The Fellowship of the Beatific Vision: Chaucer on Overcoming Tyranny and Becoming Ourselves
by norm klassen
wipf and stock, 234 pages, $24
In times of political turmoil and civic unrest, the Church does well to cultivate ancient friendships. This is an old truth: Drawing strength from that great “democracy of the dead” has always been essential for the Church’s vitality.
Such friends shake us from the present and—as good friends do—remind us that we are perhaps not as special as we like to think. Nothing is new, not even the cultural shifts that, as Auden quipped, “hunt us out of life to play / at living in some other way.” Making the acquaintance of Camus or Shusako Endo, Cicero or Hannah Arendt, reminds us that tyranny and tyrants are common, and the Church will likely continue to confront both this side of the eschaton.
Such friends also nourish us for the present. They offer brief glimpses into how the broken people of God might better love a broken world, even one prone more to coercion and violence than to debate and forgiveness. If we’ll allow them, these friends act as our Virgilian guides for the current moment.
However, we are constantly curating our inner circles of acquaintances—even long dead ones. And in the formation of our cliques, we may miss out on the peculiar gifts of those we’ve cast aside. In this vein, then, Norm Klassen’s The Fellowship of the Beatific Vision provides a sustained (and convincing) plea that the Church should make some room for a new ancient friend: Geoffrey Chaucer.
You might, rightly, be thinking that the “father of English literature” cannot really be someone we’ve neglected. True enough. Klassen’s point is that Chaucer has been like that wickedly irreverent friend we turn to more for fun than for counsel. That The Canterbury Tales may be instructive for the twenty-first-century Church is an idea that flies under the radar of most readers, who see Chaucer merely as a fourteenth-century satirical portrait painter and nonjudgmental humanist. In other words: Chaucer is no Dante. Or so many critics would have us believe.
Klassen invites readers to consider that there is much more to this Middle English man of letters. Amidst the ribald jokes about codpieces and cuckolds, and titillating tidbits about forbidden trysts, lies a profound vision of the Church for the Church.
For starters, Klassen shows that in the General Prologue, Chaucer is doing much more than setting an English pastoral scene for a medieval storytelling competition. He is establishing a Christological structure of longing and fulfillment that undergirds, and thus unifies, a project most see as fragmentary and incomplete. The opening twelve lines (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,” through “Thanne longen folk to goon on piligrimages”) pull together all aspects of the shared, created world—from the four material elements, to the twenty-nine pilgrims—that find their being and significance sustained by the Creator in whom all pilgrimages participate.
The given, created world reveals itself as one in which natural longings—for food, knowledge, life, love—suggest a pervasive incompleteness; yet their temporary satisfaction suggests that there is also always a “more-ness” and plenitude to the world, which we never fully grasp. There is always more food and drink to be enjoyed, more knowledge to discover, more stories to tell, and more love to give to more things. Drawing on the theological work of Henri du Lubac, Hans Boersma, and Rowan Williams, among others, Klassen explains how the fact of this pattern is grounded in the Trinity, in which all material reality participates.
Better understanding this “sacramental” vision of the world—one Klassen is convinced underwrites The Canterbury Tales—helps us recover Chaucer from the postmodern irony so often projected onto him. “While the church is laughable to Chaucer,” Klassen writes, “he does not laugh in derision. He invites his audience and readers to share in the mirth of belief.” What is remarkable about the tales is less that the Church is filled with liars, cheats, egomaniacs, and murderers, but that in spite of all this, all in the Church continue to journey together to the same desired goal. It’s a reality as mystifying in the fourteenth century as it should be in the twenty-first.
Though recent critics applaud Chaucer for being a “nonjudgmental” poet of this world (and thus distinguishable from Dante), Klassen draws attention again to the fact that both Dante and Chaucer are animated by a “poetic of hope” rooted in the beatific vision. This shared vision, like salt on food or light on objects, does not erase distinctions; it enhances them. What we see in this light is how motley the pilgrims actually are; yet it is this unlikely fellowship “through whom the gospel shines.”
The ability of the pilgrims to hold together, Klassen emphasizes, is how the Church withstands the petty despots who pepper her history: “The church does not so much take up political questions as embody their true resolution.” While the Knight’s Tale tells of the demise of Creon the tyrant, it ends with ambiguity concerning whether or not Theseus will himself become just another tyrant. Immersed in the Greco-Roman world, the Knight’s Tale hints that the very best of rational humanism outside of Christ cannot ultimately fulfill our natural longing for temporal peace. The cycles of violence will continue ad infinitum.
Yet each time tyrants arise in the tales, Chaucer counteracts them with a story of the Incarnation (see The Miller’s Tale, the Clerk’s Tale, and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale). It is only within the Church, built upon the truth of the Incarnation, that true freedom from tyranny lies. It should be noted that the Church, as far as it is able to do so, resists both tyrannies of the state and of the individual. Chaucer’s is not a call to humanist self-actualization, but the recognition that the Church is made of creatures dependent in almost every way. We need a natural world for sustenance and shelter, and we need our communities—families, friends, strangers—to realize who we were made to be.
Although we occupy a different time and place than our friend Chaucer, we are a people no less laughable and in need of grace than his pilgrims. Our hope is hardly in the strong men who promise to make all things well for us, but neither is it in the ability of the Church’s members to remain pristine and holy individuals, apart from the fray and from the “time between the times.” Rather, our hope—the hope to which Chaucer points us—is that despite our aptitudes for self-deception, arrogance, violence, and idolatry, we will find a way to journey together, talking and even laughing along the way.
Doug Sikkema is managing editor of Comment magazine and a doctoral student at the University of Waterloo.