in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jean Gerson and the Mystical Theology

Great to get the chance to read Jean Gerson again today in preparation for tonight's lecture - Here is the relevant extract from my 'Return to the Mystical' (Continuum 2011) which I will be referring to tonight...

best wishes


Jean Gerson


Unlike Gallus and Hugh of Balma, of whom we know very little, Gerson’s life is well documented and accounted for. If he is known at all today Gerson is most often cited as one of the main architects of resolving the split in the medieval church between two, and later three Popes: the so-called ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 - 1417. As an advocate of ‘conciliar’ policy Gerson is seen as a leading exponent of a non-monarchical view of ecclesiology that stresses the power of councils to determine Christian doctrine, even over the heads of popes and patriarchs (see Morrall 1960). During a lifetime of academic research the Chancellor was particularly concerned with reconciling the affectus and intellectus amongst his students, or as he calls it the theologia mystica and the theologia speculativa, and to this end wrote two treatises on the theologia mystica which both started as lectures to his Paris students: the first Speculative Treatise (Theologia Mystica Speculativa) presented in autumn 1402 and the second Practical Treatise (Theologia Mystica Practica) given five years later in 1407.[1] Although a noted intellectual Gerson had trouble reconciling his academic life of the mind with his affective life of prayer. It seems that the tradition of the theologia mystica which he embraced[2] enabled the troubled Chancellor to find some peace in his life (which he communicated to his students). After many tumultuous years the tired Chancellor was finally able to spend his last ten years in Lyon, teaching children catechetics and embracing the meditative life he had so long yearned for.[3]

In the Tractatus Primus Speculativus of the De Mystica Theologia, the Chancellor begins by asking: ‘whether it is better to have knowledge of God through penitent affectus or investigative intellectus?’(GMT: 1, Prol.1).[4] After much discussion Gerson makes it quite clear that he will employ the now familiar unknowing and affective mystical strategies within his discourse. Thus in Section 27 he declares:


Thus we see that it is correct to say that as contemplatio is in the cognitive power of the intelligence, the mistica theologia dwells in the corresponding affective power. (GMT: 1.27.7)[5]


Therefore ‘knowledge of God through mystical theology is better acquired through a penitent affectus than an investigative intellectus’ (GMT: 1.28.1). In this passage Gerson contrasts a theologia mystica that depends upon strategies of unknowing and affectivity to the cognitive or speculative knowledge acquired through the theologia speculativa. Clearly Gerson’s strategy differs from Dionysius’ in his emphasis on the purification of the affectus ‘through the fervour of penance in compunction, contrition and prayer’ (GMT: 1.28.2) for Gerson makes fine distinctions between the ‘purified affectus’ and the ‘sordid i.e. unpurified affectus’ (sordidis affectibus) corrupted by the ‘sensual habits of adolescence’ (qui corruptos adhuc habent sensus ab adolescentia). For Gerson the eros of affectus is not an unqualified force for the good as it was in the original text of Dionysius, it may be tainted by the ‘sordid affectus’ of youth.[6]

He rests with Hugh of Balma’s definition of the theologia mystica as ‘extensio animi in Deum per amoris desiderium’: ‘The extension of the animus in God through the desire of love’ supplemented by the definitions: ‘sursum ductiva in Deum, per amorem fervidum et purum’,‘a raising movement in God, through fervent and pure love’ (GMT:1.28.5) and ‘cognitio experimentalis habita de Deo per amoris unitive complexum’, ‘cognition experienced of God through the embrace of unitive love’ and, following Dionysius DN.7: ‘Theologia mystica est irrationalis et amens, et stulta sapientia, excedens laudantes’: ‘The mystical theology is irrational and beyond mind and foolish wisdom, exceeding all praise’. He later returns to this in GMT: 1.43.2, ‘mistica theologia est cognitio experimentalis habita de Deo per coniunctionem affectus spiritualis cum eodum’: ‘theologia mystica is an experimental cognition of God through the union of the spiritual affectus with him’ – ‘as the blessed Dionysius states this takes place through ecstatic love’.

Therefore, for Gerson, the theologia speculativa resides in the potentia intellectiva whilst the theologia mystica resides in the potentia affectiva. Speculative theology uses ‘reasoning in conformity with philosophical disciplines’ (GMT: 1.30.2). Theologia mystica, on the other hand, needs no such ‘school of the intellect’ (scola intellectus). It is acquired through the ‘school of the affect’ (scola affectus) and (following Gerson’s importance attached to the purfication of the affect) through the exercise of the ‘moral virtues’ that ‘dispose the soul to purgation’ (GMT: 1.30.3). This is acquired through the ‘school of religion’ (scola religionis) or ‘school of love’ (scola amoris). The acquisition of the theologia mystica does not therefore require great knowledge or extensive study of books but may be acquired by ‘any of the faithful, even if she be an insignificant woman or someone who is illiterate’ (a quolibet fideli, etiam si sit muliercula vel ydiota) (GMT: 1.30.5). Concurring with St Bernard, Gerson suggests speculative theology can never be complete without mystical theology but the contrary can be the case: we all must acquire this ‘affectivity’ to reach right relationship with God. Therefore ‘the language of mystical theology is to be hidden from many who are clerics or learned or who are called wise in philosophy or theology, so it can be conveyed to many who are illiterate and naïve, provided they have faith’ (GMT: 1.31.1). At this point, as with Dionysius, Gerson employs the strategy of concealment for the ‘language of mystical theology’ is ‘to be hidden from many who are clerics or learned or are called wise in philosophy or theology’ (GMT: 1.31:1) lest they ‘tear apart with the teeth of dogs what they do not understand’. As he states at the end of section 42: ‘To explain these matters an endless succession of words could be added, but for experts these few words will suffice, for the inexpert no words will ever suffice for full comprehension’ (GMT: 1.42.9). It is an ‘irrational and mindless wisdom’ (‘irrationalis et amens sapientia’ 1.43:3) going beyond reason and mind and translating into the affectus.

We are once again in the place of the Wittgensteinian Blick at the interface of ‘saying and showing’ and we find this symbiotic relationship between the unknowing of intellect (‘they all agree that they have come to know that they know nothing’ GMT: 1.34.3) and the ‘wisdom’ of the affectus. The affectus, once purified, possesses all the passionate force of Dionysius’s ecstatic eros: ‘Love takes hold of the beloved and creates ecstasy, and this is called rapture because of the manner in which the mind is lifted up’ (GMT: 1.36.1) and again ‘love ravishes, unites and fulfills’ (GMT: 1.35.3). In conclusion, for Gerson, ‘the school of prayer (scola orandi) is more praiseworthy, other things being equal, than the school of learning/letters (scola litteras)’.



[1] Note the importance of Paris for the evolution of the theologia mystica
[2] As well as the Victorines, he quotes Balma as a work that should be read by all students and devotes a lengthy part of the treatises to commentary on Dionysius.
[3] Gerson is one of the first theologians to write directly in colloquial French so that all the faithful can understand his teaching. His insistence on ‘everyday manners of talking’ will be something we shall see he has in common with Teresa of Avila in Chapter Six.
[4] My translation: an cognitio Dei melius per penitentem affectum quam per intellectum investigantem habeatur.
[5] Et cognoscamus quoniam, appropriate loquendo, sicut contemplatio est in vi cognitive intelligentie, sic in vi affective correspondente reponitur mistica theologia.
[6] Gerson seemed to have a problem with the sexual lifes of his penitents. See On the Art of Hearing Confessions translated in McGuire 1998.

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