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On Pilgrimage with Shakespeare in Protestant England

Ken Colston on Shakespeare and the Treasury of Merit

Amassing Credit in the Treasure House of Merit
Ken Colston

Published in the May 2017 issue of The New Oxford Review as
On Pilgrimage with Shakespeare in Protestant England

Cultural practices die hard, thanks, in no small part, to the great poets. Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales immortalized the salvific impulse of medieval man to take a painful joy ride: “So priketh hem Nature in hir corages / Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” The impulse that stirred those hearts was the belief, tragically rejected by the fifteenth-century Protestant Reformers, that our acts of love create yet more love, that they and all our efforts may be offered as free salvific gifts to all of mankind, and that they may accrue to the benefit of others even in the next life. Such a belief binds us all together productively in work and leisure; without it, we are damned misers in our solitary self-love.

Medieval men traveled their short lives on pilgrimage, literal at times, metaphorical constantly. According to historian Eamon Duffy, as many as a hundred thousand pilgrims a year flocked to Canterbury alone before the English Reformation. Pilgrims’ badges found at Henry VI’s shrine at Windsor totaled nearly a third as many in fifty years as those found at Canterbury for Becket in three hundred years. Granted the abuses of lewdness, superstition, neglect of domestic duties, and “grace for sale,” the highest purposes of pilgrimages were to do penance for sin, to reawaken life in Christ or holiness, to ask for a special favor, and to gain an indulgence to remit the temporal effects of sin by drawing on and even adding to the “treasury of merit” of Christ and the saints. The pilgrim in John Heywood’s Four P’s (1543), the Catholic master of the interlude who fled to Belgium at the accession of Elizabeth, makes the traditional, commonsense claim: The “dayly payne” of the pilgrim will move God to mercy and thus “shall therby meryte more hyely / Then by any thynge done by man.” God’s merit is, of course, higher than man’s free penitential act, but the latter has consequence.

