Illuminist Mystics in the Cistercian Order

The increase in education, which encouraged greater religious and philosophical awareness during the 12th-century, not only led to a gradual revival of interest in Eriugena’s ideas, but also enabled a monastic order to flourish which encouraged mystical training.  This was the Cistercian Order, which attracted well-educated, intelligent and deeply religious men, who desired to experience for themselves the presence of God in contemplation. 


In the previous century, there had been a number of experiments in the religious life, particularly in Italy, – probably dependent on Greek influences, – in which men had sought to live a purer and more apostolic life, following Christ’s example more closely.  They chose solitary places, set apart from the corruptions of the world, in hermitages like Camaldoli, or in monasteries like Vallombrosa.[1]  In the group of mutually supportive monasteries dependent on the latter, the monks tried to live in austere poverty, in the strictest obedience to the Rule of Benedict, in charity towards one another, and in freedom from outside interference.[2]  Vallombrosa would provide a model for others to build upon. 

Later in the century, in 1075, in Burgundy, a group seeking to practise similar ideals founded a monastery at Molesme.  When the interfering local nobility began to take too close an interest in the new monastery, the group’s leader, Robert de Molesme, was granted permission, in 1098, by the local papal legate, to take with him those enthusiasts who desired to lead a more austere life, and to start afresh in a wild and uninhabited spot called Cîteaux.  Because of the difficulties that this created for the original foundation of Molesme, Robert put his responsibilities before his personal spiritual needs, left the group at the new abbey of Cîteaux in the care of Albéric, and in 1099 returned to Molesme.[3] 

With papal approval, the new abbey at Cîteaux had won the freedom to reject all outside interference, and could practise a rigorous abnegation of all material comforts, as a preparation for receiving spiritual enrichment.  The experiment at Cîteaux attracted those who judged that many traditional Benedictine monasteries, – particularly the Cluniac ones with their emphasis on grandeur, nobility and artistic ornamentation, – were lacking in theological rigour, contemplative zeal and self-denying austerity.  Such a large number of recruits was attracted by this new vision of the religious life, that a new monastic order was created, the Cistercian order (named after Cîteaux, the original abbey).  They lived in collective solitude and independence, on marginal, unpopulated land, where they hoped to find true freedom in prayer and contemplation. 

The monks at Cîteaux and its many offshoots intended to be radical.  They hoped to cut back to the root and, by removing the accretions of centuries, to rediscover the purity of their original sources, in the New Testament and the Benedictine Rule.  As is often the case with radical reform throughout history, it did not lead to an antiquarian literalism or to a hopeless regression, but to the discovery of fresh interpretations, and even to innovations.  The Cistercians carefully studied the letter of their religious texts, in order to realise their spirit in the twelfth century.[4]  In the process, they became economic pioneers, in the lands they opened up and in their agricultural practices; they became administrative pioneers in the collegial way in which their abbeys were run;[5] they became monastic pioneers with the introduction of lay brothers (devout laymen who could participate, to an extent, in the peace and spirituality of the community, while ensuring its economic viability);[6] and they became religious pioneers in their emphasis on personal spiritual experience within a communal contemplative life.[7] 

Schools of Christian love

Cistercian life was based on love; at its heart was the practice of the love of God.  Their statute of institution, drawn up during the time that Albéric’s successor, Stephen Harding, was Abbot of Cîteaux, was called the Charter of Charity (Carta Caritatis).[8]  It must date from around 1113 when the first daughter house was founded at La Ferté.[9]  Each monastery was expected to be a school of charity or Christian love,[10] where they learned first to love God and, as a consequence, to love themselves, to love others and to love God’s world. 

