Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Archive for the ‘prayer’ Category

The Great Prayer of St. Augustine

leave a comment »

Art: Unknown.

BETWEEN the time of his conversion and his baptism, St. Augustine retired with his family and friends to a villa in Casciago in the beautiful lake region north of Milan. There he wrote several dialogues in the manner of Cicero, including the Soliloquies. Years later Augustine described his conversion in the Confessions, but here we have, as it were, a direct window into his mind at this important period of his life. The Soliloquies opens with an inspired and impassioned prayer — full of phrases from the Neoplatonist Plotinus and the Bible.

While I was turning over in my mind many and divers matters, searching ceaselessly and intently through many a day for my very own self and my good, and what evil should be avoided, all at once a voice spoke to me— whether it was myself or another inside or outside of me I do not know, for that is the very thing I am endeavoring to find out. Reason thereupon spoke to me as follows:

Reason. Now then, suppose you had discovered something, to what would you consign it, in order that you might proceed to other matters?

Augustine. To memory, of course.

R. Is memory of such virtue that it well preserves all that has been thought out?

A. That is difficult; in fact, it is impossible.

R. It must be written down, then. But, what are you going to do now that your poor health shirks the task of writing? These matters ought not to be dictated, for they demand real solitude.

A. You speak the truth. Wherefore, I really do not know what I am to do.

2.
O God, the Founder of the Universe, grant me first of all that I may fittingly supplicate Thee; next, that I may so act that I may be worthy of a hearing from Thee; finally, I beg Thee to set me free.
O God, through whom all those things, which of themselves would not exist, strive to be.
O God, who dost not permit to perish even that which is self-destructive.
O God, who from nothing hast created this world which every eye sees to be most beautiful.
O God, who dost not cause evil, and who dost cause that it become not most evil.
O God, who, to those few who have their refuge in that which truly is, dost show that evil is nothing.
O God, through whom the universe, even with its sinister side, is perfect.
O God, by whose ordinance the uttermost discord is as naught, since the less perfect things are in harmony with the more perfect.’
O God, whom everything loves which is capable of loving whether knowingly or unknowingly.
O God, in whom are all things—and yet the shamefulness of every creature does not shame Thee, their wickedness does not harm Thee, nor docs their error deceive Thee.
O God, who hast not willed that any save the pure should know the True.
O God, the Father of Truth, the Father of Wisdom, Father of True and Supreme Life, Father of Happiness, Father of the Good and the Beautiful, Father of Intelligible Light, Father of our watching and our enlightenment, Father of the covenant by which we are admonished to return to Thee.

3.
I call upon Thee, O God the Truth, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are true which are true.
O God, Wisdom, in whom and by whom and through whom all those are wise who are wise.
O God, True and Supreme Life, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things live which truly and perfectly live.
O God, Happiness, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are happy which are happy.
O God, the Good and the Beautiful, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things are good and beautiful which are good and beautiful.
O God, Intelligible Light, in whom and by whom and through whom all those things which have intelligible light have their intelligible light.
O God, whose domain is the whole world unknown to sense.
O God, from whose realm law is promulgated even in these regions.
O God, from whom to turn away is to fall, to whom to turn is to rise again, in whom to abide is to stand firm.
O God, from whom to depart is to die, to whom to return is to be revived, in whom to dwell is to live.
O God, whom no one loses unless deceived, whom no one seeks unless admonished, whom no one finds unless he is purified.
O God, whom to abandon is to perish, whom to heed is to love, whom to see is to possess.
O God, to whom Faith moves us, Hope raises us, Charity unites us.
O God, through whom we overcome the enemy, Thee do I pray.
O God, through whom we obtain that we do not altogether perish.
O God, by whom we are admonished to be ever watchful.
O God, through whom we discern the good from the evil.
O God, through whom we flee evil and follow after good.
O God, through whom we are not overcome by afflictions.
O God, through whom we fittingly serve and fittingly rule.
O God, through whom we learn that that is alien to us which once we thought was meet for us, and that is meet which we used to think was alien.
O God, through whom we cling not to the charms and lures of evil.
O God, through whom deprivations do not abase us.
O God, through whom what is better in us is not under the dominion of our lower self.
O God, through whom death is swallowed up in victory.
O God, who dost convert us, stripping us of that which is not and clothing us with that which Is.
O God, who makest us worthy to be heard.
O God, who strengthenest us; who leadest us into all truth.
O God, who speakest to us of all good things; who dost not drive us out of our mind, nor permittest that anyone else do so.
O God, who callest us back to the way; who leadest us to the gate; who grantest that it is opened to those who knock.
O God, who givest us the bread of life.
O God, through whom we thirst for the cup, which when it is drunk we shall thirst no more.
O God, who dost convince the world of sin, of justice, and of judgment.
O God, through whom we are not shaken by those who have no faith.
O God, through whom we denounce the error of those who think that the merits of souls are naught before Thee.
O God, through whom we do not serve weak and beggarly elements.
O God, who dost cleanse us, who dost make us ready for divine rewards, graciously come to me.

