The Love of Learning and the Desire for God,
 A Study of Monastic Culture

Ch. 5
Jean Leclercq, O.S.B.


[1] Grammar: Introd. to Script.;    [2] “Active” Reading;   [3] Med. Prayer and Reminiscence;   [4] Bibl.Imagination;   [5] Exegesis by Concordance [6] Profane Learning;   [7] Old Test.;   [8] Old & New Test.: Symb. and Reality  [9] Old Test. Desire for God [10] Song of Songs

THE principal literary sources of monastic culture may be reduced to three: they are Holy Scripture, the Patristic Tradition, and Classical Literature. The liturgy, which will be treated later, is the medium through which the Bible and the patristic tradition are received, and it is the Liturgy that gives unity to all the manifestations of monastic culture. In the first place, then, we must attempt to supply an introduction to the study of monastic exegesis. “Attempt” and “introduction”; these two terms are justified by the fact that this domain has been, till now, but very little studied. What has been studied most are the classical sources, probably because these problems of medieval culture have been approached more often by medievalists than by theologians and patrologists. However, it is now perceived that the monastic Middle Ages in general and St. Bernard in particular must be understood from the point of view of what preceded them-the patristic tradition whose principal task was to transmit and explain the Bible. A general study of the medieval monastic commentators is still lacking.’[1] The groundwork for this study will have to be prepared for by editions of individual works, a task which still remains to be done. If, therefore, solutions cannot be proposed, at least attention may be drawn to some of the problems which are encountered.

        To begin with, one fact is certain: there really is a monastic literature on the Scripture, and it is abundant, more abundant than the few studies dedicated to it would lead us to believe. To verify this fact, we have an elementary method, that of statistics. If this is applied to the recent Biblical Repertory of the Middle Ages, it is seen that, for the period which extends from the ninth century to the beginning of the thirteenth, monastic authors are nearly three times more numerous in it than others.[2] Moreover, this list is far from complete.[3] It can even be said that up to and during the twelfth century, monastic authors are so numerous that they set the tone. Then, little by little, scholastic commentaries become more numerous.

        If we wish to understand monastic exegesis from the inside, so to speak, it would seem that we must begin with the genesis of the biblical experience from which this exegesis proceeds. The characteristics of monastic exegesis will then become apparent and will embody our conclusions.


 [1] Grammar: Introduction to Scripture


[1] Grammar: Introduction to Scripture


THE premise held by all who work with Holy Scripture is that grammar is a necessary introduction to it. Since the Scripture is a book, one must know how to read it, and learn how to read it just as one learns how to read any other book. In the first place, a verbal analysis must be made, using the same philological methods Smaragdus used in connection with the Rule of St. Benedict. That grammar is considered as the “introduction to Sacred Scripture” is clearly stated in the life of St. Hugh of Cluny, for example,[4] and this application of grammatical analysis to Scripture resulted in a certain attachment to the written word itself, and a great importance given to the texts and to the words.

    However, this application of grammar to Scripture has been practiced in monasticism in a way which is entirely its own because it is linked with the fundamental observances of monastic life. The basic method is different from that of non-monastic circles where Scripture is read, namely the schools.

[1] Originally, lectio divina and sacra pagina are equivalent expressions. For St. Jerome as for St. Benedict, the lectio divina is the text itself which is being read, a selected passage or a “lesson” taken from Scripture.

[2] During the Middle Ages, this expression was to be reserved more and more for the act of reading, “the reading of Holy Scripture.”

[A] In the School it refers most often to the page itself, the text which is under study, taken objectively. Scripture is studied for its own sake.

[B] In the cloister, however, it is rather the reader and the benefit that he derives from Holy Scripture which are given consideration.

In both instances an activity is meant which is “holy,” sacra, divina; but in the two milieus, the accent is put on two different aspects of the same activity. The orientation differs, and, consequently, so does the procedure.

[A] The scholastic lectio takes the direction of the quaestio and the disputatio. The reader puts questions to the text and then questions himself on the subject matter: quaeri solet.

[B] The monastic lectio is oriented toward the meditatio and the oratio.

[A] The objective of the first is science and knowledge;

[B] of the second, wisdom and appreciation. In the monastery, the lectio divina, this activity which begins with grammar, terminates in compunction, in desire of heaven.


 [2] “Active” Reading


[2] “Active” Reading


IT has already been mentioned that in the Middle Ages the reader usually pronounced the words with his lips, at least in a low tone and consequently, he hears the sentence seen by the eyes, just as today, in order to learn a language or a text, we pronounce the words. This results in more than a visual memory of th written words. What results is a muscular memory of the wor s pronounced and an aural memory of the words heard. The meditatio consists in applying oneself with attention to this exercise in total memorization; it is, therefore, inseparable from the lectio. It is what inscribes, so to speak, the sacred text in the body and in the soul.

    This repeated mastication of the divine words is sometimes described by use of the theme of spiritual nutrition. In this case the vocabulary is borrowed from eating, from digestion,, and from the particular form of digestion belonging to ruminants. For this reason, reading and meditation are sometimes described by the very expressive word ruminatio. For example, in praising a monk who prayed constantly Peter the Venerable cried: “Without resting, his mouth ruminated the sacred words.”[5] Of John of Gorze it was claimed that the murmur of his lips pronouncing the Psalms resembled the buzzing of a bee.[6] To meditate is to attach oneself closely to the sentence being recited and weigh all its words in order to sound the depths of their full meaning. It means assimilating the content of a text by means of a kind of mastication which releases its full flavor. It means, as St.Augustine, St. Gregory, John of Fécamp and others say in an untranslatable expression, to taste it with the palatum cordis or in ore cordis.[7] All this activity is, necessarily, a prayer; the lectio divina is a prayerful reading.[8] Thus, the Cistercian, Arnoul of Bohériss will give this advice:

When he reads, let him seek for savor, not science. The Holy Scripture is the well of Jacob from which the waters are drawn which will be poured out later in prayer. Thus there will be no need to go to the oratory to begin to pray; but in reading itself, means will be found for prayer and contemplation.[9]

  [3] Meditative Prayer and Reminiscence


[3] Meditative Prayer and Reminiscence


THIS way of uniting reading, meditation and prayer, this “meditative prayer” as William of St. Thierry calls it, had great influence on religious psychology. It occupies and engages the whole person in whom the Scripture takes root, later on to bear fruit. It is this deep impregnation with the words of Scripture that explains the extremely important phenomenon of reminiscence whereby the verbal echoes so excite the memory that a mere allusion will spontaneously evoke whole quotations and, in turn, a scriptural phrase will suggest quite naturally allusions elsewhere in the sacred books. Each word is like a hook, so to speak; it catches hold of one or several others which become linked together and make up the fabric of the exposé. This accounts for the difficulty of what is called today research into sources: are the monks quoting older versions of Scripture or are they modifying them? Most frequently, it would seem, they are quoting from memory; quotations by means of the “hook-words,” group themselves together in their minds and under their pen, like variations on the same theme. It happens that the same context is found several times in the same author and in others. Not that the one is necessarily referring to what he has already said or is citing another author who is using the same series of texts. Quite simply, the same words evoke similar quotations.

    As it had for the Fathers, reminiscence on the part of the monastic authors of the Middle Ages had a profound effect on their literary composition. The mere fact of hearing certain words, which happen to be similar in sound to certain other words, sets up a kind of chain reaction of associations which will bring together words that have no more than a chance connection, purely external, with one another. But since the verse or passage which contains this word comes to mind, why not comment on it here? In such a case an author may turn away from his original subject which he had started to treat and apparently lose the thread of his discourse. It was said of Saint Augustine: “He composes ‘poorly,”‘ that is to say, not after our fashion.[10] This is true of many monastic authors; they do not always compose after a logical pattern which has been definitely fixed upon in advance. Within the literary form chosen, they make use of the utmost freedom. The plan really follows a psychological development, determined by the plan of associations and one digression may lead to another or even to several others.

      Thus, in the Sermons on the Canticles, in connection with these words of the second verse of the Canticle: “Thy very name spoken soothes the heart like flow of oil,” Bernard spoke at length on the perfumes of the Bride when suddenly he pauses to insert a discourse on the praises of humility. Had he lost the trend of his sermon? By no means. He realizes that he has gotten away from the Canticle and he does not regret it. He takes up again the verse where he had left off. But now Psalm 7S proclaims “that in Israel the name of God is extolled” and Bernard introduces a discourse on the Synagogue and the Church, devoting an entire sermon to it. In the following sermon, he chants the praises of the name of Jesus, and while on the subject of the individuals of the Old Testament who bore that name, he expounds the Prophets. He compares them to the staff which Elisha sends to the son of the Sunamite before coming to raise him from the dead. Coming back to life, the child yawns seven times; thereupon, after a long introduction on the meaning of the allegories of the Old Testament, Bernard gives a sermon on the seven phases of conversion, and this makes him think of the gifts of the Holy Ghost: a new direction in which he willingly follows. This brings his mind back, little by little, to the second verse of the Canticle. Now, this series of digressions has taken up six complete sermons.[11]

 [4] Biblical Imagination


[4] Biblical Imagination


ANOTHER important factor explained by rumination and reminiscence is the power of imagination of the medieval man. Exuberant as this faculty is, it possesses, nevertheless, a vigor and a preciseness which we find difficult to understand. We are used to seeing, almost without looking at them unless with a distracted eye, printed or moving pictures. We are fond of abstract ideas. Our imagination having become lazy seldom allows us any longer to do anything but dream. But in the men of the Middle Ages it was vigorous and active. It permitted them to picture, to “make present,” to see beings with all the details provided by the texts: the colors and dimensions of things, the clothing, bearing and actions of the people, the complex environment in which they move. They liked to describe them and, so to speak, recreate them, giving very sharp relief to images and feelings. The words of the sacred text never failed to produce a strong impression on the mind. The biblical words did not become trite; people never got used to them. The Scripture which they liked to compare to a river or a well remained a fountain that was always fresh.

   The spiritual men of those days counsel the renunciation of carnal images; but this is in order to substitute for them a holy imagination. The sanctification of the imagination results in their attachment to the slightest particulars of the text, and not merely to the ideas it contains.[12] This strength of imagination had great consequences in the field of iconography, and as well in literary expression. The memory, fashioned wholly by the Bible and nurtured entirely by biblical words and the images they evoke, causes them to express themselves spontaneously in a biblical vocabulary. Reminiscences are not quotations, elements of phrases borrowed from another. They are the words of the person using them; they belong to him. Perhaps he is not even conscious of owing them to a source. Moreover, this biblical vocabulary is twofold in character. In the first place, it is often poetic in essence. Sometimes it has greater value because of its power of suggestion, than because of its clarity or precision; it hints at much more than it says. But, for that very reason, it is the better suited to express spiritual experience which is completely impregnated with a mysterious light impossible to analyze. Furthermore, though lacking in precision, this vocabulary is endowed with a great wealth of content, as the following example will show.

