Review: Richard of Saint Victor: The Book of the Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark. By Grover Alfonso Zinn

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Richard of St. Victor (CWS): The Book of the Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark, Book Three of the Trinity (Classics of Western Spirituality Series) Paulist Press, Paperback – 1 Jan 1979 – Author: Grover Alfonso Zinn


Richard of San Vittore C.R.S.A., (Ireland or Scotland, c. 1110 – † Paris, 10 Mar 1173) was a Canon Regular of Saint Augustine of the twelfth century. Originally from Scotland, he entered the abbey of San Vittore, near Paris, where he also became Prior in 1162. Less well known than Hugh of San Vittore, he distinguished himself for a series of ascetical and mystical works, as well as for a De Trinitate. In a previous work Benjamin Minor, had discussed how to prepare one’s soul for contemplation. Here instead, in the Benjamin Major, he directly addresses his favourite theme.

The title of the work should actually be The Ark of the Covenant, because the letter „A“ makes an allegorical reading of the Ark built by Moses according to the divine specifications (cf. Ex 25:10-22). Such a reading was favoured by the different elements that made up the ark: the acacia wood structure; the purest gold overlay; the four golden rings; the two bars of acacia wood again covered with gold; the propitiatory of purest gold and the two golden cherubs with spread wings covering the Oracle and looking towards one another. This structure suggested the idea of an order, not however static, but dynamic.

Thus, Richard develops one of the most cherished themes of spirituality, beginning with Origen, namely that spiritual life is a journey, made of beginnings, successive stages and a conquest of the final goal. The image that dominates these pages is therefore “the metaphor of movement” (p.22). Following the Augustinian school, the A. favours an anthropological perspective, „focusing more on the object of contemplation, on the possibilities that man has at his disposal“ (p.21).

ugo di san vittore insegna riccardo e studenti
Miniature of Hugh of Saint Victor teaching the young canons of Richard’s abbey

Where to start, then? As a good medieval, Richard answers: from the senses, yes from the five senses. There is nothing in the mind that does not start from the senses first. Here too there is a long tradition, that of the „spiritual senses“, initiated by Origen, used by Augustine (just reread the sero te amavi!) And developed by Bonaventura. To contemplate with the senses is to see, to feel, to taste, to touch things for what they are, that is to say creatures that bear within themselves the trace of the Creator. This is the first step. The term is given by the “possibility of man to return to communion with God” (page XI). And it is really a question of „returning home“, since man was created „in the image of God“ and „according to his likeness“.

It is a path, however, that must take into account the historical condition of man, who, despite this internal push towards God, feels the resistances of his finitude, and above all of his pride, who does not want to recognise himself dependent on the other. But when the Other is God, that is the Good, the Truth and the Love, recognising oneself as dependent is not humiliation, but elevation. Therefore, although he is surrounded by grace, from beginning to end, man remains free. Richard’s claims about human freedom are surprising, because „while rationality has been blurred and conditioned by sin, freedom has not been minimally compromised: man has remained free, despite being in a condition made weak by sin“ (p. XIV).

The Preface by Abbot Prof. Jean Chatillon (1912- +1988) of the Institut Catholique, Paris, is an excellent premise to the understanding of a text in many respects far from today’s sensibility, but for other aspects still current. Labelling Richard „as a great spiritual figure, perhaps one of the greatest, of a Christian Medieval time that included so many.“  Suffice it to recall that „until the time of Teresa of Avila, Richard was considered the reference point for mystical theology and the doctrine of contemplation“. This is confirmed by some very prestigious witnesses, for example, by Dante Aligheri, who in the 10th canto of Paradise, vv. 130-132, does not hesitate in affirming that Richard “a considerar fu più viro“, as well as St. Bonaventure himself, who considers him „‚master’ in contemplation“ (page XXI).

Regarding the translator, Father Antonio Orazzo S.J., we know how reliable his work is, given his long association with patristic and medieval authors. However, it deserves pointing out what he himself notes, that is, that for the biblical texts he followed his own translation, to make the commentary to the text uniform as it was read by Riccardo. Recourse to modern translations of the Bible, which are based on the Vulgate, as many do, are very often different from the Hebrew text, and can render the patristic or medieval author’s argument incomprehensible.