Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Contemplative Christianity in the 13th and 14th Centuries: Latin West

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(click image to view in high resolution)

HERE we extend the previous timeline forward to the 13th and 14th centuries.
Legend: Olive = Benedictine; Light green: Cistercian; Purple: Dominican; Orange = Carthusian; Dark blue = Augustinian; Light blue = Other.

Recommended Reading

Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Liturgical Press, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200−1350). (Vol. 3 of B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.) New York: Crossroad, 1998.

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Hugh of St. Victor: Noah’s Ark as an Allegory for Contemplation

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Art: (c) Conrad Rudolph

the ark is the secret place of our own heart

IN THE early High Middle Ages, before Scholasticism arose to dominate Christian theology, the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris was a leading intellectual center. Some work performed there built on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (translated into Latin two centuries earlier) to develop what we might call a science of contemplation, laying important groundwork for later Christian mysticism. Allegorical interpretation of Scripture supported this. Hugh of St. Victor’s (c. 1096–1141) exegesis of the story of Noah’s Ark is an example.

Philo (Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.89−2.78) and St. Ambrose (De Noe et Arca; PL 14.361−416) had, much earlier, allegorically interpreted the story of Noah and the Ark. In the light of these writings, the story emerges as a far more subtle and relevant myth than people ordinarily suppose. It’s very important to attend to specific details — such as the ark was three stories high, had a window and door, and that Noah first sent out a raven.

According to art historian Conrad Rudolph, Hugh lectured on the topic using a large, 10-foot square painting summarizing the symbolism. The figure shown above is Rudolph’s reconstruction.

Now the figure of this spiritual building which I am going to present to you is Noah’s ark. This your eye shall see outwardly, so that your soul may be fashioned to its likeness inwardly. You will see there certain colours, shapes, and figures which will be pleasant to behold. But you must understand that these are put there, that from them you may learn wisdom, instruction, and virtue, to adorn your soul. …

The third [ark] is that which wisdom builds daily in our hearts through continual meditation on the law of God. …

[W]hoever makes it his endeavour to cut himself off from the enjoyment of this world and cultivate the virtues, must with the assistance of God’s grace erect within himself a building of virtues three hundred cubits long in faith of Holy Trinity, fifty cubits wide in charity, and thirty cubits high in the hope that is in Christ, a building long in good works and wide in love and lofty in desire, so that his heart may be where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. …

If, then, we have begun to live persistently in our own heart through the practice of meditation, we have already in a manner ceased to belong to time; and, having become dead as it were to the world, we are living inwardly with God. We shall then easily make light of anything that fortune brings upon us outwardly, if our heart is there fixed where we are not subject to change, where we neither seek to have again things past, nor look for those to come, where we neither desire the pleasant things of this life, nor fear things contrary. Let us therefore have right thoughts, let us have pure and profitable thoughts, for of such material we shall build our ark. These are the timbers that float when they are put into the water and burn when placed in the fire; for the tide of fleshly pleasures does not weigh down such thoughts, but the flame of charity enkindles them. …

As we have said before, the ark of the flood is the secret place of our own heart, in which we must hide from the tumult of this world. But because the feebleness of our condition itself prevents our staying long in the silence of inward contemplation, we have a way out by the door and window. The door denotes the way out through action, the window the way out through thought. The door is below, the window above, because actions pertain to the body and thoughts to the soul. That is why the birds went out through the window and the beasts and men through the door. …

But the fact that the door is situated in the side denotes that we must never leave the secret chamber of our heart through our own deliberate choice, but only as necessity may happen to demand. …

But the fact that the door is situated in the side denotes that we must never leave the secret chamber of our heart through our own deliberate choice, but only as necessity may happen to demand.  …

Now we go out by action in four ways. For some actions are carnal those, that is to say, which are concerned with physical need; others are spiritual, and are concerned with the instruction of the mind. Good men and bad go forth for both. Those who are enslaved to the outward fulfilling of their lusts are like the unclean animals that went forth from the ark. Those, however, who discharge them from necessity are animals indeed, but clean. …

Eve ‘saw that the tree was pleasant to the eyes, and was good for food, and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat’. Those who in this way issue forth through thought are like the raven which did not return. For when they find outside what gives them evil pleasure, they never want to come back again to the ark of conscience. …

The other three kinds of contemplation, however, are symbolized by the going forth of the dove who, when she was sent out and found no rest for her foot, returned at evening carrying in her mouth an olive branch in leaf. She went out empty, but she did not return so. For she found outside that which she did not have within, although the thing that she brought in she did not love outside. The olive branch in leaf denotes a good state of soul.