Their practice of the presence of God gave them an uplifting self-esteem, – a respectful love for themselves, – which enabled them to deprive themselves of gratifications, like wealth and power, which would harm their souls.  They had to practise austerity, and curb their lower, animal nature, in order to free their spirit; they had to put off the old man and put on the new, as an early Cistercian work known as the Exordium Parvum put it.[11]  Bernard, the first Abbot of Clairvaux, the most famous of the many daughter houses of Cîteaux, spoke of a second baptism into a new life, mortifying the old self and being re-clothed in Christ.[12] 

Their love for God and desire to imitate Jesus entailed a complete change of life-style.  Not only did they have to care for the sick and the needy in infirmaries and hospitals, but they also had to live on the simplest of diets, with the barest essentials of clothing, so that they could set the finest example of an apostolic life.[13]  They chose poverty, in imitation of Christ, as a way of rejecting the evils of the material world in favour of the real riches of the Kingdom of God.[14] 

Their appreciation of the beauty of nature

Their love for God’s world can be seen, to this day, in the stunningly beautiful sites, in which they planted their monasteries, and which they went on to beautify with their constructions.[15]  They may have been attempting to recreate a Garden of Eden, where they would live in harmony with nature and in closeness to God.[16]  Gilbert of Swineshead (or of Hoyland) put some of the criteria for choosing the site for a Cistercian abbey into a letter which has survived: it should be a fertile and well-watered place where 

“a wooded valley resounds in springtime with the sweet song of birds, so that it can revive the dead spirit, remove the aversions of the dainty soul, soften the hardness of the undevout mind. These in brief either depict for you the signs of future happiness or show some remains of that first [happiness] which the integrity of the human condition received amid the pleasures of paradise.”[17] 

They were well aware of the natural beauty of the sites that they chose.  This is shown in many of the names they gave to their abbeys – such as Beaulieu (beautiful place) or Strata Florida (the road through the flowers) – as noted by Ordericus Vitalis.  Sometimes the names suggested a religious metaphor as well, such as Clairvaux (valley of light) or l’Etoile (the star).[18]  (Not all Cistercian names are open to interpretation, of course: many are purely geographical.) 

Guerric d’Igny, who was drawn to Clairvaux by his appreciation of the religious life of its young abbot, Bernard, and who became the second abbot of Clairvaux’s daughter-house at Igny in 1138,[19] uses the imagery of the natural beauty of the garden to encourage his monks to cultivate inner spiritual beauty.  The Cistercians were very keen on the allegorical interpretation of everything, particularly of Scripture.[20]  In a sermon on the text ‘thou that dwellest in the gardens’ from the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs),[21] a favourite book of the early Cistercians, Guerric compares God to a gardener who sows seeds with his word and waters the plants (e.g. the monks of Igny) with his spirit.  Like a compassionate gardener, he talks to his plants: 

“Listen to me, slips from the divine stock: bloom like the rose that is planted by the watercourse; give off a sweet smell of incense, blossom like the lily, spread your fragrance abroad and burgeon in beauty.”[22] 

If they do this, they will be like the two disciples of John the Baptist, who asked Jesus where he lived, and when he invited them home: 

“They came and saw where he dwelt and abode with him that day.”[23] 

Guerric takes this text as a spiritual parable of finding God in mystical union. 

“And they stayed with him that day.  For as long as we are with the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,[24] we know no night but enjoy an almost beatific day.  When we fall away, we relapse into our own darkness.”[25] 

At first one assumes that Guerric is talking of the eternal reward offered to the faithful when they die; but then it becomes clear that this is a temporary gift and can be withdrawn.  He is describing a beatific vision which the righteous contemplative can expect in this life. 

This study will begin by considering whether important Cistercian leaders, like Bernard de Clairvaux and Guerric d’Igny, were giving their monks any mystical teaching, which could be called illuminist (emphasising the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) or pantheist (emphasising individual union with God). 

