Friday, September 19, 2008

Ecstatic Vision of a Medieval Saint

The following excerpt from the Life of St. Ansgar is a fairly typical example of Medieval visionary literature: the protagonist of the narrative, while hovering between life and death for a period of days, undergoes an ecstatic journey to the Afterworld while guided by a saint or angel, visiting first the torments of Purgatory and Hell, before being allowed a glimpse of the delights of Paradise; subsequent to their return to ordinary consciousness, they are entirely reformed and thus dedicate their lives to God's service. In this case the ecstatic traveler is a real historical personage, Saint Ansgar, the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen (801 C.E. - 865 C.E.). Ansgar is primarily known for evangelizing the Danes; he is the patron saint of Denmark to this day. Rimbert, the author of the work, was Ansgar's disciple and constant companion; although an account of his life exists, its lack of factuality has left us with very little substantial knowledge of Rimbert's life and character.

“The Vision of Ansgar”
(excerpted from Rimbert's Vita Anskarii, ca. 826 C.E.)

Subsequent to the events which occurred in your account, while Ansgar was still fairly young, he was tonsured and placed in monastic orders. There, where all human frailty is sublimated, he soon began to grow cold from the chill of the open priory. At the same time he received the news of the death of his most excellent lord, the Emperor Charlemagne. Ansgar had previously seen him at the height of his great and glorious power and had become acquainted with the knowledge of how he had most laudibly used his power to govern with great prudence. The announcement of the death of so great a ruler caused Ansgar to be overcome by great fear and horror; but presently he regained consciousness and recalled the admonitory words of the Mother of God.
Thus, with all celebration postponed, Ansgar began to grow weak from divine prodding. Turning himself entirely to the service of God, he undertook the labors of prayers, fasts, and abstinence. And so this true champion of God, living as he did in these exercises of the spirit, insofar as the world and its abiding heaviness was now dead to him, was now in turn dead to it. The holy day of the Pentecost arrived: by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which was poured out on the apostles on the first celebration of that day, the evening brought the pleasing revelation to Anskar that he would now die straightaway. At this very juncture of death, he invoked Saint Peter the Apostle and Saint John the Baptist. And just as his soul seemed to be departing from his body, it appeared immediately in yet another body – a body of exceeding beauty, devoid of all mortality or discomfort. At this same marvelous moment of death appeared also those very saints whom Ansgar had invoked. One of them was the elder, having hair that was grey, straight, and thick, a ruddy countenance with a sorrowful expression, dressed in a garment of white and other colors, and short of stature: him Ansgar recognized at once, without having to be told, as Saint Peter. Next to Saint Peter was a youth, taller in stature, showing his first beard, having dark and rather curly hair, a narrow countenance, and dressed in a beige tunic: whom Ansgar immediately knew to be Saint John the Baptist. These two saints stood on either side of him.
Then his soul went out into the immense brightness with which the entire Universe was filled, and seemed once again to be alone. The two saints reappeared and led Ansgar in a marvelous and ineffable way through that brilliance, without any effort whatsoever. They then arrived at that place which Ansgar knew, without having to be told, to be the Purgatorial fire. The two saints set him down there. Although he suffered greatly by remaining there, he seemed nevertheless to tolerate the thickest and most overwhelming darkness, and the most terrifying suffocations. His memory was obliterated: thus he was able to think of one thing only, and that with great effort – namely, how punishments so dire could possibly exist. And while he was being tormented there over the course of three days (or so he believed the span of time to be), which itself seemed to last for longer than three thousand years on account of the horrible pain, Saint John and Saint Paul returned to him. They stood on either side of him and rejoiced for a longer time than before. Then, walking with their feet immobile and without bodily means, they guided him with even greater ease through a brilliance which exceeded even that of the first brilliance – if such a thing were possible.
