Among the works of the 12th century Cistercian authors, I wonder how often the treatises entitled On the Soul (De anima) are read by the average reader of Cistercian authors? I could equally ask how average is any reader who would read the works of the 12 century Cistercian authors! But such readers exist and whereas they would readily read Aelred of Rievaulx’s treatise On Spiritual Friendship, they may be less likely to read his essay on the English monarchy or his Dialogue on the Soul. What we today would call an anthropology, a studied consideration of the human being–or even, being human–and how we interact as embodied spirits with the phenomenon about us–fascinated thinkers of the 12th century. I believe it’s significant that a number–even if a small number–of Cistercian authors in the 12th century wrote such treatises. Aelred of Rievaulx, as already mentioned, did as well as William of St. Thierry, Isaac of Stella and an anonymous Cistercian author. Aelred, William and Isaac are no light weight contenders and they write within the context of a monastic culture that’s sensitive to the various states of the soul (the psyche, in Greek) in relationship to God; that is to say, in states of prayer. Some of you may have read William of St. Thierry’s Meditations,introspective explorations of his own states of mind and mood. Doesn’t Bernard of Clairvaux investigate the right ordering of the passions, the stages of consciousness, even the role of eros in prayer in his Sermons on the Song of Songs? Bernard may have never written a treatise On the Soul, but he certainly covers that ground. Stephen of Sawley, another 12th Cistercian, used to listen to his novices’ dreams and help them interpret them. It’s a breakthrough from the 11th century to the 12th century that Latin writers once again considered what we human beings are in relationship to God as expressed in personal experience. But it’s always a personal experience expressive of universal realities and, what we might call in the 21st century, human psychology.
20th century scholars, unpacking the content of the first Cistercian authors, were fascinated to discover the psychological observations found in their writings. It’s not only that such an optic seemed so modern but it opened up a pathway we could follow through the forest of symbolism, natural, biblical, even mythic. It’s the sort of imagery we untangle with our therapists, powerful imagery found in our dreams or imagination, in our works of visual art, performances or film. It’s a body of spiritual literature paving the way to the much later writings of Teresa or Avila or John of the Cross. To 21st century monks and nuns, it’s a reminder that our intuition that healthy spirituality goes hand-in-hand with psychological health. This is a level of experience some of us bring to spiritual discernment and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I was reminded of this link between psyche and spirituality this past week with the death of Msgr. Chester Michaels of the Diocese of Richmond. Fr. Chet led a rich and enriching life, dying at age 97. I can’t claim to have been a friend of his but I was fortunate enough to have met him as a spry 92 year old and to have heard his teaching and spend time with many fine people who had been formed in his Spiritual Direction Institute. These “graduates” come from all walks of life, all levels of education and Fr. Chet had the gift of giving them a voice and the vocabulary to entangle the spiritual life and live it with a passion. Fr. Chet had done his studies under Josef Goldbrunner, S.J., who taught psychology at the University of Notre Dame. If you’re my age, you too may have read Goldbrunner’s Holiness is Wholeness in the early 1960’s. I suppose that was the first book on Depth Psychology and the Christian life that I had ever read–and definitely the first book on Depth Psychology I had read. I can never shake off the memory in Catholic High School, the morning our Home Room Teacher turned religion class over to one of his confreres who was getting a degree in psychology. I suspect it was the only class we had that touched upon spirituality rather than morals, proper behavior and dogma and my interest and curiosity just soared. There was talk of mandalas and archetypes, mother images, heroes and spiritual fatherhood. He was describing a realm I had somehow intuited or “read” between the lines but had no language for, no firm concepts to use, other than some works of art. Without that gratuitous introduction, I wonder now whether my grasp on the Catholic tradition would have survived my adolescence! Decades later, I’d be using Fr. Chet’s book on Prayer and Temperament to help the candidates to our life find their congenial approach to prayer or how to deepen that prayer and respond to new seasons in their lives.
Certainly Msgr. Michaels understood that; certainly our Cistercian Fathers had understood that: spirituality is the vitality, the incarnating force of our Christian vocation. It’s the driving, renewing energy of mission and the apostolate. What quest, what pilgrimage is as exciting and as perilous as the spiritual life pursued in the full dimensions of our humanity? Such an experience makes our enclosed vocation not narrow but focused and propels us to dig deep, to weather the challenges and willingly make the sacrifices.