Guerric and Bernard on the Holy Spirit and ‘giving birth’ to Christ

For such a spiritual group as the Cistercians, the presence of the Holy Spirit as an inner moral authority was of paramount importance.  In Bernard de Clairvaux’s words, – preached to his monks, but also written down for wider use: 

“This interior voice – which is really God’s exciting grace – […] is not only a voice of power, but also a ray of light, manifesting to us our sins and ‘illuminating the hidden things of darkness’.”[26] 

Guerric d’Igny had plenty to say, in his sermons to his monks, about this inner light, which is the spiritual illumination of the contemplative by the spirit of Christ, who is the embodiment of light: 

“Draw near to him and be enlightened.  In his light, you shall see light;[27] and it will be said to you: ‘You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.’[28] […]  See the Light in a lamp of earthenware, the Sun in a cloud, God in man, the splendour, glory and brightness of Eternal Light[29] in the clay vessel of your flesh.”[30] 

Guerric was able to pass, without any qualms, from the incarnate light of Christ (‘he’ in the passage) to that light being made manifest in any Christian (‘you’ in the text).[31] 

Elaborating on an Advent theme, which can also be found in Bernard de Clairvaux’s writings,[32] Guerric described this illumination as a third advent of Christ.  The first coming of Jesus into the world is Jesus’ birth at Christmas.  The last is the expected Second Coming of Jesus just before the end of time.  The other or ‘middle coming’ of Jesus is the coming of his spirit to dwell within the individual Christian. 

“The coming of the Lord to the individual soul is frequent in this middle time between his first and final comings, conforming us to the first, and preparing us for the last.  Assuredly he comes to us now, to ensure that his first coming will not have been in vain, and to avoid having to meet us at the last in wrath. […]  Unseen and unperceived, he comes and goes, he who alone, while present, is the light of the soul and mind, the light by which, invisible, he is seen and, inconceivable, he is perceived.”[33] 

Guerric could be quite bold in some of his statements.  In a discussion of the three forms of Christ, he distinguished between the divine form (Christ the Word), the corporeal form (Christ the historical figure), and the spiritual form, which has to grow within all Christians.  Although this may seem outrageous, Guerric’s monks were told that they could be mothers of Christ, because they could bring Christ to birth in themselves![34] 

“See, then, the unspeakable goodness of God and, at the same time, the virtue of this incomprehensible mystery.  He who created you, is created in you.  And as though it were but little for you to have Him as your Father, He desires also that you shall even become His mother.  Whoever, He says, shall do the will of my Father, is my brother, my sister and my mother.”[35] 

Bernard and Guerric on the experience of mystical union

Bernard de Clairvaux was more circumspect in his language, but he was equally well aware of the presence, not just of the Holy Spirit, but of God Himself, within.  Having talked in his book, On Consideration, of angels being “with us”, he added: 

“But He is more our own, who is not only with us but in us.”[36] 

He took up this point in the next paragraph: 

“God is so ‘in us’ as to give us grace and infuse it in us; or rather, so ‘in us’ that He Himself is infused and partaken of, so that one need not fear to say that He is one with our spirit, although He be not one with our person, nor one with our substance.”[37] 

Bernard de Clairvaux often spoke of the love between God and the contemplative as a marriage, in which the two are united, not in one flesh but in one spirit, quoting one of his favourite texts: “he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.”[38]  He later even felt bold enough briefly to describe such a soul coming, like a lover, into the king’s chamber where, for about half an hour, while there is silence in heaven, 

“it rests sweetly in the longed-for embrace and sleeps; but its heart waketh, with which it searches out the secrets of truth, that it may feed on the memory of them when it returns to itself.  There it sees invisible things, hears unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”[39] 

Bernard had to be extremely cautious here; he must not seem to be putting himself on a level of intimacy with God.  Guerric preached in the same vein: 

“So too there are not lacking clouds which will raise up our spirits to higher things, provided our hearts are not too lazy and tied to earth, and so we will be with the Lord, if only for half an hour.  Unless I am mistaken, you know from experience what I say.”[40] 

Towards the end of his career as a dual champion of mystical Christianity and orthodox dogma, Bernard felt confident enough of his reputation to describe: 