   In monastic literature, the most important source for the study of the virtues is the Bible itself. Now, in the Bible, the names of the virtues take on a meaning that they do not have anywhere else. Thus, for example, fear is very often the same thing as charity; it is not at all like fright, or terror. There is a biblical conception of the fear of God which is in no wise fear of God or terror of punishment. This word fear is a biblical Hebraism. It continues to be used, therefore, in a completely different sense from that given to it by secular authors. This loving fear is rather reverence, or respect. It is accompanied by confidence; it engenders peace; it is on a par with charity and with the desire for Heaven. What the Bible calls the “fear of God,” is a way of referring to charity under its somewhat negative aspect. The only,, true fear is that of losing the presence of the God one loves and whom one wishes to enjoy eternally.

   Understood in this way, fear is, like charity, the root of all virtues: Initium sapientiae timor Domini. This singularly rich conception of the fear of God comes from the Old Testament, and it is repeated in the New. St. Benedict takes it as his inspiration in speaking of humility, the first degree of which is fear of God: that is to say, the feeling of the presence of God. And all monastic authors are in line with this tradition. The doctrine they counsel is not based on abstract concepts, nor invented a priori; all their ideas come to them from Scripture. From this point of view, all the virtues are synonymous; whether they are called fear, wisdom or prudence, they have the same origin and the same end. All are gifts of God; they are directed to eternal life and awaken desire for it. The ancients felt no need at all to try to define the special object of each one of them. Christian life is one, and when one has differentiated amongst the virtues, one has to admit that they are connected and condition each other mutually.

   As in Scripture itself, everything that is said of virtue is said of each one of the virtues. One is distinguished from another only because the Bible, during its long history and on different occasions, used different words in speaking of the same moral life. Unity is born of a higher order than logic, that of supernatural reality by which all virtues come from God and all, likewise, lead to Him.[13]

[5] Exegesis by Concordance


[5] Exegesis by Concordance


FINALLY, the phenomenon of reminiscence has weighty consequences in the field of exegesis. For there is an exegesis that is specifically monastic.[14] However, it is largely an exegesis through reminiscence and for this reason it approaches rabbinical exegesis. It consists in explaining one verse by another verse in which the same word occurs. From this point of view, it is not so different, as has sometimes been believed, from a certain procedure used in exegesis today, the one which consists in making wide use of the Concordance. As it was, thanks to the medieval mastication of the words, the Bible came to be learned “by heart.” In this way, one can spontaneously supply a text or a word which corresponds to the situation described in each text, and which explains each separate word. One becomes a sort of living concordance, a living library, in the sense where the latter term implies the Bible. The monastic Middle Ages made little use of the written concordance; the spontaneous play of associations, similarities and comparisons are sufficient for exegesis. In scholasticism, on the contrary, much use is made of these Distinctions where, in alphabetical order, each word is placed opposite references to all the texts in which it is used;[15] these written concordances can be used to replace, but only in a bookish and artificial manner, the spontaneous phenomenon of reminiscence.

        All monastic exegesis is not to be explained, however, by reminiscences which are, so to speak, automatic. There is no refusal to make use of certain working tools and certain books which had themselves been so assimilated that reference can often be made to them from memory. These working tools are kinds of repertories - we would call them lexicons -where the meaning , of words is given, the total meaning, not merely the philological meaning. They are mostly of two sorts. Some are collections of nomina sacra. St. Jerome, followed by Isidore and numerous other compilers, had explained the etymology of place names and of the names of persons.[16] In addition, some etymologies were also found through reminiscence, when the sound of one word sufficed to evoke another.[17] Consequently the interpretation of names could not be arbitrary, left to the invention of each commentator. There existed, in this field, a tradition from which no departure could be made, and which in part, went back to the old Testament itself.


[6] Use of Profane Learning


[6] Use of Profane Learning


ANOTHER source of information was made up of the writings of ancient naturalists who had explained the meanings of animals, stones, plants and colors. Thus they consulted bestiaries and lapidaries, or simply what they could learn of the ancient naturalists, as much as was preserved in the writings of Isidore and of Bede. In reading a medieval author one is tempted to believe he is inventing his allegories but when several are compared, one finds that they agree on details which appear fanciful to us. In reality, they depend as do etymologies on a literary tradition that was then thought to be scientific. Thus, “nard” is an herb unknown to the medieval West but all the commentators give the same description of it, attribute to it the same properties, and, in scarcely differing terms, confer on it the same spiritual significance. This testifies to the existence of a traditional and unanimous interpretation. The most honest of these commentators and also the cleverest, St. Bernard, says that on this point he relies on the competence of those who have studied plants. And the fact is that all the information upon which the interpretation of nard was founded was furnished by Pliny in his Natural Histories.[18]

        It is the same with the colors that the Sacred Books attribute to the precious stones and metals which adorn the vestments of the high priest, and the cloth from which the curtains of the tabernacle were made. The interpretation of all these is based on traditional data. At the outset, there is always an affirmation. It may be connected with the obvious meaning of the words, such as: gold is the most precious of all metals, and it will therefore signify the greatest riches. These will be, depending on the context, either wisdom, or faith, or God. Sometimes, a passage from Scripture gives, as it were, the authentic interpretation of a word, as when the words of God are likened to silver in a verse from Psalm 11.[19] To God’s words, then, will be applied the virtues of silver, particularly the luster which is its greatest beauty. Again, symbolism may sometimes be based on natural properties. Here two cases must be considered. Sometimes, the symbolism is so simple that the whole tradition has to accept it. The hyacinth, for example, is blue; the ancient naturalists cited by Bede, had all recorded this fact. But blue is the color of the sky, and so the hyacinth will therefore stand for celestial life.

