During my travels in Europe this year, I visited some medieval churches (blessed me) and in two of them noticed something that I had paid little attention to previously: demonic figures in the Romanesque capitels on the West side. No, this is not because I have suddenly turned my scholarly interests toward exorcisms or other apotropaic (i.e., evil-averting) ritual practices. Instead — and much more broadly — I have become interested in all other-than-human created beings, which populated worship life especially in pre-modern time. I am thinking here of everything from the heavenly hosts to the sparrow that builds her nest in the temple, the bee that provides the raw material for the Easter candle, and plants and stars and ice and snow that also raise their voices in praise and worship of their Creator.
Enter the devil. In the church of Notre-Dame in Dijon, Burgundy, and in the Benedictine Abbey church of Maria Laach in Germany, I discovered easily identifiable and prominently displayed devils on the West entrance of the church [and yes, I am aware of the significance of the location]. In Maria Laach, a small devil sits in a capitel above the portal, scribbling down sins. In Dijon, a fierce devil’s head sits above the Western portal inside the sanctuary, seemingly looking at the backs of the worshippers below. I hasten to add that these are only two tiny examples of a much broader phenomenon, of demonic figures displayed in visual art particularly in Romanesque churches.
I will refrain from digging deeper into how to think about the demonic in our own times here. Suffice it to say that I think the profound truth behind the symbol of the demonic is the insight that the world we inhabit is not a balanced, nice, harmonious one, but instead tilted toward destructive desires, and yes, evil. The Christian theological tradition points to this, inter alia, under the notion of original sin. Demonic figures in Romanesque and Gothic churches spell this out for the practice of worship.
Here, I want to use the notion of “threats” to worship more broadly and ask: if the demonic was seen as a threat to worship (and to life as a whole) in earlier centuries, then what threats do we construe for worship today? What do we want to guard against? Some often-invoked dangers easily come to mind: such as inattentiveness on the part of worshippers, or indifference on the part of the broader culture; bad presiding and/or preaching on the part of presiders; bad music or singing on the part of all; a lack of a sense of welcome in a parish community, etc. We may broaden these perspectives to identify wider cultural realities: racial stereotyping which does not stop at church doors; the demonization of LGBT struggles for equality; ecological degradation around the globe which cries to heaven.
Once again, I am not that interested here in the different lists that various people might generate, but rather in the deeper question of how these threats come to be identified in the first place? To put this differently: what do the threats we identify say about us and the world-views that shape us? For those who built the Romanesque and Gothic churches, evil that threatened worship was real, personal, and powerful. It had to be identified and constrained as one entered into God’s presence. I doubt that, over the last thousand years or so, evil has simply gone away, although we certainly have coded the presence of evil differently than our pre-modern ancestors did. The question I want to ask, in the face of medieval reminders of the demonic on church doors, is this: Do we – and how do we — struggle to contain evil as we enter into God’s presence? Or has liturgy become all too nice and comfortable a practice for it still to contend with notions of profound evil that threaten worship?