The writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury and Hildegard of Bingen provide us with windows into thoughts of their authors during a time of fruitful activity in medieval monasticism. Using references familiar to their readers, each author attempts to look through and beyond the expected, pointing the way to a spiritual value that leads the follower along the path to heaven.
St. Bernard’s On Loving God appeals first to reason, providing examples from everyday life of the eternal cycle of desire and acquisitive mimesis observed in those who seek to improve their status in this life through better clothes, more land, nicer houses and more beautiful wives (348). He proposes that in the beginning of our relationship with God we seek what is to our advantage. However, by the grace that God imparts to us, the faithful begin a pilgrimage through four stages of love which move from self interest into loving God without seeking gain and, for the lucky few, onward into a final stage in which the soul finds complete fulfillment in the experience of God (Bernard 350-351). Bernard’s description of the human condition is first grounded in practical examples but his use of biblical texts points to a most desirable state that lies beyond the comprehension of those who are still in the first stages of the journey. Using passages primarily from the Psalms he attempts to describe the pinnacle of human-divine interaction, finally arriving at the point of union with God and ceasing to strive: "To lose yourself, as if you no longer existed, to cease completely to experience yourself, to reduce yourself to nothing is not a human sentiment but a divine experience" (Bernard 351).
With a similar goal of transcending the mundane, St. Anselm of Canterbury uses the familiar figure of the Virgin Mary as a focal point in his "A Prayer to St. Mary." Appealing to the religious traditions of his time, Anselm’s prayer begins with a familiar object of veneration; however, the intensity with which he explores his relationship as a petitioner moves beyond the public persona of religious celebrity to a level of deep intimacy, expressed throughout the text in his use of the informal you. While Anselm’s Mary is bestowed with royal titles – "Queen of angels, Mistress of the world, Mother of Him who cleanses the world" (201) – she appears also to be accessible to those who steadfastly seek her help. Anselm’s prayer is a poem of contemplation, layering image upon image to produce an affective devotion to the one who, by her childbearing, has revived, healed and redeemed a world lost in darkness (203). Beginning from traditional Christian motifs, Anselm’s prayer points to the way to transcendence for a sinful, wicked world by seeking, as the title of his prayer suggests, to obtain love for both Mary, who stands as chief intercessor in heaven, and also for Christ (201). Anselm understands Jesus Christ not as a distant, unapproachable king, but rather as a brother, brought into humanity through the labors Mary has borne (207). His idea of heaven, with its soaring visions of angels and celestial bodies restored to their original order, is grounded in the mystery that through her obedience to the Spirit of God, Mary has made a way to cross over into a state of bliss.
In her own vision of the Blessed Trinity, St. Hildegard of Bingen attempts to encapsulate in words her contemplation of God. Beginning with her description of a most splendid light, shining with a beautiful fire, encompassing a sapphire-colored figure (108), she begins a reflection on the distinct yet inseparable persons of the Trinity. Moving from her ecstatic vision, Hildegard’s tools of rhetoric are examples of everyday objects that, through her unique classification system, also contain various distinct characteristics that are bound together into a inseparable whole. A stone, she explains, contains three virtues of moisture, palpability and fire, while a flame posses three virtues of light, vigor and heat (110). A third example (in keeping with our Trinitarian motif) speaks of the virtues possessed by a word: sound, power and breath (Hildegard 111). Each of these examples builds on metaphors that would be familiar from scripture: God as Rock, God as all-consuming Fire, and the Word that was God. But in her examples, Hildegard attempts to point beyond these everyday concepts to the mystery of the Holy Trinity, referring to her teachings as "mystic words… which emanate from [her], living" and suggesting that those who are watchful and attentive will embrace them to their benefit (113).
While examining Hildegard’s text I was struck by her claim that Mary remained Virgin after the birth of Christ (112). I am unable to understand whether she is referring to a spiritual state or whether perhaps this follows a tradition which would suggest that Mary bore no other children after Jesus. This would be an interesting area for further reading.
The task of pointing toward the transcendent in the formation of believers is one that the Church must still carry out today. The writings of these three monastic leaders provide us with examples of how appeals to rational argument, a shared canonical tradition, and references to the natural world can be used as guides, pointing to greater spiritual truths. When consciously viewed as metaphors even the most common objects or phenomena can help us to look past our daily experience into the transcendent.
Anselm of Canterbury. "A Prayer to St. Mary." A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham. Ed. Eugene R. Fairweather. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981. 201-207.
Bernard of Clairvaux. "On Loving God" Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004. 347-354.
Hildegard of Bingen. "The Visions of St. Hildegard." In Her Words: women’s writings in the history of Christian thought. Ed. Amy Oden. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.107-113.