        Or again the symbolism may be complex, in which case, it then lends itself to different possibilities. In the case, for example, of the scarlet cloth which was twice dyed (coccus bistinctus), the interpretation can be based either on the color of the cloth, that of blood, or on the fact that it was dyed twice-if the latter is chosen, one will be obliged to think of the two inseparable commandments of charity toward God and towards one’s neighbor-or on the combination of both the color and the fact of its being dyed twice which evokes the passions of the body and of the heart. All these interpretations may appear far-fetched in a period when the symbolism of colors and precious stones is scarcely used except by poets. But for the ancients they were founded on reality. It is natural then to find them, with very slight variations, in all the patristic and medieval commentators. Many of them, besides, had already been proposed, at least summarily, by Origen.[20]

   The monastic Middle Ages were not lacking in representatives of what we would call scientific exegesis. Hervé of Bourg-Dieu of the black monks and Nicholas Maniocoria of the Cistercians, chose to correct certain errors or inexactnesses of the Latin text.[21] But most, being ignorant of Greek and Hebrew, and relying on the authority of St. Jerome, accepted the text as it is. The Vulgate is the basis of all their biblical experience, and almost all their commentaries came from this experience. They were not the outcome of academic training but were written to fill the personal, spiritual needs of the author himself or his public, that is to say, a reader or a community.[22] To find illustrations of this experience, which was practiced by all, one can read the treatises in which it is spoken of explicitly. Two of the most characteristic are by Peter of Celle[23] and William Firmat.[24] In treating of Holy Scripture and the way to read it, they make use of almost all the themes which, since Origen and St. Gregory, had been animating spiritual literature and fostering desire for heaven. Since they were not among the greatest, such authors afford us the opportunity to learn about the biblical experience of the average monk. Even St. Bernard made scarcely any innovations in the realm of thought processes and modes of expression. Because he was a genius, he had new ideas but they were produced in an environment and in conformity with a psychology which he shared with the whole ensemble of monasticism and its past, and without this living context, neither his style nor his influence could be understood.[25]


[7] The Old Testament


[7] The Old Testament


THESE observations now make it possible for us to define more clearly the characteristics of monastic exegesis. It can be said that it is at one and the same time inseparably literal and mystical.

[1] It is literal because of the importance it gives to words, the fact that grammar is applied to them, because of the auditory memory of them, the reminiscences which follow, and because of the repertories which explain the words. It interprets Scripture by Scripture itself, the letter by the letter itself.

[2] It is mystical because of the monks’ conception of the Scripture. The latter is not primarily a source of knowledge, of scientific information; it is a means for salvation, its gift is the “science of salvation”: salutaris scientia.[26] This is true of Scripture in its entirety. Each word it contains is thought of as a word addressed by God to each reader for his salvation.

Everything then has a personal, immediate value for present life and for the obtaining of eternal life. In Scripture are found both truths to believe and precepts to practice. According to a comparison which the medieval monks owe to St. Augustine who was himself indebted for it to Plato, Holy Scripture is a mirror. In it one sees the picture he should reproduce. As one reads he can compare himself with what he ought to be and try to acquire what the picture needs so that it can resemble the model.[27]

   One of the consequences of this essentially and uniquely religious conception of the Scripture is the importance accorded to the Old Testament. If the latter was more frequently commented than the New, it is because they had definite and fertile ideas on the relationship between the two.[28] Such continuity does indeed exist between them that one cannot be understood without the other. Both must therefore be studied, not separately, but always in conjunction. It is clear that many facts, ideas and expressions found in the new Testament writings cannot be studied independently of their antecedents in the Old Testament. But it is equally certain that the Old Testament itself can be neither read nor explained without constant reference to the New, as if it constituted an historical document relating to a closed past whose meaning alone it conveys. The Bible is concerned with the whole mystery of salvation: what God is, what He does for man from the beginning until the end of the world. The son of God made flesh is at the center of the whole great work of the creation and sanctification of the world. It is in relation to Christ that all that preceded His coming in time, all that accompanied it, all that has followed it must be understood and correlated. This principle is applied in many different ways. But the creative principle underlying all medieval exegesis is the evolutionary character of all Sacred History, the conception of the Church as a growing body and this body being the total Christ.


[8] Old and New Testament: Symbol and Reality


[8] Old and New Testament: Symbol and Reality


FOR the Middle Ages as well as for the patristic era, the Old and the New Testament taken as a whole tell the same story of the same people of God. The story told by the Old Testament is not the history of Israel, it is already the history of the Church which begins with Israel. Thus the Old and New Testaments are considered in the Middle Ages not as two collections of “books,” but as two periods, two “times” which echo each other. The time of the law (tempus legis) and the time of grace (tempus gratiae) are different stages of one and the same salvation and each of them includes, over and above the scriptural texts, the sum of the realities told us in these texts.

