Richard of St. Victor on Contemplation

The more I read Richard of St. Victor, the more I love him. Here are a few jewels from the fifteenth chapter of Book IV of The Mystical Ark:

See to it that the very time He begins to knock at the door is not the first time that you begin to want to throw out the crowds of those who make noise… All thoughts, empty as well as  noxious, which do not serve for our benefit must be judged to be strangers. In truth, we possess them like domestic servants or slaves, whom we involve for our use or benefit. But because a singular love loves solitude and seeks for a solitary place, it behooves us to throw out the entire crowd of such a sort, not only of thoughts but also even of affections, so that we may be at liberty to cling more freely and more joyfully to the embraces of our beloved one.

While I don’t think contemplative practice involves “throwing out” the unruly distracting noise of our chattering minds, Richard’s point is nevertheless apt: we embrace contemplative silence only to the extent that we are able to lessen our attachment to the static of our minds and hearts. It’s a question of signal-to-noise ratio: but the “signal” we are seeking is not louder than the noise of the monkey-mind, but infinitely quieter, for it is the “signal” of God’s presence hidden in silence. The following excerpt, from the same chapter, makes this point much more clearly.

[God] is heard by recollection; seen by wonder; kissed warmly by love; embraced by delight. Or if this pleases you better, He is heard by a showing; seen by contemplation; kissed warmly by devotion; drawn close for the infusion of His sweetness. He is heard by a showing when the whole tumult of those who make noise is quieted down and His voice only is heard as it grows stronger. At last that whole crowd of those who make a disturbance is dispersed and He alone remains with her alone and she alone looks at Him alone by contemplation. He is seen by contemplation when on account of the sight of an unexpected vision and wonder at the beauty of it, the soul gradually glows, burns more and more, and finally at last catches fire completely until it is thoroughly reformed to true purity and internal beauty.

The “whole crowd of those who make a disturbance” is, of course, found wholly within the incessant chatter of the distracted mind. Here Richard does not counsel out to “throw out” those voices but simply to make sure that they are “quieted down” and therefore “dispersed.” In other words, contemplation is not about making the mind empty (as if that were possible). Rather, it is about finding the silence within, in between, and beneath, the incessant chatter of waking consciousness. There, in that vast openness always available within, is where contemplation happens.

An illustration of Dante’s Paradise by Giovanni di Paolo. Richard of St. Victor is the second from the right (in red with a turban).


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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.