Men Whose Faith Rouses Yet Safeguards Reason
The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard. Ey E. Gilson : translated by A. H. Ces Downes. (Sheed and Ward, 10s. 6d.)
Reviewed by VINCENT McNABB, O.P.
IT is somewhat difficult to offer a valid and valuable criticism on this book, in which a French philosophical writer of the twentieth eentury tells us what he thinks of a French saint and theological writer of the twelfth century. The earlier Frenchman has wrought and written so well that. a dull book about him would be somewhat or a miracle.
The later Frenchman who has written about the earlier has already won such victories on the fields of philosophy that dullness in any of his pages on St. Bernard would be almost a miracle of miracles.
Our first duty, therefore, is to thank Mr Gilson and his English translator for a book that recommends saints to the modern mind, not as men whose reason is dulled or deadened by faith, but as men whose faith rouses yet safeguards reason.
But whilst we have little or nothing to say about E. Gilson's study on the Mystical Theology of St. Bernard, we ought to utter a word of anxiety about the school of writing in which E. Gilson is an accepted master. If history is at Its best when it is the philosophy of history, and philosophy is at its worst when it is the history of philosophy, we must be a little concerned by the flooddeep output of studies on this or that medieval Catholic writer.
Yet about ,any statement made by either a profane or Catholic thinker the important thing is not by whom or how the statement was made, hitt whether, when it is made, it is true. Even a book like The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard may lead the younger writers to think that scholarship consists less in seeing the truth about Mystical Theology than the truth about St. Bernard.
oUR second point of anxiety is found in these words of the preface :
" That his tnystical theology is essentially the science of a way of life is not to be doubted, but I hope to shene that it is nevertheless a science and that , . his treatises, even his eete mons, speak with all the severe precision and exact technique of the most denselypacked pages of St. Anselm or St. Thomas Aquinas."
Our anxiety is not a doubt that Mr Gilson has failed to prove what he here proposes to prove. But in a study purporting to prove that St. Bernard's Mystical Theology is a severely precise science we regret that the writer of the study has not given us a—or his— definition of that very ambiguous phrase " Mystical Theology." As used by the so called mystical writers of the sixteenth century and by the pseucio-Dionysius it presents two meanings as different as our eye is different from our ear. Unfortunately we have not yet reached any standard accepted meaning which allows a writer to presume that his readers will know exactly what he means.
ASTLY, the tragedy of contemplative life is latent in such statements as this : " William's [i.e., of St. Thurry] mystical doctrine comes to birth and lives within the framework of the cenobitic life, whether it be that of the Benedictine monastery, or a Cistercian, or a Carthusian."
Now just as all the plutonic eexualism of the quietists came from a mistaken view of sixteenth century "mysticism" so might a mistaken view of the cenobitic life lead to social doctrine which would seem to justify social revolution.
Gilson points out how it was the doctrine of William of St. Thurry and his fellow contemplativee that the monastery was a " School of Charity." This is true doctrine provided we have a true view of charity. By charity we mean a theological view which enables US to love our neighbour as we love ourselves because we love God more than ourselves. Yet a contemplative "School of Charity " may interpret charity in such a way that our neighbour is to be found only in the monastery; which practically becomes an end in itself. Outside this school of charity there are, not so much neighbours whom we must love as we love ourselves; but workers who must provide the monastery with the material conditions and bodily necessities of the contemplatives within its walls and grounds.
HERE we leave the matter, realising how subtle are those exaggerations of truth and goodness which have finally penned Eygptian contemplatives — the Church's classic contemplatives — in monasteries built almost as strongholds.
If any lesson is to be learned from these fortresses and " Schools of Charity " it is that true charity, man's truest and highest perfection, must look on man's fellow-men not as an impediment to perfection, but as a necessary ingredient in perfection.
If any further lesson is to be learned it is that a world imperilled by the Utopia of Communism is not likely to prize a coenobitic life where the ccenobites are a spiritual aristocracy aloof front, but dependent on the workers of the world.