As we mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the tragedy now often celebrated as the triumph of individual conscience over the corrupt Whore of Babylon, it is essential to remember the enormous loss: The Reformation began, to put it theologically, as a denial of cooperative grace. Appalled that indulgences were traded like trinkets at a market, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their followers ossified their Augustinian theology and bound free will, junked the sacraments, ridiculed sacramentals, dethroned sacred Tradition, looted the treasure house of merit, emptied Purgatory, overbooked Hell, stripped the altars, whitewashed the icons, gagged the saints, grounded pilgrimages, muzzled prayer, and decapitated the Church. All this was aimed at suppressing the truth that man could add of his own pious efforts, or merit by good works done in true charity, an increase in sanctifying grace. The Reformation was a reign of spiritual terror.
Many of today’s Catholics do not understand cooperative grace, and so the Reformation has done serious damage even within the Catholic Church, particularly in the last fifty years, resulting in a de-emphasis of not only pilgrimages, purgatory, indulgences, vicarious atonement, and the communion of saints but also the salutary effects of praying the rosary, doing the works of mercy, cultivating cardinal virtues, practicing devotions, and offering up our own sacrifices at Mass.  The loss of an understanding of cooperative grace has starved the Body of Christ, weakened the will, cast aside intellectual freedom, devalued human acts, sapped motivation, robbed daily work of meaning, and stupefied the soul.  Where we once counseled the doubtful and admonished sinners, we now prescribe medication and deny personal culpability.
Cooperative grace is the notion that man may accept the invitation of God’s life and love (operative grace), use that grace, put it into action, and thereby add to sanctifying grace, or charity, through meritorious works.  This doctrine was worked out by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, denied by the Reformation, and defined by the Council of Trent.  Aquinas wrote the following:
grace is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating. For the operation of an effect is not attributed to the thing moved but to the mover. Hence in that effect in which our mind is moved and does not move, but in which God is the sole mover, the operation is attributed to God, and it is with reference to this that we speak of "operating grace." But in that effect in which our mind both moves and is moved, the operation is not only attributed to God, but also to the soul; and it is with reference to this that we speak of "cooperating grace." Now there is a double act in us. First, there is the interior act of the will, and with regard to this act the will is a thing moved, and God is the mover; and especially when the will, which hitherto willed evil, begins to will good. And hence, inasmuch as God moves the human mind to this act, we speak of operating grace. But there is another, exterior act; and since it is commanded by the will, as was shown above (Question 17, Article 9) the operation of this act is attributed to the will. And because God assists us in this act, both by strengthening our will interiorly so as to attain to the act, and by granting outwardly the capability of operating, it is with respect to this that we speak of cooperating grace. Hence after the aforesaid words Augustine subjoins: "He operates that we may will; and when we will, He cooperates that we may perfect." And thus if grace is taken for God's gratuitous motion whereby He moves us to meritorious good, it is fittingly divided into operating and cooperating grace.
habitual grace, inasmuch as it heals and justifies the soul, or makes it pleasing to God, is called operating grace; but inasmuch as it is the principle of meritorious works, which spring from the free-will, it is called cooperating grace. (Summa Theologicae I-II, q. 111, a. 2, emphases mine.)
Even while condemning the sale and efficacy of indulgences, Martin Luther at first accepted implicitly the notion of cooperative (also known as created grace) in his Wittenberg Thesis 44 (1517): “By works of love, love grows and a man becomes a better man.”  As Aquinas wrote, however, cooperative grace requires free will, which Luther explicitly denied only a year later in his Heidelberg Thesis 13 a year later: “҅Free will’ after the fall is nothing but a word, and as long as it is doing what is within it, it is committing deadly sin.”  Consequently, the human merit of works is denied, and they avail only to discipline the body, certainly not to add to the treasure house of merit to be administered by the Pope for the Body of Christ (“The Freedom of a Christian, 1520).  Having also denied free will after the fall (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, 2,5), John Calvin also denied the human merits of works: do they not “make void the Cross of Christ” who is “our only Redeemer?” (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, 6).
By contrast, the Council of Trent puts the word “merit” so strongly as to anathematize its denial in Canon 32 of the “Decree Concerning Justification” in 1547:
If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.
Today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it clearly but less confrontationally: “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.  Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life” (CCC, 2010).  This truth is the most audacious mystery of created grace: an act of love can be given even for another’s sanctification.
To see this former glory of Christendom and its tragic loss through heresy, it suffices to look at one prominent manifestation: penitential pilgrimage, condemned by Luther as “without value” and even “evil and seductive” (“An Appeal to the Ruling Class for Improving Christendom,” 1520) and by that most consequential heresiarch of the English-speaking Church, Thomas Cranmer, who in 1547 presented them as worse even than the idolatry of Israel in his “Homily of Good Works”:
Never had the Jews, in their most blindness, so many pilgrimages unto images, nor used so much kneeling, kissing, and censing of them, as hath been used in our time….Which sects and religions had so many hypocritical and feigned works in their state of religion, as they arrogantly named it, that their lamps, as they said, ran always over: able to satisfy not only for their own sins, but also for all other their benefactors, brothers and sisters of religion, as most ungodly and craftily they had persuaded the multitude of ignorant people: keeping in divers places, as it were marts or markets of merits; being full of their holy relics, images, shrines, and works of overflowing abundance ready to be sold.  And all things which they had were called holy,--holy cowls, holy girdles, holy pardons, beads, holy shoes, holy rules, and all full of holiness.
Cranmer’s objection to lamps running over and to satisfaction for sins of “all other their benefactors” stems precisely from the failure to acknowledge the reality of created grace.
Thomas Aquinas had explained why it is possible to apply good works to another, even to the dead, in his distinction between “congruous” and “condign” merit.  He argues that God rewards charity out of justice condignly and out of mercy congruently (ST I-II, q. 114, a. 3.)  One can merit for others only congruently: that is, it would be fitting for a merciful God to answer a prayer to the father (an “impetration”) from an adopted son, but it would not be unjust (ST I-II, q. 115, a. 6).
The Third of Elizabeth’s Injunctions of 1559 forbade such “works devised by man’s fantasies” as “wandering to pilgrimages, setting up of candles, praying upon beads or such like superstition”; the Twenty Third Injunction then demanded the destruction of “all shrines, coverings of shrines, all tables, candlesticks, trindals, and rolls of wax, pictures, paintings, and all other monuments of feigned miracles, so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass windows, or elsewhere, within their churches and houses.”  Such an obliteration, of course, was incomplete, as totalitarian attempts to expunge the past often are, and the pilgrimage system, of pardon and indulgence and created grace and shrines and relics and the treasure house of merit, remained alive in the heart of the faithful through the end of the sixteenth century, as can be seen in the working vision of William Shakespeare, that greatest English Catholic literary genius, like the yearning for private property in the hearts of Russians and Chinese and Cubans at the end of the twentieth.
As we know from Chaucer, medieval man and woman traveled their short lives on pilgrimage, literal at times, metaphorical constantly.  According to Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, as many as 100,000 pilgrims a year flocked to Canterbury alone before the English Reformation.  Pilgrims’ badges found at Henry VI’s shrine at Windsor (about which sainted monarch Shakespeare wrote three early plays and began his English history saga) totaled nearly a third as many in fifty years as those found at Canterbury for Becket in three hundred years.  Granted the abuses of lewdness, superstition, neglect of domestic duties, and “grace for sale,” the highest purposes of pilgrimage were to do penance for sin, to reawaken life in Christ or holiness, to ask for a special favor, and to gain an indulgence to remit the temporal effects of sin by drawing on and even adding to “treasury of merit” of Christ and the saints defined in Clement VI’s bull Unigenitus (1343).  The pilgrim in the Four P’s (1543) of John Heywood, the Roman Catholic master of the interlude, who fled for permanent exile to Belgium at the accession of Elizabeth, makes the traditional, common-sense claim: the “dayly payne” of the pilgrim will move God to mercy and thus “shall therby meryte more hyely/Then by any thynge done by man.”  God’s merit is of course higher than man’s free penitential act, but the latter has consequence.  
Try as they might, the Reformers could not erase the memory, and poets can be gentle resistance fighters against baleful ideologies.  Chaucer’s spiritual heir, now often secularized and misread as a modern nihilist, William Shakespeare bravely uses the suspect word “pilgrimage,” “pilgrim,” and “palmer” (a pilgrim to the Holy Land who returned with a palm branch as evidence of his journey), or variants of these words, at least 31 times throughout his work.  Most of these are mentioned with reverence or respect; a few are used scornfully, but by speakers we ourselves scorn, like the villainous Richard III or the hypocritical Angelo of Measure for Measure; sometimes they occur with an elevated sacramental sense.  Only an approving Catholic mind could have held this word affectionately so frequently on his linguistic palette, and only one who understood cooperative grace as the primum mobile of traditional Catholic devotions.  
Shakespeare’s happy association between pilgrimage and love goes back early in his career.  In Two Gentleman of Verona in the early 1590’s, the heroine Julia compares the journey that she shall make from Verona to Milan to follow and woo her beloved Proteus to a religious pilgrimage:
A true-devoted pilgrim is not weary
To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps;
Much less shall she that hath love’s wings to fly—
And when the flight is made to one so dear,
Of such divine perfection, as Sir Proteus.  (2.7.9-13)

