About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Internal Assessment

As much as I would like this experience to continue—though perhaps Münster’s weather this week is an indication that it should come to an end: rainy and cold (60’s Fahrenheit)—my days left in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar are fast dwindling. On Tuesday past, my neighbors at the dorm had a farewell barbecue for me (fortunately, the rain held off until later in the night); last night, Jennifer Burkart and her husband, Jörg, hosted me, along with the Hoyes and my friend Timon, at their house for another farewell dinner; this morning I delivered the last part of my presentation on my work to the Hildegard seminar I have particpated in this semester, which itself met today for the last time. All good things must come to an end, or so I’ve been told. Before my time here fully runs out on Tuesday morning when I board a flight back to the States, however, I would like to evaluate and assess my work this year from a more concrete perspective than my musings offered earlier this week.

The area of my study this year has been the apocalyptic writings of St. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), with a specific focus on the influence of her writings in the centuries after her death as they were promulgated by the redaction executed by Gebeno von Eberbach in the 1220’s. My work has had three general phases. In the first few months, I was prompted by the early realization that I was, in fact, ill-prepared to investigate anything to do with medieval apocalypticism. Thus, I spent the majority of my time familarizing myself with the background of Christian apocalyticism as it developed from its roots in Jewish apocalyptic before the time of Christ through the Middle Ages, with an ever greater focus on the 12th century. This in itself was a fascinating entry into a way of looking at the world very different from modern perspectives. Though I had caught glimpses of the medieval outlook in my work before, and though their strangeness and otherness have always been tempered by a certain familiarity born of being raised in the Anglo-Catholic cultural tradition, this was nevertheless the first time that I had stepped so fully into that world.

Fundamental to this worldview is, first, that it was built upon the faith and expectations of a Christian people—and this in a way that we can hardly imagine today, for the people of medieval Europe (or as they called it, Christendom) were all, to a man, baptized in what was considered a single, universal Catholic Church (with the notable exceptions of Jewish and Islamic enclaves, which can for this purpose nevertheless be dismissed because of their legal innability to actually participate in the socio-political climate of the time); see John Van Engen, “Faith as a Concept of Order in Medieval Christendom”, Religion in the History of the Medieval West (Variorum Collected Studies Series, Ashgate Publishing: Burlington, VT, 2004), pp. VI:19-67. Second, it is key that they saw the will of God as essential in the playing out of history—salvation history, as the theologians call it. It is the concept that the course of history is divinely ordained, from the creation in the beginning to its height in the Incarnation of the Son of God, to its final, glorious, and terrible end in the Last Judgment. And finally, it is this expection of the inevitable End of Time that marks indelibly both the hopes and the fears of the medieval thinker like Hildegard: though it is not for anyone to know the exact time of the Second Coming, it was never conceived of as an impossibily far-off event. Rather, the End of Time was imminently present to the medieval Christian: it could come at any moment, and thus its shadow hung over all aspects of the Christian’s life.

Having established myself in this strangely alluring mileau, I turned next to a close reading of Hildegard’s apocalyptic and prophetic writings as collected and organized by Gebeno, a process that involved cross-referencing with the original contexts of each of the extracted passages in his collection. Thus, I found myself reading at one point or another much of Hildegard’s corpus in the attempt to wrap my arms around the sometimes truly fantastic nature of her writing and thought.

Finally, while my original intention had been to focus on the reception of her apocalyptic writings after her death, I discovered that it would first be necessary to understand the place of these writings in her own thought. Thus, the the final phase of my work has focused primarily on understanding and assessing the immediate context of Hildegard’s apocalyptic thought. This culminated in a lengthy presentation I prepared for the seminar on the visionary and scientific aspects of Hildegard’s thought that I mentioned above. Two weeks ago, I led a close reading with the other members of the seminar of the apocalyptic vision of Hildegard’s first major work, Scivias (Bk. 3, Vis. 11); today, I presented the context and development of her more advanced apocalyptic program, first in her preaching and finally in the lengthy final vision of her last work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (Bk. 3, Vis. 5).

Thus, while I have had the opportunity to make only cursory glances into the reception of Hildegard’s works in the later middle ages (noting, but not deeply exploring, such areas as her inclusion in standard collections of prophecies next to Joachim of Fiore, St. Cyril, Merlin, and the Sibyl; or her influence in the reformist ministries of the Wycliffites in England; or again, even her application to “the rise and fall of those firebrands of Europe, the Jesuits”), I have nevertheless had a very fruitful year exploring and familiarizing myself with Hildegard’s thought both generally and specifically apocalyptic, a necessary precursor to future work on her later influence.

