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Relationality and Difference in the Mysticism of Pierre de Bérulle

  • Edward Howells (a1)


The mysticism of the seventeenth-century French cardinal, Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629), contains an extended treatment of the relationship of the human and the divine in mystical union. Bérulle explores the nature of mystical union in detail and gives attention to the combination of the apparently incompatible elements of the human and divine and the historical and eternal. He prefers not to begin with the opposition between these elements but instead, by exploring the relationship between them, to use relational language, which brings together unity and difference. For this task, he draws on the tools of late medieval mysticism, which entail especially the metaphors of interior poverty, nuptial mutuality, and neoplatonic emanation. At the same time, he applies the categories of Christology to the problem of mystical relationality and difference. Christology deepens the ways in which to assert and to combine unity and difference between the human and the divine in mystical union. For the reader today, this provides an intriguing perspective on the question of mystical relationality.1 I intend here to set out Bérulle's understanding of mystical relationality and to focus on his christological development of questions of unity and difference.



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1 The main studies of Bérulle's thought are now mostly over thirty years old; they are mostly in French and not well known in the anglophone world (excepting the very good Classics of Western Spirituality volume; see nn. 4 and 5, and further references, for the literature). Further reasons must be guessed at for the lack of recent attention to Bérulle's mysticism: perhaps because he stands at the beginning of the distinctively French development of spirituality in the seventeenth century, and is therefore often confined to that context; perhaps because his mysticism has become associated with the thesis of Michel de Certeau, that mysticism went into terminal decline after 1600, consequently being regarded as part of that decline, lacking the creativity of the earlier period. See Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1992)—although de Certeau does not include Bérulle as part of the breakdown.

2 Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (vol. 1 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism; New York: Crossroad, 1992) xix.

3 Bernard McGinn, ed. and trans., The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (Modern Library Classics; New York: Random House, 2006) xvi–xvii. McGinn adopts the phrase “mediated immediacy” from Bernard Lonergan (ibid., xx). Lonergan speaks of the mystical relationship with God as a “mediated return to immediacy.” Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972) 77.

4 Henri Bremond coined the term École française (French School) and showed the centrality of Bérulle in seventeenth-century French spirituality in his magisterial history on the period. See Henri Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu'à nos jours (9 vols.; Paris: Bloud et Gay, 1921–1936). The first three volumes are in English translation: A Literary History of Religious Thought in France: From the Wars of Religion Down to Our Own Times (trans. K. L. Montgomery; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1928–1936). Bérulle is treated in vol. 3. Whether the term “School” is justified in such a diverse and complex context has produced considerable discussion. For a recent example, see Yves Krumenacker, “Henri Bremond et l'École française de spiritualité”, Chrétiens et sociétés XVIe–XXe siècles 9 (2002) 115–38. Online: For Bremond, the “French School” refers to Bérulle and his direct followers, notably the Oratorians and Sulpicians, but his criteria for inclusion are less clear when he introduces others such as Vincent de Paul and Jean Eudes, who could be regarded as heading distinct schools. A second key writer on the history of seventeenth-century French spirituality is Louis Cognet; I have used especially his De la dévotion moderne à la spiritualité française (Je sais, je crois 41; Paris: Fayard, 1958); trans. P. J. Hepburne-Scott, Post-Reformation Spirituality (Faith and Fact Series 41; London: Burns & Oates, 1959); and Louis Cognet, La spiritualité moderne (Histoire de la spiritualité chrétienne 3; Paris: Aubier, 1966)—the former is a brief outline, the latter more substantial.

5 The main studies and articles that I have used here are as follows. Michael J. Buckley, “Seventeenth Century French Spirituality: Three Figures,” in Christian Spirituality III: Post-Reformation and Modern (ed. Louis Dupré and Don E. Saliers; London: SCM, 1990) 28–68. William M. Thompson, introduction to Bérulle and the French School: Selected Writings (ed. idem; trans. Lowell M. Glendon; New York: Paulist, 1989) 1–59. R. Bellemare, Le sens de la créature dans la doctrine de Bérulle (Paris: Desclée, 1959). Fernando Guillén Preckler, “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle. Théologie et spiritualité des “états” bérulliens (Roma: Università Gregoriana, 1974). Miklos Vetö, “La Christo-logique de Bérulle,” intro. to Pierre de Bérulle, Opuscules de piété (1644) (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 1997) 7–136.

