Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Art or Practice of Contemplation in the Medieval Period

Hadewych/Hadewijch/Hadewig of Brabant c. 1220 – 1260
Ay al es nu die winter cout / cort die daghe / ende die nachte langhe.
Handschrift Gent, UB, 941, f. 49r

Miniature of The Blessed John of Ruysbroeck (1293 or 1294, Ruisbroek – December 2, 1381, Groenendaal)
From Vanden gheesteliken tabernakel, Spieghel der eeuwegher salicheit en Van seven trappen c. 1380
Brussel KB 19.295-97, fol. 2v
He was beatified on December 1, 1908, by Pope St. Pius X.

Peter Paul Metz (1830 - 1912)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (1207- 1282)
Choir stall portrait sculpture (1896)
Kath. Pfarrkirche St. Gordian und Epimachus,
Stadt Leutkirch im Allgäu, Merazhofen,

"The art or practice of contemplation did not, of course, originate in this period [1300 - 1415].

Its origin, in the western tradition, lay in the Augustinian idea that the love of God was the basis of understanding, and in its division by the pseudo-Dionysius into purgative, illuminative and unitive phases; germinating in the solitude idealised by monks and anchorites, and taking form from the prayers and meditations of St Anselm, it had reached explicit expression in the monastic school of St Victor in twelfth-century Paris.

Hugh of St Victor may well have been the first to give the term its first distinct religious meaning, and seems also to have sketched out the stages by which the pilgrim mounts to God. The idea of a journey of the soul towards God had been elaborated by his successor Richard of St Victor, for whom the love and knowledge of God were ultimately identical and, since he did not distinguish natural understanding from mystical knowledge of God, theology and contemplation were in essence the same.

His ‘speculative’ mysticism was the basis of the intellectual approach taken by the Rhineland mystical writers of the fourteenth century to the contemplative experiences of the nuns and beguines under their direction.

A century after Richard, the Franciscan theologian Bonaventure had defined the object of contemplation more specifically, by focusing it on the incarnation and passion of Christ, aspects of his humanity on which Franciscan devotion turned. By making it a subject of the spiritual direction which the friars were developing, he broadened its appeal beyond the monastic world of the Victorines, and opened it to communities of nuns and anchoresses who were bound by a less formal rule; the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages of contemplation which, following the pseudo-Dionysius, he made its framework, marked out what was beginning to be at once a more widely popular and a more deeply individual way of spiritual progress.

At the same time, perhaps under the influence of the friars, loose religious communities or confraternities, whose distinctive mark was devotion to the life and passion of Christ, were springing up especially in the towns of Italy and the Rhineland.

Women were prominent among them, particularly in Germany and the Low Countries, and in many of their surviving utterances the language of secular love poetry is adapted to contemplation: this brautmystik or bridal imagery was characteristic of the poetry of the Dutch contemplative Hadewijch of Antwerp, whose note of ecstatic union with God seems to show that her idea of the return of fallen man to his creator by means of love was derived from her own religious experience, though possibly given form, through the friars, by the literary tradition of the Victorines.

Guided by spiritual directors though she and her contemporaries probably were, their religious experiences were certainly not mere literary devices in the autobiographical writings, letters and notes which many of them composed, and testify to a widespread and autonomous movement.

Occasionally enthusiasm outran the limits of orthodoxy among the loosely controlled communities of beguines, beghards or flagellants, and antinomian tendencies emerged from time to time in groups like the Brethren of the Free Spirit in Germany or the Fraticelli in Italy. In one expression of such emancipation from the pursuit of virtue, The Mirror of Simple Souls evidently written by Marguerite Porète of Valenciennes, who was burned in 1310, contemplation replaced the moral life altogether.

More frequently, however, the influence of friar directors like Henry of Halle OP, the adviser of the contemplative Mechtilde of Magdeburg, was strong enough to maintain the link between the teaching of the schools and spirituality.

Though the religious experience of the contemplatives was authentic, it was increasingly expressed through theological concepts, and sometimes in the very words of their confessors or directors."

Jeremy Catto (Fellow of Oriel College, University of Oxford) Currents of religious thought and expression (Chapter 3) in The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume VI c, 1300 - c. 1415 (2008)

On Friday, 12 September 2008 Pope Benedict XVI in an interview while on his Apostolic Journey to France said:

"I would not dare to say that I know France well. I know it a little, but I love France, the great French culture, especially of course the great cathedrals and also the great French art... the great theology that begins with St Irenaeus of Lyons through until the 13th century, and I have studied the 13th century University of Paris: St Bonaventure and St Thomas Aquinas.

This theology was crucial for the development of theology in the West.... And naturally the theology of the century of the Second Vatican Council. I had the great honour and joy of being a friend of Fr de Lubac, one of the most important figures of the past century, but I also had a good working relationship with Fr Congar, Jean Daniélou and others. ...

Thus, I truly had very profound, very personal and enriching contact with the great theological and philosophical culture of France. This was truly decisive for the development of my thought. But there was also the rediscovery of the original Gregorian chant with Solesmes, the great monastic culture... and of course great poetry. As a man of the Baroque, I am very partial to Paul Claudel, to his joie de vivre, and also to Bernanos and the great French poets of the past century. Thus it is a culture which truly determined my personal, theological, philosophical and human development"