In the darkness of the Dark Ages (about 500 ad to about 800 ad), God was presented to the people by the bishops and clergy as a fearful, veiled mystery, off in the distant darkness, angry, brooding and vengeful. God was presented more like a vicious teenager than a loving creator. It kept people afraid, and when people are afraid, they pay their tithes and sin less. Or perhaps get caught sinning less.
Not much changed in the Middle Ages (about 800 ad to 1500 ad) except that the systems the church put in place to dominate and gain wealth were working like a charm. Clergy and Bishops wore silks and jewels while the peasants starved and worked themselves, literally, to death in order to pay monastery land rents. But still, the darkness was frightening to people who lived in windowless huts of mud and stick with beef tallow for stinky, smoky light and nightly rations of weak stew. For a harvester of wheat, a loaf of bread was a year’s income.
Then, one thing changed the world.
In Italy, in the 14th century, the second Black Plague arrived from the Crimea on a ship, on fleas, on black rats. It killed as many as 60% of Europeans. So, in a family of 10, six would be dead. Take a look at a family photo on your wall and think about that for a moment. And then consider that this plague followed the great famines of the previous century.
The clergy used the famine and the plague to further frighten the people. They paid even more tithes and the church became even more rich. These were times in which people were taught that if a mother prayed while boiling an egg, God would tell her when it was done. By telling people that everything that happened was the result of God’s blessing or anger, the people were simultaneously convinced that whatever they could do to please this angry God who spoke through clergy sacraments, the better.
The Black Plague of the 14th century changed most of the world forever. The illness began to infect the clergy. The illness began to kill the bishops.
And the people noticed.
And the people wondered to themselves “Is all this fear about God’s vengeance true?”
The religious, social and economic upheavals brought to the world by the Black Plague of the 14th century ended the Dark and Middle Ages and so began the Renaissance. Art gave previously flat images of spirituality a dimension for the first time. And it was in this era that people with courage began to fight back against the church. Sure heretics and questioners in the Inquisition and other trials were burned at the stake like Joan of Arc. But those burnings became a much more shrill response of the Church to dissenters. The church began to lose its ground of fear as science and freedom-of-thought and her printing presses began to grind out superstition.
We are in another such time of transition. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Generations X, Y and Z were quietly leaving the church. By 2,000 and, for the first time in the 2,000 years of the Church, three generations in a row were staying home and no longer paying tithes much to their parent’s annoyance and confusion.
From that point, like global warming, it was just a matter of math.
The image above was taken on Whidbey Island, where I live as a fundraiser and potter and writer. My friend, Neil Dickie, captured the setting sun as the last few kayakers were ending their day of exploring the Salish Sea.
We no longer huddle in fear as the sun sets, worried about angels and demons – except those which live within us. We no longer pray for God to help us boil eggs. We no longer bow or cross ourselves when we pass a member of the clergy. We no longer fear God’s wrath if we don’t give to fund clergy lifestyles, bishop’s expense accounts and heat in massive, empty buildings six days a week.
The Renaissance was a time of tremendous creativity and liberation. People invented new ways to treat diseases, new ways to defund the church, new ways to live without fear and yet, still made ways to be together in new groups. It changed the world; and it took a plague to birth the change.
We do not know what this 21st century plague will bring, long-term. We do not know how it will effect the church and its communicants. We do not know how it will inspire new spiritual practices in the comfort of our own homes, forests and beaches. We do not know if enough people will go back to attending and paying for church. However, after three world-wide plagues and three “ages” we are soon to find out.
As for me, I am going DIY with my spirituality. I am seeking community among potters and friends. I am buying books to figure out God on my own, asking no permission from bishops and clergy. I am seeking “spiritual cleanliness” no longer from priest-provided-sacraments on behalf of an angry God, but rather finding my own rituals, self-created on behalf of a hilarious, beautiful God who loves and creates with such ferocity that this God has little time for discipline-by-illness or canon.
God did not send the pandemic, but God wades into it with us. And like parents watching their children succeed and fail, winces at our pain and delights in our new creations. Does God love the bishops and clergy? Sure. But no more than the other humans on this planet. No. Not a bit more.
I have a vision of an age in which we no longer pay people to show up at our bedside in hospital with water, wine, bread, oils and crosses. I have a vision in which we self-organize and do that ourselves for each other. It is a vision in which nobody preaches at me, but rather, God invites me to interpret for myself. It is a vision of dogma-free Sunday mornings in pajamas with friends and family making pancakes and laughing or in hiking boots on a beach.
It is a new day. It is a new era. It is a new political administration. It is a new vaccination and … it is a new super-virus. The days of bowing and scraping before processing clergy and bishops is over. I’ll never kiss another purple ring.
It is a new day. There will be a new kind of DIY church. And the darkness will not overcome it.
The Daily Sip is a series of short-form essays written by Charles LaFond, a potter, writer, and fundraiser; who lives with his dog Sugar on a cliff, on one of the more than 400 islands in the Salish Sea, pondering and writing about how to be a better human, but often failing. And sometimes not.