6 Buckley, “Seventeenth Century French Spirituality,” 30; Thompson, introduction to Bérulle, 13. Which mystical authors Bérulle read remains unclear; the consensus among scholars is that these three are probably the most important. For the influence of Harphius and Canfield, see Cognet, Essor de la spiritualité moderne, 340, 355; idem, Post-Reformation Spirituality, 73. Bellemare treats the importance of Catherine of Genoa in Bérulle's development, regarding Bérulle's unpublished notes on the Life of Catherine of Genoa as a key transition in this thought (Bellemare, Le sens de la créature, 16–17). Also see Guillén Preckler, “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle, 19–23.

7 Benoît de Canfield, Renaissance Dialectic and Renaissance Piety: Benet of Canfield's Rule of Perfection: A Translation and Study (trans. and intro. Kent Emery, Jr.; Medieval & Renassance Texts & Studies 50; Binghampton, N.Y.: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York, 1987). This is the theme especially of Part 3, chs. 1–15, pp. 173–227.

8 Ibid., Part 2, ch. 1, p. 160.

9 Ibid., Part 3, ch. 1, p. 176; ch. 5, p. 187; ch. 6, p. 192.

10 Buckley, “Seventeenth Century French Spirituality,” 42.

11 Ibid., 43.

12 Bremond, Literary History, 2:195–228.

13 Ibid., 2:229.

14 The theme of the humanity of Christ and opposition to its “by-passing” (dépassement) is a key strand in the history of seventeenth-century spirituality; see Cognet, Post-Reformation Spirituality, 15, 16, 31, 41, 60, 62, 69, 70, 73, 83; and Jean Dagens, Bérulle et les origines de la restauration catholique (1575–1611) (Paris: Desclée, 1952) 301–21.

15 Bellemare argues that Bérulle moved definitively away from the “abstract” emphasis of his early mysticism, against Bremond's view that he retained it (Bellemare, Le sens de la créature, 15, 43). My view is that Bérulle aimed for a synthesis.

16 I focus on the Discours de l'état et des grandeurs de Jésus in this article because it shows Bérulle's christological and mystical development most systematically. The Œuvres de piété (or Opuscules de piété) are a further useful source for fleshing out Bérulle's mystical teaching. In my references, “G” stands for Discours de l'état et des grandeurs de Jésus, known for short as Grandeurs. I have used the recent critical edition of Bérulle's works: Pierre de Bérulle, Œuvres complètes (intro. and notes Michel Dupuy; trans. Auguste Piédagnel; Paris: Oratoire de Jésus; Cerf, 1995–1997). Grandeurs is to be found in Discours de l'état et des grandeurs de Jésus. Mémorial. Élévation sur Sainte Madeleine (vol. 7 of Œuvres complètes; 14 vols.; Paris: Cerf, 1996), and page numbers refer to this volume. Page numbers in parentheses refer to the English translation by Lowell M. Glendon in Thompson, Bérulle and the French School; otherwise translations are my own.

17 Guillén Preckler, “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle, 87–99.

18 “Comme le Fils unique de Dieu a un rapport continuel de tout ce qu'il est vers son Père, et son être et sa vie consistent en ce rapport… aussi l'usage de notre être et de notre vie doit être totalement employé à la relation parfaite et absolue de tout ce que nous sommes.” G 5, ch. 9, p. 215 (137). Bérulle typically uses the words rapport and relation for this relation—elsewhere he also uses the verb se référer (e.g., G 3, ch. 8, p. 154). The translator (Lowell M. Glendon) has used “refer” here to give the active sense intended in Bérulle's rapport and relation.

19 G 5,9, 216 (137).

20 “Car, étant vivement et sensiblement touchés de la grandeur de ce rare objet [Jésus-Christ et le mystère de l'Incarnation]… nous croyons être obligés de nous élever à Dieu.” G 2, ch. 1, p. 82 (114). Bérulle occasionally shifts from the language of third-person description and explanation into the first-person mode of address to Jesus, to enter into these elevations more directly, using phrases such as, “I address and lift myself to you, O my Lord Jesus (je m'adresse et m'élève à vous, ô Jésus mon Seigneur),” and “I long for you, O my Lord Jesus (j'aspire à vous, ô mon Seigneur Jésus).” G 2, ch. 6, p. 95 (121); p. 97 (122).

21 G 2, ch. 13, pp. 123–24 (126). Also see Michel Dupuy, Bérulle. Une spiritualité de l'adoration (Tournai: Desclée, 1964).

22 “La vue de lui-même, comme subsistant dedans l'être incréé.” G 3, ch. 8, p. 153 (127).

23 G 10, ch. 1, pp. 371–73 (150–51). The three births form the structure of the last three discourses of Grandeurs, each birth being treated separately in Discourses 10, 11, and 12. Guillén Preckler notes that an important strand in Bérulle's understanding of emanation is Dionysius, whose writings he knew well; however, a difference from Dionysius is that Christ is not the archetype and top of the celestial hierarchies but includes them all in himself (Guillén Preckler,“État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle, 54–55, 63).

24 The second emanation produces both creation and salvation together, although they are distinguished as the second and third births; see G 2, ch. 5, pp. 93–94 (119–20).

25 For a valuable treatment of this theme, see Erik Varden, The Principle of Servitude in the Work of Pierre de Bérulle (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 2000).

26 Thompson, Bérulle and the French School, 14–16. Guillén Preckler quotes from the manuscript of the Vow of Servitude: “Je fais vœu à Dieu de servitude perpétuelle à Jésus Christ à son humanité déifiée et à sa divinité humanisée” (Guillén Preckler, “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle, 87).

27 The kenosis of Phil 2:6–7 is central to Bérulle's spirituality. See the long list of references to this text in G 490 (in the edition used here).

28 “Néant de notre humanité,” G 2, ch. 13, p. 120.

29 “Un état d'abaissement et servitude,” G 2, section 13, p. 121; “le Fils de l'Homme qui est Fils de Dieu est… toujours se référant soi-même et référant cette unité nouvelle qui le fait nouvel homme à l'hommage des unités divines et adorables de l'Être suprême et incréé,” G 3, ch. 8, p. 154.

30 “Même occupation [dedans les cieux] que vous avez eue durant le cours de votre vie humble, souffrante et voyagère.” G 3, ch. 8, p. 155.

31 “The divine persons have a relation and a rapport to their principle of origin. They only subsist through his [God's] attributes and relations and are happy to live in this relatedness, rapport and mutual love (en la Trinité sainte les personnes divines ont relation et rapport à leurs principe et origine, et elles ne subsistent qu'en ses propriétés et relations et vivent heureusement en ce regard, en ce rapport, et en cet amour réciproques).” G 2, ch. 5, p. 93 (119).

32 “Cette humanité sacrée est-elle destituée de ce droit et de ce pouvoir de disposer de soi même et de ses actions, et ce droit se trouve être légitimement transféré de la nature humaine en la personne divine.” G 2, ch. 10, p. 112 (124).

33 “État de dépendance.” Vie de Jésus, 28; Oeuvres Complètes, 8:299 (162).

34 Bérulle brings together his emphasis on the anéantissement of the soul, which itself owes much to late medieval mystical language of annihilation, with an erotic relationality taken from the mystical tradition of commentaries on the Song of Songs, supremely those by Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux, where the possessions of the “marriage” partners are given up to each other and shared. He could have encountered this language in many late medieval mystical sources, for instance in Ruusbroec or in mystical compendia such as Harphius. But he makes very little reference to the Song of Songs in his scriptural quotations. He prefers to situate his union language in terms of the hypostatic union, especially by citing John 17 (see n. 42), although the logic of mutual dispossession is also that of erotic union.

