The Annunciation

As we journey to the Cross, suddenly, the turning of the calendar and rolling of the year brings us face to face with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel – today is nine months until Christmas. It is the feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate God’s self-giving love, as it was poured out in the conception of Christ and culminated in his saving death and glorious resurrection. From ancient times, Christians have seen the willing obedience of Mary as a grace-filled opposite to the disobedience of Eve and the obedience of Christ as the opposite of the disobedience to Adam. Here’s a hymn by St Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess and mystic, the antiphon “Quia ergo femina”:

Because a woman brought death
a bright Maiden overcame it,
and so the highest blessing
in all of creation
lies in the form of a woman,
since God has become human
in a sweet and blessed Virgin.

-Trans. Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings

Here is a recording of the original Latin:

The Power of the Cross

This is a meditation on 1 Corinthians 1:18-19 I put together for my church this past Sunday, following the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary.

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

In today’s readings, St Paul says that “Christ crucified,” is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18-19) Think on that—Christ crucified, suffering, sighing, bleeding, dying, is the power of God and the wisdom of God. If we imagine one of those early Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion (see left!), there we see blood pouring out of Christ, running down his limbs and his cross, his own self hanging limp and weak and powerless. This, the power of God? Indeed, a stumbling block and foolishness!

Christians throughout the ages, however, have found that Christ on the cross with the blood he shed is powerful. Some of the great women of faith show us this (it is Women’s History Month, after all!). Around 1100, St Hildegard of Bingen wrote:

he shed his beautiful blood and tasted in his body the darkness of death. By this means he overcame the devil, led forth his elect from hell in which they had been thrown down and confined, and brought them back, through his mercy and the touch of his redemption

Scivias Part 2, Vision 1.13

In the fourteenth century Julian of Norwich, as she lay sick almost to the point of death, had a vision of Christ on the Cross:

There were times when I wanted to look away from the cross, but I dared not. For I knew that while I gazed on the cross I was safe and sound, and I was not going to imperil my soul. Apart from the cross there was no assurance against the horror of fiends.

Revelations of Divine Love 19

The fourteenth-century Italian mystic St Catherine of Siena wrote, in the voice God the Father in her Dialogue:

But such is the freedom of your humanity, and so strong have you been made by the power of this glorious blood, that neither the devil nor any other creature can force you to the least sin unless you want it. You were freed from slavery so that you might be in control of your own powers and reach the end you were created for.

Dialogue 14

The great proclamation of the Apostles is the lived experience of Christians in the ages: Christ’s death is our gain, and here he shows us God’s power, to save us from sin, the flesh, the devil. When the ancient Christians beheld this mystery, that the immortal dies, that God himself loved us so much that he became one of us in order to die—here is where they saw the true glory of Christ as the eternal God, begotten of the Father before all ages. It is the Cross that is the seal and proof of the divinity of Jesus the Messiah, and it is here that all Christian theology finds its beginning.

The God we worship is not an aloof, distant, unreachable deity. He took on our flesh. He died because he loves us. And he comes to us daily, whether mystically at prayer or in our brothers and sisters. This is the message of the Cross. God loves us; he does not want us be slaves to our sins, our own selves, our own deaths. So he died to save us, taking upon himself all the sin of the world, and then, because he was both the immortal God and a sinless, perfect human, trampling down death by death and rising again. The Cross is the anchor in the storms of life this Lent. Grab it. Hold on. The God who loved us enough to die will get us through.

A thought from St Teresa of Avila in the 1500s to close:

it is good to reflect for a while and think of the pains He suffered, and of why He suffered them, and of who it was that suffered them, and of the love with which He suffered them.

The Life of St Teresa, ch. 13

Let’s do that now for a moment.

Some Benedictines

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Now, if you’re excited about the Rule of St Benedict, besides applying the lessons about prayer, community, and humility to your own life, you may be wondering where to turn next. After all, RB is pretty short. Where else within that tradition might one go? Well, of course, the fountainhead of all Christian tradition is never to be neglected; that is — read your Bible! (Like a Benedictine?1) Another alternative that I heartily endorse is to read St Benedict’s reading list and contemporaries — so John Cassian, The Rule of the Master, St Basil of Caesarea, as well as the likes of St Columba, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Julianus Pomerius.

