Isaac de l’Etoile and Adam de Perseigne

Isaac de l’Etoile philosopher and mystic

An important reform made by the Cistercian order was that a novice must be an adult, and must have finished his general education.  As a consequence, they attracted many highly educated clerics.  One of the most well-read was Isaac de l’Etoile (Isaac of Stella) who appreciated both tough philosophical speculations and a rigorous contemplative life.[1]  His career is difficult to piece together; but he was certainly active between 1147 and 1167, and for some, or all, of that time he was Abbot of the Cistercian abbey of l’Etoile near Poitiers.[2]  At some point, he led a group of his monks to a retreat on the Ile de Ré, where he attempted to make use of the solitude and freedom, to pursue his ascetic and mystical exercises.[3]

Ascesis as preparation for a rebirth in the spirit

I hope it will be of interest to study this bold, speculative Cistercian of the mid-century.  For Isaac, as for the first founders of the movement at Cîteaux, an ascesis (practising an ascetic life, lived in genuine poverty and isolation) was the first step on the path to perfection.  He could be eloquent on the importance of poverty.  According to Isaac, what everybody is seeking, in everything they do, is to enjoy a happy life.  What does Christ say about happiness?  Happy are the poor in spirit.  Isaac imagined Christ giving a fuller explanation:

“The false wisdom of this world, which is the true stupidity, neither understands this saying, nor knows to whom it refers.  […]  You are looking for happiness, but it is not where you think it is.  You are running, but off the track.  Poverty, not riches, is the way to happiness, – poverty for My sake, willingly embraced.  […]  Happiness is the kingdom of heaven in Me.  So you are only wasting your energy, running as you are now, for the faster you run, the farther you get from the way.  […]  If you want to arrive at happiness, you must travel by the road that leads to it.”[4]

All Cistercians knew that austerity was necessary for the purification of the self, so that it could receive illumination from the Holy Spirit.[5]  Isaac often concentrated on this third person of the Trinity because:

“Although all three persons are co-eternal with each other and are co-equal in that ineffable nature of theirs, nevertheless, the Holy Spirit seems, in some sense, to be closer to the creature as the one who, proceeding from both, is gift and power.  Every enjoyment we have of the Divinity is from this gift.”[6]

God is the light in whom there is no darkness, the light that no man may approach,[7] but the Holy Spirit brings that light to the human soul, enlightening its understanding and firing its moral purpose:

“The light, sending forth brightness from itself without losing it, illuminates the understanding to acknowledge truth.  The fire, which it retains in itself, sending forth heat from itself, inflames the power of desire to love virtue.”[8]

The birth of the Christ within

As a good student of Paul’s Epistles, Isaac often referred to this spirit as the Christ within, and exhorted his brethren to let Christ grow to glory within them.[9]  Christ must be born again in the Christian (who then feels reborn, himself).

In his Third Sermon for Pentecost (i.e. Whitsun, the feast of the Holy Spirit) he rejoiced that, when the Holy Spirit was allowed to take over and Christ was born within us, we could be born again into the body of Christ, and could receive a second (spiritual) baptism.  This is

“his baptism for us – as it were, another birth, by which we are born in him, who was born one of us.  And just as he in us, so we in him: he by the Holy Spirit born Son of Man, of the Virgin Mary; we by the same spirit made sons of the virgin Church.”[10]

Monks (virgins) may see themselves, in a rather literal way, as sons of the virgin Church, just as Jesus was the son of the Virgin Mary.  When they have been born again in the spirit, they can also see themselves as part of the one spiritual body of the Church, of which Christ is the head.  This is what Isaac sometimes called “the whole Christ” i.e. the mystical body of Christ.[11]

Membership of the body of Christ

The object of monastic discipline was to ‘put off the old man’ in order to ‘put on the new’[12] or, as Isaac expressed it in Sermon 27, to crucify the old Adam in order to be born in Christ.[13]  This was the way in which his monks could become part of the body of Christ.  To be part of the “whole Christ”, they must first have suffered as Christ did:

“the whole Christ must come into his glory, and so, if anyone does not suffer with Christ, he cannot reign with Him in heaven.”[14]

For Isaac it is crucial that Christians can be members, thanks to the Holy Spirit, of the one body of Christ.  Without it the Church would have been nothing more than a crowd of weak and useless humans, and would have failed, as soon as Christ’s earthly life was over:

“Upon the departure of the Son, the Spirit is sent, that he might unite the body to the head, i.e. to Christ; and then Christ himself might unite it to God.”[15]

It is only in Christ, and as members of the body of Christ, that Christians can be united to God.

