Candles at Candlemas (Cistercians for Groundhog Day/Feast of the Presentation)

IMG_9737Historically, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple would involve the blessing of candles by the local priest — hence ‘Candlemas’. Also, as we shall see in what I am about to post, people carried their own candles, at least in the twelfth century. And why carry lights? What is the significance of light? Let us remember that Christ is the Light of the World. Here is Cistercian abbot Guerric of Igny (1070-1157), from a sermon for this feast:

But let us rather discuss, if you will, the lovely custom in the Church of bearing liths on this feast-day, and how it bodies forth what was done in the past and also what we should be doing now. Not that I suppose you are unaware of this, even if it has never been set out for you. Which of you today, bearing a lighted candle in his hands, does not instantly call to mind the old man who took Jesus in his arms this day — the Word clothed in flesh as the candle-flame is cupped in wax — declaring him to be the light that would enlighten the Gentiles. And Simeon was himself a lamp lit and shining, bearing witness to the light, he who came at the Spirit’s prompting into the temple, to receive, O God, in the midst of the temple your loving-kindness, and to proclaim him to be indeed your loving-kindness and the light of your people.

Ah! brothers, look where the candle burns in Simeon’s hands; that is the light to light your tapers from, those lamps which the Lord would have you holding. Go to him and you will be lit up, not so much bearers of almps as lamps yourselves, shining within and without, lighting yourselves and your neighbours. May this lamp be in heart and hand and mouth: a lamp in your heart to light yourself, a lamp in your hands and on your lips to light your neighbours. The light in your heart is loving faith; the lamp in your hands is the example of good deeds; the lamp on your lips, helpful and strengthening words. We must not only shine in the sight of men by our deeds and words: we need to shine through prayer in the sight of the angles and before God in sincerity of heart. We light in the sight of the angels the lamp of pure devotion when we sing with diligence and pray with fervour. Our lamp that burns before God is our singleness of heart in pleasing him alone whose approval we have won.

So that you may light all these lamps for yourselves, my brothers, come to the source of light and be enlightened. Draw close to Jesus … (From the First Sermon for the Purification, in The Cistercian World, ed. and trans. P. Matarasso, pp. 133-135)

Guerric of Igny on Advent

Our Advent Wreath in Toronto
Our Advent Wreath in Toronto

The liturgical church year is not a mechanical operation done merely out of ‘tradition’ or without thought. It is a means of spiritual growth for the community of faith, for that community is, in this time between Christ’s comings, bound in time and living in time with the rhythms of the solar year and the seasons and the history of Christ’s salvific activity at the time of His Incarnation and through His people in history.

It is salutary, therefore, to meditate upon its purpose. Here’s Guerric of Igny for Advent 3:

We are waiting now for the anniversary day of Christ’s birth, which we shall shortly see, God willing. Scripture requires, it seems to me, that our spirit should be so lifted up and transported with joy that it longs to run towards the approaching Christ; and, projecting itself into the future, it chafes at delays as it strains to see what is yet to come. I think myself that the many passages in Scripture exhorting us to hasten towards him refer not only to the second coming but also to the first. How so? Because just as, at his second coming, we shall run towards him with physical energy and joy, so do we hasten to Bethlehem with jubilant heart and spirit. You know that at the resurrection, having put on new bodies, according to the Apostle’s teaching we shall be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, and so we shall be with the Lord for ever. (1 Thess. 4:16) But even here there is no lack of clouds that will carry our spirits (provided they are not sluggish and earthbound) to higher things, and then we shall be with the Lord for half an hour. Unless I am mistaken, you know from experience what I am talking about, for sometimes when the clouds have thundered, that is when the voices of the prophets and apostles have rung out in the Church, your minds have been swept aloft as though borne on clouds, and on occasion been carried so far beyond that they have been favoured with some glimpse of the glory of the Lord. Then, if I am right, the truth of that word dawned clear for you, the word which God rains down from the cloud he daily appoints to bear us aloft: ‘The sacrifice of praise do me honour: there is the path by which I will show him the salvation of God.’ (Pss. 103:3, 49:23) -P. M. Matarasso, The Cistercian World, pp. 130-31.

The Cistercian World, selected and translated by Pauline Matarasso

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth CenturyThe Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century by Pauline Matarasso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my Lent reading for 2016. It is the second Penguin Classic translated by Pauline Matarasso that I’ve read, the first having been her superb The Quest of the Holy Grail. This volume is an excellent anthology in readable English of selections from some of the most important figures in the twelfth-century Cistercian movement. It moves chronologically from the founding of the abbey at Cîteaux to the close of the century.