“a place where God is seen as truly tranquil and at rest, where He appears neither as Teacher nor as Judge, but as Spouse.  I do not know how it may be with you; but I have been admitted to this place sometimes, though all too seldom and but for a short space.  I have seen, then, most vividly the ‘mercy of the Lord from everlasting unto everlasting upon them that fear Him.’[41]  And I have looked upon the blessed as though they had been sinless from the first; for, though they sinned in time, their sins appear not in eternity at all, being all covered by the mantle of their Father’s love.  And at that sight I have felt suddenly so great a joy and confidence that it surpassed the fear that I experienced in the former place, and I myself appeared to be one of that company!”[42] 

In an earlier book, in which he was not talking about himself, but about the four degrees of love in general terms, – of which the first three were love of self, of others and of God, – the fourth degree of love was losing oneself for a few precious moments, in God.[43]  This he was bold enough to call, as Greek mystics might have done, a deification: 

“For to lose yourself, so to speak, as if you no longer existed, to be utterly unconscious of yourself, to be emptied of yourself completely and in a manner annihilated: such love belongs not to human affection, but rather to the state of supernatural bliss.  To be thus affected is to be deified.”[44] 

This is unusual language for a Roman Christian, and is as unexpected as anything that Isaac de l’Etoile will later preach. 

The Anonymous Treatise on the Interior Mansion

André Louf has published translated extracts from an anonymous twelfth-century Cistercian work called the Treatise on the Interior Mansion (De Domo Interiori seu de Conscientia), which was originally (but is no longer) attributed to Bernard de Clairvaux.  In this piece, one can hear the authentic voice of an experienced contemplative monk, instructing a novice in illuminist meditation.[45] 

First, the teacher has to make sure that the novice’s mind is at peace, so that he is receptive to the voice of the Spirit. 

“Gather together all the restlessness of your soul and all the distractions of your heart, and in God alone fix your whole desire.  Let your heart be there where your treasure is to be found, that treasure so desirable and so worthy of being sought.  This heavenly friend frequently enters into – and dwells with delight in – a peaceful heart and in the contemplative repose of a quiet mind: for he is Peace.”[46] 

Later the novice is told to look deep within himself. 

“If you would see God, you must first of all clean your own mirror by cleansing your own soul.  Having cleansed and examined carefully and at length your own mirror, some brightness of divine light will begin to shine in your soul, and an intense radiance of unusual vision will strike the eye of your heart.  And the soul, set alight by this vision, will begin to contemplate both its own interior and the very depths of God.  […]  When you have examined yourself attentively for a long time, and have eventually discovered your real self, it will only remain for you to discern by divine light what you ought to be and what kind of house you should build in your soul for the Lord.”[47] 

When the novice discovers this inner illumination, he will feel at times intoxicated and at times blissfully peaceful: 

“When the love of Christ absorbs the whole affection of someone in this way, he forgets about himself, for his heart is afire with desire for Christ, and he frequently experiences spiritual intoxication. […]  He remembers within his own heart the brightness of that heavenly light, the taste of that secret rapture, the inner repose and the mystery of that sovereign tranquillity.  Sweetness and joy and all sorts of delights accompany this contemplation.”[48] 

Eventually he will be able to say: 

“Let me therefore flee the comforts and ways of men so that God might come to dwell in the inmost part of my heart.  Let me accustom myself to think of – and to love – only interior things, so that I may hear what the Lord my God is saying within me.  Behold I am here, O most loving Lord.  I am with you, within my own heart.”[49] 

One might expect that illuminists, such as the Amalricians, must have received some such initial training, which would have set the direction for their particular spiritual journey.  There is, however, no direct evidence that any of them had any Cistercian training; but it will still be interesting, in the next piece, to consider two particular Cistercian mystics from the second half of the twelfth century, one for his teachings and one for his contacts. 




