In Praise of the Newer Knighthood

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Well, with all the controversy (here, here and here) over Plan B in Connecticut, and other distractions, I have dropped the ball a bit, but not entirely.

Since some can’t seem to get enough Templar stuff, whether baloney or a real cut of meat, here is some juicy red meat–something of substance about the spirit of the Knights Templar. It is a spirit that needs to be recaptured and perfected.

This article will end up with The Spirit of Lepanto, under “Further Reading” in the Knights of Lepanto section.


In Praise of the Newer Knighthood

In the early 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux responded to a letter from Hugh de Payens, one of the founders of the Knights Templar, in which he wrote “a few words of exhortation” for the fledgling brotherhood in arms. This response came in the form of a treatise entitled In Praise of the New Knighthood. This “new” kind of knighthood merits a newer kind of appreciation on the part of today’s Catholic man.

Monk-Soldier

What was novel about the Knights Templar and other military orders like it, was that it was not merely a military organization, but also a monastic community. In addition to providing military service, the knights of the order also professed the religious vows of poverty chastity and obedience, as well as observed a monastic contemplative life. Never before had soldiers also been monks, or monks also soldiers.

This combination of both monastic and military discipline produced an incredibly effective corps of Christian fighting men. So effective, in fact, that over time the Knights Templar would be considered too powerful for their own good, and eventually, in 1312, were suppressed by Pope Clement V.

Over the centuries much speculation has been focused on the virtues, vices of the medieval Templars. Conspiracy theories regarding the origin and end of the order are numberless, with the likes of the Freemasons, and Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code infamy, weighing in on what they claim to be the real story behind the Knights Templar.

Unfortunately, all the cloak-and-dagger nonsense overshadows the real virtue, and vices, of the Knights Templar. St. Bernard noted in his treatise the unique and praiseworthy combination of military and monastic virtue in the service of Christ. The real merit of the new knighthood was the truest kind of courage:

He is truly a fearless knight and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armor of faith just as his body is protected by armor of steel. He is thus doubly armed and need fear neither demons nor men. Not that he fears death–no, he desires it. Why should he fear to live or fear to die when for him to live is Christ, and to die is gain? Gladly and faithfully he stands for Christ, but he would prefer to be dissolved and to be with Christ, by far the better thing (c. 1).

The Church Militant

This new knighthood was like a double edged sword, both spiritual and temporal, engaged in both the interior struggle for the souls of men, and in the defense of civil life from external attack. What was really new about it though, was not so much the uniting of the spiritual and temporal, but the way in which joining the vocations of monk and soldier underscored the universal call of every member of the Church Militant to be a soldier for Christ.

It was the crusades in part that led to the establishment of the great military orders like the Templars. The latest historical research has shown that the effort to secure safe passage to the Holy Sepulcher was not a strictly military effort conducted by the nobility, but by people of every walk of life, and of every status, both men and women, and sometimes, regrettably, children. The impulse to express one’s devotion to Christ by undertaking a perilous adventure was universal, though generally inspired by great and courageous leaders. The formation of brotherhoods of monk-knights embodied this spirit.

Courage in the face of danger is what we expect, in a particular way, from men, and is instinctively what they want for themselves. Faith put into action, prayer translated into a stratagem for victory is necessarily the kind of dynamism that attracts men to practice of their faith. Ironically, in the West the crisis of faith has been met with an even more radical kind of feminism, and men continue to drop out of the practice of their faith like flies. Monday night football has become the religion of the secular man, and the recliner the place of worship.

Men of Prayer and Action

Every man, in a sense, needs to be both monk and knight, no matter what his vocation. Certainly, the priest or religious is more the monk than knight, and the father of a family more the knight than the monk, but contemplation turned into action is the bottom line for all men.

St. Maximilian Kolbe adopted the best of the military tradition into his Militia Immaculatae, approaching evangelization with the organizational skills of a military genius, engaging in apologetics and polemics, when necessary, and distributing the miraculous medal with the image of the Immaculate crushing the serpent’s head, calling it his “silver bullet.” He was concerned primarily with the spiritual battle, and so adopted primarily supernatural means, while not neglecting to use his natural skills.

On the other hand, St. Louis of France, while certainly a great man of God, had a vocation that required him to attend to the affairs of state, and to the protection and defense of the common good. He was a great man of prayer, a contemplative in his own right, but he was not confused about what ought to be his primary mode of action. On one occasion he dissuaded his seneschal and close friend John of Joinville from debating with heretics. He said: “A layman, as soon as he hears the Christian faith maligned, should defend it only by the sword, with a good thrust in the belly, as far as the sword will go.”