“As the head and body make only one man, so the Son of the Virgin and the chosen members of his body make one man, the Son of Man.”[16]

Isaac could express the concept in unusually bold terms:

“Say, for example, that my foot could speak: it would say exactly what is normally said by the tongue: ‘I am Isaac.’  In the same way the members of Christ can call themselves what Christ is in fact – the Son of God and God Himself; for what Christ is by nature, His members are by union with him.”[17]

It was presumably some such doctrine, that Amaury de Beynes was preaching a few decades later, and which got him into terrible trouble, – although it is hard to imagine anyone expressing it in more startling language than was used by Isaac.

The beatific vision of God as Being

Since Isaac was not afraid to deal with metaphysical questions, it is possible to find passages in his sermons where he has stated that God is in all things as the essence of all that exists.  He made it clear that, by essence, he did not mean the individual essence of any particular thing; God is in all things as their universal being.[18]  The beatific vision of such Being is the “infinite felicity” that is the ultimate reward of the contemplative life.[19]

As he expressed it in his sermon on the text ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’:[20]

“So now you know what the things are from which we need to purify our hearts, and to what extent we need to purify them, if we are to see Being without body, Beauty without quality, Greatness absolute, and That which is, everywhere, without place, and always, without time.”[21]

He was convinced that, in mystical experience, one could perceive God as absolute, infinite, eternal, unqualified Being.

Isaac was quite comfortable talking to his monks about mystical experience.  When the eyes of the heart have been cleansed for vision, when all the dark clouds of the imagination have been dispersed,

“You pass beyond the things we have called clouds, by watchfulness of mind, and by a purity of heart that goes beyond words and even beyond thought.  When you have done that, another cloud will eventually appear, a clear cloud, a shining cloud, not stormy now or dense, a cloud of wisdom, not of ignorance.”[22]

He called it a cloud, because he knew from experience that, although it shines with light, that light is partly

“directed on to its own incomprehensibility and unapproachability;”[23]

and he knew that the ecstasy would pass over, like a cloud, and be gone:

“Spiritual men, and those who have their senses trained by practice, do see and taste and feel many most radiant and wonderful and lovely things, when they are rapt in prayer and contemplation.  But when they come back out of their ecstasy and have returned into themselves, they can scarcely remember, let alone tell anyone else, what those things were.”[24]

Later Cistercian developments

Isaac was serious about ‘putting on Christ,’ and listening, in openness and without preconceived ideas, to the leading of the Holy Spirit; and this enabled him to consider all religion in a more inclusive way, and to see how the actions of his Church might be judged by an outsider.  He took a strong line on the question of Cistercian backing for new crusading orders, – presumably in this case the Order of Calatrava, – which he called

“this dreadful new military order […] founded for the purpose of forcing infidels to accept the faith at the point of the sword.  Its members consider that they have every right to attack anyone not confessing Christ’s name, leaving him destitute; whereas if they themselves are killed, while thus unjustly attacking pagans, they are called martyrs for the faith!  Surely anyone can see that the authority of these aggressors will be invoked, in years to come, by those who persecute Christians.  How will anyone be able to object to them that Christ was meek, that He preached by His patience and longsuffering?”[25]

That a politico-military order of crusaders was being promoted by the Cistercians was perhaps an indication that, as it had gained in popularity and prestige through the century, many of the original aims of the movement had been compromised.  Its spiritual and moral authority was being weakened by its increasingly political involvement in the affairs of the world.  In 1169, Pope Alexander III denounced their decline from some of their founding principles: he blamed the wealth that their piety had attracted from worldly donors.[26]  The order was still attracting people who were genuinely interested in personal religious experience, but they must have been greatly outnumbered by those who had other priorities.  There were still, however, genuine contemplatives among the Cistercians of the latter part of the century, who could have influenced the Amalricians.

Possible Cistercian influence on the Amalricians

Many aspects of the theology of Isaac de l’Etoile could find echoes in that of the Amalricians, from the importance he attached to mystical experience, both pantheist and illuminist, to his insistence on Christians being members of Christ’s body, and his openness to other philosophies.

The most obvious point in Isaac’s teachings, which is missing from those recorded of the Amalricians, is the mention of the necessary preparations and the training in self-discipline, that are required before the contemplative can experience God’s presence in himself.  It may be that the Amalricians put less emphasis on such preparation, even though those who were condemned seem to have been serious teachers, theologians and churchmen.  It may just be that all the accounts come from detractors, who were only interested in what seemed odd and wrong about the heretics: they would have seen no point in mentioning anything that was praiseworthy.  However that may be, the greatest difference between the two was that Isaac was preaching to cloistered contemplatives who had taken vows of obedience to the Church, while the Amalricians were involved in parish ministry and in education, in an open and fearful world.

