Medieval Mysticism: Raising the Mind to God

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
July 12, 2019
Sunshine

Long before Christ, kings were reckoned mediators between the gods (or a god) and society.  In medieval Europe, however, emperors and kings were considered mediators of Christ’s reign.  French kings were ordained deacons who celebrated High Mass with the Archbishop of Paris and were said to have had miraculous healing powers – even into the 18th century.  In the Middle Ages, a Christian realm was a Corpus Mysticum Christi (a Mystical Body of Christ), a baptized community akin to a suburb of Heaven.  That’s “Political Science 101.”  As for “History 101,” I’d say that the (Western) Middle Ages spanned from the Merovingian Kings/Arthurian England (late 5th century) to the Reformation (mid 16th century).  Some historians close out the Middle Ages in the 14th century.  Time categories are elusive.  No “King of the Franks” awoke one fine morning and said, “Thus begins the Middle Ages!”  And John Calvin didn’t gaze across Lake Geneva and say, “Good riddance! The Middle Ages are finally over!”  But I think it fair to say that the Middle Ages were about broad acknowledgement of Christ’s reign over everything from politics, to culture, to the hidden recesses of the mind. The Middle Ages were inherently mystical. In those days, promising young men often ran off into the wilderness to live as hermits or monks.  There was, of course, plenty of monastic mediocrity.  But that’s just a fact of life in anything popular.  Yet, greatness arises from vast seas of mediocrity, like a good movie.  So with the Middle Ages: its cultural hallmark was mysticism, the best and worst of it.  Here are three samples of medieval mysticism at its best, from the font of orthodox Catholicism. This is perennial insight, relevant now and always.  Meet Saints Romuald (via St. Peter Damian), Bonaventure and Anselm. 

From The Life of Saint Romuald (11th cent) by Saint Peter Damian

Romuald lived in the vicinity of the city of Parenzo for three years.  In the first year, he built a monastery and appointed an abbot with monks.  For the next two years, he remained there in seclusion.  In that setting, divine holiness transported him to such a summit of perfection that, breathed upon by the Holy Spirit, he foresaw many future events and comprehended with the rays of his intelligence hidden mysteries of the Old and New Testaments.  Frequently he was seized by so great a contemplation of divinity that he would be reduced to tears with the boiling, indescribable heat of divine love.  In this condition he would cry out: Beloved Jesus, beloved, sweet honey, indescribable longing, delight of the saints, sweetness of the angels, and other things of this kind.  We are unable to express the ecstasy of these utterances, dictated by the Holy Spirit.  Wherever the holy man might arrange to live, he would follow the same pattern.  First he would build an oratory with an altar in a cell; then he would shut himself in and forbid access.

Finally, after he had lived in many places, perceiving that his end was near, he returned to the monastery he had built in the valley of Castro.  While he awaited with certainty his approaching death, he ordered a cell to be constructed there with an oratory in which he might isolate himself and persevere in silence until death.  Accordingly the hermitage was built, since he had made up his mind that he would die there.  His body began to grow more and more oppressed by afflictions and was already failing, not so much from weakness as from the exhaustion of great age.  One day he began to feel the loss of his physical strength under all the harassment of increasingly violent afflictions.  As the sun was beginning to set, he instructed two monks who were standing by to go out and close the door of the cell behind them; they were to come back to him at daybreak to celebrate matins.  They were so concerned about his end that they went out reluctantly and did not rest immediately.  On the contrary, since they were worried that their master might die, they lay hidden near the cell and watched this precious treasure.  For some time they continued to listen attentively until they heard neither movement nor sound.  Rightly guessing what had happened, they pushed open the door, rushed in quickly, lit a candle and found the holy man lying on his back, his blessed soul snatched up into heaven.  As he lay there, he seemed like a neglected heavenly pearl that was soon to be given a place of honor in the treasury of the King of kings. 

From The Proslogion by St Anselm (12th century)

My soul, have you found what you are looking for? You were looking for God, and you have discovered that he is the supreme being, and that you could not possibly imagine anything more perfect. You have discovered that this supreme being is life itself, light, wisdom, goodness, eternal blessedness and blessed eternity. He is everywhere, and he is timeless.  Lord my God, you gave me life and restored it when I lost it. Tell my soul that so longs for you what else you are besides what it has already understood, so that it may see you clearly. It stands on tiptoe to see more, but apart from what it has seen already, it sees nothing but darkness. Of course it does not really see darkness, because there is no darkness in you, but it sees that it can see no further because of the darkness in itself.

Surely, Lord, inaccessible light is your dwelling place, for no one apart from yourself can enter into it and fully comprehend you. If I fail to see this light it is simply because it is too bright for me. Still, it is by this light that I do see all that I can, even as weak eyes, unable to look straight at the sun, see all that they can by the sun’s light.  The light in which you dwell, Lord, is beyond my understanding. It is so brilliant that I cannot bear it, I cannot turn my mind’s eye toward it for any length of time. I am dazzled by its brightness, amazed by its grandeur, overwhelmed by its immensity, bewildered by its abundance.

O supreme and inaccessible light, O complete and blessed truth, how far you are from me, even though I am so near to you! How remote you are from my sight, even though I am present to yours! You are everywhere in your entirety, and yet I do not see you; in you I move and have my being, and yet I cannot approach you; you are within me and around me, and yet I do not perceive you.  O God, let me know you and love you so that I may find my joy in you; and if I cannot do so fully in this life, let me at least make some progress every day, until at last that knowledge, love and joy come to me in all their plenitude. While I am here on earth let me learn to know you better, so that in heaven I may know you fully; let my love for you grow deeper here, so that there I may love you fully. On earth then I shall have great joy in hope, and in heaven complete joy in the fulfillment of my hope.

O Lord, through your Son you command us, no, you counsel us to ask, and you promise that you will hear us so that our joy may be complete. Lord, I am making the request that you urge us to make through your Wonder-Counselor. Give me then what you promise to give through your Truth. You,

O God, are faithful; grant that I may receive my request, so that my joy may be complete.  Meanwhile, let this hope of mine be in my thoughts and on my tongue; let my heart be filled with it, my voice speak of it; let my soul hunger for it, my body thirst for it, my whole being yearn for it, until I enter into the joy of the Lord, who is Three in One, blessed for ever. Amen. 

From The Journey of the Mind to God, by St. Bonaventure (13th century)

Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the "throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant," and "the mystery hidden from the ages." A man should turn his full attention to this throne of mercy, and should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a "pasch," that is, a passing-over. Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulcher, as if he were dead to things outside. He will experience, as much as is possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung beside Christ: "Today you will be with me in paradise."   For this passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostle says that this mystical wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit.

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardor of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: "My soul chose hanging and my bones death." Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God, for it is certainly true that: "No man can look upon me and live."  Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ "from this world to the Father," so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: "It is enough." We may hear with Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you;" and we can rejoice with David, saying: "My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage for ever.

Blessed be the Lord forever, and let all the people say: Amen. Amen!" 

 

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