Stefan Constantinescu: Visitatio Verbi dans les Sermons In Cantica de Bernard de Clairvaux (= Studia Oecumenica Friburgensia; 109), Münster: Aschendorff 2022, VI + 343 S., ISBN 978-3-402-12269-3, EUR 54,00
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Claire Maître: Le bréviaire cistercien Troyes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS.2030, Fribourg: Academic Press Fribourg 2015
Ellen F. Arnold: Negotiating the Landscape. Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 2013
Emilia Jamroziak: The Cistercian Order in Medieval Europe. 1090-1500, London / New York: Routledge 2013
This book is the publication of a doctoral thesis that takes its inspiration from passages in Saint Bernard's Sermon 74 on the Canticle of Canticles, where Bernard speaks of his own spiritual experience. Its publication in the series Studia Oecumenica is fitting because the work is ecumenical in both the narrow and the broad sense. It is ecumenical in the strict sense, given that one of the goals of the book is to offer an orthodox perspective on Saint Bernard's writings in general and especially on the concept of visitatio Verbi as found in the Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles. It is ecumenical in the wider sense because the author brings into his research an impressive spectrum of studies from many disciplines like monasticism, linguistics, literature, biblical theology, art, orthodox theology, philosophical anthropology, and phenomenology.
The gist of the passage from Sermon 74 that constitutes the starting point of this study is as follows: With some hesitation, Bernard opts to reveal to his listeners/readers his own experiences of the divine presence (Fateor et mihi adventasse Verbum); the actual moment of these visits, however, is not available to the senses or to ordinary consciousness (nullis umquam introitum suum indiciis innotescere fecit); the only indication of the experience is the heart's perception (tantum ex motu cordis) and a small but noticeable change in behavior (ex quantulacumque emendatione morum meorum).
Constantinescu's main contention is that a merely moral reading of this passage is reductive. As he sees it, the change in the person is ontological: "Celui qui reçoit les visites du Verbe ne change pas seulement son comportement, mais il donne vie au Verbe dans sa personne, de sorte que cette expérience du Verbe devienne d'abord une véritable forme de vie pour lui-même et ultérieurement pour autrui" (315-316). Moreover, through his artful writing, Bernard creates a sort of icon: "Bernard utilise l'art du verbe pour créer une réalité iconique du Verbe divin" (92). This iconic use of language then allows the reader to enter into the same experience of encounter with the Word: "l'art des paroles de Bernard ouvre une dimension qui introduit le lecteur dans la relation avec le Verbe divin" (184). The first part of the book, therefore, deals with Bernard's use of language, the second part investigates the concept of how language might function in a way similar to icons, and the third part treats of the possible modalities of this personal experience of the visitatio both in Bernard and in his readers.
To support his thesis, the author brings to each of these three aspects an impressive dossier derived from his vast bibliography. For each chapter or section, an "expert" is consulted in the sense that the books or articles of these various authors are presented in great detail. As a result, this book often seems less like a monograph around a central thesis than a collective work. Over half the book consists of citations, often long paragraphs and sometimes full pages, from various passages of Bernard's works or from the writings of these experts. The author's text threads together these citations, showing how they are relevant to his investigation, while occasionally restating his central thesis, each time with a slightly different nuance to reflect the input of the chosen experts.
Rather than demonstrating or arguing his thesis, the author proceeds mostly by association: each insight from each of the many sources is related to some aspect of the thesis but not necessarily supportive of it in the sense of reinforcing an argument. The reader looking to be convinced by argument and demonstration will be disappointed. The reader willing to follow the development of the author's personal thought can benefit from the rich array of the works cited along the way.
This study implicitly raises several questions that are not fully addressed in the work. Bernard's literary art is presented in such exalted terms that it is not clear whether the concept of language conveying the divine presence like icons applies uniquely to Bernard or if Bernard is used as an ideal model of what spiritual writers are intended to be. As for the concept of language functioning like icons, it would be helpful if the author would explain this leap from the realm of words and mental images to the concrete, visual realm of actual icons. And, finally, although the author acknowledges the moral dimension of Bernard's purpose in Sermon 74, his exclusive focus on the mystical dimension risks losing sight of the inherent balance between spiritual experience and moral behavior in Bernard's thought. In other words, in his reflections on the expression visitatio Verbi, extracted from its native context, the author so overloads it with interpretations that he risks losing sight of the original balanced purpose of Sermon 74.