YOU, DEAREST BROTHERS, WHO HAVE RENOUNCED THE WORKS OF THIS WORLD, AND ARE DELIVERED FROM ALL ITS CARES AND CONCERNS ARE ENGAGED IN THE BATTLE WITH IMPURE SPIRITS AND YOUR OWN THOUGHTS. CONSEQUENTLY YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR REASON AND A SPECIAL NECESSITY FOR MEDITATING ON THE SCRIPTURES. (Aelred de Rievaulx, ‘Sermo de oneribus’ I, PL 195: 364 B) With these words St. Aelred continued a teaching that was deeply rooted in the monastic tradition since its origins. At the very origin of the monastic life as it is traditionally known, St. Antony had decided to become a monk after hearing a text from the Gospel during a liturgy. In the Rules of St. Pachomius it is prescribed that ‘[One should learn by heart] at least the New Testament and the Psalter’ [‘Pachomian Koinonia: Pachomian Chronicles and Precepts’, volume two #140, ed. Armand Veilleux (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 166]. St. Benedict in his Rule for Monasteries provided liberally for lectio divina, a practice he prescribed as a daily exercise.    

Very prominent in his writings and preaching is the role that St. Aelred assigned to Sacred Scripture and the monastic practice of reading and meditating upon their content. He was convinced that ‘the Spirit who himself had founded the Scripture had ordered them with such great prudence that it was capable of innumerable meanings.’ (De oneribus I, PL 195: 363 D-364A). That this was a common view throughout the patristic period and beyond is attested by abundant evidence from every age. No one has demonstrated this truth as thoroughly as Father Delubac in his work, ’Medieval Exegesis’ (4 volumes, Paris: Aubier, 1959- 1964). Although his title seems to confine his study to the period after Gregory the Great, he found that in order to present his theme adequately he had to include the earlier patristic writings. They had served to teach the methods employed by the commentators and preachers of the Middle Ages and their writings were the foundation on which the writers of the Middle Ages based their work.

In fact, Delubac (whom I follow throughout this discussion: cf. Tome II, 376 and passim) demonstrated that the allegorical interpretation was based on a conviction that the inspired writings had a meaning, often the more important one, that was hidden within the letter like a nut inside a shell. This was the fundamental principle governing the explanation and reading of Scripture until modern times. It is a principle derived from the New Testament itself. St. Paul repeatedly witnessed to the validity of this belief. He made use of allegorical interpretation of various Old Testament passages in order to make points of theological nature as well as deriving moral principles from the text.

This type of exegesis that gave an allegorical interpretation of a text had been utilized before Paul’s time by the Greek commentators of Homer. Philo, in Alexandria, had availed himself of the allegorical method of interpretation very widely and was to have a preponderant influence on Origen who was the most widely studied of biblical scholars. He was closely imitated and widely cited by St. Ambrose whose use of this technique did so much to convert St. Augustine to the Catholic Church. One of the few passages where it is possible to observe St. Gregory the Great citing Augustine occurs when he notes that Scripture is often “umbrosus” and “opaca” (dark and impenetrable), employing the same Latin terms used by the Bishop of Hippo. (Cf. Delubac II, 588)

So widely has the allegorical method been employed through the centuries to penetrate to the mystical sense of Scripture that Cardinal Newman considered its use to be integral with the orthodox reading of the bible. He wrote that “the mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together” (‘The Arians of the fourth Century’, 1876 ed. p. 105. Cited in Delubac, 387). The early Cistercians continued the patristic tradition quite naturally so that it became their way of reading Scripture as they engaged in lectio divina. Delubac, in fact, devotes a chapter to St. Bernard along with Gregory and Origen as he considers in detail their approach to the reading of Scripture.   

That the hidden sense is what chiefly interested Bernard and more specifically, the moral application of the text to practice he states explicitly. In the early Church of the Fathers, allegory interpretation that was concerned to discover hidden truths of faith, especially those in the Old Testament that predicted some truth regarding Christ predominated.  Once society was largely converted to the Christian faith there was felt a stronger need to bring behavior into line with the requirements of the Gospel. This resulted in the search for the moral sense of the text. Monks played a large role in this shift of interest. A characteristic passage in which Bernard of Clairvaux explains the meaning of the words of the Canticle of Canticles ‘Your name is oil poured out.’, illustrates his approach with all desirable clarity.