Here we can use Saint Ansgar’s own words: “From afar I beheld various columns of saints, some closer, some further, all facing the east and gazing in that direction. They were praising Him Who appeared in the East. Some bowed their heads, while others worshipped with their faces lifted and their hands extended. And when we had arrived at that place in the East, what should we see but the twenty-four elders, of whom it is written in the Apocalypse, sitting upon their thrones as if guarding the exceedingly vast entrance to this place. They also gazed reverently toward the East, emitting ineffable praises to God. These praises, which were shared by all who sang, instilled the sweetest refreshment in me; however, I was unable to remember any of them after I had returned to my body. There was a marvelous splendor in this place in the East, and an ineffable light of astounding brilliance in which gorgeous hues and all pleasantness were inherent. All the columns of saints, who stood everywhere rejoicing, were in truth drinking joy from this splendor. The splendor was of such magnitude that I was unable to discern either a beginning or an end. Wherever I looked, whether far or near, I could not see what that immense luminosity contained: I could only perceive its surface. Nevertheless, I believed Him to be present there, of Whom Peter spoke: ‘Upon whom the angels desire to gaze.’ For indeed the immense light proceeded forth from Him, by which the entire length and width of the multitude of saints was illuminated. He also was in all of them in a certain way, and all in Him: He surrounded all things on the exterior, and ruled over all thing from the interior by saturating them; He protected from above, and He sustained from below. The Sun and the Moon would have shed their light in vain in that place, nor did there seem to be any sky or land. But that brilliance nevertheless was not such as would hinder the vision of the eyes of those looking upon it; rather, it was exceedingly pleasing to the eyes, and filled the minds of all in a most gratifying manner. And when I mentioned that I saw the elders sitting there, I mean that only in a manner of speaking were they sitting: for nothing bodily was present there, and all things were incorporeal instead, although ineffable and having the appearance of bodies. A splendor then came forth from Him around those seated, and it was curved in a manner similar to a rainbow. When thusly Saint Peter and Saint Paul had presented me to this great light, where the majesty of the Almighty God seemed to me to be, without anyone having to point it out to me, I worshipped right alongside the multitude of saints. And then the most sonorous voice, more resounding than the most piercing clarion call, so much so that it seemed to fill the entire world, proceeded forth from the majesty and manifested itself to me. It said: ‘Go forth, and you shall return to me wearing the crown of martyrdom.’
“When this voice was heard, the entire harmonious choir of saints who had been praising God fell silent and worshipped with their faces bowed. I did not in any way perceive the form which had emitted the voice. Having heard this voice, however, I became sad, knowing that I would be compelled to return to the world – but of course I had also received the promise of returning back to this place. I then went back with my two guides. They said nothing to me either in the coming or the going, but looked upon me with the kind of pious emotion with which a mother looks upon her only son. And thus I returned to my body. In the going and the coming there was neither effort nor delay, because, whithersoever we turned our steps, we were always immediately there. Although I might seem, moreover, to have told of a sweetness which cannot be surpassed, nevertheless I am forced to admit that my pen can in no way describe how much my mind perceived. And yet, neither did my mind perceive it as it was; because, as it seemed to me, ‘The eye does not see, the ear does not hear, nor does the human heart comprehend.’”
We have now related this vision as it was dictated to us by this slave of God. Saint Ansgar, after having been both terrified and consoled by his experience, began thereafter to conduct himself with greater concern for the divine, and to persevere, with greater zeal on each passing day, in goodly works. Thus he acted in hope for the mercy of God, believing himself capable of attaining to the glory of martyrdom by whatever occasion God would assign. As it was, this did not happen by way of the violence of a hostile enemy; rather, it occurred from the mortification of the flesh which Saint Ansgar incurred by continuously bearing the a cross in honor of the name of Christ. Concerning that, we shall describe it in greater detail, and how it took place by the mercy of God, when we begin to tell of Saint Ansgar’s death.

Mystical Meditation on the Creation in the Book of Genesis

The following poem was written by a Benedictine monk and theologian known as Wandelbert of Prum (813 C.E. - d. after 850 C.E.). Although a native of France, Wandelbert (also spelled "Wandalbert") was a monk at the Abbey of Prum, in what is now Germany. His most famous work is an account of the life of St. Goar of Aquitaine, the patron saint of innkeepers, potters, and vinegrowers. Wandelbert's other surviving works are not widely read today, and very little is otherwise known of his life. The copyright for this translation is owned by Darius Matthias Klein.