It may well be the case that no Amalrician was ever exposed to a word of Isaac de l’Etoile’s teachings; but it would be surprising if the mystical tradition of the Cistercian order, particularly in its more audacious expression, played no part in influencing their development.  It is very noticeable that Cistercian abbeys were particularly interested in the trial of the Amalricians; even the distant Cistercian Abbey of Melrose in Scotland wrote it up.  By far the fullest treatment of their ideas, the tract called Against the Amalricians, was almost certainly written by the Cistercian, Garnier de Rochefort, in Clairvaux; while by far the most detailed history of the case was penned by the Cistercian, Caesarius von Heisterbach.[27]

Might Eudes de Sully be a link?

It may be worth mentioning that some of the Amalrician priests, of whom we have information, were in parishes that were in the gift of the Bishop of Paris, and so they were probably given their jobs by Bishop Eudes de Sully, who was the Bishop of Paris from 1196 to 1208.[28]  He may well have been close to Amaury de Beynes and have favoured Amaury’s rise to academic prominence, and he may have appreciated what he considered to be the clever and pious Christian theologians, that Amaury was helping to train.  It is certainly true that the persecution of Amaury’s followers began immediately after Eudes’ death.  Perhaps it had been thought that he would support them.  (If that was the case, it is interesting to note that Eudes had banned presbyter W. from his diocese – another indication that, if W. was Wilhelmus, the latter may not have been as close to Amaury as he might have wished.)

Eudes de Sully certainly kept in contact with developments in the Cistercian order through his friend, Adam de Perseigne, who was particularly interested in mysticism.  That Eudes de Sully and Adam de Perseigne were in contact with each other is known, because much of Adam’s correspondence has been preserved.

Adam de Perseigne

Adam had become Abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Perseigne, in the Angevin (Plantagenet) County of Maine, by 1188.[29]  He had been entrusted with various investigations, including one in the middle 1190s into the Abbot Joachim, who had absented himself from his abbey without the consent of the Cistercian Order, – though with the permission of the Pope.[30]  Adam was probably chosen because of his known interest in any new developments among religious communities, and particularly in any new ideas concerning the spiritual life and what is nowadays called mysticism.

Adam is best known for a course which he devised, in seven steps, which would facilitate progress in the spiritual life.[31]  This is found in many of his letters, as he recommended it to several of his correspondents.[32]  He called his seven stages feriae, or holidays, because one needed to take time out to nourish the spirit in seven progressive steps.  It begins with the spirit of fear, when you start to bring your sins under control; and it continues through the spirits of piety, knowledge, strength and counsel.

 The sixth feria is in the spirit of understanding: this is clearly the stage of illumination, because here the contemplative:

“is in brilliant light, so completely that he who attains to it becomes nothing less than the cherubim.”[33]

In the seventh and final stage, in the spirit of wisdom, the contemplative loses himself in divine peace, consumed by the flames of divine love.  Adam uses the Cistercian metaphor that one can actually taste the sweetness of the Lord.  This Sabbath stage, which Adam admits not to have attained himself,

“consists entirely of flavour, so that the one who deservedly attains it is nothing less than the seraphim.”[34]

His correspondence with Eudes

Adam had corresponded with Eudes de Sully, when Eudes was a cantor at Bourges, and the correspondence continued during his time as Bishop of Paris (which must have been the crucial years for Amalrician development).  Grace Perigo has translated two of Adam’s letters to Eudes.  The first was probably written in 1196, soon after Eudes’ elevation to the see of Paris, in which Adam seems very anxious for his protégé.  He reminds him of the importance of holding on to the treasures of the spiritual life, which can easily be pushed into the background by the business of high office.[35]  This is followed by a summary of his plan of the seven feriae, and then by another paean of praise to the truly essential virtue of humility.[36]  Adam gives the impression of being a little jealous of his friend, as well as genuinely anxious that the attainment of heavenly peace may not be compatible with such an important posting close to the centre of political power in Paris.

