“Your Hearts Will Rejoice”: Easter Meditations from the Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony
Translated by Milton T. Walsh
Monastic Wisdom Series Number Forty-Nine, a Cistercian Publications title published by Liturgical Press, copyright 2016; 195 pages, $19.95
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact on Western spirituality of the writings of Ludolph of Saxony. The meditations on the life of Christ written by this fourteenth century Carthusian monk (he entered a monastery near Strasbourg in 1340 and died in 1378) were instrumental in Ignatius Loyola’s conversion; Teresa of Avila required them to be included in the libraries of all the convents under her reform; Francis de Sales recommended Ludolph’s writings to Jane Frances de Chantal, and more. The Vita Christi, because it was a favorite text of the 14-15th century Devotio Moderna movement as well, also influenced the spirituality of the Protestant reformers. The publication of this classic for the first time in English is thus a milestone that opens up for us a new window onto an important source of the Western Christian imagination—especially of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
All this would be interesting enough, but then, added to it, the choice of subject matter of the present volume is also quite timely. For this is a book of Easter meditations, taken from Ludolph’s full work on the life of Christ (other volumes are planned; it is the first of a series that will translate the whole Vita Christi). Those who are engaged in pastoral care or spiritual direction or Christian formation today know well that the published resources for spiritual renewal available for the Lenten season are immense. Publications specifically aimed at fostering spiritual growth during the great fifty days of Easter, however, are few in number. Thus, by beginning with Easter, the translator and publishers have produced something which fills a definite niche—one that is not already filled to overflowing.
I love the Easter season and regret that we seem to sleepwalk through it with little sense of wonder or excitement. I was therefore thrilled to see the wealth of reflection represented here. Paging through this volume is like taking a tour of the whole Easter lectionary, beginning with the Paschal Vigil and running all the way through Pentecost. It invites us to slow down and appreciate what the church recalls at this time each year. The empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, Ascension and Pentecost, and the narratives surrounding the disciples’ reactions to all these things are each explored in loving detail.
Admittedly, Ludolph presents a vision that is strange for the contemporary reader in some ways. There is much talk of our souls, and reproof as well as encouragement. At times, he reads into the texts of scripture in ways we would resist today. For example, he asserts that when Mary meets the risen Jesus she was not allowed to touch him because her faith was deficient. Is this a fair interpretation of the text? Not really. Allegory and typology, so much a staple of medieval exegesis, is everywhere. Each of the myrrh-bearing women, for example, represents a quality in the spiritual life in his exposition. One can object to this: these are people, after all, with more than one “note” in reality.
Nevertheless, the exercise of interpreting a story in allegorical terms is very much a part of his times, and if one bears with it, there are rewards to be gained. There are many poetic and imaginative readings here. Take for example, this little passage on the wounds of Christ:
Jesus retained the marks of his wounds in order to heal their questioning hearts; he showed them his scars to heal the wounds of their doubts and lack of faith.
And when he said this, he showed them his hands to rouse them to battle. He was saying “Look at these hands that fought for you—I show them to you so that you too will fight, because you will not be victorious unless you struggle. Act bravely, because “to him that shall overcome, I will give to sit with me on my throne.” He showed them his side to enkindle their love. He was saying, “Behold this open side and pierced heart, so that you will see how much I have loved you, and so you will also love me.” He showed them his feet to encourage them to persevere. May we not turn back when we have taken the good path!
Throughout, the reader is exhorted to engage with the stories of Easter as a full participant, emotionally, morally, and spiritually taking part in the events described. The book is best read a little at a time, so as to savor the individual reflections and think about them personally.
The layout of “Your Hearts Will Rejoice” reflects an interest in documenting Ludolph’s sources, but the goal was clearly to present an unencumbered text. Accordingly, there is only the bare minimum of marginal notes for the references Ludolph makes to other texts (scripture and patristic texts) in his exposition. Four pages of abbreviations at the start of the book give full titles of these works. As much as I appreciate the resulting “clean” look, I wish they had included a little more scholarly apparatus. A fuller introduction, some explanatory notes for the reader, and an index at the end would have been helpful. After all, we are reading this text at a far remove from its original setting.
Overall, I recommend the book highly. It is not just a book for students, although it could be used in education. It is really a book for anyone who is interested in seeing the Easter scriptures through a devotional lens. I would not recommend it for those who are completely naïve about the scriptures; some of what he says needs to be taken cautiously, and not as “simple fact.” But if the reader has a basic grounding, this is a wonderfully enriching book of meditations. The Vita Christi has inspired many saints, and still has power. It is a lovely and accessible book—a good start to what will no doubt be a valuable series.