4.
Whatever I have said, come to my aid, Thou, the one God, the one, eternal, true substance in whom there is no strife, no disorder, no change, no need, no death; where there is supreme harmony, supreme clarity, supreme permanence, supreme fullness, supreme life; where there is no deficiency and no excess; where the One begetting and the One begotten is One.
O God, who art served by all things which serve, who art obeyed by every good soul.
O God, by whose laws the poles revolve, the stars follow their courses, the sun rules the day, and the moon presides over the night; and all the world maintains, as far as this world of sense allows, the wondrous stability of things by means of the orders and recurrences of seasons: through the days by the changing of light and darkness, through the months by the moon’s progressions and declines, through the years by the successions of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, through the cycles by the completion of the sun’s course, through the great eras of time by the return of the stars to their starting points.
O God, by whose ever-enduring laws the varying movement of movable things is not suffered to be disturbed, and is always restored to a relative stability by the controls of the encompassing ages.
O God, by whose laws the choice of the soul is free, and rewards to the good and chastisements to the wicked are meted out in accord with inexorable and universal destiny.
O God, from whom all good things flow even unto us, and by whom all evil things are kept away from us.
O God, above whom, beyond whom, and without whom nothing exists.
O God, under whom everything is, in whom everything is, with whom everything is.
O God, who hast made man to Thine image and likeness, a fact which he acknowledges who knows himself.
Hear, hear, O hear me, my God, my Lord, my King, my Father, my Cause, my Hope, my Wealth, my Honor, my Home, my Native Land, my Salvation, my Light, my Life.
Hear, hear, O hear me, in that way of Thine well known to a select few.

5.
Thee alone do I love; Thee alone do I follow; Thee alone do I seek; Thee alone am I ready to serve, for Thou alone hast just dominion; under Thy sway do I long to be.
Order, I beg Thee, and command what Thou wilt, but heal and open my ears, so that with them I may hear Thy words.
Heal and open my eyes so that with them I may perceive Thy wishes.
Banish from me my senselessness, so that I may know Thee.
Tell me where I should turn that I may behold Thee; and I hope I shall do all Thou hast commanded me.
Look, I beseech Thee, upon Thy prodigal, O Lord, kindest Father; already have I been punished enough; long enough have I served Thine enemies whom Thou hast beneath Thy feet; long enough have I been the plaything of deceits. Receive me Thy servant as I flee from them, for they took me in a stranger when I was fleeing from Thee.
I realize I must return to Thee. Let Thy door be open to my knocking. Teach me how to come to Thee. Nothing else do I have but willingness. Naught else do I know save that fleeting and perishable things are to be spurned, certain and eternal things to be sought after. This I do, O Father, because this is all I know, but how I am to reach Thee I know not.
Do Thou inspire me, show me, give me what I need for my journey.
If it is by faith that they find Thee who have recourse to Thee, give me faith; if it is through virtue, give me virtue; if it is by knowledge, give knowledge to me. Grant me increase of faith, of hope, and of charity. O how marvelous and extraordinary is Thy goodness.

6.
To Thee do I appeal, and once more I beg of Thee the very means by which appeal is made to Thee. For, if Thou shouldst abandon us, we are lost; but Thou dost not abandon us, because Thou art the Supreme Good whom no one ever rightly sought and entirely failed to find. And, indeed, every one hast rightly sought Thee whom Thou hast enabled to seek Thee aright. Grant that I may seek Thee, my Father; save me from error. When I seek Thee, let me not find aught else but Thee, I beseech Thee, Father. But, if there is in me any vain desire, do Thou Thyself cleanse me and make me fit to look upon Thee.

With regard to the health of this my mortal body, so long as I am ignorant of its usefulness to me or to those whom I love, I entrust it to Thee, O wisest and best of Fathers, and I shall pray for it as Thou shalt in good time advise me. This only I shall ask of Thine extreme kindness, that Thou convertest me wholly to Thee, and that Thou allowest nothing to prevent me when I wend my way to Thee. I beg Thee to command, while I move and bear this my body, that I may be pure, generous, just, and prudent; that I may be a perfect lover and knower of Thy Wisdom; that I may be worthy of Thy dwelling place, and that I may in fact dwell in Thy most blessed kingdom. Amen. Amen.  (Source: Soliloquies 1.1−6; Migne PL 32 cols 869−872; tr. Gilligan pp. 343−350).