[1] L.J.Lekai: The White Monks… (B.34) p.10; D.Meade: From Turmoil to Solidarity… (B.31) pp.328-9.
[2] D.Meade: op.cit. pp.328-340.
[3] A. Le Bail (B.34) pp.18-20;  R.Folz (B.33) pp.286-290.
[4] L.Bouyer (B.34) p.197.
[5] ibid. pp.10-11.  The original Abbey, at Cîteaux, was answerable to, and supervised by, the abbots of its first 4 daughter houses.  Each daughter house was inspected annually by its mother house.
[6] Ibid. pp.11-12.
[7] According to the Community of Azul’s article: The Monastic Community… (B.34) pp.114-5, the Cistercians saw the foundation of a monastic community as “a union of wills with Jesus Christ.  It is an entirely mystical concept of the community.”  Each Cistercian monk had to negate his own will “in order to make himself one spirit, in a union of wills with his Lord.”
[8] L.J.Lekai: The White Monks… (B.34) pp.267-273.  There is a brief summary in Brenda Bolton: The Medieval Reformation (B.48) pp.44-47.  It is likely to have been influenced by the practice of Vallombrosa: see Notes sur les Sources… (B.32) pp.59-61 and Roger Duvernay (B.31) pp.469-483.  Roger Duvernay: op.cit. pp.380-458, has made a detailed comparison of the many similarities between Vallombrosa and Cîteaux, and has considered their possible interaction.
[9] It had to be revised in 1119 and again in about 1124-5. How it may have been refined over the century is discussed at length in J.B.van Damme: Autour des origines… (B.32) passim.
[10] “schola caritatis,” see P.Mellet: Notes … (B.37) p.34, and A.Louf: Cistercian Way (B.34) p.37.
[11] L.Bouyer (B.34) pp.4-6.  It was composed in 1152 (J.A.Lefèvre (B.32) p.9) or after the foundation of the 12th Cistercian monastery in 1119 (J.B.van Damme: op cit. vol.21, p.80).
[12] P.Mellet: Notes … (B.37) p.38.
[13] W.Williams: Studies… (B.37) pp.85-88, and L.J.Lekai: op.cit. (B.34) p.262, for the details.  In modern times, we could also understand this as not using up resources, which might be needed by others.
[14] A.Louf : Une théologie…(B.39) pp.209-17 and pp.363-4.
[15] They appreciated natural beauty as a way to God; Bernard de Clairvaux said that when he meditated in the woods, the oak and the beech were his teachers: H.Fichtenau (B.9) p.197.  It is very fitting that the English Romantics, who also appreciated the beauty of nature, loved Cistercian ruins.
[16] G.Constable: Renewal and Reform… (B.48) pp.48-51.
[17] Ibid p.50, translating Gilbert’s Tractatus VII ad Rogerum abbatem, 2:4.
[18] E.R.Elder (B.32) p.194, Waal: Way of Simplicity (B.34) pp.27-28 and D.H.Williams (B.34) p.179.  For some Cistercians, names must have been important: when Moiremont joined the fold in 1115, the spelling was changed to Morimond (dead to this world – of sin): A.H.Bredero (B.35) p.207.
[19] J.Morson & H.Costello: Who was Guerric… (B.38) pp.65-66.  Guerric had an admirable lack of pride, since he was considerably older than his mentor, Bernard.  (As a passing thought, Igny may be another name which could have had metaphorical overtones for a Cistercian: ignis in Latin = fire.)
[20] This tradition goes back to the early Church Fathers, particularly Origen:  P.Matarasso (B.34) p.xv.
[21] Song of Solomon 8:13. Guerric’s Sermon 54 is translated in Pauline Matarasso (B.34) pp.135-8.
[22] Guerric: Sermon 54: ibid. p.136: nearly all these images are quotations from Ecclesiasticus (or Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach) 39:13-14 (part of the Old Testament Apocrypha).
[23] John 1:39.
[24] James 1:17.
[25] Guerric: Sermon 54 op.cit. p.136. (French tr. is in Morton, Costello, Deseille (B.38) vol.2 p.523.)