Matarasso gives a handy introduction to the origins of the Cistercians and their move away from some of the decadence of contemporary Benedictine abbeys, especially many associated with Cluny. Cistercians sought to return to the original letter and spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. Cistercian spirituality is a spirituality based on simplicity of life, dress, manners, art, architecture. It is based upon Scripture and the Fathers, and Cistercians sought through their patristic, scriptural simplicity, to attain union with God through contemplative prayer in the midst of the opus dei, the liturgy of hours. To further assist the reader in interpretation, each text has its own introduction, and there are endnotes.

Cistercians included in this volume are Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, Amedeus of Lausanne, Aelred of Rievaulx, Isaac of Stella, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, and Adam of Perseigne, as well as an anonymous description of the abbey and selections of exemplary stories about Bernard and other early Cistercians.

These men are aware of their own finitude in the face of the transcendent God. However, equipped with love, with the Scriptures, and with the power of prayer, they set out to clarify their knowledge of the divine and enter into God’s loving embrace, encountering the bridegroom of the human soul.

Some of St Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs are included here, and they are mightily inspiring, reminding us of the different kinds of love and how we can fulfil the commands. Also inspiring for me were the Meditations of William of St Thierry, who demonstrates the heart of the contemplative. Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship is important for us to think over as we live in relationship with others—what sort of friendship is to be cultivated, and how to use friendship to attain spiritual heights.

This is the sort of book that makes you want to pray more and engage in ascetic endeavour. I am a most imperfect example of someone who fulfils that desire, however. Nonetheless, I have copied out some of the passages of the book for private meditation and hope to reread the whole anthology again someday in order to further deepen the grace God gives through his servants. Finally, I would urge anyone interested in the Christian mystical tradition to read this book and see what our forebears in the faith said, thought, and did, and also to be reminded (if you know of the eastern tradition) of the silent ecumenism that links mysticism across time and space and ecclesial boundaries.

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Melrose Abbey

After Jedburgh Abbey, I drove us to Melrose Abbey. I’ve wanted to visit Melrose Abbey since we first came to Scotland — Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried there, you see. His body is in Dunfermline Abbey (which I’ve seen) amongst other royal dead, and he wanted his heart to go on Crusade on his behalf. But the pilgrims carrying the heart got into some trouble (I think they were mugged in Spain), and were lucky to get back to Scotland, so they interred his heart there.*

Here’s me with Tim and Doreen at Melrose Abbey:

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Melrose is Scotland’s first Cistercian Abbey, founded in 1136 by David I just like Jedburgh (David I founded at least 12 abbeys of which we are aware). It was originally to be on the site of Old Melrose, an abbey founded by St Aidan (saint of the week here) and where St Cuthbert (saint of the week here) was admitted as a monk (thus giving me yet another Cuthbertian connection).

The monks for new Melrose Abbey were brought up from Rievaulx Abbey (founded 1132), and this became the mother house of the Cistercians in Scotland who were to become the most prominent monastic order in this country. Pre-Reformation Scotland had 11 Cistercian Abbeys; many of Scotland’s manuscripts are Cistercian in origin, and thus primarily religious texts (unlike Benedictines who copied out the pagan Classics, Cistercians devoted themselves almost entirely to sacred learning).

Cistercians, as a ‘reformed’ monastic order, sought to devote themselves to a very strict interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. Their interpretation resulted in not really having enough time to devote themselves to the physical labour required to tend the abbey’s large estates or gardens or anything. As a result, the abbot with his 12 monks also had a much larger cohort of ‘lay brothers’ resident at the abbey. They were not required to follow the same rule of prayer as the monks and worshipped in their own choir, while the monks’ choir was separated from them by a screen bisecting the abbey church. You can see the screen just over Tim’s shoulder in the photo above.

The screen features this boss of Jesus right above you as you pass through:

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That boss and all that you see, besides a few foundations, date to after 1385.

Like Jedburgh Abbey, Melrose suffered from repeated attacks by the English. In 1385, the abbey was destroyed by Richard II. The old abbey would have been a fairly simple affair, whereas the new abbey follows the Gothic styles of the time — in the East, where it began, English Perpendicular style is visible. Check out the East window:

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As you move West, things get Frencher. A master mason called John Morow, from Paris, was involved (as his inscription says). The tracery is, perhaps, more flowing. Is this International Gothic? I’m not sure.