35 G 2, ch. 12, p. 119.

36 “Sa vie, ses mouvements et ses actions ne sont plus comme d'elle ni à elle en propriété, mais sont à celui qui la soutient divinement.” G 2, ch. 10, p. 109 (123).

37 “Je veux… que je ne sois plus qu'une nue capacité et un pur vide en moi-même, rempli de lui et non de moi, pour jamais.” G 2, ch. 12, p. 119.

38 G 5, ch. 9, p. 216 (137).

39 “Le Fils unique du Père… veut rendre sa filiation propre et naturelle vive source de la filiation adoptive.” G 5, ch. 9, p. 214 (136).

40 G 12, ch. 2, pp. 468–69 (157). See n. 68 for full citation.

41 Grandeurs repeatedly refers to the theme of union, both Christ's union and our union with God, although the term “mystical union” is not used. Bérulle sometimes, but rarely, speaks of the “mystical life” (la vie mystique) and characterizes this using the union language of John 17 (see nn. 42, 72). His most frequent language of mystical union is in terms of attaining the divine “unity (unité)” of Christ and the Trinity.

42 John 17:20–23: Bérulle cites the passage frequently, e.g., G 2, ch. 7, p. 98; G 3, ch. 8, p. 155; G 3, section 10, p. 162; G 6, ch. 4, 229; G 6, ch. 6, p. 229; G 8, ch. 7, p. 309 (the latter is on John 17:5 but develops the same theme).

43 “Beaucoup plus devons-nous désirer que la puissance de celui qui transmue vraiment la nature des choses soit employée sur nous, et que, par la vertu de son amour puissant, la substance de notre être change d'état et condition, pour être heureusement convertie en une relation pure vers lui, en hommage, en amour et en imitation de sa substance, de sa vie et de sa subsistence personelle qui est toute relative vers le Père éternel.” G 5, ch. 4, p. 216 (137).

44 Bellemare, Le sens de la créature, 61. Bellemare cites the following references from the Migne edition of Bérulle's works (Paris, 1856): Œuvres de piété 132, part 3, 1166; part 5, 914; 87, part 2, 1071–72; and from Bérulle's Collationes Congregationes nostrae, 1614 (Bibliothèque Nationale, MS lat. 18210) 234–36.

45 “Elle lui cède encore le droit naturel qu'elle a de subsister en soi-même, pour ne subsister qu'en sa personne divine.” G 2, ch. 10, p. 112 (124). Also see n. 36 above.

46 G 5, ch. 4, p. 216 (137), as cited above, n. 43.

47 G 9, ch. 4, p. 360 n. 1. [My emphasis]

48 “L'être personnel entre dans le ressort de la nature, en est le terme, comme l'accomplissant et faisant en une certaine manière partie de la propre substance des choses.” G 2, ch. 10, p. 112 (125).

49 “Comme naturelle, s'il nous est permis d'ainsi parler” (ibid.). There is a “rapport” between creation and incarnation, and between nature and grace (G 11, ch. 7, p. 426).

50 I use “intrinsicist” in the sense which emerged from the debates surrounding the nouvelle théologie in Roman Catholic theology in the 1950s, as contrasted with the “extrinsicism” of too strongly segregated categories of nature and grace. See, e.g., Stephen J. Duffy, The Graced Horizon: Nature and Grace in Modern Catholic Thought (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1992) 55–59.

51 G 12, ch. 2, 468–69 (157), cited in n. 68 below.

52 “Pour Bérulle cette union [notre participation au Christ] possède une véritable densité ontologique” (Bellemare, Le sens de la créature, 140).

53 This is the theme examined by Guillén Preckler in his “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle.

54 Ibid., ch. 7, pp. 179–220.

55 “Y ayant deux manières de le servir, l'une par actions seulement et l'autre par état, nous devons choisir cette voie constante, solide, permanente.” G 5, ch. 9, 216 (137). The incarnation means that God not only became flesh in Jesus, but that “there was never a moment when the Word did not behold in his divine essence, as in a perfect mirror, that human nature” (le Verbe n'a jamais été que regardant en sa divine essence, comme en un parfait miroir, cette nature humaine)—so that every state of Jesus is both temporal and eternal: G 12, ch. 2, p. 468 (157).