Bibliography

Augustini Hipponensis. Soliloquia (Soliloquiorum libri II). Migne Patrologia Latina vol. 32, cols. 869−904, Paris, 1841. Latin text.

Gilligan, Thomas F. St. Augustine: Soliloquies. In: Schopp, Ludwig (ed), Writings of St. Augustine, Vol. 1.  (Fathers of the Church, Vol. 5). CUA Press, 1947 (repr. 2008); pp. 333−426. English translation.

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

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »


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)

Bibliography

Aris, Marc-Aeilko (ed.). Contemplatio: Philosophische Studien zum Traktat Benjamin Maior des Richard von St. Victor; semi-critical edition. Frankfurt am Main, 1996.

Chase, Steven. Angelic Wisdom: The Cherubim and the Grace of Contemplation in Richard of St. Victor. Notre Dame University Press, 1995.

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

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

 

St. Bonaventure: Contemplation of Creation’s Sevenfold Splendor

leave a comment »


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

leave a comment »


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.

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

leave a comment »

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.

Meditation on Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd

leave a comment »

PSALM 23, the Good Shepherd, is the best known and most beloved psalm, an enduring source of inspiration and consolation.  We should investigate its allegorical meanings with special care.

The psalm is a spiritual meditation on ones relationship with God and on the gifts God bestows.  As its themes are of universal interest, it is suitable for people of any religious denomination, not only Christians and Jews.

The purposes of psalm are to ingrain in faithful souls a firm conviction of God’s unremitting providence and to help one, in all things, to seek God’s guidance at all times, rather than to follow ones own fallible will and pursue ones egoistic thoughts. That is the leading project of the Old and New Testament — a renovation of mind and will — and is most directly expressed in Matthew 6:33: But seek ye first the reign of God and his righteousness.  The word translated as reign or kingdom (βασιλείαν, basileia) can be interpreted here to mean reigning or shepherding — that is, a condition, not a place — of ones mind and soul.

1. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Like a shepherd, God constantly and faithfully guides our thoughts and affections, protects us, and takes care of our needs.

Many important Old Testament figures — including Abel, Joseph, Moses and David — were shepherds. These righteous and holy persons serve as exemplars for us in shepherding our thoughts away from vanities and towards goodness and integrity.  God, though, is the supreme shepherd.  While we ourselves are expected to direct our own thoughts in a holy way as we are able, ultimately we depend on the divine Good Shepherd to direct and transform our interior life.

A shepherd is stronger and wiser than his sheep.  He looks after them, protects them, oversees all that is necessary for their welfare and flourishing.  As God, who is infinitely wise and good is our shepherd, he will anticipate and supply all our needs, inner and outer.

In understanding God as the Good Shepherd we are freed from the burden of having to direct our own life, and the myriad errors that is bound to produce. Therefore we should be confident, not fear about the future, not think unduly to prepare for our own needs, and develop the habit of expecting and discerning the presence and meaning of God’s guidances.

2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

The image of green pastures suggests three things: repose, beauty and nourishment.  All of these apply to the pastures to which God leads ones soul. Repose, because arrival at green pastures means a potentially difficult and demanding journey to them is completed; beauty, because these pastures are themselves delightful to behold;  nourishment, because food of the best kind is supplied for the soul.

Once we have ceased the vain, grasping, ego thoughts of self-will and humbly turn to God, we may receive the spiritual gifts he is eager and ready to supply. These include noble thoughts, desires and insights that nourish and build our soul. We are nourished when our mind’s eye is opened to receive spiritual insights and inspirations, and to recognize the deeper meanings of Scripture and of external experiences. Besides nourishing us, the mere act of eating such food is delightful.

In the Bible, water images such as wells and fountains are often used to mean springs rising from the depths of ones soul that bring deep forms of knowledge, including self-knowledge. The verse refers not simply to waters, but still waters. Still water has two attributes, both of which apply here. In a well or deep pool, stillness allows one to see clearly beneath the surface. Still water also produces accurate and beautiful reflections. When our mind is stilled, so that we arrive at the condition the ancient Greeks called  ataraxia (ἀταραξία), meaning undisturbedness, we may discern the subtle thoughts that come from the depths of our soul with greater skill and also perform self-reflection with greater skill.

3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Our soul dies in varying degrees when it goes astray to dwell on worldly concerns, anxieties, thoughts of the future, ambitions, worries and the like. Much of the time our mind is either in acute distress, or else in a state of confusion, unrest, distraction, idleness or undirected attention, flitting from one thought to another.

