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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The unimaginability of God

In my wanderings, I recently encountered a very lovely Romanesque crucifix, pictured below in an image from Tripadvisor.

cattedrale-di-sant-eusebio

I prayed in front of that image of my Saviour from ca. 1000. How could I not? I’m fond of Romanesque art.

The next day I encountered a Renaissance fresco of the Most Holy Trinity, not unlike this one:

Luca_Rossetti_Trinità_Chiesa_San_Gaudenzio_Ivrea

Committed as I am to the Ecumenical Councils, I believe that the logic of the Incarnation makes the first image acceptable, but the logic of the Trinity and the logic of Deuteronomy 4 preclude the second. As 1 John 4:12 says, ‘No one has seen God.’ If the subject of images of the Trinity interests you, I recommend Matt Milliner’s lecture ‘Visual Heresy: Imaging God the Father in the History of Art‘ as well as the chapter on the subject in Sarah Coakley’s book God, Sexuality, and the Self.

God is not a being among beings, despite what philosophers since the 13th century have been trying to tell us. He is not simply a god-pigeon to us pigeons. He is utterly unlike us. God is not a man. God is Other. God is holy, and as such, wholly other. Thus, we aren’t authorised to make images of God the Father or the Holy Trinity.

People have long had difficulty with this, of course. In late fourth-century Egypt, there was an Anthropomorphite Controversy. St John Cassian tells us that when one of the desert Abbas (one Serapion, I think) was told that he was not allowed to imagine God in the image of a man, he declared in despair, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know what to do.’

William of St Thierry (1085-1148), in the aforementioned meditation, writes:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the ther through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united. (trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113)

I find that crucifixes have helped me in my devotions (my Reformed friends will disagree with my subjective experience, of course!) — carved ones as well as painted ones as well as cast metal as above. They serve as visual reminders of that His precious death that wrought life for me. They can fill me with joy for salvation or compunction for sin.

Images of the Trinity simply annoy me.

The reduction of the Trinity into an old guy, a young guy, and a dove is the most absurd idea in the world. Now, I know that no crucifix can show the glory of Christ Our God — but the actual crucifixion didn’t, either. Not supernaturally. So that’s my out. (Besides, I always have Fra Angelico.) As Kierkegaard said (I paraphrase), to gain the full import of the Incarnation, you must point to a man in a crowd and say, ‘That is God.’ That is the visual ordinariness of Christ Incarnate.

The Trinity is unimaginable. There is no visual ordinariness of that which is beyond images.

The use of equivocal language about God that enables artists to produce such blasphemous images on church ceilings means that we have an impoverished view of God. The circumscribability of these images is wrong. The visible divisions of the Persons is wrong. We start to think of God as a man, only bigger. As I say, a god-pigeon amongst us pigeons. Transcendence has been compromised and needs to be rediscovered.

It is central to theology.

To quote another Cistercian from the same book as William of St Thierry, Blessed Amedeus of Lausanne (d. 1159) writes:

What part is the finite of the infinite, the measurable of the immeasurable, the moment of eternity? As the result of what multiplication or addition will the creature be comparable to the creator? If you were to project thousands times thousands to infinity, you wouldhave laboured in vain, and not in the remotest degree could you compare human knowledge to the wisdom of God. Hence, if God is contemplated in his essence, the substance of man will not be found … (Fourth Homily on Mary, the Virgin Mother, p. 142)

When people become disillusioned with the shallow devotionals we thrust at them, or when people are dissatisfied at never going beyond ‘Justification by faith’ or ‘substitionary atonement’ Sunday after Sunday, or they tire of Christian rock, what will they find? Will they find a circumscribed Trinity of heresy, or a God who died for them on the Cross?

The Great Tradition has much to offer, including the riches of Trinitarian theology. Let us not allow bad images and falsely equivocal language ruin that.

Belief and understanding: Anselm, Augustine, William of St Thierry — and YOU

St Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum, ‘Credo ut intelligam’ — I believe so that I may understand — appears at the end of chapter 1 of the Proslogion. The context looks like this:

I confess, Lord, and give you thanks, because you created you created this your image in me, so that, mindful of you, I might contemplate you, I might love you. But it [the image] is so decayed by the wearing down of vices, so darkened by the smoke of sins, that it cannot be of service for that which it was made for, unless you renew and reshape it. I do not attempt, Lord, to penetrate your height, because in no way do I compare my understanding to it; but I desire in some way to understand your turth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I also believe this, that “Unless I shall believe, I may not understand.” (my trans.)

Throughout Proslogion 1, St Anselm is setting the groundwork for how we are to approach the unapproachable light, to contemplate the invisible, transcendant God. How can we, sinful humans with clouded sight, draw near to God and see Him? Then comes this paragraph. Thus the context for the famous dictum.

St. Augustine's pears, St. Sabas' apples & genreSchmitt’s edition gives us St Augustine as the inspiration:

For we believe in order that we may know (cognoscamus), we do not know in order that we may believe. (Tract. in Joh. XL, n. 9 [PL 35.1690])

Believe so that you may understand [plural you]. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. CCXII, n. 1 [PL 38.1059])

But so that we may understand, first let us believe. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. LXXXIX, n. 4 [PL 38.556])

Therefore since we wish to understand the eternity of the Trinity, we must believe before we may understand. (De Trin. l. VIII, c. V, n. 8 [PL 42.952])

I have not checked the contexts of all of these, but the last is pretty clear — trying to understand the Most Holy Trinity.

Anselm lived 1033-1109, before some of the unfortunate incidents in mediaeval theology that started the now-accepted separation between intellect and belief. A few decades later, this marriage of faith and reason — of faith seeking reason — would still be visible in William of St Thierry (1085-1148), who turned up in my Lenten reading this year (The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, ed. and trans. P. Matarasso):

It is not reason … that leads faith to understanding; rather, through faith it looks for understanding from above, even from you, the Father of lights from whom comes every good and perfect gift. This is not that understanding which is acquired by the exercise of reason, or results from intellectual processes: it is drawn in response to faith from the throne of your greatness and formed by your wisdom. In all things like its source, on entering the mind of the believer it embraces reason and conforms it to itself, while faith is quickened and enlightened by it. (Meditation II, p. 113 in English)

William’s context is also the apprehension of God. He is discussing contemplation and the feeble attempts of his own mind in seeking the face of God — how dark it seems, how far he feels from God, how much like a beginner at all times, how difficult the ascent, how quickly any illumination seems to fade away. How like the experience of us all.

Reason is all well and good.

But how can we attain to understanding of the Divine Person(s) with our frail, human reason — itself clouded by sins and weaknesses and mistakes?

Credo ut intelligam is not a rejection of reason. It is not an abandonment of all rational attempts to consider the Triune God. It is, rather, an admission that rational intellect alone cannot attain to the understanding of Someone Who is simultaneously beyond all of this and nearer to us than our own breath — the Creator of quarks and quasars and the cosmos, the One Who Is Three but One (William in particular admits to his difficulties with properly thinking about the Trinity), the God Who became a Man.

How could understanding God ever precede believing in Him?

Indeed, what these three men — mystics and theologians, all — demonstrate to us is that, even once we believe, still do we struggle to understand.

Let us be of good cheer, then, as we trust in our God Who loves us and made us and remakes us.