The other letter deals with two matters of little interest, and then says that the third reason for this letter will not be written down, but will be communicated by the messenger carrying the letter.[37]  (This is a reminder that medieval letters were not private.  They could be read by people to whom they were not addressed.  Indeed, it was often hoped that they would be passed on: they were sometimes written in the expectation that they might still be worth reading in the future.)  It is impossible to know what Adam had to communicate privately to Eudes.  That is not important.  What these letters show is that Eudes de Sully, who could have been close to Amaury, was in contact with one leading Cistercian figure, who had some knowledge of Joachim’s work, and who was very interested in any mystical developments.[38]

Was Amaury or any Amalrician also in contact with Cistercians?  There is no direct evidence for it, but a link of some sort would help to explain how the heretics could have picked up one very original part of the Biblical interpretation being undertaken, in distant Calabria, by the radical Cistercian contemplative called Joachim.  This studious religious teacher, Biblical scholar and creative thinker has to be a possible (but completely unwitting) source of one important part of Amalrician theology.  He must be the subject of the next piece.



[1] He had some acquaintance with the work of Eriugena, may have been a pupil of Pierre Abélard, was probably an associate of Gilbert de la Porrée and had contacts with the Platonists associated with Thierry de Chartres.  L.Merton: Introduction… (B.40) p.243 quotes his statement in Sermon 19 that everything is, because it is one, and links that to Thierry’s circle; see the later pieces on 12th-century Platonists.
[2] For his biography, see G.Salet’s intro. to Hoste, Salet & Raciti’s transl. of Isaac de l’Etoile: Sermons (B.40) vol.1, pp.7-23; Anne Saword (B.40) pp.244-9; and B.McGinn: The Golden Chain… (B.41) pp.1-22.
[3] B.McGinn: The Golden Chain… (B.41) p.22 believes that his boldest sermons were written there.
[4] Isaac: Sermon 1:17-18 transl. by Sister Penelope (B.40) p.257 (French tr. in Hoste, Salet & Raciti (B.40) vol.1, pp.95-97).  To give this advice a modern interpretation: material riches cannot deliver the psychological integrity, – and hence the genuine self-esteem, – that all humans need (but most ignore).  We should know, from our own experience, that we are more proud of climbing 2,000 feet by our own energies, than of being carried in luxury to 35,000 feet in an airliner.  We do not get self-esteem from having an easy time, but from having overcome adversities, or having done things ‘the hard way’.
[5] Isaac de l’Etoile: Sermon 4 para.1-4, text & Fr. tr. in Hoste, Salet & Raciti (B.40) vol.1, pp.129-131.
[6] Isaac of Stella: Letter on the Soul, para. 23;  English translation by B.McGinn: Three Treatises… (B.40) p.176.
[7] referring to 1 John 1:5; and 1 Timothy 6:16.
[8] Isaac of Stella: Letter on the Soul para. 23; Eng. transl. op.cit., p.177.
[9] e.g. Isaac’s Sermons  7:16 in Hoste, Salet & Raciti (B.40) vol.1, p.191, and 8:16 in vol.1 p.205.  In this regard, he liked to quote from 1 Cor.6:19-20: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you? […] Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” see Waal: Way of Simplicity (B.34) p.69.
[10] Isaac of Stella: Sermon 45:2, 3rd sermon for Pentecost: Eng. tr. by Pauline Matarasso (B.34) p.207; French translation in Hoste, Salet & Raciti (B.40) vol.3, pp.97-99.
[11] L.Bouyer  (B.34) pp.181-2.
[12] Ephesians 4: 22-24, and Colossians 3: 9-10; as used in Isaac’s Sermon 6, see L.Bouyer (B.34) p.186.
[13] L.Bouyer (B.34) p.186, quoting Sermon 27.
[14] Sermon 15:10, translated by G.Webb & A.Walker in L.Bouyer (B.34) p.187; French translation in A.Hoste, G.Salet & G.Raciti (B.40) vol.1, p.289.
[15] Isaac of Stella: Letter on the Soul para.23, tr. B.McGinn and quoted in The Golden Chain… (B.41) p.194.
[16] Isaac: Sermon 42:11, sermon for Ascension Day: “Sicuti unius hominis caput et corpus, ipse unus homo, sic Filius ille Virginis et electa eius membra, ipse unus homo et unus hominis Filius” : ed. Hoste, Salet & Raciti (B.40) vol.3, p.44.  (French tr. p.45).
