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Richard of St. Victor: Allegorical Meaning of Jacob’s Wives and Children

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GENESIS 29ff tells of the wives and children of Jacob, grandson of the patriarch Abraham.  Jacob had 12 sons, from whom descended the 12 tribes of Israel.  The story’s details suggest that, like the rest of Genesis, it has an allegorical meaning.  Richard of Saint-Victor’s (fl. 1140) analysis of this, a work titled the Twelve Patriarchs (Benjamin Minor), is a masterpiece of psychological allegoresis, rivaling the even seminal contributions of Philo of Alexandria to this genre.

As Genesis explains, Jacob married Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and also their respective handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah  These four mothers bore 12 sons and one daughter.  For Richard — following the long tradition established by Philo (and mediated through Origen, Ambrose and Jerome; see Sheridan, 2012) Jacob symbolizes the ‘practicer’ of moral reformation and spiritual growth.  That is, practice here is understood in the sense of askesis, namely the practical effort one makes to mature into a self-realized holy and spiritual person.

Each of Jacob’s wives and children, according to Richard, symbolizes a distinct psychological disposition relevant to this journey. Leah and Rachel represent the affective and intellectual sides of our psyche or soul, and Zilpah and Bilah are sensation and imagination, which, according to Richard, serve affection and reason, respectively.

Each son and daughter is a virtuous disposition originating in our psychological nature (in effect, they are very much like Jungian archetypes, but all concerned with our moral and spiritual development). They emerge in a particular order and supply some necessary function as we proceed towards higher levels of moral integration and spiritual consciousness.  This is a cyclical process, something we repeat often, perhaps even daily in our constant struggle to rise from worldly-mindedness and egoism to spiritual mindedness.

Two give two examples, Naphtali, a son of Bilah, is the disposition to uplift our soul from consideration of material things to the eternal goods these things suggest or symbolize; and Gad, a son of Zilpha, represents abstinence, or the intentional putting aside of sensual pleasures. Ultimately we arrive at the births of Joseph (discriminative self-knowledge) and Benjamin (religious contemplation).

Whether this is the original intended meaning of Genesis here or not, merely taken on its own terms Richard’s exegesis supplies an insightful and valuable analysis of the psychology of the spiritual journey. It’s also landmark in the history of Old Testament interpretation and deserves wider attention today.

The following excerpt concerning Joseph exemplifies quality of the entire work.

Richard of Saint-Victor. The Twelve Patriarchs (Benjamin Minor), Chs. 71−72

Chapter LXXI. Concerning the two offspring of reason, viz., grace of discretion and grace of contemplation.

By this Joseph the soul is continually instructed and at times is led to full knowledge of itself, just as by his [full] brother Benjamin it is at times lifted up to the contemplation of God. For just as we understand grace of discretion by Joseph, so we understand grace of contemplation by Benjamin. Both are born from [Rachel] because knowledge of God and of self are learned from Reason. Benjamin is born long after Joseph because the soul that has not been practiced over a long time and educated fully in knowledge of self is not raised up to knowledge of God. In vain he raises the eye of the heart to see God when he is not yet prepared to see himself. Let a person first learn to know his own invisible things before he presumes that he is able to grasp at invisible divine things. You must know the invisible things of your own spirit before you can be capable of knowing the invisible things of God. If you are not able to know yourself, how do you have the boldness to grasp at those things which are above you?

Chapter LXXII. How the soul is lifted up to contemplation of God by means of full knowledge of self.

The rational soul discovers without doubt that it is the foremost and principal mirror for seeing God. For if the invisible things of God are seen, being understood by the intellect by means of those things which have been made (cf. Rom. 1:20), where, I ask, have the traces of knowledge been found more clearly imprinted than in His image? … Whoever thirsts to see his God — let him wipe his mirror, let him cleanse his spirit. And so the true Joseph does not cease to hold, wipe and gaze into this mirror incessantly: to hold it so that it does not adhere to the earth, after it has fallen down by means of love; to wipe it so that it does not become dirty from the dust of useless thoughts; to gaze into it so that the eye of his intention does not turn toward empty pursuits. When the mirror has been wiped and gazed into for a long time, a kind of splendor of divine light begins to shine in it and a great beam of unexpected vision appears to his eyes. This light illumined the eyes of him who said: “The light of your face has been sealed upon us, Lord; you have put joy in my heart” (Ps. 4:7). Therefore, from the vision of this light that it wonders at within itself, the soul is kindled from above in a marvelous way and is animated to see the living light that is above it. I say, from this vision the soul conceives the flame of longing for the sight of God, and it lays hold of a pledge. And so the mind that now bums with longing for this vision should know that if it already hopes for what it longs for, it already has conceived Benjamin himself. By hoping the mind conceives; by longing it goes into labor; and the more longing increases, the closer it comes to giving birth. (Zinn, pp. 129−130)

Richard’s sequel to this work, The Mystical Ark (Benjamin Major), treats of the fruits of the ascetical process, that is, contemplation: its nature, ascending levels, and culmination in mystical union with God. That work is important both for its own sake and for its influence on St. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God.


Châtillon, Jean; Duchet-Suchaux, Monique. Les douze Patriarches ou Benjamin Minor. Texte critique et traduction par Jean Châtillon et Monique Duchet-Suchaux; introduction, notes et index par Jean Longère. Sources chrétiennes 419. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1997.