This is the palmary witness of Israel to praise the name of the Lord. Not Israel according to the flesh but that which is according to the Spirit. For how does the first Israel speak? Not that he has no oil, but it is not poured out. He has it but it remains hidden; he has it in books but not in hearts (‘in codicibus, non in cordibus’). He cleaves to the letter, on the outside; he holds in his hands a vessel that is full but sealed up, nor does he open it to use as ointment. Inside, inside is the anointing of the Spirit. Open and anoint and you will no longer be an exasperating house. What good is oil in a container if you do not also feel it on your members? What profit to you is it to read the Savior’s holy name in books and not to have devoted affection in your acts? [Sobre el Cantar de los Cantares, Sermo 14.8 (B.A.C.: (Madrid, 1987) 216]

Bernard here, as often in other texts, makes use of what Delubac calls the ‘liberty of tropology’ (Delubac 2, 578). This was an accepted principle that licenses the interpreter to apply the text under consideration to any new situation, under the condition of remaining within the limits of the analogy of faith. This manner of deriving practical fruit from the text was practiced not only by Cistercian and Benedictine monks, but in addition by the canons regular among others. In fact, this type of application of the biblical text was the general rule in the twelfth century. While the search for the moral sense was undertaken as well in rather early periods as well, it was practiced with considerably less frequency than in the Middle Ages. This period witnessed the widespread growth of monastic life. Related to this development a fresh spirit made itself felt and was quite conscious of being something new. One indication is that Citeaux was at first called simply ‘New Monastery’.  

Some traditional monks considered the new doctrine preached and witnessed to by the monks there to be presumptuous and deserving reproach. But the innovators persevered in their convictions and those who came to them saw in this newness an indication of the workings of the Spirit. Here are the comments of one of the lesser-known Cistercians of the epoch of St. Bernard. ’In my Clairvaux . . . the large number of both nobles and of well educated men gives birth to the new man in the new life.’ (Nicolas de Clairvaux, Ep. 35 PL 196: 1627 in Delubac, II. 583). That the Cistercian way of life as experienced at that period of time was divinely inspired is affirmed by the same author in enthusiastic language. “’I poured out my soul within me for I shall pass over to the place of the admirable tabernacle even to the house of God.’ I mean the tabernacle that is Clairvaux which is not made by human hands.” (Epistle 45, PL 196:1645 C) Bernard in particular was responsive to the changes that were creating a fresh character for the 12th century. He was able to give expressive voice to the spirit that many contemporaries could feel was moving them to desire a fresh vision to guide them in life. One aspirant put his sentiments in these terms in a letter to Bernard. “Your tongue is a new voice; you speak, as I see it, with a new language when you intone the sacred mysteries. . .  introduce me into your cellars.’ (Hugh Metel, PL 182: 687-8)  

New as his use of Scripture was, Bernard’s writings remained in continuity with the patristic tradition. Although he really did not write as an exegete of Scripture, his extensive and free application of it as guide for the moral and ascetic life was deeply rooted in the mysteries revealed in the sacred text. Everywhere he presupposes, as did the Fathers, the fundamental truths of the faith manifested in the Lord Jesus. The basis of his spirit of freedom so abundantly evident everywhere in his writings and speech was his confidence he was following the Spirit who had inspired the holy writings. Bernard did his lectio divina in the presence of the Spirit of the Lord and sought to make of Scripture the source of the whole of his inner life and his activity. He was persuaded of the truth of the principle that Scripture cannot be understood unless it is put into practice: ‘life must be instructed; … action taught or enriched’, he wrote. This was the ruling principle customarily enlivening his use of the bible as he makes clear in the course of a chapter talk to his monks.

Certain ones among you, as I have discovered, do not tolerate well that my sermon for several days now, has indulged in the pleasures afforded by the marvelous and admirable mystery. You are displeased that the talk is not spiced at all, or too little, with the salt of the moral teaching, contrary to my usual custom. (‘In Cantica sermo 80.1’, PL 183: 1166C in Delubac II. 589). 

This concern to apply in a practical, effective way the teaching  of the bible to life was directed above all to the inner work of purifying the heart. The monks of earlier times were concerned mostly with coming to grips with the objective history of salvation, whereas ‘the Cistercians sought God especially in His invisible image, restored in the soul by charity’. (Placide Deseille, cited by Delubac II, 584) This sums up well the manner in which not only Bernard but also our monastic predecessors as a whole went about their lectio divina.  They read Scripture n view of contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation with its manifold implications and, rooted in this mystery, they sought to apply the demands of following Christ to the primary undertaking of monastic life, namely, purification of the heart.