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And these men turn up as the bases of niches on the outside, drawing my mind to the similar ones I saw at the chapel of the Chateau de Vincennes in Paris:

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My Historic Scotland Souvenir Guide says that Melrose boasts the best Gothic sculpture in Scotland. Here are some of the stars of the show:

Pig playing bagpipes!
Pig playing bagpipes!
Greenman!
Greenman!
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Coronation of the Virgin
'Gnadenstuhl' image of the Trinity (although it's so worn, I can't spot the Holy Spirit) - boss above East end
‘Gnadenstuhl’ image of the Trinity (although it’s so worn, I can’t spot the Holy Spirit) – boss above East end

The ruined church is  about all that stands. The monks were allowed to stay after the Reformation, allowing for an embracing of the Reformed faith. The last one died in 1590. The church was converted to the parish kirk in 1610, thus ensuring some survival. Here’s a final shot of Gothic splendour for you:

South Aisle
South Aisle

*Fun fact: Sweetheart Abbey (which also I’ve seen) is another Scottish abbey with someone’s heart buried in it (hence the name). In this case, the heart is that of the heart of the husband (John Balliol, but not the puppet king) of the foundress, Devorgilla (gotta love that name!).

Saint for now: St. John Climacus

Things are busy with writing my own papers and marking other people’s papers right now, so no saint went up last week. So today, since I have time on Sundays, last week’s saint will come up this week; whether this week will have its own saint remains to be seen. And on to our saint, a mystic, John Climacus (who is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox Church today).

St. John Climacus (c. 579-649 and thus a contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor) was a monk of the monastery of Sinai, at the foot of the Mount of God, the mountain which Moses ascended and where the Lawgiver entered the Cloud, saw the back of YHWH, and received the Law of God, from which Moses descended with shining face from his encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The spot is pregnant with meaning.

At this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, John, aged sixteen, took preference for the semi-eremitic life — a life halfway between the ‘total’ seclusion of the hermit/anchorite and the total community of the ‘coenobite’ (most Western monastics — e.g. Cistercians and Benedictines are ‘coenobites’ living in a coenobium). All three forms of monasticism were practised within the walls of this monastery, founded by Justinian (556-57).

In this middle way, one pursues the monastic life of prayer and stillness under the supervision of an elder; John’s was one Abba Martyrius. Abba Martyrius, after John had demonstrated his worthiness over a few years of pursuing the monastic vocation, took John up the Mountain of God and had him tonsured, admitting him into the fullness of the monastic life.

Shortly thereafter, Abba Martyrius died, and John pursued the life of the hermit, entering into seclusion to enter hesychia and the stillness of God’s presence. He retired to Tholas and spent 40 years there, admitting the occasional visitor who came for spiritual guidance.

At the end of his 40-year stint he was elected to be abbot of the coenobitic community. In good monastic form, he resisted (one also typically resists being ordained priest or consecrated bishop if a monk), but was overcome by the brethren. He lived out the rest of his life as abbot of the monastery at Sinai. Whilst abbot, he wrote down his famous work Scala Paradisi, The Ladder of Paradise.

As with our last mystic (Bonaventure here), it is not the exterior as found in these details but the interior that matters; it is the mystic’s encounter with God and the things of God that really matters.

From John’s Ladder we learn of the ascent of the soul to God. As with many mystics, this ascent is gained through askesis, or asceticism, through the training and labours undertaken by the one seeking God in order to purify the soul/mind/heart so that union with God and the vision of God are possible, so that the contemplative can see Him clearly (though never in His fullness or essence, as God is ultimately incomprehensible).

The thirty steps of the ladder’s ascent unto God are divided into three sections (this is also common, as we saw Bonaventure’s six levels divided by two into three; it is at least as old as Origen — cf. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition 58-59).

The first seven steps are about acquiring general virtues that are necessary for the ascetic life (cf. Origen’s ethike or ethics). These days, I think few Christians are inspired to climb any higher than these seven. I believe that we need to reclaim holiness and see a life beyond simple virtue. John Climacus can help.

The second series of steps runs from 8 through 26. These nineteen steps are about even greater ascent in virtue as the ascetic learns to overcome the vices and acquire virtues in their place. Indeed, cultivation of virtue is the only way to fully extirpate vice and cleanse the soul so that we can draw near to God and theosis, deification.