Source: Hugh of St. Victor, De arca Noe morali. In: Hugh of St. Victor: Selected Spiritual Writings, Translated by a religious of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin,  Harper, 1962.  [ebook].

Latin: Hugh of Saint-Victor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, vol. 176. Paris, 1854. Cols. 618−680.

Art:  Rudolph, Conrad. The Mystic Ark: Hugh of Saint Victor, Art, and Thought in the Twelfth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Richard of St. Victor, The Ark of the Covenant as an Allegory for Contemplation

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IN THE 12th century the Abbey of St. Victor outside Paris was a major teaching center. One dominant interest there was to develop a science of contemplation, drawing on such sources as St. Augustine, the Benedictine monastic tradition, and Pseudo-Dionysius. Allegorical interpretation of Scripture reached an advanced level. Richard of St. Victor (1110?−1173), for example, wrote a treatise on contemplation in the form of an exegesis of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25. This is variously called Benjamin Major, The Mystical Ark, and The Grace of Contemplation. His writings profoundly affected subsequent Christian mysticism, including Bonaventure, the Rhineland mystics, and Spanish mysticism.

At the end of The Mystical Ark, Richard supplied a helpful recapitulation of the entire work, including a summary of Ark symbolism:

By the tabernacle of the covenant we understand the state of perfection.
Where perfection of the soul is, there also is the habitation of God.
The more the mind approaches perfection, the more closely it is joined in a covenant with God.
However, the tabernacle itself ought to have an atrium around about it.
By atrium we understand discipline of the body; by tabernacle we understand discipline of the mind. …
No person knows what belongs to the inner person except the spirit of humanity that is in him.
The habitus of the inner person is divided into a rational and an intellectual habitus.
The rational habitus is understood by the exterior tabernacle, but the intellectual habitus is understood by the interior
tabernacle.
We call the rational sense that by which we discern the things of ourself;
In this place we call the intellectual sense that by which we are raised up to the speculation of divine things. …
A person enters into the first tabernacle when he returns to himself.
A person enters into the second tabernacle when he goes beyond himself.
When going beyond himself surely a person is elevated to God.
A person remains in the first tabernacle by consideration of himself; in the second, by contemplation of God. …
In the atrium of the tabernacle was the altar of burnt offering.
In the first tabernacle were the candelabrum, the table, and the altar of incense.
In the interior tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant.
The exterior altar is affliction of the body; the interior altar is contrition of the mind.
The candelabrum is the grace of discretion; the table is the teaching of sacred reading.
By the Ark of the Covenant we understand the grace of contemplation.
On the exterior altar the bodies of animals were burned up; by affliction of the body carnal longings are annihilated.
On the interior altar aromatic smoke was offered to the Lord; by contrition of heart the flame of celestial longings is
kindled.
A candelabrum is a holder for lights; discretion is the lamp of the inner person.
On the table bread is placed; by it those who are hungry may be refreshed.
However sacred reading certainly is the refreshment of the soul.
An ark is a secret place for gold and silver; the grace of contemplation lays hold of the treasury of celestial wisdom.
Good working pertains to the exterior altar.
Zealous meditation pertains to the candelabrum.
Sacred reading pertains to the table.
Devoted prayer pertains to the interior altar.

Source: Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

Latin: Richard of Saint-Victor, Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, vol. 196, cols. 191−202, ed. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855.

St. Bonaventure: Contemplation of Creation’s Sevenfold Splendor

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FROM these visible things, therefore, one rises to consider the power, wisdom and goodness of God as existing, living, intelligent, purely spiritual, incorruptible and unchangeable.  This reflection can be extended according to the sevenfold properties of creatures — which is a sevenfold testimony to the divine power, wisdom and goodness — if we consider the origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, fulness, activity and order of all things.