   Between the Old and the New Testament, progress is made not through accretion but thanks to an evolution which brings forth the “perfect” from the “imperfect.” The first period of the history of salvation leads to the second, not only because it lays the foundation for it but because it already contains it, although in an imperfect, incomplete fashion. The New Testament perfects the Old; but the Old began the New. The Word of God was already at work before the Incarnation. All of the Old Testament participated in the Redemption which is clearly revealed in the New, and in reality inaugurated it. It is the sign and the figure of the New Testament whose image it is. The perfect gives the imperfect its form, its value and its efficacy. The Old Testament is a typical anticipation of the New Testament because it shares in the work accomplished therein.

   In consequence, the New Testament is the norm by which we must interpret the Old which cannot be explained fully without reference to the New, or as if the New did not exist. On the other hand, the New Testament itself is much better understood if we recall what came before it. The figure contained the truth while concealing it; truth unveils the figure and shows forth its meaning; once revealed, the figure in turn illuminates the Truth. This turning back again to the figures is not without value for they are a means by which the truth may be the better seen and the better appreciated. Thus, preoccupation with studying the Old Testament as if it were an historical document, for the information it gives us on the “history of the Hebrew people,” is foreign to the Middle Ages. The texts of the Old Testament must have a figurative meaning, and often have no other. At times, then, they may have a double meaning, historical and figurative, and at others only a figurative meaning but never a meaning which is purely historical.

   Old Testament texts can always be used for expressing the loftiest realities of the New Testament. Rupert of Deutz, in his treatise On the Works of the Holy Spirit, speaks first of those which were accomplished under the Old Law; but when he gets up to the time of the New Testament, he still takes his texts from the Old Testament. He puts into the mouth of Christ speaking to His Father the words that Job said to God. What interests Rupert is not Job’s historicity. He sees Job as the symbol of man face to face with God, and first of all as the perfect man. Job is the Christ, the just, expressing his thoughts on redemption. Thus what is demanded of the Old Testament is light on religious problems, not historical problems, not even problems in the history of religions.

   These considerations can be illustrated by an example taken from the treatise of Baldwin of Ford, a Cistercian of the end of the twelfth century, On the Sacrament of the Altar.[29] In writing on the Eucharist, Baldwin takes the Last Supper as his point of departure, but to explain it he puts together a chain of texts borrowed largely from the Old Testament, and comments on each of them in succession. What takes place on the altar is the summit, the résumé, the recapitulation of what had taken place on all the altars men have raised since their creation, of all that God has done for them and continues to do. The passage of time is only a divine pedagogical method by which humanity is taught progressively to take part in the Mass. Genesis tells us of Melchisedech’s offering bread and wine; later on, Psalm 109 says that the Messiah is to be a priest in the line of Melchisedech; Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy, consecrates the bread and wine, and the Epistle to the Hebrews interprets authentically both the figure and its accomplishment. The eucharistic sacrifice is, therefore, the “perfection,” that is to say the completion, of all that preceded it. The reality of salvation is given wholly but under different forms, in each of its phases. Exegesis tries to understand each of these phases in the light of all the others and inseparable from them. The eucharistic supper was inserted in the celebration of the Jewish Passover; it is the culmination of the cult of the Old Law; it is the center and the core of history. It cannot be understood without reference to the Old Testament. Biblical teaching is given us according to the historical method and dogma is revealed progressively in the course of time and through events. Baldwin’s treatise follows the same procedure. Its form resembles, as it were, two sloping lines: the first rises from the Creation to the Last Supper of Holy Thursday; the second descends to the figures in the Old Testament and sheds on them the light of Christ. From the Supper, which is the peak, the exegete can cast his glance downward on the entire past of the Hebrew people, on the whole ancient history of the Church.


[9] The Old Testament. The Desire for God


[9] The Old Testament. The Desire for God


BUT the Old Testament takes on still another value. In it is seen not only the past of the Church but also its future. The people of God are still, in relatióh to the Parousia, in a stage of imperfection and incompletion, like the stage they were in, in relation to the Incarnation, before the coming of the Messiah. The two phases of Sacred History already completed are preparatory to a third. Several trilogies are used to express this gradation: praeparatio-reparatio-consummatio; figura gratia gloria.[30] In the present state of the Church, the reality of salvation is already given completely; but it is not as yet fully manifest but is communicated only in the sacraments. The condition of Christians has consequently this in common with that of the just of the old Law, that all must have faith in a revelation to come. The history of the chosen people is therefore instructive for us and the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament is the beginning of what will one day be vision. It keeps alive in us eschatological desire and nourishes in us not only faith but hope and love as well.