Julia amplifies this juxtaposition of love and pilgrimage by comparing unanswered love to a river whose gentle current rages when stopped but moves productively when left unhindered:
But when his fair course is not hindered,
He makes sweet music with th’enamaled stones,
Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge
He overtaketh in his pilgrimage;
And so by many winding nooks he strays,
With willing sport, to the wild ocean.
Then let me go, and hinder not my course.
I’ll be as patient as a gentle stream,
And make a pastime of each weary step,
Till the last step have brought me to my love;
And there I’ll rest, as after much turmoil
A blessed soul doth in Elysium.  (2.7.27-38)
Here we have glimpses of the pilgrimage experience that leads the patient wanderer to the divine shrine of love, a “wild ocean,” where she can rest in the foretaste of the beatific vision as a “blessed soul.”  In the background of “sweet music” and “enameled stones” appear the happy associations of pilgrim sites, music, and devotional jewels bequeathed to the Church (and stolen by Henry and Elizabeth).
The same happy juxtaposition of romantic love and holy pilgrimage occurs famously and more completely in the first touch between Romeo and Juliet, a shared sonnet with a lingering quatrain:
Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.

Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged.
[Kisses her.]
Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo: Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.  [Kisses her.]
Juliet: You kiss by the book. (1.5.95-112)

In this joint exercise of collaborative lyric poetry breaking into public drama, we may see the full expression of a traditional Catholic yearning in both playwright and audience.  The kissing of a saint’s image becomes the first stirrings of romantic love, a combination that would have been blasphemous to a hard-line Protestant sensibility.  The incarnational vision trumps religious piety.  The human body is a “holy shrine.”  The kissing of the saints’ plastered hands on pilgrimage is likened to the first chaste kiss of a fleshly beloved.   “Mannerly devotion” does not forbid eros; human lovemaking can be a prayer to God.  The poetry above ends with an understanding of the theology of pilgrimage in purging the temporal effects of sin: “my sin is purged.”  As in Pope Emeritus Benedict  XVI’s Deus Caritas Est, eros and agape are not opposed.
The penitential aspect of pilgrimage emerges in several other Shakespeare’s plays.  In the history cycle, pilgrimage offers a kind of metonymical expiation for the collective sins of unjust usurpation and political misrule.  Richard II wishes to be quit of rule and, like Spain’s Philip II in his Escorial, live a post-royal life of penitence:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage;
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown;
My figured goblet for a dish of wood;
My scepter for a palmer’s walking –staff…. (3.3.146-150)