1. The origin of things, according to their creation, distinction and embellishment, as the work of the six days, proclaims the divine power that produces all things from nothing, the divine wisdom that clearly distinguishes all things, and the divine goodness that lavishly adorns all things.

2. The magnitude of things, in the mass of their length, width and depth; in their great power extending in length, width and depth as appears in the diffusion of light; in the efficiency of their operations which are internal, continuous and diffused as appears in the operation of fire — all this clearly manifests the immensity of the power, wisdom and goodness of the triune God, who by his power, presence and essence exists uncircumscribed in all things.

3. The multitude of things in their generic, specific and individual diversity in substance, form or figure, and efficiency — beyond all human calculation clearly suggests and shows the immensity of the three previously mentioned attributes in God.

4. The beauty of things, in the variety of light, shape and color in simple, mixed and even organic bodies such as heavenly bodies, and minerals (like stones and metals), and plants and animals clearly proclaims the three previously mentioned attributes.

5. The fulness of things by which matter is full of forms because of seminal principles, form is full of power because of its active potency, power is full of effects because of its efficiency, clearly declares the same attributes.

6. The activity, multiple inasmuch as it is natural, artificial and moral, by its manifold variety shows the immensity of that power, art and goodness which is “the cause of being, the basis of understanding and the order of living”

7. The order in duration, position and influence, that is, before and after, higher and lower, nobler and less noble, in the book of creation clearly indicates the primacy, sublimity and dignity of the First Principle and thus the infinity of his power. The order of the divine law, precepts and judgments in the book of Scripture shows the immensity of his wisdom. And the order of the divine sacraments, benefits and recompense in the body of the Church shows the immensity of his goodness. In this way order itself leads us most clearly into the first and highest, the most powerful, the wisest and the best.

Whoever, therefore, is not enlightened by such splendor of created things is blind;
whoever is not awakened by such outcries is deaf;
whoever does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb;
whoever does not discover the First Principle from such clear signs is a fool.

Therefore, open your eyes,
alert the ears of your spirit,
open your lips
and apply your heart

so that in all creatures you may see, hear, praise, love and worship, glorify and honor your God lest the whole world rise against you. For because of this the whole world will fight against the foolish.  On the contrary, it will be a matter of glory for the wise, who can say with the Prophet: You have gladdened me, Lord, by your deeds and in the works of your hands I will rejoice. How great are your works, Lord! You have made all things in wisdom; the earth is filled with your creatures.

Source: Cousins, Ewert H. (tr.). Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God. Paulist Press, 1978; pp. 64−68.

Latin: S. Bonaventurae, Itinerarium mentis in Deum 1.1. In: S. Bonaventurae opera omnia, Vol. V, Fathers of the Collegii S. Bonaventura (eds.), Florence: Quaracchi, pp. 295-316.

 

 

Contemplative Christianity from the 9th Through 12th Centuries: Latin West

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THIS simple timeline highlights the gap in Christian theology between Eriugena (9th century) and the flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries. The intervening period was the late Dark Age – when Europe was beset by invading Huns, Vikings and Moors. Contemplation was a topic of major concern for virtually all of these figures.

Legend:  Green = Benedictine; Orange = Carthusian; Dark blue = Augustinian; Light blue = Other.  (Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry later became Cistercians.)

Another gap occurred between Boethius (477–524 AD) and Eriugena in the early Dark Ages. Eriugena was part of the brief oasis of civilization called the Carolingian Renaissance (named after Charlemagne).

In response to a request, here is the timeline extended back to Boethius:

(click image to view in high resolution)

Recommended Readings

Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Liturgical Press, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century. (Vol. 2 of B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.) New York: Crossroad, 1994.

Contemplation: From Plato to the Victorine Mystics

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REMARKABLY, the influential 12th century mystics/theologians of the School of Saint-Victor in Paris developed a sophisticated and fundamentally Platonic system of contemplation, but without (except for part of the Timaeus) direct knowledge of Plato’s writings. All was pieced together from St.  Augustine, the Benedictine tradition and Pseudo-Dionysius — with exegetical borrowing from Saints Ambrose and Jerome. But uniting everything one senses a high degree of skill and experience with contemplation by the Victorines. The synthesis and systematization, unlike later Scholasticism, is not forced or overly rationalistic. It’s a harmonious integration of experience and dialectical reasoning.