 For the very reason that the Old Testament is prophetic in nature, desire is perhaps the sentiment most frequently found in it: desire for the Promised Land or desire for the Messiah interpreted spontaneously by the medieval monks as desire for Heaven and for Jesus contemplated in His glory.[31] Thus, we are always being brought back to eschatology. The grandeur of this exegesis lies in the fact that it sheds full light on the unity of the Scripture, in its being a religious, mystical exegesis. But its weakness lies in what could be called, however paradoxically, an excess of literalism. The Law and the Gospel are like two interlocutors of the same dialogue. They complete and explain each other mutually; each approving and confirming the other’s testimony. For each text in the Old Testament there is always another in the New, answering it like an echo. To perceive this we have no need at all to resort to difficult procedures. All that is needed is attention to similarities of words, sentences and ideas, and the transposition to the Old Testament of the meanings these expressions have in the New Testament. Concentration is therefore placed on the words, parallel passages are collated, the meaning of each expression minutely examined, the meaning of one clarifying another. As we have seen, the Bible itself is the commentary on the Bible. Because of this same concentration on words, and for all the reasons we have already recalled, the Middle Ages did not limit itself to applying the traditional conception of the harmony between the two Testaments to great religious themes or great historical movements, but it applied this conception to individual texts as well. In this way, it was sometimes led into establishing a purely artificial connection between two texts. In exegesis of this type what remains valid is not explanation in detail but rather its general concept of the essentially religious, soteriological nature of Holy Scripture, its profound conception of the evolutionary character of the Scripture, from the Old Testament to eschatology. One need hardly emphasize, then, the profound influence such exegetical studies must have had on the interior life of these authors and the deep understanding they had of God’s message to Man.

 [10] The Canticle of Canticles


[10] The Canticle of Canticles


FINALLY, in order to complete these few remarks on monastic exegesis, we must remember the book which was most read, and most frequently commented in the medieval cloister, a book of the Old Testament: The Canticle of Canticles. The fact that they loved to read it, as well as commentaries on it, is sufficiently attested to by the ancient catalogues of the monastic libraries. It will be sufficient at this point to cite two examples. Cluny; in the time of Peter the Venerable, possessed fifteen commentaries on the Canticle, among which were three copies of Origen and two of St. Gregory.[32] Likewise, among some seventy manuscripts of Orval which have been preserved, there are no less than seven commentaries on the Canticle, which is a tenth of the total number.[33] Already in St. Benedict’s time, Cassiodorus had gathered a corpus of commentaries on the Canticle including Origen’s.[34] Later, Alcuin, praising the Canticle, sees it as an antidote to Virgil’s frivolities, and as the song which teaches the true commandments, those which are conducive to eternal life.[35] It is not by chance that the masterpiece of medieval monastic literature is a commentary on the Canticle. In the sermons he devoted to it, St. Bernard has simply given a very superior expression to a tendency, to a pursuit and a love which were widespread and shared by all. These commentaries on the Canticle, particularly St. Bernard’s, were very widely read in the twelfth century, in monasteries of all observances.[36]

   In order to appreciate, the manner in which these commentaries were conceived, a comparison must be made between them and the way the Canticle was commented on in scholastic milieus [37] No doubt, the history of the interpretation of the Canticle in medieval monasticism is still to be studied,[38] but already certain differences between the two types may be discerned.[39]

[A] The scholastic commentary is, in some ways, collective; it speaks mostly of God’s relations with the entire Church, it emphasizes the revelation of divine truth, which man must possess through faith and the knowledge of the mysteries, and the presence of God in the world through the Incarnation.

[B] On the other hand, the monastic commentary’s object is rather God’s relations with each soul, Christ’s presence in it, the spiritual union realized through charity. The commentary on the Canticle, especially for the Cistercians, is the equivalent of a treatise on the love of God.

[A] Scholastic commentary furnishes, in a clear, generally concise style, a doctrine addressed to the intelligence.

[B] Monastic commentary is addressed to the whole being; its aim is to touch the heart rather than to instruct the mind. It is often written in a fervent style which expresses an inner rhythm which the author wants to communicate to his readers.

[A] Scholastic commentary is almost always complete; it explains the entire “letter” of the sacred text.

[B] Monastic commentary is often incomplete; St. Bernard, in eighty-six sermons composed over a period of eighteen years, had reached only the beginning of the third chapter. And that is understandable. When the spiritual man has told what he feels, what he thinks of the love of God-and he may be able to do so in a few verses he has the right to lay down his pen.

   What is the significance of the interest that the medieval monks took in the Canticle of Canticles? The question is worth the asking since certain historians have too ready an answer. For them the dialogue of the bridegroom and the bride corresponds with what is called today depth psychology. But in reality, what we know of eschatological desire in milieus consecrated to a life of prayer, sufficiently explains their special affection for the Canticle of Canticles. What they saw in it above all is the expression of that desire. The Canticle is the poem of the pursuit which is the basis for the whole program of monastic life: quaerere Deum, a pursuit which will reach its end only in eternity but which already obtains fulfillment here in an obscure possession; and the latter increases desire which is the form love takes here below. The Canticle is the dialogue between the bridegroom and the bride who are seeking each other, calling to each other, growing nearer to each other and who find they are separated just when they believe they are finally about to be united. St. Gregory had given perfect expression to this alternating intimacy and separation in his Moralia in Job - for he spoke of the Canticle in works other than the commentary he had devoted to it:

“The bridegroom hides, when he is being sought so that, not finding him, the bride will search for him with renewed ardor; and the bride’s search is prolonged so that the delay will increase her capacity for God, and she will eventually find in a fuller measure what she had been seeking.”[40]

St. Bernard often spoke along the same lines;[41] his whole Sermon 84 on the Canticle - one of the last texts he wrote once more treats this theme which was to be used as well in the Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross.

