Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Font of Theophany

In the grand tradition of the man with only a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, my mind frantically tries to hammer texts into a shape where I can point say, “Hey look it’s Eriugena!”  Therefore, I was struck by the passage in Anselm’s third Prayer to Mary where we are told that:

you [Mary] showed to the world its Lord and its God
whom it had not known.
You showed to the sight of all the world
its creator whom it had not seen…
You brought forth the world’s reconciliation,
which, in its guilt, it did not have before.[1]

This passage immediately brought to mind Eriugena’s famous statement in book three of the Periphyseon:

For everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but the apparition of what is not apparent, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the negated, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the understanding of the unintelligible, the body of the bodiless, the essence of the superessential, the form of the formless, the measure of the measureless, the number of the unnumbered, the weight of the weightless, the materialization of the spiritual, the visibility of the invisible…[and so on][2]

Before we can unpack what the similarity between the ideas expressed in these two passages means, we should get a little background on Eriugena.  John Scottus Eriugena was an Irishman serving as a court poet and scholar for Charles the Bald during the middle part of the 9th century.  Although relatively little is known about the man himself, he had a great impact on the thought of the Middle Ages through his translations and commentaries on the works of the Greek Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and, above all, Pseudo-Dionysius – whose influence is pronounced especially from the 12th century onward.  Besides these, his magnum opus the Periphyseon (sometimes known as On the Division of Nature) influenced a number of thinkers, although this influence was often muted and filtered due to the condemnation of the Periphyseon in the early 13th century.  The Periphyseon is a maddeningly complex text, within which John describes the ex nihilo from which all things were created as God Himself.[3]  As a result of this, Creation is understood by John as fundamentally a theophany, a revelation of the inaccessible divine to humanity.  Every aspect of creation then, from worms to the sun and everything in between and above including creation as a whole, can be understood as a form of divine revelation, a manifestation of the hidden, inaccessible truths of God.

So, how does this connect to Anselm’s depiction of Mary?  There’s no direct evidence of a link between Anselm and Eriugena.  Anselm, never one for citing his sources, never mentions him and searches for direct borrowing, including searches that I’ve (rather amateurishly) carried out myself, have proved largely fruitless.  However, copies of Eriugena’s works were available in northern France during the time Anselm was at Bec (and when he wrote the prayers to Mary) and later at Canterbury.[4]     More subtle (and fascinating) similarities between the two authors have been noted, although not explored at length.[5]  Whether there is direct influence here or not, Anselm’s language seems to construct Mary as a theophany, in the same sense that Eriugena described creation.  Mary brings forth the visible form of what was hidden, makes known what is unknown.  Anselm construes this in highly visual terms, Mary grants sight of the divine.  She is an illuminator who Anselm beseeches to “let my darkness by illuminated,” from who “light was born into [the world].”[6]  These visual notions pervade Anselm’s third prayer.[7]  He craves the sight of this Mary-theophany: 

Lady, wait for the weakness of him who follows you;
do not hide yourself,
seeing the littleness of the soul that seeks you!
Have mercy, Lady,
upon the soul that pants after you with longing.[8]

More than simply acting as a theophany, Mary seems for Anselm to be the font of all theophany.  She is the one through whom the invisible God becomes visible, but we know that God had made Himself manifest within creation prior, historically, to Mary, the burning bush, the whirlwind that Job encountered, etc.  Likewise, think of the striking passage where we are told:
            God brought forth him without whom nothing is,
            Mary bore him without whom nothing is good.[9]

Yet, we know that God looked at Creation and declared it good long before Christ had appeared within it historically.  
How should we understand this?  I think the answer lies in Anselm’s understanding of time evident in Cur Deus Homo, where he discusses how the Virgin Mary could be cleansed of sin prior to giving birth to Christ through Christ’s death, despite the fact that this death (obviously) hadn’t happened yet. Anselm’s reasoning here is incredibly dense, and impossible to summarize with justice within the limits of this post, (apologies for incoherence here) but the eternity of God, His simplicity -- his unchanging unity of will, action, and person -- and the relation of all Creation to God though the Incarnation both compresses all time into the moment of the Incarnation and expands this real historical event to a fundamental truth about the nature of Creation itself.[10]  Thus, from and through Mary transforming divinity flows into this world throughout time, inextricably linking creation with recreation, and making manifest God, who without her would remain invisible and unbridgeably distant from us.[11]


