Art & Spiritual Writing

The criterion of the true mystic, the proof that, even though he is a literary man, he is inspired, is his detachment.  If he is detached from himself, he can have no complacency for what he writes.  But if one gathers that the desire to write is of prime importance to him, if an artist’s stylistic preoccupation can be discerned in his writing, then he is nothing more than a man of letters.  A certain artistic elegance is justifiable in his writing but it should never seek after admiration for itself.  If anyone listens to himself talk, if he pays less attention to what he is saying than to how he says it, we are annoyed by the intrusion of his ego which he erects as a barrier between us and the Truth.  An author of this type does not possess simplicity.  He is a double personality; he is a literary man and, at one and the same time, something else even when he is writing about the realities of the spiritual life.  The sign of an exclusively spiritual piece of writing is its simplicity: a simplicity of soul which is reflected in a certain simplicity of artistry.  The latter will be spontaneous, though not necessarily stripped of ornamentation when the whole cultural formation of a period makes it desirable and necessary feature.  It can be a studied work, the product of considerable literary effort, but the predominant concern will be for what is said and not for the artistic way of saying it.  When a man is impressed by a truth or by an experience, his major concern is to express it, not the form the ideas take.  If the experience is truly spiritual even the first draft will be lofty, beautiful, and naturally artistic.  A literary revision may perfect it, but artistry alone can never produce the experience.  Art can be but the reflection of spiritual experience, never a means for provoking it in the writer nor in the reader.  Sought after for its own sake, it forms a screen between the author and ourselves; the author becomes an aesthete, and we are spectators and there is no longer any communion in the love of the Truth. (319-320)

Jean Leclercq | The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture



Ecclesiology & Eschatology

In the same way, the monastic authors’ emphasis on frequent confession followed by absolution comes from an absolute faith in the sacrament which anticipates God’s judgment.  In the numerous texts where Cistercian and other authors recommend confession and define the requisite conditions for its being followed by pardon, they usually do not mention the simple manifestation of conscience that the religious make to their spiritual father in accordance with a tradition which goes back to ancient monasticism.  The confession they are discussing is that sure means given by God to man on earth for doing penance in the fullest sense of the term by admitting he is a sinner and professing his faith in the power given by Christ to the Church to pardon, to purify the conscience, and to prepare it to appear without spot at the Last Judgment.  All these attitudes can be understood only in the light of a living conception of the Church.  Many authors like Rupert of Deutz have dispersed through their writings the elements of a very rich ecclesiology.  But all of them live and write with the same conviction that the meeting between the monk and God, the intimate union which all literature has the mission to prepare, is accomplished in the bosom of the Church.  The Spouse who will be revealed in all her glory, the Jerusalem which is the goal of monastic effort is already given by faith to men on this earth; it is only in union with the Church that each of us receives the kiss of the Bridegroom.  Devotion to the Church, which is only another aspect of devotion to Heaven, a form of the desire for God, is already a participation in the mystery of God which is celebrated in the liturgy and communicated by the sacraments.  Ecclesiology and eschatology unite, consequently, as the two dominating themes of a literature born in the atmosphere of the cult. (305-306)

Jean Leclercq | The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture

Monks and Nature

When St. Bernard speaks of the “book of Nature” and of all that can be learned “under the shade of the trees,” he is not thinking of the beauty of the surroundings but of the labor that the preparation of a field necessitates, and of the prayer, reflection and the mortification that is furthered by work in the fields.

Of course, these men admire nature; they praise the beauty of a spot when they sometimes say “delights” them.  A founder of a monastery would choose a site because of its pleasantness: loci iucunditatem; a hermit will prefer for his retreat “a beautiful forest.”  But their admiration is not aroused, as ours is, by the picturesque.  The pleasurable aspect they appreciate is more moral than material: a beautiful forest is above all a forest suited to the solitary life; a “Beaulieu” is a place which has been made fertile.  And since eschatology never loses its rights, every garden where spiritual delights are found recalls Paradise and is described in the lush images which, in the Bible, depicted the garden of the Spouse or of the first Adam.  The cloister is a “true paradise,” and the surrounding countryside shares in its dignity.  Nature “in the raw,” unembellished by work or art, inspires the learned man with a sort of horror: the abysses and peaks which we like to gaze at, are to him an occasion of fear.  A wild spot, not hallowed by prayer and asceticism and which is not the scene of any spiritual life is, as it were, in the state of original sin. (164-165)

Jean Leclercq | The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture

Philosophia in Maria

This term, meaning the practical discernment of the value of things and of the vanity of the world which must be renounced, is applied to those whose whole existence manifests this renunciation.  In the same way, in the monastic Middle Ages as well as in antiquity, philosophia designates, not a theory or way of knowing, but a lived wisdom, a way of living according to reason.  There are, in effect, two ways of living according to reason.  Either one lives according to worldly wisdom, as taught by the pagan philosophers, and that is the philosophia saecularis or mundialis, or one lives according to the Christian wisdom which is not of this world but already of the world to come and this is the philosophia caelestis or spiritualis or divina.  The philosopher par excellence, and philosophy itself, is Christ: ipsa philosophia Christus.  He was the Wisdom itself of God incarnate; and the Virgin Mary, in whom was accomplished the mystery of the Incarnation, is called “the philosophy of Christians.”  They must learn from her: philosophia in Maria.  (128)

Jean Leclercq | The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture

Love without Seeing

When the Lord had disappeared in the cloud of His glory, the Apostles kept their eyes raised to Heaven.  Two angels came to tell them that they would not see Him again until such time as He would return.  Soon would come the time for them to spread out over the whole world, to sow the seeds of the Gospel, to plant the Church.  Monks, however, have the privilege of continuing the watch.  They know that they will not see the Lord; they will live by faith.  Nevertheless, there they will remain.  Their cross will be to love without seeing, and yet to watch constantly, to keep their eyes on nothing but God, invisible yet present.  Their testimony before the world will be to show, by their existence alone, the direction in which one must look.  It will be to hasten, by prayer and desires, the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. (70-71)

Jean Leclercq | The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture