Hugh of St. Victor on "Jesus Wept": Compassion as Ideal Humanitas
Coolman, Boyd Taylor, Theological Studies
TOWARD THE END OF THE ELEVENTH CENTURY, interest in the humanity of Jesus surged markedly throughout Europe. Poets, preachers, artists, and monks, in places such as London, Paris, and Rome, gave expression to this apparently deep and widespread shift in religious feeling. Reflecting and extending this development in the twelfth century, theologians as diverse as Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux placed Christ's humanity at the center of their theological reflection and spiritual devotion, a move later medieval generations would emulate. (1) The manifold conceptions of Jesus' humanity produced in what has been called "the uncompromisingly christocentric period of Western civilization" (2) are, however, understudied. (3) Neither their rich diversity nor their distinctive insights have been adequately appreciated (4)
Less commonly noted by medieval scholars is a particular aspect of Christ's humanity that attracted both theological scrutiny and devotional reflection, namely, the nature of his psyche. The psychological dimension of Jesus' humanity drew the attention of many, prompting questions regarding his capacity to feel or experience such things as fear, joy, sadness, and anger. (5) In their terminology, medievals began to speculate on Christ's affectivity. To be sure, interest in his affectivity was not a medieval innovation. Earlier writers, including Hilary, (6) Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and John of Damascus, (7) had proffered various (and variously influential) opinions on the matter. But scholars have noted a certain patristic reserve toward Christ's emotions. (8) By contrast, many medievals pursued the matter with vigor. No merely curious speculation, moreover, their careful probing of Jesus' psyche often emerged from a desire to identify personally and experientially with him in his humanity. For many, Christ's affectivity was paradigmatic of ideal human affectivity generally. A striking instance of these developments may be found in the writings of Hugh of St. Victor (d. 1141).
Paul Gondreau has recently published an analysis of Christ's passions in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. (9) A glance at this study will help to situate Hugh's distinctive contribution to the topic. As Gondreau shows, Thomas devoted considerable attention to Christ's affectivity. For my present purpose, however, I note that what Thomas omitted highlights by its absence the particular theme so central to Hugh. Strikingly, Thomas did not consider the compassion of Jesus. (10) Despite ample scriptural attestation to this emotion--including repeated Gospel references to his compassion; (11) Paul's reference in Philippians 1:8 to the visceribus Christi Iesu, "the tender compassion of Christ Jesus" (New Living); and references in the book of Hebrews to Christ's high priestly capacity to "co-suffer" (conpati in Heb 4:15) and "co-sorrow" (condolore in Heb 5:2) with human weakness (12)--the Dominican does not treat this theme. By contrast, Christ's compassion is richly developed in the writings of his Franciscan contemporaries, especially Bonaventure. (13) He is, however, by no means the first medieval author to do so. Indeed, looking back to his teacher, Alexander of Hales, (14) and even further, an identifiable current of thought is visible, wending its way back to the early twelfth century. Standing at the headwaters of this speculation on Christ's compassion stands an understudied treatise of Hugh's entitled, A Little Book on the Four Wills in Christ. (15) Occupying only six columns in the Patrologia Latina, this brief work seems to be the first medieval treatise devoted to the theme of Christ's compassion. (16)
This theme of Christ's compassion in medieval theological discourse has not been sufficiently noted, let alone explored. (17) Nor, despite Rachel Fulton's recent work, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200, (18) has the more general theme of affective participation with the experience of another in the Middle Ages been adequately analyzed. (19) Fulton illustrates well the current state of scholarship, as she focuses on the passion of Jesus and the corresponding compassion of his mother. For Fulton, Jesus' physical suffering (patiens) is mirrored by Mary's psychological co-suffering (compatiens). Fulton argues that Mary, in her own compassion, was seen by many as the model of appropriate emotional response to Christ's suffering. Indeed, much of the scholarly work on compassion in the Middle Ages has focused on Mary's compassionate response to her suffering Son. (20) While Marian compassion is certainly a significant aspect of medieval devotion to Christ's humanity, and while the medievals, like their early church counterparts, were certainly interested in Christ's passion, the simple binary, "Jesus suffers: Mary co-suffers" (hence the passion of Christ and the compassion of Mary), risks obscuring the theme of Christ's own compassion, widely attested in the theological literature of the 12th and 13th centuries. (21)