Richard of Saint-Victor, De praeparatione animi ad contemplationem, liber dictus Benjamin Minor. Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, vol. 196, ed. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855, col. 1−64.

Sheridan, Mark. Jacob and Israel: A contribution to the history of an interpretation. In: Mark Sheridan, From the Nile to the Rhone and Beyond: Studies in Early Monastic Literature and Scriptural Interpretation. Rome, 2012; pp. 315−334. Originally published in: Studia Anselmo, 116, 1995, 219−241.

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

Richard of Saint-Victor: On the Movements of Contemplation

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IN  A SUSTAINED analogy, Richard of Saint-Victor (1110−1173) likens contemplation to the movements of a bird (he doesn’t say what kind, but a hummingbird fits).  He evidently attached some importance to this analogy, and in any case we can be sure it’s something he developed from his own contemplation of natural phenomena.

An interesting detail his rather unexpected mention of major and minor premises (parts of a logical syllogism) — illustrating the integral nature of Victorine philosophy, artfully combining what today we might call left-brain and right-brain functions, i.e., logical analysis with creative intuition.

While I personally found this description of the phenomenology of contemplation fascinating, I hesitated to post it, thinking others might find it less interesting.  But yesterday a bird seemed to deliberately hover a few feet in front of my face, which I took it as sufficiently like an oracle to proceed.

Richard of Saint-Victor. The Mystical Ark 1.5

That the mode of contemplation operates in many ways

While the penetrating ray of contemplation is always suspended near something because of greatness of wonder, [admirationis magnitudine], it operates neither always nor uniformly in the same mode.  For that vivacity of intelligence in the soul of a contemplative (1) at one time goes out and returns with marvelous quickness, (2) at another time bends itself, as it were, into a circle, and (3) yet at another time gathers itself together in one place and fixes itself, as it were, motionless.

We see this pattern daily in the birds of the sky.  You may see some raising themselves high, others plunging low — and often repeating their ascent and descent.  Some turn to the side, now to the right, now to the left, or moving ahead a little, or advancing almost not at all, again repeating their movements with great constancy.

Others thrust ahead in great haste. But then, with equal rapidity, return to the rear, and repeating this for some time.

Others move in a circle many times,  one time a little wider, another time slightly smaller,  always returning to the same place.

Others suspend themselves for a long time in the same place with rapidly vibrating wings, fix themselves motionless and cling to the same place. It’s as though they wish to exclaim, “It is good for us to be here” (Matt. 17:4).

Similarly the flight of our contemplation is varied in many ways and of varying modes.

At one time it rises from the lower to the higher; at another it falls from the higher to the lower.  By the quickness of its consideration it moves at one time from the part to the whole; at another time from the whole to the part.

And at one time it draws the argument for that which it ought to know from a major premise; at another from a minor premise. At one moment it turns aside into this part, at another moment into the opposite part; it elicits an idea of contraries from knowledge of contraries, and usually varies the performance of its reasoning according to the differing mode of opposites.

At some time it runs forward and quickly runs back when it discerns the quality or mode of anything whatsoever, either from the effects or from the causes and whatever has preceded or followed.

But sometimes our speculation is led as it were in a circle, when some things are considered that are in common with many things or when, for the determination of any one thing whatsoever, a reason is drawn and assigned now to similar things, now to things having similar essences or accidents.

The fixed focus of our consideration is placed in one place, immobile, when the attention of the contemplative gladly  remains with the being of any thing whatsoever in order to observe and marvel at its proper nature.

Perhaps we shall more fitly say that to rise and fall, to go and return, to turn aside now here, now there, to continue at one time in a circle, and finally to cling together in unity: this is nothing other than by means of the greatest quickness to pass, in the mind,  now from the lowest things to the highest, or from the highest to the lowest; now from the oldest things to the newest or from the newest to the oldest; at one time from unequal to equal kinds of merits and rewards; at another time, to consider with diligent examination the circumstance and connection of everything whatsoever; and finally, at some time, satisfying the soul with the rareness of some speculation and wonder at the rareness.  See, as we have said above, how the activity of our contemplation is always suspended and is drawn forth according to some thing, while the soul of the contemplative gladly remains in the manifestation of its joy and is always eager either to return into itself frequently or to continue immobile in the same place for a long time.

Listen—concerning that mode of contemplation which is accustomed to go forward and back in a certain manner: “The living creatures will go and return in the likeness of flashing lightning” (Ezek. 1:14).  [JU: referring to the Chariot Vison of Ezekiel and the four ‘living creatures’]

The one who moves upward and downward, as it were, is described by the Psalmist in a few words: “They rise all the way to the heavens and they fall all the way into the abyss” (Ps. 106:26).

With respect to that mode of contemplation which, for instance, is led in a circle, you are admonished by the prophetic voice where it is said: “Lift up your eyes in a circle and see” (Isa. 60:4).

The ray of contemplation is fixed motionless in one place, for example, when anyone experiences in himself Habakkuk in that place: “Sun and moon stood still in their dwelling place” (Hab. 3:11).

It remains for us to see how many kinds of contemplation there are.

Source: Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Paulist Press, 1979; pp. 158ff (edited and paraphrased).

Latin: Richard of Saint-Victor, Omnia opera. Patrologia Latina, vol. 196, ed. J. P. Migne. Paris, 1855; cols. 68C−70B.