St. Aelred considered that the chief instrument of formation for the monk in view of attaining to purity of heart was regular reading and meditating the Scriptures. He told his monks in the course of a chapter talk:YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR REASON AND A SPECIAL NECESSITY FOR MEDITATING ON THE SCRIPTURES’. The sacred writings became for him more than a venerable text; they were the vital word of  the living God. ‘His sense of  history comes to him from revelation: “For in God’s word”, he remarked, “we are reminded of the past, we see into the present, we foresee the future.” [S. Inediti, p. 31, cited in A. Hallier, ‘The Monastic Theology of Aelred of Rievaulx, tr. C. Haney (Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press 1969) 96.   I follow him here and in the following paragraph).We are to understand that during this period of the Middle Ages reading of Scripture was regularly accompanied by perusal of the patristic commentators. St. Aelred along with the other abbots of his time was formed in a monastic school whose program as stated in the influential Exordium Parvum included a serious application to the works of the Fathers. This document states that these holy teachers “were the spokesmen of the holy Spirit, whose ordinances it were sacrilegious to neglect.” (chapter XV) In writing his best known work, “On Friendship”, he observes that in preparing this book he did careful research. ‘Time and again I gave the matter thought in my efforts to base myself on Scripture. In the holy Fathers I found much on friendship.’ St. Aelred, like Bernard before him, was especially indebted to Augustine and Gregory the Great among others. They provided him with insights and ideas that he made use of in personal ways. While he assimilated much of their teaching, he was selective. He did not hesitate to put aside those points he felt were not helpful to his purposes and went on to elaborate further their doctrine in light of his own times and experience.

It has been said that the trouble with reading is that the words go in one ear and out the other. Certainly that is the case with a good deal of our reading and it applies to much that we hear spoken as well. However, there are words that are capable of changing the state of our soul if we allow them to penetrate into our heart. Such a manner of reading and listening is, in fact, what lectio divina consists in, as was stated above in connection with St. Bernard’s way or reading Scripture. He and Aelred were both formed in the same school where experience of spiritual realities and not only ideas and thought was essential for realizing the goal of purity of heart. ‘Let your experience teach you’, Aelred told his monks in chapter. He is not referring to sensual experience here but to ‘affectus’, which is the state accompanying spiritual and intelligible operations. Affectus develops in response to those insights which are felt at a higher level of the soul. In the course of prayer and spiritual reading made in a spirit of faith perceptions of divine truth and spiritual beauty occur in the apex of the soul, or the deep places of the heart. Though they are truly experienced, yet they remain elusive, and so are ineffable. They are beyond the reach of words.

Rightly to grasp the fuller message imparted to us by Scripture we must be properly disposed in our ‘affectus’. The most intimate dispositions of our mind, the central, hidden places of the heart exist in a concrete relation to the outside world, both visible and invisible. In the twelfth century there was a fresh appreciation of the decisive role of affectus in the spiritual life; a keen attention was given to its nature and function by the Cistercian writers of this period, Aelred among them. Bernard, in a letter full of charm and wit, sought to persuade the monk of Rievaulx to devote himself to writing a work on charity. Aelred, who was novice master at the time, had excused himself on the basis of lacking due scholarly qualification since he had been trained among pots and pans in the kitchen not in the schools. He refers here to his position as chief steward in the court of the king of Scotland. Bernard in response states that is beside the point; in fact, it wets his appetite. Here are his own words.

I accept your excuses most gratefully; I feel that they serve rather to increase the spark of my desire rather than extinguish it. The reason is that what you prepare should taste sweeter to me if you produce what you learned not from any grammarian but in the school of the Holy Spirit. How gratifying it is that you were transferred from the kitchen to the desert as a presage of future things… so that eventually in the home of our King you should compare spiritual matters with spiritual and refresh the hungry with the food of the word of God…. I think that … you would sense under the shade of a tree what you could never learn in the schools. [Ep. 520, Obras vol. VII, p.[1286].

Bernard in speaking of taste here makes a subtle reference to wisdom, a word that in Latin he said derives from ‘sapere’, to taste.  In short, he wants Aelred to write on charity  so as to assist those who read his work to experience ‘how much sweetness is had in possessing it’. Needless to add, he got his way and Aelred’s most original work,’The Mirror of Charity’ was the result. That the English abbot understood the reference to wisdom is suggested by a statement he made later that the monk’s ‘learning should lead him to wisdom’.

The task set before us Cistercian monks in our lectio divina and in the Divine Office where we encounter the word of God in the public prayer of the Church, is that of being refashioned by the Spirit of God who remains active in the word He had originally inspired. This is a work of faith and of desire. It demands time and application. We must so go about it as to assure that the learning we derive from it lodges in the heart. We are to assimilate it by serious efforts to bring its light to bear on our inner dispositions so as to evaluate them in the light of God’s holy truth. And then to make the efforts require to act in keeping with that truth. Such efforts, under the influence of the grace of the Spirit, brings about a real alteration of our affectus, the hidden dispositions of our heart. In this way the truths revealed to us in Scripture are assimilated into our mind and alter our manner of thinking and of feeling about God, self, the world and all in it. This kind of process under the influence of the inspired word of God is the very purpose of our monastic life, this transformation of the inner man that increasingly renders us more capable of knowing God because we resemble Him more in the inner man. Let us give ourselves to this labor more generously. In order to do so let us put aside more time for such prayerful reading, avoid distracting talk and readings and sharpen our desire to know by experience the Lord of glory who is our life and our salvation.&

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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