   The Canticle of Canticles is a contemplative text: theoricus sermo, as St. Bernard would say. It is not pastoral in nature; it does not teach morality, prescribe good works to perform or precepts to observe; nor even purvey exhortations to wisdom. But with its ardent language and its dialogue of praise, it was more attuned than any other book in Sacred Scripture to loving, disinterested contemplation. One can understand why Origen commented it twice, why St. Gregory, St. Bernard and so many others preferred it over other parts of the Old and the New Testament.[42] Now, the particular virtue of contemplation is to foster the desire for the heavenly life. When John the Grammarian composes a commentary on the Canticle for Countess Mathilda, he wishes her, in the dedicatory letter accompanying it, “the grace of contemplation.” And immediately afterwards he defines the book he is about to explicate: “The Canticle of Canticles is a doctrine of contemplation.”[43] Then he adds: “The man who is possessed by the sweetness of contemplation is already participating in heavenly life.”[44] Later on, the scholastic masters were to prefer to explicate the Sapiential Books: “They will examine Solomon’s wisdom in Proverbs and in Ecclesiastes.”[45] The monks, for their part, have associated themselves with the canticle of love. An anonymous commentator of the Rule of St. Benedict sees the Canticle of Canticles as the complement of the monks’ rule; it is, he says, the rule of love.[46]


[1] “We need a general study of the twelfth-century monastic commentator.” B. Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Oxford 19s2) 72.

[2] F. Stegmiiller, Repertorium Biblicum, vols. 2-5, “Auctores” (Madrid 19S0-1955). I have verified this fact for the names beginning with the letter A.

[3] “Écrits monastiques sur la Bible aux xie-XIII` siècles,” Mediaeval Studies (1953) 95-106.

[4] “In this town, he had his first taste of Grammar, by which he was introduced to the profundity of the Scriptures.” Life by Hildebert of Le Mans, I z, PL 159.861. The couplet of Matthew of Rievaulx was also applied to Sacred Scripture:
    Grammatica pueros sapiens prius imbuit héros:
Haec iter est menti scriptural scire volenti.
Edited by A. Wilmart, “Les mélanges de Mathieu, préchantre de Rievaulx au début du xIiic siècle.” Revue bénédictine (1940) 59

[5] De Miraculis I 20, PL 189.887.

[6] John of St. Arnulf, Life of John of Gorze (1976) n. 8o, PL 137.280.

[7] Texts will be found in Un maître, 99, n. 3.

[8] “Lecture et oraison, La Vie Spirituelle (May 1944) 392-402; “La lecture divine, La Maison-Dieu, 5 (1946)21-33; “Lecture spirituelle et vie mystique,” Un maître, 97-103; “De la lecture à la contemplation,” La spiritualité de Pierre de Celle, 99-io7; “Bernard, homme de prière, Études sur S. Bernard et le texte de ses écrits,” Analecta S. Ord. Cist. IX, I-II (Rome 1953) 1So-182. Among texts gathered by Martène (PL 66.413-414) we find meditatio as a synonym for reading, for study,•for singing the psalms in private as well as for contemplation. An ancient translation cited there, renders meditari by “to say the Psalter.” Cf supra, Ch. I, at note 14.

[9] Speculum monachorum I, PL 184.1175.

[10] H. I. Marrou, S. Augustin et la fin de la culture antique (Paris 1949) 59-76.

[11] Super Cantica, Serm. 12-17.

[12] La spiritualité de Pierre de Celle, 52-58: “Le Langage mystique,” 59-69, “La poésie biblique.”

[13] Smaragde et son oeuvre, 14-16: “Vertus bibliques.”

[14] Although some disagree, this fact has been affirmed in connection with St. Bernard by E. Kleineidam, Wissen, Wissenschaft, Theologie bei Bernhard von Clairvaux (Leipzig 1955) 44, n. 129.

[15] A collection of this kind, edited by Wilmart, “Un repertoire d’exégèse composé en Angleterre vers le début du xiii’ siècle, Memorial Lagrange (Paris 1940)307-35, is undoubtedly monastic, but it is late. R. W. Hunt, “Notes on the Distinctiones monasticae et morales,” in Liber Floridus, Festschrft P. Lehmann (1955)355-62, thinks it is Cistercian. The other known collections are, at the earliest, of the end of the twelfth century and Dom Wilmart could write, at the end of his “Note sur les plus anciens recueils de distinctions bibliques” (ibid. 335-46), that “These alphabetical collections, originally made for purposes of study and then applied to pastoral use . . . dominated the thirteenth century and, in large part, continued to be copied in the next two centuries.”

[16] Ed. by P. de Lagarde, Onomastica Sacra (Göttingen 1870).

[17] R. Baron, “Hugonis de Sancto Victore epitome Dindimi in Philosophiam,” Traditio II (1955)136 makes some very judicious remarks, with examples, on this matter.

[18] Études sur S. Bernard (cf. supra, n. 8) 118, n. 1; to the testimonies quoted there, we may add that of the anonymous monk of Clairvaux who wrote the Vita S. Mariae Magdalenae, XVII, PL 112.1456C (On this author, cf. V. Saxer, Mélanges S. Bernard [Dijon 1953] 408-21, Hugo of Fouilloy, De bestiis et aliis rebus, IV 12, PL 177.153, and others).

[19] “Eloquia Domini, Eloquia casta: argentum igne examinatum ...”