All such conditions produce a degradation in the clarity, depth and integrity of consciousness.

To the extent our consciousness is not clear and constant, but instead chaotic and disturbed, it may legitimately said we are not fully alive.

In one sense, then, the restoration referred to here is that of the mind from it’s fallen and fragmented condition.  It is of great significance that we have a Good Shepherd on whom we can continually rely to restore us. This is an ongoing process. We must prepared to be restored 100 times a day, or as many times as our mind goes astray.

Restoration here has a second sense as well. In the Septuagint version, the Greek word for “restoreth” is epestrepsen (ἐπέστρεψεν), from the verb epistréphō (ἐπιστρέφω), which means to return, convert, or turn back.  This is same term the Neoplatonist Plotinus uses in the Enneads to describe the return of ones soul to God after it has fallen into worldly-mindedness.  So the restoring of which the psalmist speaks includes how God graciously calls the soul back to the path of return.  That act of choosing to seek God again is itself a restoration. While this is our choice, it is also inspired by God, a grace.  This sense of restoration is much better for us than a mere feeling of tranquility or refreshment.

A recurring and important theme in Psalms is God’s Name. A great discovery we make following the road of sincere repentance is what it means to call upon God’s Name. By God’s Name here we mean his reputation. We are absolutely certain of one thing: God, the all-loving Creator of the universe, wishes to save sinners, and to rescue the lost from the dreadful suffering which accompanies alienation from his grace.

We cannot even comprehend a God who lacks this merciful and loving quality. It is essential both to the definition of a Supreme Being, and to our instinctive, unalterable sense of moral rightness.

Since God, then, wishes to save sinners, it must follow that he values his reputation, for his reputation is of incalculable value in attracting sinners back to the way of righteousness. If God were to do anything that calls into question his reputation as fair, just and saving, it would oppose the very salvific interest which is part of God’s defining essence.  People would not seek him, and would not be saved.  A supremely benevolent, just, loving and powerful God would not permit this.

Hence, when pleading for God to raise us from our fallen condition, with its unhappiness, suffering, and painful alienation, we say with the psalmist, Let my fate not put to shame those who trust in you (Ps. 69:6).  We are certain that as long as we do not actively oppose God’s plan of salvation for us, he will faithfully act.

But if we invoke God’s Name here — if we say to God, “Save me, answer my desperate pleas for your Name’s sake! — this requires something from us as well. For we would be absurd and hypocritical to suppose that God would preserve his reputation were he to rescue us when we are insincere and undeserving.  God will not be made a fool.  Were he to save an insincere repentant, that would harm his reputation as much, if not more, than were he to ignore sincere pleas.  If we invoke God’s Name, then, we must search our conscience, and know we are sincerely trying to reform.  We must not plead with our lips but remain reprobate in our heart.

4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

We may understand the valley here as referring to this life, in which all is passing away, and where what things appear to be real are mere shadows of reality. We have no fear, because it is also a mere illusion to believe God is not immediately and actively concerned with our welfare.

Note carefully the shift here, whereby before God was referred to in the third person (“he”), and now in the second person (“thou”). We are now addressing God himself, and communing with him. More than a prayer, then, the psalm becomes an actual experience of drawing closer to God.

God’s staff pulls us out of the thorns of temptations and back to the right path. When necessary, God’s rod rebukes us; for that we should not feel resentful, but grateful: its presence is proof of God’s active interest and loving care.

5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

God prepares a banquet of spiritual goods.  Enemies here — as throughout Psalms — means the inner enemies within our soul. Compared to the exalted nature of these goods, the presence of enemies is no concern.  Nothing is more suitable for dispelling the power of enemies than that one such receive, even in their presence, such wonderful gifts.

Anointing the head with oil is a universal symbol for the opening of the eye of the mind that sees spiritual things and receives divine illuminations.  Speaking of this verse, St. Ambrose tells us, “At this banquet there is the oil of sanctification, poured richly over the head of the just. This oil strengthens the inner senses. It does away with the oil of the sinner that fattens the head.” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms 35.19).

The cup is filled with spiritual wine, referring to a divine stimulation of holy emotions.  The usual English translation loses the explicit sense of inebriation implied.  The Septuagint Greek retains this, saying, τὸ ποτήριόν σου μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον, which means, your cup gladdens like the best wine, or your cup bestows the most exalted form of inebriation.  Our spiritual yearnings are fulfilled in their entirety.

6. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The psalm closes on a strong note of optimism, hope and confidence — these words being so clear that no interpretation is needed.  We emerge from our meditation renewed and strengthened.