The theme of pilgrimage is heavy in this play that launches the cycle of civil war.  Reacting to Richard II’s truncation of his cousin Bolingbroke’s banishment from ten to six years, John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, makes reference to the medieval Christian topos of life as a weary pilgrimage in a couplet:
Thou canst help time furrow me with age,
But stop no wrinkle in his pilgrimage.  (Richard II, 1.3.228-229)
Bolingbroke himself refers to his exile as a “vow[ed] long and weary pilgrimage” (1.3.49) and an “enforcèd pilgrimage” (1.3.263), foreshadowing the penitential vow he makes at the end of the play:

I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand. (5.6.49-50)

Henry IV’s pilgrimage never comes off, a personal regret of the King and a source of the War of the Roses for England.  In the Catholic economy of penance, however, sin, though redeemed by Christ’s meritorious sacrificial redemption, must be paid off by a penitential work by the sinner or by prayers for him.  At the end of Act IV, Henry IV learns that he will die, not in the Holy Land, but in the Jerusalem Room of Westminster Abbey, a bitter, ironic consolation that bears no succor for England and her crown:
It hath been prophesied to me many years
I should not die but “in Jerusalem,”
Which vainly I supposed to be the Holy Land.
But bear me to that chamber; there I’ll lie.
In that “Jerusalem” shall Harry die. (Henry IV, Part 1, 4.4.236-240)

The irony of this speech is completely lost unless one assumes the Catholic understanding of pilgrimage.  It will not do to ascribe to Shakespeare the mere intent to infuse his drama about the pre-Tudor kings distant and safe historical color, for he adds an unnecessary element that would have been controversial at least and perhaps even suspect to the religious and political authorities of his own day.  Why would he take such a risk?  Certainly to endow his drama with a moral depth that the historical chronicle did not reach, a moral depth that betrays the leaning in his own religious heart: the Counter-Reformation reassertion of commonsensical Catholicism that the sinner should pay for his sin with some penitential action of his own, the lack of which undermines the triumph of Bolingbroke’s son Henry V.  After victory at Agincourt and the marriage with France, England suffers the War of the Roses.  Richard Plantagenet, acting like a villainous foreshadowing of his own evil son Richard III, executes Mortimer, ironically likening his shortened death to a penitential pilgrimage:
In prison thou hast spent a pilgrimage,
And like a hermit overpassed thy days. (Henry VI, Part 1, 2.4.116-117)

Plotting to seize power from Henry VI, this same Richard, Duke of York, sarcastically repeats the insult to the King’s face, once again revealing Shakespeare’s and his Catholic audience’s understanding of the unpaid-for sin of Cain blighting English history:
Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer’s staff,
And not to grasp an awful princely scepter.  (5.1.97-98)