[26] 1 Cor.4:5. Bernard Abbot of Clairvaux: On Conversion, translated by A.J.Luddy: Life and Teaching… (B.35) p.387. (French tr. in Callerot, Miethke & Jaquinod (B.36) p.331.)
[27] Psalm 36:9.
[28] Ephesians 5:8.
[29] Wisdom of Solomon (in the Apocrypha) 7:26.
[30] Guerric of Igny: Sermon 12 (or 2nd Sermon for Epiphany) in Liturgical Sermons translated by the monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, vol.1 (B.38) p.77. (French tr. in Morton, Costello, Deseille (B.38) vol.1, p.257.)   A.Fracheboud: Le charme… (B.38) p.222 compares these images with ones used by Bernard de Clairvaux, but Bernard was referring specifically to God’s incarnation in Jesus.
[31] In Guerric’s mind, numerous relevant Bible references to spiritual light clamour to be used in the same sentence: he thanks the Father of lights (James 1:17) for kindling a light in our hearts (2 Cor.4:6) which leads us out of darkness into God’s marvellous light  (1Peter 2:9): Guerric : Sermon 12, op.cit. p.78.  Guerric’s Sermon 15 (1st Sermon for the Feast of the Purification or Candlemas) is another source of repeated light imagery, particularly pages 134-5 in the Pauline Matarasso translation (B.34); see E. de Waal: Way of Simplicity (B.34) pp.152-3.
[32] Pauline Matarasso (B.34) p.311, n.4.
[33] Guerric: Sermon 2 (or 2nd Sermon for Advent) transl. Pauline Matarasso (B.34) pp.131-2. (For a French transl., see Morton, Costello & Deseille (B.38) 2:3-4, vol.1 pp.111-115.)
[34] Wilde (B.39) pp.30-37.  This is very reminiscent of the teaching of the Greek monk and reformer, Symeon the New Theologian.
[35] Guerric: Sermon 27 (2nd Sermon on the Annunciation), transl. in de Wilde, op.cit., pp.36-7, quoting Matt.12:50.  (French tr. op.cit. 27:4, vol.2, p.141.)
[36] Bernard of Clairvaux: On Consideration, Book 5, chap.5, para. 11, translated G.Lewis (B.36) p.142.
[37] Ibid. Book 5, chap.5, para.12, p.143.  He then quotes 1 Cor.6:17.
[38] 1 Cor.6:17: A.J.Luddy: Life and Teachings… (B.35) pp.191-2 for the whole text.
[39] Bernard of Clairvaux: The Steps of Humility 7:21, transl. G.B.Burch (B.36) p.165.
[40] Guerric of Igny: Sermon 2 (or 2nd Sermon for Advent) in Liturgical Sermons translated by the monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, vol.1 (B.38) p.10.  Also in L.Bouyer (B.34) pp.192-3; and P.Matarasso (B.34) pp.130-1; and French translation in P.Miquel (B.39) p.325.  The calculation of the lapse of time as half an hour in both Bernard and Guerric comes from Rev.8:1: at the opening of the 7th and last seal, there is silence in heaven for half an hour.
[41] Psalm 103:17.
[42] Bernard of Clairvaux: On the Song of Songs: sermon 23, as translated by a Religious of C.S.M.V. (B.36) p.66. (French tr. by P.Verdeyen & R.Fassetta (B.36) 23:15, vol.2, pp.231-3.)
[43] P.Mellet: Notes… (B.37) pp.16-17;  P.Delfgaauw: St.Bernard: nature and degrees of love (B.37) p.89;  E.G.Gardner (B.36) pp.87-97.
[44] “Sic affici, deificari est” (text 10:28, p.132).  Bernard de Clairvaux: De Diligendo Dei,10:27-28: text and French translation in F.Callerot, J.Christophe, M.I.Huille & P.Verdeyen (B.36) pp.128-133.  The English translation is taken from Of Loving God 10:27-28 by A.J.Luddy: Life and Teachings… (B.35) p.195; see also E.G.Gardner (B.36) pp.99-101, and M.C.& C. Patmore (B.36) p.45.
[45] The monk would not, of course, have recognised such a word as ‘illuminist’.
[46] Treatise on the Interior Mansion, translated by Nivard Kinsella in A. Louf: The Cistercian Way (B.34) p.102.
[47] ibid. pp.102-3.
[48] ibid. p.103.
[49] ibid. p.107.

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