56 “Nous parlons d'une adoration qui est par état et non par action; d'une adoration qui n'est pas simplement émanante des facultés de l'esprit et dépendante de ses pensées, mais qui est solide, permanente et indépendante des puissances et des actions, et qui est vivement imprimée dans le fonds de l'être créé et dans la condition de son état.” G 11, ch. 6, p. 420 (154).

57 Bérulle applied the various states of Jesus' life to the different vocations of individual Christians and religious orders in his day. The state is a concept of vocation, something pursued through the contingencies of a particular vocational relationship with Jesus (Guillén Preckler, “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle, 165–67).

58 There is an additional concern for orthodoxy: mystics had in the past been condemned for denying a continuing distinct role to Christ in mystical union. See, e.g., the bull of condemnation of Eckhart, “In agro dominico” (1329), in Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (trans. and intro. Bernard McGinn and Edmund Colledge; New York: Paulist, 1981) 77–81, esp. articles 10–12, 20–22. But by the time Bérulle was writing this was not as pressing an issue as were the conflicting claims of the “abstract” approach, on the one hand, and concrete encounter with the humanity of Christ, on the other hand, as we have seen.

59 G 10, ch. 6, p. 392.

60 G 2, ch. 2, p. 85 (117).

61 G 2, ch. 5, p. 91 (118).

62 G 3, ch. 8, p. 154.

63 “Jésus est seul… possédant l'être incréé et infini, entre plusieurs qui possèdent la grâce [créée] et la gloire.” G 1, ch. 6, p. 79 (113).

64 G 5, ch. 4, pp. 203–4 (135); 5, section 9, p. 213 (135); G 3, ch. 8, p. 153 (127), the latter quoted in n. 22 above.

65 “Nous devons être inséparablement conjoints au Fils de Dieu… comme il est lui-même conjoint à son Père.” G 5, ch. 9, p. 216 (137).

66 E.g., G 1, ch. 6, p. 75 (110); 2, ch. 5, pp. 90, 93 (117, 120).

67 “Nous honorons en lui [le Fils] son Père qui nous l'a donné, par l'excès et l'abondance de son amour; [ce] qui est une chaîne d'amour et d'honneur qui nous lie au Père et au Fils et nous rend imitant et adorant l'amour et l'honneur réciproque qui est entre eux.” G 5, ch. 10, p. 217.

68 Ô regard qui doit tirer notre regard, notre amour et notre hommage vers cette humanité que Dieu regarde éternellement et incessamment comme sienne, et que nous devons regarder comme nôtre.” G 12, ch. 2, pp. 468–69 (157).

69 “This divine mystery [incarnation] is like the center of the created and uncreated world (divin mystère qui est comme le centre de l'être créé et incréé).” G 1, ch. 2, p. 69 (110). Guillén Preckler suggests that this is a re-reading of the hierarchical orders of emanations in Dionysius, giving the incarnation a more central place (Guillén Preckler, “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle, 63).

70 The close relationship between Jesus and Mary means that “to speak of Mary is to speak of Jesus (c'est parler de Jésus que parler de Marie),” for Bérulle, and we are transformed into the divine unity in relation to Mary's “states.” Vie de Jésus 6, 224 (159); Guillén Preckler, “État” chez le cardinal de Bérulle, ch. 8, pp. 221–49.

71 G 93 n. 3.

72 “La vie mystique, en laquelle Dieu imprime et communique à l'esprit préparé, purifié et élevé, son unité sainte, pour le rendre un d'esprit avec Dieu.” G 7, ch. 4, p. 269.

73 “Nous entrons en une excellente communication avec la Divinité… nous sommes unis, par certains degrés et échelons, substantiellement avec Dieu.” G 6, ch. 4, p. 229 (139).

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Relationality and Difference in the Mysticism of Pierre de Bérulle

  • Edward Howells (a1)


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