Of course, St. Louis’ combative words reflect the milieu of the 12th century, and are not to be imitated literally. Nor is the layman to be discouraged from confronting heretics with the reasoned arguments of apologetics. The point here is that, while clerics, religious men and laymen have different vocations, all of them need to translate prayer into action. Conflict is good for men, as long as they address it in both a courageous and honorable way. The peace that Christ promised is not the peace of the world. Our Lord rejected that peace in favor of the sword, and promised a peace that would only come at risk of facing great danger.

The Religion of Tolerance

We live in an age of unprecedented violence and hatred, manifested in so many ways, from international wars and terrorism to gang violence and abortion. Meanwhile, secularists formulate the resolution to this violence in terms of an absolute principle of tolerance. Every conflict in the world is reduced to the cause of intolerance. In other words, the most basic sin of man is to believe himself right and someone else wrong.

This is a fundamental deception into which many religious people have fallen. Attempts to silence opposition to the homosexual agenda with name calling (homophobe, bigot, etc.) are met with appeasement. Hence, the prohibition of preaching of the gospel is already a reality in places like Canada and England by means of anti-hate speech laws. Efforts in the United States on the part of anti-Catholic politicians to force Catholic hospitals to administer emergency contraception are met by a meek request to negotiate. It is ironic that the Roman Catholic Church, the greatest benefactor of the sick poor, ends up walking on eggs, when it is attacked by the secularists for its health care practices.

What are we thinking when we fail to stand our ground? Do we imagine that we are not in the middle of a battle? Winston Churchill spoke well when he said: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Why do we think we are acting charitably by doing nothing, when we know that future generations will suffer the consequences of our inaction?

Living Dangerously

But isn’t there something to be said for tolerance? Has not the Church in the last decades pleaded with Christians and nations to lower the levels of religious, ethnic and international tension? Hasn’t the way of St. Francis of Assisi, the man of peace, been urged upon the whole of Christendom? Of course, the answer is yes. But does that mean the Church Militant has disarmed herself? The answer to that is unequivocally no.

Gabriel Garcia Moreno was a 19th century Ecuadorian patriot and statesman, a daily communicant, an indefatigable defender of the rights of the Church, and an outspoken opponent of the Freemasons. He was eventually assassinated by his enemies. In a letter to Pope Blessed Pius IX a few years before his death he wrote:

What riches for me, Most Holy Father, to be hated and calumniated for my love for our Divine Redeemer! What happiness if your benediction should obtain for me from Heaven the grace of shedding my blood for Him, who being God, was willing to shed His blood for us upon the Cross!

Moreno can also be remembered for his sincere and efficacious clarion call to all men of good will: “Only the vile prefer treason to war, intrigue to the sword, infamy to death. To arms, therefore, to defend honor, sovereignty, and the nation.”

So this newer knighthood is a modern integration of intense prayer with courageous action. In matters of faith and morals, men need to have a good measure of fire in the belly, and this is where their prayer should lead them. All men are called to be both something of a monk and a knight. A good soldier should pray for victory or an honorable death. Either way, as St. Bernard says, he wins. Men are hard wired to take risks. No risk is more reasonably taken than in the defense of the faith and the common good.

Men of Peace

St. Bernard, the author of the praise of the monk-knights was a proponent of the great Benedictine tradition. The author of this present article is a Franciscan. It might be legitimately asked why a follower of the man of peace, St. Francis of Assisi, would be inclined to such a bellicose philosophy. St. Francis, in fact, offers us an important insight into chivalry and knighthood.

In the first place, St. Francis was desired before all else to lead a life patterned on the Gospel. In fact, Our Lord Himself puts it best when he rejects the peace the world brings, and promises a peace that only He can bring: Peace I leave with you: my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you (John 14:27). And elsewhere He says: Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword (Mat. 10:34). The sword of which he speaks is the one St. Paul writes of when he says: For the word of God is living and effectual and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow: and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 14:12). Our war is fought with the sword of truth for the salvation of souls.

This is perfectly compatible with the spirituality of St. Francis. Unfortunately, the great man of peace is often misrepresented by those with an agenda. Popular representations turn him into a “garden bird bath,” to quote an excellent Dominican preacher, or a hippie, anti-establishment peacenik. The former can easily become a caricature, and the latter has no relation whatever to the historical St. Francis.

St. Francis was often trying to restore peace to warring factions. He did not, however, preach a religion of tolerance—he preached the virtue of charity and patience as virtues among many others, yes, but he never made a religion of tolerance. In fact, the holy man of God was not beyond using a severe rebuke, or even upon calling down the wrath of God upon obstinate and belligerent factions.