The alternative I propose today, however, is to consider the tradition that flows forth from RB and those who live according to the Rule. This embraces more than those with O.S.B. (Ordo Sancti Benedicti) after their name, but also those who pre-date the organised congregations of Benedictine monachism as well as the other orders, such as Cistercians, who follow St Benedict’s Rule.

So, some Benedictines:

The Venerable St Bede (672-735). Bede was a monk here in the Northeast of England, at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, spending the last five decades of his life at Jarrow. Most famously, he wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People; well worth a read. In Penguin’s The Age of Bede, you can also read his Lives of the Abbots and his Lives of St Cuthbert (besides an unrelated text, The Voyage of Brendan!). If Benedictine biblical reading is your desire, he compiled/composed various commentaries, such as on Genesis,  Revelation; from Cistercian Publications, you can get the following in English: the catholic epistles, the Gospels, the letters of St Paul, and Acts. He wrote other biblical studies as well as a range of writings on computus and chronology. He is a Benedictine worth knowing.

Blessed Alcuin of York (735-804). The great Carolingian scholar from England wrote widely and helped revise the text of the Vulgate Bible. I’ve read a number of his prayers in Sister Benedicta’s anthology Christ Beside Me, as well as some of his verse. I’d like to read more, such as his letters.

St Anselm of Canterbury and Bec (1033-1109). St Anselm, from Aosta in Italy, spent his monastic career at Bec in Normandy before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He is a towering figure of medieval theology whose devotional work reveals the spiritual heart of all he does. My acquaintance with his writings is from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, which you can read in a translation by Sister Benedicta Ward, and Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, including his MonologionProslogionWhy God Became a Man (or, Why the God-Man? — Cur Deus Homo), and others of penetrating philosophical and theological insight.

St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). St Hildegard is a famous mystic and female writer of the Latin Middle Ages. She was an abbess who had episcopal authorisation to preach and who corresponded with the famous churchmen of her age. She had visions from a young age which are recorded in her Scivias; she also wrote abundantly on a great many other topics and composed some beautiful music. The Scivias and the music are my main encounters with St Hildegard. Look her up on Spotify.

Cistercians! A great entryway into High Medieval spirituality is The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, translated for Penguin by Pauline Matarasso. This includes selections from Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, and more. Worth your time.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). St Bernard is considered by Cistercians as the Last of the Fathers. Besides the anthology above, I’ve read from his Homilies on the Song of Songs. So much of St Bernard is so good, and so much exists, it is hard to know where else to point.

Jean Leclercq (1911-1993). Dom Jean Leclercq OSB was a scholar-monk, like de Vogué, of the highest calibre. I cannot recommend too highly The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Trappists are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and Thomas Merton is probably the most famous of them. His posthumous The Inner Experience from early this millennium had a strong impact on me, and many speak highly of New Seeds of Contemplation. I also found some random selections from his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain challenging and inspiring (I found a copy lying around my parents’ house while in undergrad and dipped in and out unsystematically).

Adalbert de Vogué (1924-2011). Dom Adalbert de Vogué OSB was an academic scholar-monk who wrote extensively on the monastic tradition. For our purposes, I recommend the English translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.

Important Benedictines of one order or another whose works I’ve not read: Benedict of Aniane (the second Benedict; I skimmed his list of monastic rules once), Hrabanus Maurus  St Peter Damian, St Odo of Cluny, Blessed Peter the Venerable, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, Gertrud the Great of Helfta. Once I’ve read some of his theology, Lanfranc of Bec/Canterbury may also be recommended on this blog.

In closing, one reason why we should concern ourselves with St Benedict’s Rule is not, perhaps, that it is the greatest or the most original monastic text. It probably is not. However, a rich tradition of theology and spirituality flows from it to our own day. This is reason enough to get to know it.


1. Personally, I’ve not read any books devoted solely to Lectio divina, but Enzo Bianchi, Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives has been recommended, and I like the look of Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading

Readily available mediaeval mystics

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…