Let me say it again, this is a masterpiece. Benedict XVI referred to it in his speech at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, in 2008. I had kept the title in mind, but I don't remember when I got my hands on it. It has been sitting in my bookshelf for a few years without me ever touching it. And then last fall, in preparation for a workshop on lectio divina (which is a spiritual way of praying while reading the Bible) I took the time to read it. I discovered a work according to my heart, made for those who want to deepen their knowledge by entering the literary and cultural world of medieval monks (The Love of Learning...), as well as for those who seek spiritual elevation through an initiation to monastic theology (...and the Desire for God).
This gem of scholarship does not have the dryness of academic works, but it does have the solidity of it. It is factual like a good history book, but it offers us the keys to the spiritual world. It was written to introduce young monks to the history of their spiritual tradition, but it nourishes the soul of anyone who seeks God in His Word. For the secret of the monks is that their daily life was, so to speak, bathed in the Word, as it was read, copied, meditated upon, sung during the Divine Office, ruminated at any time of the day, and tasted during periods of work and periods of leisure. The soul of the Middle Ages is brought to light, explained and resolved in some way when we look at this constant companionship with the Word. For the Benedictine and Cistercian monks of the Middle Ages, it was their way to respond to the call “to walk humbly with [their] God” (Mi 6:8).
Experienced as a time of fruitful intimacy with God, lectio divina (which literally means “divine reading” [of the divine Word]) made them lean, like the apostle John, on Jesus’ bosom, to hear and fathom the heart of God. In Dom Leclercq's work, this spirituality based on divine reading is recovered and offered for us to imitate. This is all the more inviting because not only does the scholar give it to us to understand, but he makes us enter into communion with its deepest impulses. As we close the book, we know that in the end it is up to us to ensure that these impulses continue through the vicissitudes of our 21st century lay people lives, like a succession of waves, raised by a wind that comes from above, thanks to frequent meditation on the Word of Life.
Monastic theology derives entirely from this particular way for the disciples of Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard to seek God in the Word, to find him in meditation, to call upon him in prayer and to meet him in contemplation, as Guigo II, the Carthusian monk, successor of Saint Bruno at la Grande Chartreuse, explains in his book The Ladder of the Monks (Scala claustralium, 12th century). Distinct from scholastic theology, because it developed in monasteries, and not in Universities, without the logical practices of disputatio (oral performance) and questio (written work), but by the means proper to monks, which are the meditative reading of Scripture, the study of the Fathers of the Church and liturgical prayer, monastic theology pursues, as a specific end, not the sanctification of our intelligence through the development of speculative activity and rationally organized theological knowledge, but the deepening of an intuitive and tasty knowledge, which emanates from the heart, that is to say, which is received from God in the depths of our subjectivity, and which blossoms, of course, in greater understanding of the mystery, but above all in the intimate experience of God, in the contemplative life.
Monastic theology then expresses itself in oral or literary forms which stylistically bear the imprint of this subjectivity when it addresses other souls, in order to better induce in them the same relationship of loving closeness to God, while scholastic theology, by contrast, is written in an impersonal language, and in a style which leaves nothing of the author's interior life to be seen, in order to better understand and show God in himself or in the objectivity of his mysteries.
Monastic theology and scholastic theology commune with each other and share the same fundamental desire for God, but the latter, it would seem, focuses all its attention on the seminal moment where the spirit of man is fecundated by infused grace and indulges in contemplation of the transcendent God, perceived as Eternal Truth in the crystalline clarity of an unblemished intelligence, while the former seeks to draw its joy from the full penetration of this same infused grace in the entirety of the soul, and from the divine inebriation that this enveloping experience of God, which is accomplished in mystical espousals, provides. One, the monastic, is above all relational and experiential, while the other, the scholastic, lives the relational aspect of faith through the rational apprehension of God enhanced by grace.
Having made this distinction, one can understand what is so compelling about monastic literature, whose spiritual aim is essentially relational, and how its presentation by J. Leclercq o.s.b., far from simply informing us, has the power to transform us. Or should I say to move and to transport us, since to be informed is already to be transformed. We also see how scholastic theology, no less spiritual at its source, is formally subject to the demands of logic, and why it requires, in order to be appreciated, a form of asceticism in the effort of abstraction which is certainly not for everyone. In the end, however, the two theologies are in communion. The love of Love that is God cannot help but encounter the love of Truth that is God, for in God “Love and truth will meet” (Ps 85:11).