In On the Four Wills in Christ, Hugh pursues a unified account of Christ's psychical experience of anticipated suffering and death, as described in the Gospels. He attempts to integrate the diverse scriptural witness to Christ's human affectivity into a coherent psychological portrait of his human experience of this event. More precisely, Hugh strives to make christological sense, not primarily of Jesus' apparent fear and unwillingness to suffer physical pain (a more traditional concern), but of his apparent experience of compassionate commiseration for lost human beings, for whom he weeps as he approaches Jerusalem. Furthermore, in contrast to traditional attempts to account for Jesus' fear of death, which are typically motivated by the commentator's anxiety over this emotion in Jesus, (22) it is in fact Hugh's high estimation of compassion as the proper and signature feature of Jesus' humanity that prompts him not only to make christological sense of Jesus' tears, but also to hold up Jesus as exemplar of such human affectivity.
FOUR WILLS IN CHRIST?
At first glance, Hugh's reference to four wills in Christ is perplexing. The ecumenical councils of the later patristic period had, of course, endorsed the view of two wills in Christ, one divine, one human. With Hugh, classical christological orthodoxy seems to have been oddly multiplied. In fact, he is not pushing the limits of dogma, but attempting to clarify it with respect to Christ's human affectivity. So, regarding the divine will, he says little, except that it specifically pertains to the divine intention that Christ should suffer and die in order to satisfy the requirements of justice pursuant to human salvation: "The divine will dictated the intention [sententiam] [that Christ die] according to justice." (23) About the human will, though, Hugh is expansive, contending that, precisely speaking, the human will should be considered threefold: (24) secundum rationem, secundum pietatem, and secundum carnem. (25) Before these terms can be rendered accurately into English, some initial analysis is required. As with the divine will, Hugh analyzes these modes of human willing in relation to Christ's suffering and death.
Hugh begins with the will secundum rationem. Best rendered "according to reason" or "rational human will," this part of Christ's human will agrees with and readily submits to the divine will that he himself suffer and die to satisfy justice: "the rational will [voluntas rationis] approved the truth [of divine justice] through obedience." (26) Quoting Matthew 26:41, "the spirit indeed is willing," (27) Hugh says, "the spirit was inclined toward the suffering of its flesh through the rational will, following the ordering of the divine will." (28)
Scripture also attests to Christ's fearful hesitation in the face of his passion; Hugh ascribes this hesitation to the will secundum carnem, "according to the flesh." This will (voluntas carnis), he says, "groaned over its own evil through suffering [passionem]." (29) Hugh does not intend caro here in the Pauline sense of "the flesh," which arrays itself sinfully against the divine will. Rather, he means the body's natural, even instinctive, resistance to physical suffering. Taking up the latter part of Matthew 26:41, Hugh describes it thus: "On account of the will of the flesh, which, fearing the suffering on account of weakness, resisted punishment, Christ said: but the flesh is weak." Hugh continues: "Now the weak flesh resisted suffering by means of the natural providence that caused [it] to hate its own evil." (30) For Hugh, this fleshly resistance to suffering is divinely intended and providentially implanted within embodied creatures as part of their natural constitution. (31)
JESUS' VOLUNTAS PIETATIS
It may be surprising, however, to learn that this particular psychological tension in Christ regarding his passion--the rational will consenting, the fleshly will dissenting--is not Hugh's primary concern. Of far greater interest, engaging him for the remainder of the treatise, is the third mode of human willing, Jesus' will secundum pietatem or simply the voluntas pietatis. (32) This term is the most difficult to render accurately into English. Hugh's use of at least three other synonyms suggests the complexity of the notion. An initial description begins to clarify his meaning. In Christ, he says, the voluntas pietatis "sighed deeply over another's evil through co-suffering." (33) Several words in this description require comment.