Furthermore, the benefits to my professional development as an academic have been significant. I have spent the past 10 months learning an extraordinary amount of new information about my specific fields, deepening both my background knowledge and my facility and focusing and refining my understanding and interest within them. Furthermore, I have developed significant personal relationships with experts in my field. Finally, by swallowing my pride and admitting that I was ignorant of many of the important research tools and methods in my field, I have been able to learn from those same experts a great deal of the methodology and practical procedures that will be inherent in any future success I may have as an academic. Thus, as I head to the University of Notre Dame this fall to begin my work in the Masters / Ph.D. program at their Medieval Institute, I hope that the work I have done this year will form the intellectual foundation for my further study.

While my academic work was the primary focus of my year in Germany, I also want to reflect on my experiences outside of the classroom setting that have made this year both memorable and formative. Earlier in the year, during the height of the U.S. primary elections, one of the local newspapers interviewed me on what it was like to be living so far away during this historic election process. The newspaper was given my name by members of the Deutsch-Amerikansiche Gesellschaft, one of a number of various organizations and clubs that I have joined. Through these organizations, I have been able to attend lectures on topics such as the personal history of Henry Kissinger and his brother, Walter; the differences in the American and German school systems; the roots and history of anti-Americanism in Germany; and the lessons that Germany could learn in fighting terrorism from the British and their successful defeat of the IRA in Northern Ireland. Finally, I had the great fortune to be invited to attend a 3-day graduate symposium hosted by the University of Münster in April on the reception of classical culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

In the same vein as these activities, it is interesting to note my experinces from a civic perspective, and especially those that have clarified my understanding of myself as an American. Each time a German (or a person of another nationality) asks me about America, it forces me to step back and reevaluate and reconfirm my own understanding of the processes involved. Not only have such experiences clarified my own thinking, but I have also been able to give the people that I talk to a better and clearer understanding of our political process. My Fulbright experience has certainly added qualitatively to my understanding and appreciation for the diversity of modern-day worldviews and the interactions between them—in interesting comparison and contrast to my work within the medieval worldview—especially in regards to the relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Translating and relating my experiences as an American to the people with whom I interact on a daily basis has formed a principal crucible both for the alloying and also for the annealing of my own understanding of that experience.

Perhaps one of the most significant openings created by my interaction with Germans is the situation that results when they discover that I supported George W. Bush in 2004—I am usually the first American they have ever met that had done so. Very early on, I discovered that many Germans suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of U.S. politics that then leads to faulty, often tragic, conclusions. For example, the vast majority of Germans thought that both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 had a mortal lock on the U.S. elections; thus, when George W. Bush won each time, they were flabbergasted and unable to comprehend the result. As a result, many of their misconceptions of America and American culture were reenforced rather than dispelled.

Thus, in being able to openly explain and discuss the nature of U.S. politics, especially from a conservative perspective that is rarely presented to them in person, I have been able to honestly dispel the myths that are often at the root of anti-American conceptions among Germans. The key feature of this exchange is that I am able to offer a clear explanation of the U.S. political climate without the filter of spin-machines and the media. In thus providing a unmediated and, as it were, “common person” relation of my American experience, I have found that much of the distrust and outright hatred is quickly turned into common understanding. This is especially true when I am able to draw comparisons between U.S. politics and German politics that appear more clearly to me than they often do the Germans. (The problem, for which they are certainly not at fault and for which there may be no easy solution, is that Germans almost always view the U.S. political process merely from an international, foreign policy-based point of view; in thus neglecting the far more significant role that domestic issues play in the U.S. political process, they draw inherently faulty conclusions.) I have discovered that the role that American citizens play as unofficial ambassadors is often no more complicated than the simple explanation of and encounter with an actual American whose experiences are, in most significant ways, far more authentic, and therefore far more appealing, than the filtered reports of the international media.

Finally, I want to offer a brief and abbreviated comment on my spiritual growth this year. Better, perhaps, than anything I could write in this post now would be to take a look back through my blog posts throughout the year that have had significant spiritual components: The Difficult Mix of Religion and Politics Parts I and II, Making Saints, Puer Natus Est Nobis, Rome: Rediscovering a Personal Humanity, Pro-Life Prayer in Münster, and The Abbey of St. Hildegard. But to offer one final notice that is more than just a list of links, I should note that the sometimes bewildering but always fascinating journey that has been my academic relationship with Hildegard has left me more intrigued than ever by the medieval components of my own personal religion, whether they be those that still live on or those that have been lost. The question to ponder—that is, to accompany me long after I have posted this—is whether what has been lost was rightly jettisoned, or whether there would be something to be gained be reacquainting ourselves (or even just myself) with such traditions.

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