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.

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