Sacred Scriptures Historic Worth
Hugh and Richard of St. Victor on Contemplating God
BY The Editors
December 13-19, 2009 Issue | Posted 12/4/09 at 5:33 PM
Weekly General Audience November 25, 2009
During his general audience on Nov. 25, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middles Ages. He spoke about two outstanding 12th-century theologians associated with the monastery of St. Victor in Paris — Hugh of St. Victor and his disciple, Richard.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During these Wednesday audiences, I have been speaking about some rather outstanding people, believers who were determined to show that harmony exists between faith and reason and who, through their lives, gave witness to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Today I will speak about Hugh and Richard of St. Victor. They belonged to a school of famous philosophers and theologians known as the Victorines because they lived and taught at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, which was founded at the beginning of the 12th century by William of Champeaux.
William himself was a renowned teacher, who was able to give his abbey a solid cultural identity. Indeed, a school was established at St. Victor for the formation of monks that was also open to students from the outside.
There, a synthesis was achieved between the two methods of doing theology, which I spoke about in previous catecheses: monastic theology, which was mainly oriented towards contemplating the mysteries of the faith in Scripture, and scholastic theology, which, through innovative methods, used reason to scrutinize these mysteries and create a system of theology.
We have little information on the life of Hugh of St. Victor. The date and place of his birth are uncertain. He was probably born in Saxony or in Flanders. We do know that once he came to Paris, the center of culture in Europe at that time, he spent the rest of his life at the Abbey of St. Victor, where he was first a student then a teacher.
Before he died in 1141, he had already acquired considerable fame and respect, to the point of being called a “second St. Augustine.” In fact, like Augustine, he meditated at length on the relationship between faith and reason, between secular science and theology.
According to Hugh, all the sciences, besides being useful for understanding the Scriptures, have a certain value in themselves and have been cultivated in order to broaden man’s knowledge and respond to his desire to know truth. Because of this healthy intellectual curiosity, he advised his students never to curb their desire for learning.
In his treatise on the methodology of knowledge and pedagogy, which, significantly, is entitled Didascalion (On Teaching), he made the following recommendation: “Learn willingly from everyone what you do not know. He who has had the desire to learn something from everyone will be the wisest of all. He who receives something from everyone ends up being the richest of all” (Eruditiones Didascalicae, 3,14: PL 176,774).
Of the sciences, the Victorine philosophers and theologians dedicated special attention to theology, which requires, first of all, a loving devotion to the study of sacred Scripture.
Indeed, in order to know God, a person has to begin with what God has revealed of himself in the Scriptures. In this regard, Hugh was a typical representative of monastic theology, which is founded entirely on biblical exegesis.
He proposed the traditional patristic and medieval approach for interpreting Scripture, namely discovering its historical and literal meaning first of all, followed by its allegorical and analogical meaning, and finally by its moral meaning.
This involved the four dimensions of the meaning of Scripture — which are being rediscovered today — in which we perceive the deeper meaning hidden in the text and the narrative in question: the thread of faith that leads us to heaven yet guides us on this earth by teaching us how to live. Nevertheless, while respecting these four dimensions of the meaning of Scripture, he emphasized — in a rather new and original way in respect to his peers — the importance of its historical and literal meaning.
In other words, before discovering the symbolic value or the deeper dimensions of the biblical text, we need to know and study the meaning of the history narrated in Scripture. Otherwise, he warned, using an effective metaphor, we run the risk of being like students of grammar who do not know the alphabet. For those who know the meaning of the story recounted in the Bible, human events appear marked by divine Providence in accordance with a well-ordered plan.
Thus, according to Hugh of St. Victor, history is not merely the outcome of blind destiny or absurd chance, as it might appear.
On the contrary, the Holy Spirit is at work in the history of mankind, enkindling a wondrous dialogue between man and God, who is his friend. This theological vision of history highlights God’s saving intervention in a surprising way.
God truly enters into history and operates throughout history and, in a sense, becomes part of history, while always safeguarding and respecting man’s freedom and responsibility.
For Hugh, studying sacred Scripture and its historical and literal meaning truly makes authentic theology possible — the systematic illustration of truths, knowledge of their structure, and the illustration of the dogmas of the faith — which he summarized in a solid way in his treatise De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei (On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith). Here, we find, among other things, a definition of “sacrament,” which, later perfected by other theologians, contains some points that are still of great interest for us today.
“The sacrament,” he wrote, “is a corporeal or material element presented in an outward and tangible manner that represents with its similarity an invisible spiritual grace, which it signifies because it was instituted for that purpose, and which it contains because it is capable of sanctifying” (De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei 9,2: PL 176,317).
On the one hand, there is the visible nature of the symbol, the “corporeal” nature of God’s gift, in which, on the other hand, the divine grace is hidden, which comes from a history: Jesus Christ himself created these fundamental symbols. Thus, Hugo identified three elements that come together to define a sacrament: institution by Christ, communication of grace, and analogy between the visible element — matter — and the invisible — God’s gifts.
His vision is very close to our contemporary understanding because the sacraments are presented in a language where symbols and images are woven together so that they can speak in a direct way to man’s heart.
It is important today that liturgists, especially priests, appreciate in their pastoral wisdom the signs that are part of the sacramental rites — the visible and tangible nature of grace — by paying special attention to catechesis, so that each celebration of the sacraments may be experienced by all the faithful with devotion, intensity and spiritual joy. Richard, a native of Scotland, was Hugh of St. Victor’s worthy disciple. He was prior of the Abbey of St. Victor from 1162 to 1173, the year in which he died.
Richard, of course, also gave a fundamental role to the study of the Bible, but unlike his teacher, he favored the allegorical meaning of Scripture — its symbolic meaning — interpreting, for example, the Old Testament figure of Benjamin, son of Jacob, as a symbol of contemplation and as the culmination of the spiritual life.
Richard speaks about this topic in two texts, Benjamin Minor and Benjamin Major, in which he proposes to the faithful a spiritual journey in which he invites them to exercise the various virtues, learning how to use reason in order to discipline and control their inner feelings as well as their affective and emotional impulses.
Man is ready to move on to contemplation only when he has achieved balance and maturity as a person in this field. Richard defines contemplation as “the soul’s profound and pure gaze upon the wonders of wisdom, associated with an ecstatic sense of awe and admiration” (Benjamin Maior 1,4: PL 196,67).
Thus, contemplation is achieved as the result of an arduous path, which involves dialogue between faith and reason, through — once again — theological discourse.
Theology begins with the truths that are the object of the faith but seeks a more profound knowledge through use of reason, availing itself of the gift of faith. Richard convincingly presents this application of reason to an understanding of the faith in his masterpiece, one of the great books of history, De Trinitate (On the Trinity). In the six books of which it consists, he reflects with acuity on the mystery of the triune God.
Since God is love, according to Richard, the one divine substance consists of communication, oblation and spiritual love between two Persons, the Father and the Son, who are in an eternal exchange of love.
But there is no place in the perfection of happiness and goodness for an exclusive or closed attitude. The eternal presence of a third Person, the Holy Spirit, is required.
Trinitarian love is participative and harmonious and consists of a superabundance of delight and an experience of incessant joy.
Having assumed that God is love, Richard analyzes the essence of love and what the reality of love involves, thus arriving at the Trinity of Persons, which is the logical expression of the fact that God is love. Nonetheless, he is aware that love, even though it reveals the essence of God to us and helps us to “understand” the mystery of the Trinity, is still merely an analogy for speaking about a mystery that surpasses the human mind.
Being the mystic and the poet that he is, he uses other images, as well. For example, he compares God to a river, to a wave of love that springs forth from the Father, flows back in the Son, later to be joyously diffused in the Holy Spirit.
Dear friends, authors like Hugh and Richard raise our souls to the contemplation of divine realities. At the same time, the immense joy we derive from thinking about, admiring and praising the Holy Trinity establishes and sustains our concrete commitment to be inspired by such a perfect model of communion in love for building everyday human relationships.
The Trinity is truly the perfect communion. How our world would change if, in families, parishes and all other communities, relationships were always lived following the example of the three divine Persons, in which each lives not only with the other, but for the other and in the other!
I recalled this some months ago
during the Angelus: “Love alone makes us happy because we live in a
relationship, and we live to love and be loved” (June 7, 2009).
Love accomplishes this endless miracle. Plurality is reconstituted into unity in the life of the most holy Trinity, where everything is satisfaction and joy. With St. Augustine, whom the Victorines held in high esteem, we too can exclaim: “Vides Trinitatem, si caritatem vides” (You see the Trinity if you see love, De Trinitate VIII, 8,12).
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