Questions for Christian Schmidt

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Dr. Christian Schmidt works as research associate and post-doc in the subproject, ‘vita mixta. A Clerical Concept Transformed for Lay Culture’.

„MußeOrte – weltweit“: In the SFB’s subproject G2 you look at the relationship between ‘vita activa’ and ‘vita contemplativa’ and how they are brought together in what is called ‘vita mixta’. Why are you interested in this term, ‘vita mixta’?

Christian Schmidt

Christian Schmidt: Our project is particularly interested in the question of how the concept of ‘vita mixta’ was transformed in the late medieval period and how it came to be applied to laymen as well. Church leaders such as Saint Gregory the Great developed the model for dignitaries of the church who also dealt with administrative matters. For them, withdrawing from the world completely was out of the question. Saint Gregory once said that a bishop must carry all the weaknesses of his neighbours in his active life, and rise above his neighbours and also himself in his contemplative life. A successful ‘vita mixta’ is composed of this balance between intense devotion to one’s fellow humans and transcending oneself in contemplation. Against the background of the late medieval church reform movement, in which the layman became a new leading figure of religious life, we see that this concept spread through different layers of society and became meaningful, for example, to merchants.

„MußeOrte – weltweit“: What role does otium play within this concept?

Christian Schmidt: Otium can come into play in these contexts in very different ways. In instructions for prayer and meditation, ‘muoze’ may appear in the sense of a time not filled with worldly business. ‘Muoze’ can also refer to the speed of reading, for example when it is advised to read meditation texts “mit guoter muoze”. These examples are comparatively easy to understand. However, one basic assumption of our project is that the distinction between ‘vita activa’ and ‘vita contemplativa’ itself is similarly intricate as otium, that is as the concept that paradoxically interprets leisure as “active inactivity”. All this becomes interesting when activity and contemplation start to overlap and produce faultlines.

„MußeOrte – weltweit“: Apart from temporality, what role do actual or conceptual spaces play in practices of ‘vita mixta’? Do real spaces have to fulfill particular structural or other requirements?

Christian Schmidt: Spaces and their semantics always play a role, but fulfilling specific structural requirements is not particularly relevant for our investigation. It is important to consider how external and internal spaces have a charged relationship. For prayer and contemplation, one’s inner disposition is considered important – this in turn is often described in architectural metaphors or allegories: Some texts talk about the “house of one’s conscience” or the building of “interior monasteries”. The idea expressed here is that of an inner seclusion that is independent from the actual outside space. Nevertheless there are quite a few texts that advise the readers to withdraw to a secluded space for prayer, the latin term for which is secretum orationis. How this space might look like was often left unsaid. One legal compendium for laypeople of the fourteenth century expressly permitted building a space for this purpose. The text speaks of “the prayer houses which some people make or have”. But the average layperson’s contemplative life took place in the church as well — and churches, of course, fulfil stricter structural requirements.

„MußeOrte – weltweit“: Do you see similarities between ‘vita mixta’ and contemporary practices of otium, for example mindfulness, as they are examined by the CRC?

Christian Schmidt: Yes, there are quite obvious parallels between contemporary and medieval practices. I would, however, argue these similarities lie in their structures rather than in their content and goals. The first parallel: meditation became a great trend in the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, there is a proper explosion of literature with regard to this area which persists well into the eighteenth century. With the current mindfulness movement we are experiencing — albeit in completely different media — perhaps something similar. The meditation app “Headspace” registers several million active users, for example. The late medieval meditation movement, as today’s trend, was concerned with forming habits or a way of life through mental practices that is not restricted to the practices themselves. Ideally, what happens is, as Jean Gerson says, that one is active in contemplation and contemplative in action. That is similar to those approaches of mindfulness which I know. Mindfulness is not limited to the structure of a specific practice, but should rather train a specific attitude that affects everyday life. We can compare these forms of instruction: many medieval meditation texts guide through meditation step by step by following a didactic concept – as do contemporary mindfulness exercises.

„MußeOrte – weltweit“: Surely, there are also limits to comparing contemporary and historical phenomena?

Christian Schmidt: Yes, without a doubt. The current trend of mindfulness presumes no religious world model and aims at intrinsic happiness, not salvation. Therefore, current mindfulness exercises have a very different relationship to the evaluation of thoughts, feelings, and behavior than late medieval meditation texts. Mindfulness today, as I understand it, is about deliberately observing, registering, and accepting thoughts and feelings without assigning value to them. That is not at all comparable to what occurred in medieval meditations. There, value judgements may mean the difference between life and death: thoughts can be sinful or not, and because sinful thoughts put salvation at risk, they must be avoided and controlled as much as possible. Feelings were specifically addressed and prompted: fear of hell and eternal damnation, compassion for Christ, love for God. The goal was to withdraw from the world, not merging with the world.

„MußeOrte – weltweit“: How does ‘vita mixta’ relate to the tensions between sociability and loneliness? Is it available in everyday life, or rather in exceptional situations?

Christian Schmidt: One reason why we are interested in the concept of ‘vita mixta’ is that it has to do with these types of relations — sociability and solitude, care for one’s neighbour and withdrawal for prayer, activity and rest, external and internal. All of these polar opposites can, to a certain extent, be associated with the difference between ‘vita activa’ and ‘vita contemplativa’. It becomes clear why these oppositions are not rigid, but rather can interact with one another.

„MußeOrte – weltweit“: Mr. Schmidt, thank you very much for this conversation!


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