The final steps are the higher virtues. How many in our day even draw nigh to these virtues? I know not. I think they tend to be those imperturbable people who seem to radiate peace, calm, and a certain gentleness of spirit. They are also often wise. If you haven’t met such a person, it is your great loss.

At the top of the ladder, we go beyond everything we do, everything we know. We encounter the living God. He is far beyond anything we could ask or imagine. And he alone is all we want and all we need.

NB: I haven’t yet read John Climacus (I wanted to, but the copy in the library is missing), so if there are any inaccuracies, I gladly welcome critique in the comments! 🙂

Saint of the Week: St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard (1090-1153) is an interesting character, and not only because he has a breed of dog named after him.  In 1113, he and 30 other Burgundian youths sought entrance into the Abbey of Citeaux (founded 1098), birthplace of the Cistercians.  Three years later he was sent off to found the third Cistercian Abbey in the Vallée d’Absinthe, Valley of Bitterness; he named this place, instead, Claire Vallée–Clairvaux, on June 25, 1115.

In 1118, 1119, and 1121, Clairvaux founded 3 new abbeys to make room for those taking holy orders within its walls.  The abbey was becoming a force within mediaeval Christendom.  Indeed, during Bernard’s lifetime, some 290 Cistercian monasteries were to be founded.

As Abbot of Clairvaux, St. Bernard was to be a man of influence both in ecclesiastical affairs — helping spur Peter the Venerable on in the reforms at Cluny, for example — and in temporal affairs, defending ecclesiastical rights against those of kings and princes.  He sought to encourage not only monks but bishops, priests, and the laity to live lives of simplicity and holiness rather than the excess often displayed by clergy and the upper classes in the Middle Ages.

He also wrote various works and homilies, including “On the Love of God,” a work which later was to influence the devotional life of a young Augustinian friar named Martin Luther.  Amidst his writings, he also complained about the influx of contemporary music in church.  Apparently, in a lot of churches at this time, people were playing secular instruments in the secular style in sacred space.  Bernard longed for nothing but Gregorian Chant in church.  No doubt in Clairvaux and the other 290 Cistercian monasteries founded in his lifetime, this is what he got.

Despite all of these virtues, one cannot leave behind St. Bernard without mentioning the less pleasant aspects of his life.  St. Bernard lived during the age of the Crusades.  Now, one could argue that as a political war to reclaim land on behalf of the Eastern Roman Empire and make safe the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, the First Crusade in the 1090s was as justified as any other mediaeval war.  Unfortunately, during that war, and especially in the years that followed it, the concept of the Crusade as a “holy war”, as something ordained by God, developed.  Muslims were not merely enemies of the West in political terms but were, in fact, the enemies of God and worth killing.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a man of his day, not just in terms of monastic reform and ascetic zeal.  He helped provide the theological framework for the Crusades and preached the ill-fated Second Crusade (1145-47).  Before St. Bernard, the term miles Christi had referred either to the Christian or, more frequently and specifically, to the monk.  Monks were the soldiers of Christ, fighting demons, praying continually, training through asceticism.  Now, however, Bernard turned the term from the spiritual to the physical; the miles Christi was the Crusader, fighting for Christ against the Muslims (or, as the [somewhat outdated] Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “Mohammedan tyranny”).

I do not wish to dwell on this aspect of St. Bernard.  However, while we should not seek out only the faults of the saints, we should behold them with both eyes open.  Otherwise, we will write notably naive things like this:

There were thousands of men, generally young, who left society and often a military career to take up the cloistered life.  If to this number one adds the members of some 290 other Cistercian monasteries founded during Bernard’s lifetime, one has some idea of the tremendous peace corps, with tens of thousands of members, taht Bernard helped to establish.  What architect of peace has played such a role in his century or in any other? (Jean Leclercq, quoted by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, New Monasticism)

Nevertheless, St. Bernard is worth noting and admiring.  Admirable is his zeal for reforming and founding monasteries as well as the lifestyle of the average Christian.  Admirable as well is his defence of orthodoxy.  Admirable, to be sure, are his many influential works, the orthodoxy of which withstand the centuries even if his Crusade ideology does not.  These many works and sermons have gained him the title “Doctor of the Church.”

His learning and zeal for holy living are to be emulated.  May we live as he does.