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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 6.2 (2003) 46-62

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The Use of Imagination, Emotion, and the Will in a Medieval Classic
The Meditaciones Vite Christi

Lawrence F. Hundersmarck

IN THE EARLY FOURTEENTH CENTURY a work known as the Meditaciones Vite Christi sought to probe the inexhaustible meaning of Scripture. 1 The work, long attributed to St. Bonaventure (1221-74), was composed by an Italian Franciscan, John de Caulibus from San Gimignano. Caulibus's Meditations on the Life of Christ was offered as a series of imaginative reconstructions of the Gospel accounts to serve the religious needs of a Poor Clare nun for whom he served as spiritual advisor (61). 2 To meet her needs, Caulibus created what would prove to be an immensely popular and influential book that had the capacity to make the Gospel account of the past dynamically alive in the present. In Meditations on the Life of Christ, the scenes of salvation are presented as eyewitness accounts. Caulibus sketches scenes with words and images that creatively fill in the details of the life of Christ and that are calculated to touch the nun's emotions and move her will. The text seeks to make the nun see and feel, and to prompt the reform of her life by conforming it to the life of Christ. 3

Meditaciones Vite Christi is constructed into 108 chapters running 347 pages in the recently published Corpus Christianorum critical edition. [End Page 46] The Meditaciones does not try to transform every Gospel scene into a meditation but only those events that Caulibus thinks will prove useful to the spiritual growth of his Poor Clare (18, 21). The work does manage, however, to cover the whole of Christ's life with special emphasis on the Infancy (4-15) and the Passion (70-81). In the middle of the Meditaciones the value and meaning of the cloistered life—an issue of importance for his reader—offers Caulibus the opportunity to give special attention to the distinctions between the active life and the contemplative life (46-58). This section, filled with citations from Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), serves as commentary on the ministry of Martha and Mary from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke (45).

The Meditaciones Vite Christi proved to be a great success, influencing late Medieval art and drama. In its Middle English translation at the hands of Nicholas Love (c. 1410), called the Myrrour of the Blessed Lyf of Jesu Christ, the Meditaciones was considered a safer approach to the Gospels than the vernacular translations of the New Testament produced by the Lollards in the fifteenth century. It was a work that gave rise to a very popular new genre, the Life of Christ, of which the Carthusian Ludolphus de Saxonia's (d. 1378) Vita Christi is perhaps the best known example. The works of both Caulibus and Ludolph stand within the full flowering of late Medieval devotion to the humanity of Christ. 4 Both works integrate centuries of piety within the thread of the harmonized Gospel narratives and, so to speak, conveniently package multiple aspects of Christian piety for later generations. Thus, it is thought that Ignatius Loyola (1495-1556) read Ludolph's Vita Christi and it seems, in terms of the importance of imagination, to have influenced the Spiritual Exercises. 5 Although the two works are different in terms of their orientation to the Gospel story, they both have one goal in mind—to make the life of Christ absolutely vital and alive to their readers. 6

The Meditaciones is an act of imagination by which Caulibus addresses his own Franciscan situation and that of his readers by [End Page 47] returning to the past. This returning to the Gospel account is itself an act of reconstruction through the use of images and values grounded within the basic concepts of Caulibus's monastic piety. The Meditaciones is an act of imagination, not in the narrow sense of falsification, but...


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