A pilgrimage is a primary, public, and dramatic means by which a Catholic ay atone for sin, and, as it was in Protestant England, it is unachieved in Shakespeare’s history cycle and unmistakable to the audience.  In the final installment of this saga, Henry V, though following Richard II chronologically, Bolingbroke’s son Hal has made a penitential payment on his father’s (and his own) crimes, attempting to avoid the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons:
I Richard’s body have interred new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their wither’d hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chauntries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul.  More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.  (4.2.295-305)
Stephen Greenblatt takes Shakespeare to be saying here through Henry V that these “expiatory rituals” are “worthless,” but a more orthodox reading is possible: the monarch acknowledges in humility that ultimately the work of pardon is the infinite God’s, in comparison with the piddling finite works of man.  Contrite tears, proper burial rites, priests singing masses for the dead in chantry, these works are nothing unless they are accompanied by a penitent heart that “comes after all,” and the King here recognizes that his own is holding something back although the works are paid.  Thus, it is not that the works are empty in se; rather, according to the classic understanding, they are empty without true penitence.  The passage in fact illustrates Shakespeare’s ability to represent Catholic orthodoxy without upsetting Protestant sensibilities.  It perhaps even summarizes Shakespeare’s final take on English history: the Protestant ending of the works system has left England unabsolved and riven by strife.
In All’s Well That Ends Well, the heroine Helena, rejected by her selfish husband Bertram whom she has captured in marriage by means of her dead physician father’s pharmacy, surprisingly decides to go on a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela to amend her faults “with sainted vow,” and she finds refuge in an inn named “Saint Francis.”  Her fault is failing to respect the freedom of her beloved; infatuated with the son of her mistress, she doesn’t woo this man above her rank but captures him by forcing his sick king to order their marriage as a payoff for her remedy of his fistula.  Pilgrimage is her penance for both her sin and their marriage.  In fact, the pilgrimage, understood not merely as a plot device to absent Helena from the scene but also as a means of purifying character (her own, which critics often read as too pure for her cad of a husband, and his), helps overcome the largest critical objection of the play: he doesn’t deserve her faithful love, and she is above him in moral value but below him in rank.  Pilgrimage has achieved its end of penance, and in this case, through the loving congruent merit of an imperfect character yet in a state of grace, it works also by surrogacy or substitution, the aspect most detested by Protestants, banking on the credit amassed in the treasure house of merit.  Shakespeare seems theologically aware of this Catholic distinction, for early in Henry IV, Part 2 the King’s protector Gloucestor claims that he dealt with criminals out of “pity” and never gave them “condign punishment” (3.2.125, 130). The Jewess Jessica employs the dangerous Catholic category of condign merit when she describes Portia as a heavenly lady who rewards Bassanio’s virtue by marrying him:
It is very meet
The Lord Bassanio live an upright life,
For having such a blessing in his lady,
He finds the joys of heaven here on earth. (3.5.75-78)
Shakespeare curiously avoids even the medieval satire of pilgrimage by, for example, his predecessor Chaucer.  In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, his pardoner, the traveling indulgence salesman, carries up the rear of the retinue, dead last, an effeminate hairless fraud who eschews his pilgrim’s hood to display his smooth, waxen, locks of hair like yellow flax, scamming peasants with such improbable relics as a piece of the sail of St. Peter’s boat or of St. Veronica’s veil, his wallet “bretfoul of pardoun comen from Rome,” his voice pitched to sing an offertory in order to win silver (ll. 669-714).   Nor is there anywhere in Shakespeare mention of the potential for fraud at pilgrimage sites lampooned even by that champion of orthodoxy Thomas More, about whom also Shakespeare perhaps wrote a play.  In the Dialogues, More speaks of such tricks as false miracles of healed blindness or lameness or cult practices as impotent males passing their afflicted members through rings.  Nor is there ever a hint of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s satire of pilgrimages, who in his Perigrinatio religionis ergo (“A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake”) of 1526, translated into English in 1536 and perhaps read by Henry VIII, mocks such relics as the breast milk that nourished the infant Jesus on display at Walsingham and the thievery of beggars at Canterbury. The ultra-orthodox and highly popular Thomas à Kempis also warned against pilgrimages made “with little inclination toward amendment of life,…hurriedly,” without “true contrition.”
Shakespeare’s most poignant use of the word “pilgrimage” as a purgative journey occurs in King Lear, a play in which he is battling most mightily to create a modern theodicy to answer the assertion of nihilism.  It comes in Edgar’s report of his father Gloucester’s death.  Gloucester had learned from Edgar himself that his natural son had not in fact betrayed him:
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him our pilgrimage. (5.3.184-185)   
Edgar and Gloucester had hobbled, in fact, in a southwesterly direction that the audience back in London would have instantly seen as walking approximately in the direction of England’s most famous pilgrimage destination, Canterbury.  Their metaphorical pilgrimage of a father and son returning to each other is thus also a literal pilgrimage once walked by England’s Catholic masses, now forbidden.  When you remember Edgar’s naked exile on the stormy heath, parallel to Lear’s, and subsequent restoration to his father’s grace, parallel to Cordelia’s, (emblematic of Everyman’s), you realize that the word here, in a play usually read now as nihilistic, is more than a word about a banned devotional practice.  It comes from a deeply Catholic understanding of grace, one that, alas, has been forgotten by many Catholics today, but it remains very much alive in Shakespeare’s plays.
And even if the Reformation has executed cooperative grace in our Christendom, this common-sense mustard seed can still heal our hearts and those of others, in works of mercy, devotional prayer, acts of sacrifice, penitential practices, gestures of forgiveness, kind words, generous thoughts, sensory mortification, and sacramental trips, all these like tear drops shed into what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has called “the infinite ocean of Love.”