[1] Anselm The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion. trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: Penguin, 1973) 118
[2] John Scottus Eriugena. Periphyseon trans. I.P. Sheldon-Williams & John J. O’Meara (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1987)  633A
[3] God in this sense is nihil not because of privation (I have nothing in this box) but in the sense of excellence.  He so transcends created reality and the perception of the human mind that He can rightly be called nothing.  I should note that it takes Eriugena a few hundred pages to get to this point, so there’s no shame in being baffled by it on first glance.
[4] For the presence of Eriugena in France, see the use of his thought by Anselm of Laon in the Glossa.  On Canterbury, I would love to provide a citation, but unfortunately I got this info from a dissertation by Paul Dietrich, my copy of which is currently packed in a box and awaiting movement to my new apartment this weekend.  In its absence, I’ll point out that Honorius, who was very likely a disciple of some sort of Anselm and with him at Canterbury, certainly had access to and the ability to work at length with a number of Eriugena’s works.
[5] See for instance Giulio d'Onofrio’s Vera Philosophia (Brepols, 2008)  or M.B. Pranger’s The Artificiality of Christianity (Stanford, 2003).  Perhaps one day an intrepid graduate student will write his dissertation (expected June 2047) on the interplay of these two figures in the writings of the scholar who could rightly be called the most notable disciple of both, Honorius.
[6] Prayers and Meditations 116 & 118 respectively.  It’s also notable that Eriugena was fascinated by the metaphysics of light, and that this was a common theme that 12th century thinkers took from his works.  See for example Werner Beierwaltes. Negati Affirmatio: Or the World as Metaphor.” Dionysius. 1 (1977) 127-130.  (Honorius also takes up this idea, see upcoming amazingly well-written and learned final paper for this course by Dan Yingst)
[7] I think there’s a good reason for this if we look at the progression laid out in the three prayers.  One could almost write half a blog post on it, before deciding that Mary as theophany is more interesting and writing on that instead.
[8] Prayers and Meditations 120
[9] Ibid 121
[10] See Anselm Why God Became Man in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works ed. Brian Davies &  G.R. Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) from roughly 335 onward.  I’m also indebted to Pranger’s discussion of this topic throughout The Artificiality of Christianity, particularly Chapter 8, and apologize for my failings in adequately representing the arguments of both Pranger and Anselm therein.
[11] Space constraints force me to omit a more detailed elaboration of this, but I feel that it’s important to note that Anselm’s configuring of Mary as a theophany does not render her less human, less real, less historical, any more than Eriugena’s description of Creation as primarily theophanic makes it less a material real thing, nor does it detract from any of her other roles which Anselm elaborates.  We must always be careful not to introduce distinctions between the historical and the spiritual, or the divine, where none existed in medieval thought.


  1. DAY, you write: “Whether there is direct influence [from the Periphyseon] here or not, Anselm’s language seems to construct Mary as a theophany, in the same sense that Eriugena described creation.” This does not seem so radical to me, or to require the Periphyseon. It seems consistent with what previous authors have established about Mary’s nature as creation, but special part of the Incarnation of the Word.

    I like the way you started your nice point about Mary as the “font of all theophany” for Anselm, but don’t think that God manifest in the burning bush or to Job is equivalent to God incarnated through Mary. Rather, I suggest that Mary could be “font of all theophany” in having made incarnate the very Word that created all things.

    The end of your post is not “incoherent” (despite the difficulty of expressing/explaining these things). I think that it eloquently explains (more than my phrasing above!) this idea that the Word of creation was “transformed” and made tangible, physical, etc., through Mary. I’m not sure how necessary the earliest sections of your post are here, but these are good arguments on Mary and her relation to Christ and creation. Nicely done.

  2. Good use of your hammer! I don't know whether we need Anselm to have been reading Eriugena for there to be a similarity between their thinking, but your musings convince me that there is definitely something worth looking for in how Anselm understands Mary. What is curious is that Anselm doesn't really develop this idea of Mary as theophany outside of his prayers, which makes me wonder about the way in which Anselm understood the purpose of prayer. See my "Anselm and Praying with the Saints" (forthcoming in a volume on empathy edited by Karl Morrison and Rudy Bell), where I argue that all of the saints show something about God.