Hugh of St. Victor

The Grades of Knowledge

Three are the modes of cognition (visionnes) belonging to the rational soul: cogitation, meditation, contemplation. It is cogitation when the mind is touched with the ideas of things, and the thing itself is by its image presented suddenly, either entering the mind through sense or rising from memory. Meditation is the assiduous and sagacious revision of cogitation, and strives to explain the involved, and penetrate the hidden. Contemplation is the mind's perspicacious and free attention, diffused everywhere throughout the range of whatever may be explored. There is this difference between meditation and contemplation: meditation relates always to things hidden from our intelligence; contemplation relates to things made manifest, according to either their nature or our capacity. Meditation always is occupied with some one matter to be investigated; contemplation spreads abroad for the comprehending of many things, even the universe. Thus meditation is a certain inquisitive power of the mind, sagaciously striving to look into the obscure and unravel the perplexed. Contemplation is that acumen of intelligence which, keeping all things open to view, comprehends all with clear vision. Thus contemplation has what meditation seeks.

There are two kinds of contemplation: the first is for beginners, and considers creatures; the kind that comes later, belongs to the perfect, and contemplates the Creator. In The Proverbs, Solomon proceeds as through meditation. In Ecclesiastes, he ascends to the first grade of contemplation. In the Song of Songs, he transports himself to the final grade. In meditation there is a wrestling of ignorance with knowledge; and the light of truth gleams as in a fog of error. So fire is kindled with difficulty on a heap of greed wood; but then, fanned with stronger breath, the flame burns higher, and we see volumes of smoke rolling up, with flame flashing through. Little by little the damp is exhausted, and the leaping fire dispels the smoke. Then vicrix flamma, darting through the heap of crackling wood, springs from branch to branch, and with lambent grasp catches upon every twig; nor does it rest until it penetrates everywhere and draws into itself all that it finds that is not flame. At length the whole combustible material is purged of its own nature and passes into the similitude and property of fire; then the din is hushed, and the voracious fire, having subdued all and brought all into its own likeness, composes itself to a high peace and silence, finding nothing more that is alien or opposed to itself. First there was fire with flame and smoke; then fire with flame, without smoke; and at last pure fire with neither flame nor smoke.

From Ray Petry, ed. Late Medieval Mysticism. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, n.d.: 90-91.


Love the Cure of the Soul's Sickness

As I was sitting once among the brethren, and they were asking questions, and I replying, and many matters had been cited and adduced, it came about that all of us at once began to marvel vehemently at the unstableness and disquiet of the human heart; and we began to sigh. Then they pleaded with me that I would show them the cause of such whirlings of thought in the human heart; and they besought me to set forth by what art of exercise of discipline this evil might be removed. I indeed wished to satisfy my brethren, so far as God might aid me, and untie the knot of their questions, both by authority and by argument. I knew it would please them most if I should compose my matter to read to them at table.

It was my plan to show first whence arise such violent changes in man's heart, and then how the mind may be led to keep itself in stable peace. And although I had no doubt that this is the proper work of grace, rather than of human labor, nevertheless I know that God wishes us to co-operate. Besides, it is well to know the magnitude of our weakness and the mode of its repairing, since so much the deeper will be our gratitude.

The first man was so created that if he had not sinned he would always have beheld in present contemplation his Creator's face, and by always seeing him would have loved him always, and by loving would always have clung close to him, and by clinging to him who was eternal would have possessed life without end. Evidently the one true good of man was perfect knowledge of his Creator. But he was driven from the face of the Lord, since for his sin he was struck with the blindness of ignorance, and passed from that intimate light of contemplation; and he inclined his mind to earthly desires, as he began to forget the sweetness of the divine. Thus he was made a wanderer and fugitive over the earth. A wanderer indeed, because of disordered concupiscence; and a fugitive, through guilty conscience, which feels every man's hand against it. For every temptation will overcome the man who has lost God's aid.

So man's heart which had been kept secure by divine love, and one by loving One, afterward began to flow here and there through earthly desires. For the mind which knokws not to love its true good is never stable and never rests. Hence restlessness, and ceaseless labor, and disquet, intil the man turns and adheres to Him. The sick heart wavers and quivers; the cause of its disease is love of the world; the remedy, the love of God.

From Ray Petry, ed. Late Medieval Mysticism. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, n.d.: 92-93.

The Soul's Deepest Desire: Dialogue Between Man and His Soul

The Soul: What is that sweet thing that comes sometimes to touch me at the thought of God? It affects me with such vehemence and sweetness that I begin wholly to go out of myself and to be lifted up, whither I know not. Suddenly I am renewed and changed; it is a state of inexpressible well-being. My consciousness rejoices. I lose the memory of my former trials, my soul rejoices, my mind becomes clearer, my heart is enflamed, my desires are satisfied. I feel myself transported into a new place, I know not where. I grasp something interiorly as if with the embraces of love. I do not know what it is, and yet I strive with all my strength to hold it and not to lose it. I struggle deliciously to prevent myself leaving this thing which I desire to embrace forever, and I exult with ineffable intensity, as if I had at last found the goal of all my desires. I seek for nothing more, I wish for nothing more. All my aspiration is to continue at the point that I have reached. Is it my Beloved? Tell me, I pray thee, if this be he, that, when he return, I may conjure him not to depart, and to establish in me his permanent dwelling place?

The Man: Yes, it is truly thy Beloved who visits thee. But he comes invisible, hidden, incomprenensible. He comes to touch thee, not to be seen; to intimate his presence to thee, not to be understood; to make thee taste of him, not to pour himself out in his entirety; to draw thy affection, not to satisfy thy desire; to bestow the first fruits of his love, not to communicate it in its fullness. Behold in this the most certain pledge of thy future marriage: that thou art destined to see him and to possess him eternally, because he already gives himself to thee at times to taste, with what sweetness thou knowest. Therefore in the times of his absence thou shalt console thyself; and during his visits thou shalt renew thy courage, which is ever in need of heartening. We have spoken at great length, O my soul. In conclusion, I ask thee to think of none but Him, love none but him, listen to none but him, take hold of none but him, possess none but him.

The Soul: That indeed is what I desire, what I choose; that is what I long for from the depths of my heart.

From Ray Petry, ed. Late Medieval Mysticism. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, n.d.: 94-95.

Hugh of St. Victor's Ascent

  1. Ascent in Action
    1. confession of faults
    2. almsgiving
    3. despising wealth
  2. Ascent in Affection
    1. humility
    2. charity
    3. contemplation
      1. In actu
      2. In affectu
      3. In intellectu
  3. Ascent in Understanding
    1. investigation of Creator and creature
    2. investigation of scripture
    3. searching out of morals