Once when he was preaching in the square of Perugia a group of arrogant knights cantered their horses around him brandishing their swords. They treated him with contempt because he was from the rival city of Assisi. He let them know in no uncertain terms that they were playing with fire. He rebuked them for their pride and the injustice shown to their neighbors, and prophesied that unless both the general populace of the city and the knights repented, then strife would destroy them both. In fact, they did not listen and three days later a dispute broke out between the people and the knights which brought great devastation upon everyone’s fields, vineyards, and great evil among the people. St. Francis’ biographer tells us:

For blessed Francis would never remain silent when he preached on the sins of the people, but rebuked them all openly and boldly. But the Lord had endowed him with such grace that all who heard and saw him, whatever their rank and condition, felt a great fear and reverence for him because he possessed the grace of God in such abundance. So men were always edified by his words, however severely they were rebuked by him, and were either converted to God or pricked in conscience. (Legend of Perugia, 35).

This was the chivalric virtues of courage and courtesy at work.

The True Round Table

As a young man, St. Francis aspired to knighthood, perhaps inspired by the stories of Arthur and the Round Table. In his writings, as the founder of the Friars Minor, he once referred to the humble and faithful brothers who observed the rule as the “Knights of the Round Table.” He also would refer to the life of poverty that he embraced as “Lady Poverty,” after the manner of the chivalrous ideals that encouraged the knight to seek the honor of his lady.

Even though, as a young man in the world, he was wealthy, St. Francis did not have a title of nobility. However, he most certainly had nobility of spirit, and desired to acquire the honor of knighthood. This desire for honor and a deeper sense of what was true nobility was really about would eventually resolve itself in his love for Christ Crucified.

St. Francis was known for his great generosity. As a young man, he was called the “King of the Party,” because he so eagerly entertained his friends at his own expense. He also once divested himself of his costly raiment as a kindness to a poor knight. During Assisi’s war with Perugia he fought, was captured and imprisoned. His effort to win glory and perhaps knighthood did not go very far, but it did prepare the way for a higher way of nobility.

Eventually, St. Francis heard the voice of the Lord asking him: “Who can do more for you, the servant or the Master?” He answered: “The Master.” “Then why are you serving the servant?” That question changed everything. As he began to respond to the Lord’s urgings, he was given a vision of a great castle, where were hung upon the walls many shields as of a vast army. Our Lord promised him that he would be the leader of many knights.

In fact, the Franciscan way of life offered a corrective to excesses of military life. The ideal of chivalry promoted not only courage, honor and generosity, but also fidelity and courtesy. Unfortunately, knights often used their prowess and largesse in their own interests, abusing the poor and defenseless, whom they were duty bound to protect. Father Mark Elvins, writing in Second Spring, speaks eloquently on the way in which the charism of St. Francis purified the spirit of chivalry, indeed as Father Elvins puts it, that charism “inverted” or “reversed,” the values of chivalry:

By reversing the status of the knight, Francis found his new and spiritual knighthood, a chivalry suffused with the Gospel to replace the aristocratic propaganda of his age. This spiritual knighthood was not so much a system as a gradual discernment, as he viewed his hitherto privileged life in the light of faith, and sought to integrate it into the life of Christ, Celano describes how Francis consciously sought to exchange carnal weapons for spiritual ones, and worldly prowess for humbles service, making homage and fealty to the poor Christ, the King of Heaven (II Celano, 6) (“St. Francis and the Reversal of Chivalry,” Issue 2 – 2002. 22, 23).

All for One, One for All

The newer kind of knighthood, that is, the knighthood that is needed today in these most perilous of times, will only stand on the cutting edge of our culture. We need to practice all the virtues of chivalry. Courage and generosity without fidelity and courtesy just leads to pride and arrogance. Fidelity and courtesy without courage and generosity just leads to the false religion of tolerance. Nobility of title without nobility of life is just a self-centered sham. Virtue is one. The true knight has them all or none at all. “All for one, one for all” to use the musketeers’ motto analogously.

Today, the mystique surrounding the Knights Templar, the order which in its inception exemplified the “new kind of knighthood,” is attractive to many men who are looking for chivalry and transcendent values. Unfortunately, in that context Christian chivalry is often replaced with neopagan play acting and religious syncretism. This is not what St. Bernard was talking about.

Supernatural virtue and self-sacrifice are the basis of manly action, that is, prayer translated into action. This is no time for facile and extreme oversimplifications. We will be derelict of our duty is we seek peace at all costs; we we be no better than our enemies if we adopt their arrogant ways of acting. No, ours must be a newer kind of knighthood, one that is invested at the foot of the Cross, by the True Knight and His Lady, who though victims are victorious.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of the Newer Knighthood

  1. Hi Father,

    Excellent treatise on the new Knighthood. I especially appreciate your emphasis on the importance of all the virtues, not just one or a few, to accomplish true success in improving our society. The challenge for me is reconciling my career with fatherhood and being a Catholic knight. Hence, work in progress. The challenge for our culture is to appreciate this Christian wisdom. Unfortunately, there is such a negative bias towards religion especially the Catholic church that our world will cut off their nose to spite their face.
    In Christ,
    Tom

  2. Pingback: Franciscans and Chivalry « Mary Victrix

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