Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gaining Intellectus Through Affectus

In addition to including a hymn, the most recent selection of readings also introduces us to a more emotional and sometimes personal devotional genre: that of the meditation. Written with a faithful fervor that can seem to be “too much” to the modern reader, these works seek to stir emotions in a uniquely powerful way to better understand and love God—here, specifically in the context of Christ’s Passion. I found the notion of gaining intellectus though affectus different from other approaches to devotion that we have seen in previous readings, and hard to miss in the texts we read for last class once this theme had been uncovered and pointed out in discussion. In particular, St Anselm’s “Prayer to Christ,” the author of the Stabat Mater, and John on Caulibus shed light on this medieval phenomenon of understanding the great importance of Christ’s sacrifice through the utter devastation of His mother.
In The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, we encounter a voice unlike anything we’ve seen previously—almost groveling, Anselm disparages his sinning self in contrast with his pure and kind “Lady” as he asks for her love and mercy (108, 124-125). The visceral language he employs in deeming himself unworthy, like in qualifying himself as “putrid with the ulcers of sin” (107), effectively communicates that these prayers are an inward-facing and deeply personal labour. The individual nature of his meditations renders his expression of longing to feel the deepest emotion at the death of Christ all the more poignant. In his “Prayer to Christ,” Anselm laments that he was not present for each event of the Passion, and was not—like Mary, it is implied—“pierced by a sword of bitter sorrow” at the sight of the crucifixion (95). Anselm wishes that he witnessed this event, but does not say exactly why; it is certainly not an issue of faith, which he does not lack. His bemoaning of his absence at the crucifixion is shot through with acknowledgement that he does not “deserve to be amazed” by such events, an instance of self-disparagement characteristic of what we have read of Anselm (95). Additionally, he wants his Redeemer to come to him and “turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love for you” (99, 94). Though not explicitly related to his desire to experience the excruciating range of emotions of a witness of the Passion, particularly Mary, he does seek to better understand and love God.
The Stabat Mater, in its focus on the overwhelming “sorrow” of the Virgin at the crucifixion, includes pleas that she might let the speaker “share with true emotion/All the sorrow you endured,” “stand and mourn with you,” and “feel your grief sublime,” and consequently “fire me with your love of Christ.”  These repeated imperatives indicate that whoever composed this hymn considers empathizing deeply with Mary to be an avenue towards gaining a “love of Christ” like hers. Here, understanding Mary and her emotional response are more clearly shown as integral to a devotee trying to love Christ completely and passionately. Mary’s role in such a contemplative ascent echoes the notion that we have seen in earlier texts: that Mary is she through whom we can best see God.
Meditations on the Life of Christ, attributed to John of Caulibus, goes a step further than the longings of St Anselm or the author of the Stabat Mater, however. John of Caulibus elaborates upon the Passion with the intention of drawing the reader into a narrative of the Passion that he insists is wholly “confirmed by sacred Scripture” or “spoken about either in the words of the saints or in approved interpretations” (236). His meditations appear less fervently personal than those of St Anselm, and instead often directly invite the reader to imagine himself in whatever scene is being described. John of Caulibus seems to be attempting to coax an emotional response out of the reader in imploring him to imagine the humbled Christ as “just a man” as He endures countless heart-wrenching slights that are recounted in painful detail (249). Most effective of all is his portrayal of Mary, a bereaved mother “stricken half-dead in her anguish,” enduring excruciating pain in sympathy with her son, and ultimately begging to be buried with him as she “held his head in her lap” (250, 261). Mary is a human reference point of sorts; no image inspires more sorrow to the reader than that of a mother grieving over her child (let alone the Mother of God doing so with the Creator). The impulse to immerse oneself in the Passion through a carefully constructed story is yet another attempt to love God through feeling and understanding, particularly with Mary as an aid of such an effort.

As we have seen her function before for the faithful, Mary frames the discussion of understanding through emotion; it is her grief that we center around and strive to feel as much as we are able. Here, again, Mary is the way through which we can glimpse God. St Anselm, John of Caulibis, and the author of the Stabat Mater all wish to obtain a stronger love of Christ through comprehending Mary’s sorrow, both intellectually and emotionally. Similar narrative impulses present in the Meditations on the Life of Christ and in William of Newburgh’s commentary on the Song of Songs appear to be written with a similar objective in mind. The genre of the meditation, as a text born from the author’s own devotion, also has a great capacity for expressing the necessary depth of feeling. Through depicting her sorrow at witnessing the Passion of her son and indicating that they wish they could have been present to better understand it, medieval authors demonstrate a desire to attain intellectus through affectus, and thereby approach a truer and more passionate love of God.


  1. While the “intellectus through affectus” approach was definitely most pronounced in our readings for Monday, it was also present in previous texts. In particular, Bernard’s “Homily IV” from Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary seems to articulate a modified version of it.

    During his exegesis of Luke 1:35 on page 49, Bernard asks, “What does ‘and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ mean? ‘Let him who can grasp this.’” Drawing from Matthew 19:12, Bernard indicates a scriptural precedent that suggests the importance of understanding Gabriel’s words. He continues by answering his own question, explaining, “Who indeed can, except perhaps she who alone deserved to have this most blessed experience…” (49).

    In doing this, Bernard connects this notion of “grasping” – or intellectus – with experience. For Bernard, it is not enough to just say what Mary experienced; to really understand one must also experience it.

    However, Bernard differs from our authors on Monday on one particular topic. He seems to suggest that Mary is the only one who can actually understand the Incarnation. On 49, he explains, “…She alone was allowed to understand it because she alone was allowed to experience it.” While this does not necessarily preclude an affective imagination like that of Pseudo-Bernard or John of Calibus, it is not a resounding call to it either.

    A. Fialkowski

  2. Very nice account of the way in which the progression from "affectus" to "intellectus" plays out in Anselm, the "Stabat Mater," and the "Meditations on the Life of Christ." I was especially struck by your astute observation that Anselm does not, in fact, tell us in the prayer to Christ why he was so dismayed not to have seen Christ at the crucifixion, for, as you point out, it is not for lack of faith, e.g. that he needed to see in order to believe. Rather, he believes and so wants to see/have seen--but to what end? Why should such an emotional response be necessary for understanding? This is the question that (as I argued in class) we need to be able to answer in order to understand the medieval appeal to compassionate Mary! RLFB

  3. In the context of what you've written, it's interesting to consider just what intellectus is. The word is typically translated as "understanding", but you (correctly, I think) highlight the fundamental connection in our medieval sources of this understanding with love. So what is this connection, why is it essential to "understand" God in order to love him more fully? This is especially interesting if we consider who these authors are. Take Anselm, he's one of the greatest theologians in history, who writes at length on the nature of God, His attributes, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and so on. He certainly seems to know quite a bit about God, so what is he missing that the intellectus attained through Mary provides? And how does it connect to the vision language which is so pervasive in the same sources?