"Evil" renders the Latin "malum," which might also be translated "adversity," since at points Hugh seems to have in mind that which befalls someone, whether deservedly or not. "Sighed deeply" renders "suspirare," which may carry some of the psychosomatic resonance of "'viscera," used in the Latin translation of the New Testament to describe the feeling of compassion.34 Finally, "co-suffering" here renders Hugh's "compassio," which could, of course, also be translated as "compassion." But "compassion," especially since the middle of the 17th century, is used with a dizzying array of meanings, (35) which may or may not be consonant with Hugh's meaning. The woodenly literal "co-suffering" is nevertheless useful in forming a contrasting parallel with "suffering," used consistently here to render Hugh's "passio." Frequently, Hugh relates "passio" to "compassio" in various ways, which is more apparent in translation when these are rendered "suffering" and "co-suffering" respectively. Nonetheless, "co-suffering" risks collapsing the distinction between the one who suffers and the one who is affected psychically by it. With all this in mind, I sometimes render compassio as "co-suffering" and sometimes as "compassion," despite its attendant ambiguities. From this initial description, accordingly, it is apparent that Hugh's voluntas pietatis entails a compassionate, psychosomatic response to the evil that befalls another. More must be said, but what is also apparent is that the contemporary English cognate "piety," though etymologically related, is conceptually unhelpful, even if Hugh's meaning here finds its classical roots in something that might be rendered "piety." (36) What then does Hugh mean by pietas? (37)
As with the other wills, Hugh seeks in the Gospel accounts a warrant for positing this will in Christ and finds it in two pericopes. The first is Luke's account of Christ weeping over Jerusalem: "When he approached Jerusalem, seeing the city he wept" (Lk 19:41). (38) Hugh asks: "Why did he weep if he was not mourning?" What was Jesus mourning? The perdition of the city's inhabitants. "If he was mournful concerning the perdition of [the city's inhabitants], he did not will their perdition."39 Hugh interprets Jesus' tears as an expression of felt sorrow over the eternal fate of Jerusalem's unbelieving inhabitants, which he does not will, secundum pietatem. The second text is the account of Jesus' emotional turmoil at the death of Lazarus in John 11. Hugh notes carefully the language with which John describes Jesus' emotional response to this death. Hugh's text reads: "Jesus groaned in spirit and troubled (turbavit) himself" (Jn 11:38). "Attend to this," Hugh admonishes: "How did he trouble himself? What was that troubling by which Jesus troubled himself?" This turbatio--literally, "a disturbance"--was, Hugh argues, due to "pietas," which he then glosses as "miseratio" (commiseration). He then asks: "Is he who is moved by pietas rightly troubled with a good troubling?" His answer is yes: Jesus troubled himself as he "willingly [sponte] received commiseration." (40) Hugh concludes: "So also Jesus, in his assumed humanity ... bore both suffering in body [passionem in carne] and co-suffering in mind [compassionem in mente], according to the property of humanity [secundum proprietatem humanitatis]." (41)
In this treatise Hugh is impressed as much with Jesus' co-suffering in his compassion as with his suffering in his passion, as is evident in the rhetorical cadence of this passage:
For this reason, the God-man, who came to remove both suffering and co-suffering, endured both. He took on suffering in the flesh [passionem in came]; he took on co-suffering in mind [compassionem in mente]. In both, he willed to languish for us, so that he might heal us who were languishing. He was weakened by suffering in his penalty; he was weakened by co-suffering with another's misery [compassione in miseria aliena]. He bore his passion that he might die for those who were going to die; he bore …
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Publication information: Article title: Hugh of St. Victor on "Jesus Wept": Compassion as Ideal Humanitas. Contributors: Coolman, Boyd Taylor - Author. Journal title: Theological Studies. Volume: 69. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2008. Page number: 528+. © 2009 Theological Studies, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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