The Creation of the World in Six Days
by Wandelbert of Prum

Concerning the God Who is One and Three
Simple, pure, and One
Source and parent of the highest goodness
Existing without end
Since the beginning of time eternal:
God caused the Universe to take shape
Creating all things by the Word -
A revolving cosmic machine
Turned by the Heavens.
Equal to the Father and the Begotten
And illuminating all things with its light
The Spirit fills the Universe:
One and Threefold Power, containing
All things by the guidance
Of Your assent.

The First Day
The primordial beginning thereafter takes place
With creation not as yet enslaved by the flesh;
This creation holds the heavenly citadel
And, by seeing the king
It serves the blessed law
And the heavenly army as well.
The brilliant light from the eternal source
Shines forth.
That part of the day
Which by His will departs
From the light
Exalts, even if blind;
While that which remains
Abhors the night and the darkness.
But God the King discerns them both,
And assigns worthy beginnings to each.
The darkness, being despicable,
Adds the filth of anger and wickedness
To blind mortals;
Whereas the light everywhere disburses
The love of a blessed life
And the power to do good.
Then God created the lofty heavens
And the earth, submerged by its own great weight -
Covered by the waters,
Still in the primordial void,
It yet lacked the gift of the Light.
By these things were the seeds
Of pure fire and dry nature of the air
Made to come into being.
Of course, when all of these things
Have been made to come to pass
All bodies put into motion by Him,
Who breathes on them
In no perceptible way.

The Second Day
Afterwards, that portion of the Heavens
Nearest the Earth was established,
Often exposed to the loathsome fires [i.e., of the firmament?].
For indeed did the supernal waters
Which covered the Earth
Run out in a common mass.
Amidst these things, God the Originator
Established the nebulous
And cloud-bearing sphere.
This power tempers
The fires of the liquid and watery
Element of Heaven.

The Third Day
It is by this mandate that at last
He Who cultivates the beautiful Earth
Covered the fields again with water;
And into great channels, the masses of dispersed water
Presently flowed as different bodies
Into springs, rivers, streams
And wide-shored lakes.
Then the bare Earth decorates
The viridescent form of the leaf
With gladdening honor;
The tree and various seeds compel
And create and germinate
Fruits and greenery.

The Fourth Day
And lest the entire incarnate realm
Lack the honor of the Light
And warmth for the breathing creatures -
The Creator fixed the fire of the Sun
And the lamp of the Moon
And the brightness of the stars.
The stars were affixed to their places
To remain under the canopy of the spheres;
They were ordered to go into motion,
So that they preside over
The years and days and signs and miracles and times.
The light from one luminescent entity,
Solar in nature,
Pervades the essence of all of the stars.
Fearful night yields.
Even the Moon, wandering in uncertain orbit,
In diverse and varying course,
Now grows, and, filled with the light of the Sun,
Radiates; then, when the light
Is removed, recedes.

The Fifth Day
After the order and fabric of the Universe
Has been radiated from a full star,
The Creator then orders living and breathing Nature
To arise and come into being.
Then the marvelous mass
Of innumerable species emerges
From beneath the waves.
All the waters grow full
With living things -
Diverse kinds of beings and bodies
Of enormous form wing their way
Everywhere through the air;
Huge cetaceans rise up;
Fish both large and small
Jump over the waves with scaly leaps.
The multitude of creatures contained
In the waters arise as a witness,
Along with the immense force
Of the violent sea.
From these very waters do colorful birds
Spread out, over forests,
Fields, and waves.

The Sixth Day
And then, as they delighted the Heavens
with their resounding praise,
The birds departed en masse on the wing,
While the rivers flowed with fish.
The Originator embellished those elements
Which were joined to their natures;
He went over a portion of the Earth,
That portion which could bring forth
Living forms by His order.
He also ordered the Earth
To assume the blessing of breathing life;
Then diverse bodies arise
Over the entire Earth, drawn
Directly out of the primordial ooze.
Whatever form is intended
For the grazing animals - that is,
The beasts of the fields,
Becomes differentiated and varied.
Whatever is a creature of the forest
Brandishes its limbs with wild movement,
And by His order runs in excitement.
The entire feral mob of beasts comes forth
With a vertiginous roaring.
Thus for all creatures,
Whether they rejoice in solitude,
Or to run with a flock,
There are forms engendered.

