of Kings and Priest over all Priests, who bought us with the precious blood of his heart, so that I may be one of them at the day of doom that shall be saved."

And the last of the manuscript reads thus: "Here is ended The Tales of Canterbury compiled by Geoffrey Chaucer on whose soul may Jesus Christ have mercy.  Amen."

May it be so, for the good old poet and for us all.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Heart in Pilgrimage." Magnificat (April, 2019).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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