[17] “Sic nimirum fidelia et rationabilia Christi membra dicere singula se veraciter possunt hoc quod est ipse, etiam Dei Filium et Deum.  Sed quod ipse natura, hoc ipsa consortio”: Isaac: Sermon 42:14, ed.A,Hoste, G.Salet & G.Raciti (B.40) vol.3, p.48 (French tr. p.49).  The English translation is by G.Webb & A.Walker in L.Bouyer (B.34) p.179.
[18] A.Fracheboud: Le Pseudo-Denys… (B.41) vol.10, pp.19-20.
[19] Isaac de l’Etoile: Sermon 5:21-22, French translation in A.Hoste, G.Salet & G.Raciti (B.40) vol.1, pp.159-161.
[20] Matt. 5:8.
[21] Isaac: Sermon 4 (4th sermon on the feast of All Saints), translated by Sister Penelope (B.40) p.265; French transl. op.cit. vol.1, p.137.
[22] ibid. p.264; French transl. vol.1, p.133.
[23] ibid. p.264; French transl. vol.1, p.135.
[24] ibid. p.265; French transl. vol.1, p.137.
[25] Isaac: Sermon 48:8: tr. G.Webb & A.Walker in L.Bouyer (B.34) p.166; French tr. vol.3, pp.159-61.
[26] See J.Leclercq in M.Pennington (ed.): The Cistercian Spirit (B.32) p.126.  Some might argue that the rot started in 1134, when Stephen Harding’s successor at Cîteaux was deposed and replaced by Rainaldus, a monk of Clairvaux.  From that time on, Bernard, the charismatic Abbot of Clairvaux, who had begun by being an example to all ascetics and contemplatives, started to spend more time in the secular world, interfering in church politics, heresy hunts, crusades etc.  Where he led, to such acclaim and glory, many would be sure to follow.
[27] It is true that there are an equal number of Premonstratensian sources; but Robert d’Auxerre and the Anon. of Laon only made a brief record of the suppression of the heresy: they were not interested in Amalrician teachings.  The 3rd Premonstratensian connection is the monastery of Vicogne: did it have its copy of the work of the Council of Paris, to help in the suppression of any ‘Godini’ in its area around Valenciennes in the north-east of France?  The Cistercians, on the other hand, seem to have been much more interested in all the details.  The historian, Gary Dickson, suggests that, as Caesarius and Garnier were writing for a Cistercian audience, they were probably warning their fellow Cistercians of potential dangers which they had to avoid: G.Dickson: The Burning…(B.3) pp.357-8.
[28]  e.g. Vieux-Corbeil and La Celle, see the piece on Amalrician parishes.
[29] J.Bouvet: Adam de Perseigne: Lettres (B.42) vol.1 pp.14-15.
[30] Ibid. vol.1, pp.15-16.  See the next two pieces on Joachim.
[31] Adam is quite fond of patterns of seven.  He invents a splendidly Cistercian equivalent for the seven liberal arts: Quadrivium: reading, meditation, prayer, work; Trivium: charity to others, knowledge of all things, self-control. He calls these the seven liberating arts! (Lohr: Philosophical Life… (B.42) vol.25, pp.36-8.)
[32] J.Bouvet: op.cit. vol.1, pp.135-141; for a typical example, take Letter 6.
[33] Adam of Perseigne: Letter 6, to Osmund, English translation by Grace Perigo (B.42) vol.1, p.117; for French translation: J.Bouvet: op.cit. vol.1, p.139.
[34] ibid. Eng. tr. vol.1, pp.117-8; for Fr. tr. vol.1, p.139.
[35] Adam of Perseigne: Letter 11 (XI), to Odo, tr. G.Perigo (B.42) vol.1, p.154.  For the French translation, see J.Bouvet (B.42) vol.1, p.183.
[36] For the whole letter: ibid.: in English vol.1, pp.151-9;  in French: vol.1, pp.183-9.
[37] Adam of Perseigne: Letter 13, to Odo, tr.Grace Perigo (B.42) vol.1 pp.165-171.
[38] To round out the generally benign figure of Adam, many of whose letters are of encouragement and support, perhaps one other letter may be mentioned (no.38 in J. Bouvet’s original (1951-59) collection of his correspondence).  This was written to explain why he would never take part in any refutation of the errors of the Jews.  He says that he has no wish to abet quarrels and disputes, because they are always aggressive, and are therefore not conducive to finding the truth.  As everyone knows that God has hardened the Jews’ hearts, and that they will not, therefore, be converted, he accuses those who dispute with the Jews of doing it for their own glory.  He finishes with the observation that the false Christian, who understands what Christ should mean to him, and yet crucifies him afresh every day by his actions, is worse than any of the Jews, who, in their ignorance, saw the mortal Christ put to death. (J.Bouvet: Correspondance… (B.42) fasc.6, pp.352-360.)

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