The Creation of Man
Now the completed machine of the primordial Universe
Pleased the Creator of the World.
He said: "Now that this has been done
"It is necessary that We now make,
"For all that have been created,
"One who is above them all,
"Rendered from the likeness of the supernal image."
The Founder then molds the slime,
He forms a steadfast citadel, and by
His breathing He animates
This perfect work.
The mind, which is eternal,
Shall always abide within.
Since this portion of the Heavens
Is of divine shape,
The high vertex of this being shines.
None of his bodily parts has the power
To restrain the mental faculty,
However much they might slow it.
After the Moderator has fashioned this form
One can perceive that there is a male,
While a female ought not to be absent.
An imposed sleep suffuses
The joints of the former;
Henceforth a vigorous female
Is taken up from the bone.
The Highest Author orders them
To have rule over all created things
Which Nature has established
Through variation, whether that be
Aquatic, aerial, or terrestrial -
Whether they walk, fly or crawl.
A simple and harmless repast
Is ordered to be prepared, of that sort
Which the tree bestows with its branches.
For the Creator in His providence had filled
A broad and leafy Paradise
With much fruit, and with the spring
Of an eternal river,
So that Eternal Law held the blessed
And native-born dweller here
In his past, present, and future home.
The greatest Author of Nature,
With six days completed and the Earth filled,
Now that he has seen all things
To please Him by their blessed becoming,
Rested on the seventh day.

The Mystical Significance of the Creation of the World, Which Humankind Must Understand
Now, mortal one, that you have discerned
That so great a Creator has selected you:
Look at yourself and become
Acquainted with yourself.
Naturally all of these things
came into being by the order
Of Him Who wished them to do so,
By Whom the cosmic order exists.
The highest, wise, and eternal Founder
Fashioned you from the mud,
And erected your formed joints
By animating them -
You who surpass all things by virtue of the mind;
So that the entire cosmic machinery
Of the Heavens might see you.
For your sake does
The entire created world instruct you,
Since you are a world
Unto yourself; and you, being a world,
Have been thusly called since ancient times –
You to whom this fashioned world yields.
That eternal light, emitted
By primeval command,
Reveals you as the one
Nourished by light.
For the illumination of the mind
Was placed in you by the Creator
When He fashioned you;
And this is the most gracious
Of the parts that bless you.
Hereafter, whatever portions of your senses
Wanders through the depths of incarnate existence
Adheres only to blind shadows.
That portion of your which is preeminent
Ought not to express the lower
And sluggish part, but rather
Ought to lift it up.
That this is so can be seen
In the spheres of the heavens,
Whose waters come to moisten
That which is below.
Such is the instruction therein.
By this does the Earth,
Visible with infertile fields,
Blossom forth with fruit and grain.
This spiritual power is
The highest form of life -
And our form is that which
Raises sluggish members.
Whatever part of you knows
To inflame a heart grown cold,
To that does the pernicious part yield.
When you contemplate bringing forth
Great or middling spiritual powers,
One bears forth the fruit and herbs
And leafy trees which are
Engendered by the spirit
With pleasant cultivation.
Soon the celestial illumination
Of the Sun, and its gracious splendor
Begin to radiate for you;
Then your shining mind will be purified
By the worthy favor of Heaven.
First you will be productive,
Then you will have the power to discern
Whether a thing is suitable
For light or for darkness.
You will then be able to restrain
Your inflamed desire;
And senses which are hidden from the heart
You will cast to the very winds.
An understanding of the highest things
Is achieved by the highest apex
Of the right mind. But those
Who are diverted by the cares of this world
With headlong flight and great haste
Seek the conveniences of the world.
Indeed, the very mass of the earthly body,
Heaving and tottering with its weight,
Either gives birth to clean deeds,
Harmless to life and worthy of reward -
Or, by creating impure things,
Foul and bloody,
It soils highest honor.
In truth, that human will wax strong
By the illumination of his mind,
And by heavenly perception, if
He rules all of his movements,
Suppressing vile thoughts, and
Exercising only chaste acts.
The eternal flower and everlasting fruit
Of eternal Paradise, and the source of Life,
Shall nourish him.