Bibliography

Hugh of Saint-Victor. Selected Spiritual Writings. Translated by a religious of C.S.M.V. London: Faber, 1962.  [ebook].

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.

On the Six Levels of Contemplation – Richard of Saint-Victor

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Seraphim, Petites Heures de Jean de Berry (14th century)

CHRISTIAN mystics have an elaborate system for classifying contemplative experience. In fact, possibly it’s too systematized; at least I personally have never been able to fully understand it. Accordingly, I’d like to de-mystify (no pun inteded) things by going back early in the tradition, to when this effort to classify and arrange experiences was getting started: systematized, but perhaps not overly so.

To begin then, in the 12th century, Richard of St. Victor proposed a classification of contemplative experience into six ascending grades. The six forms of contemplation are associated with the six winged seraphim in Isaiah’s famous vision (Isaiah 6:1–3). His system strongly influenced St. Bonaventure, who, a century later proposed his own six-fold classification of contemplative experiences.

Richard’s classification is not simply derived from experience (i.e., phenomenological observation), but also relies on a theoretical premise. Specifically, he sees the human mind as having three divisions: (1) sense perception and sensory imagination; (2) discursive reasoning or ratiocination (Latin: ratio; Greek: dianoia); and (3) pure intellection (i.e., immediate intuitive grasp; Greek: noesis). From this three-fold division he derives his six ascending grades of contemplation, as follows:

  1. Sense experience alone. Example: contemplating natural beauty for its own sake; a purely aesthetic experience.)
  2. Sense experience combined with reasoning. Example: contemplating natural beauty, and then thinking about what it implies (e.g., a providential and wise Creator).
  3. Reasoning guided by imagination. Example: admiring a flower and considering how its unfolding petals correspond to human mental development.
  4. Reasoning alone. Example: noticing some process within ones own mind, and that leading to some further self-insight.
  5. Insight above, but not contrary to ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that conforms to logic.
  6. Insight above and contrary to or completely uninterpretable by ratiocination. Example: an insight into some aspect of God’s nature or being that is beyond or contradicts logic.

This discussion appears in The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major) 1.6.

The arrangement is systematic, but not overwhelmingly so. He emphasizes that contemplation is something fluid and dynamic. That is, during contemplation the mind moves freely among these levels. He likens things to a hawk or kestrel that flies higher or lower, sometimes hovering, sometimes diving, sometimes returning for a second look, and so on. This is an intriguing analogy not only because of its aptness, but also because it’s likely an insight derived from his own contemplative practice (level 3 contemplation).

In Book 5 he supplies another classification concerning contemplation at the highest levels, noting that one may experience (1) expansion (dilatio), (2) elevation (sublevatio), and finally (3) ecstatic loss (alienatio) of consciousness.

Benjamin, youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons, is, for Richard, is a symbol of contemplation. He basis this on the Vulgate version of Psalm lxvii.: Ibi Benjamin adolescentulus in mentis excessu: “There is Benjamin, a youth, in ecstasy of mind.” (whereas the modern English Bible reads: “Little Benjamin their ruler.”)

His two works, Benjamin Minor (The Twelve Patriarchs) and Benjamin Major (The Mystical Ark) consider the ascetical/moral preparation for contemplation, and contemplation itself, respectively.

At the birth of Benjamin, his mother Rachel dies, and Richard writes: “For, when the mind of man is rapt above itself, it surpasseth all the limits of human reasoning. Elevated above itself and rapt in ecstasy, it beholdeth things in the divine light at which all human reason succumbs. What, then, is the death of Rachel, save the failing of reason?” (Benjamin Minor 73).

So in sum, we can see that Richard’s ‘system’ (if that’s a fair term to apply) is a felicitious combination of knowledge derived from experience and dialectic. As such it represents, arguably, a remarkably high level of synthesis between experience, creative imagination, insight and rational analysis.

A century later Scholasticism would be in full swing, the balance leaning progressively more and more (up to this day!) towards intellectual analysis (or perhaps we should say, towards a dissociation of rationalism and mysticism).

References

Richard of Saint-Victor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. MIGNE (Paris 1878–90) 196.

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979.