[20] These applications can be illustrated by an analysis of the De tabernaculo Moysi of Peter of Celle; cf. La spiritualité, 147-67, and of his sources and the parallels in other authors. Compare, for example, Arnold of Bonneval, De VII verbis Domini, Pl. 189.1719,1724 and Peter of Celle, De tabernaculo Moysi, Pl 202.1050 A; De tabernaculo (Ed. J. Leclercq, La spiritualité, 163, 9 ff.) with Origen, In Exod. IX 3, (Ed. Baehrens, 240); Isidore, Etymologiae, 18, 41,1927; Quest. in Num. Pl 83.349,25; Bede, De tabernaculo, I 3, PL 91.399D; II 2,425-428; In Exod. XXVII, PL 91.324B.

[21]             G. Morin, “Un critique en liturgie au xII° siècle: Lc traité inédit d’Hervé du Bourg-Dieu ‘De correction quorundam lectionum,’“ Revue bénédictine (1907) 36-61. Dom R. Weber “Deux préfaces au Psautier dues à Nicolas Maniacoria,” ibid. (1953)3-17.

[22] On the elements that distinguish the monastic and the scholastic literature on the Bible, I have given some indications, in a review of Esquisse d’une histoire de l’exégèse latine au moyen âge, by A. Spicq, Bulletin Thomiste (1942-1945)59-67.

[23] “De affectione et lectione,” in La spiritualité, 231-39.

[24] Exhortatio ad amorem claustri et desiderium lectionis divinae, Ed. in Analecta monastica II 28-44.

[25] “S. Bernard et le x11° siècle monastique, Dict. de Spiritualité IV (Paris 1958) 187-94.

[26] Exhortatio, 32.

[27] Un maître, 56-60: “La Bible, miroir dc l’âme.” La spiritualité, 67. Other texts are gathered by Sister Ritamary, C.H.M., “Backgrounds of the Title Speculum in Mediaeval Literature,” Speculum, 29 (1954) 100-15.

[28] “L’exègese médiévale de l’Ancien Testament,” L’Ancien Testament et les chrétiens (Paris 1951) 168-82. See also the important work by Henri de Lubac, L’exégèse médiévale, 2 vol. (Paris 1959).

[29] PL 204.641-774. Introduction to the French translation of the De Sacramento altaris of Baldwin of Ford.

[30] Loc. Cit. (supra, n. 28) 179; E. Klcincidam op. cit (supra, n. 14) 44-45.

[31] S. Bernard mystique, 140-41.

[32] L. Delisle, Inventaire des manuscrits de la bibliothèque nationale: Fonds de Cluni (Paris 1884) 240-64.

[33] Analecta monastica I 208.

[34] Courcelle, Les lettres grecques en Occident de Macrobe  à Cassiodore (Paris 1948) 364-67.

[35] “Haec tibi vera canunt vitae praecepta perennis; Auribus ills [Virgilius] tuis male frivola falsa sonabit.” MGH, FLAC I 239.

[36] “Le genre littéraire des Sermones in Cantica, Etudes sur S. Bernard, 121-22. “Récherches sur les Sermons sur les Cantiques dc S. Bernard, 1: La littérature provoquée par les Sermons sur les Cantiques, Revue bénédictine (1954) 208-22. “Poèmes sur le Cantique des Cantiques,” ibid. 62 (1952)293-91 .

[37] “Le commentaire du Cantique des cantiques attribué à Anselme de Laon,” RTAM (1949)29-39.

[38] “Les Distinctiones super Cantica de Guillaume de Ramsey,” Sacris erudiri 10 (1958) 329-52. F. Ohly, Hohelied Studien, Grundzüge zur Auslegung einer Geschichte der Hoheliedaushgung des Abendlandes his um 1200 (Wiesbaden,1958). H. Riedlingcr, Die Makellüsigkeit der Kirche in den lateinischen Hoheliedkommentaren des Mittelalters (Münster 1958).

[39] “Le commentaire de Gilbert de Stanford sur le Cantique de cantiques, I. Le genre,” Analecta Monastlea I 205-9. “Écrits monastiques, Med. Studies (1953)98-100: II “Commentaires du Cantique des cantiques.”

[40] Moralia in Job, 5, 6; PL 75.783. See also the opening of Gregory’s commentary on the Canticle, PL 79.4

[41] For example, Sup. Cant. 74, 2-4, PL 183.1139-1141.

[42] As to the Mariological interpretation of the Canticle, if, under the influence of the liturgy, it sometimes appears in the form of casual allusions in sermons, still it is rarely found in the form of an extended commentary in monastic circles, with the exception of Rupert of Deutz; in particular, it is not found in Cistercian commentaries: cf. J. Beumer, “Die marianische Deutung des Hohen Liedes in der Frühscholastik,” ZKT (1954)419-25.

[43] Ed. B. Bischoff, “Der Canticumkommentar des Johannes von Mantua,” Lebenskräfte in der abendländischen Geistesgeschichte. Festgabe W. Goetz (Marburg 1948)37.

[44] “Cantica canticorum, qui est doctrina contemplationis . . . Iam vitae caelestis particeps efficitur, qui contemplationis dulcedine capitur et eius suavissimo gustu saginatur.” Ibid.

[45] B. Smalley, “Some Thirteenth-century Commentaries on the Sapiential Books,” Dominican Studies (1950) 264.

[46] See infra Appendix I: The Rule of St. Benedict and the Canticle of Canticles.




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