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21.08.14 White (trans.), Isaac of Stella, Sermons on the Christian Year

21.08.14 White (trans.), Isaac of Stella, Sermons on the Christian Year

Though perhaps less famous than his contemporaries, Isaac of Stella (L'Étoile) was one of the great Cistercian mystics of the twelfth century. Isaac was born in England in the early 1100s and educated in France. Though specifics regarding his educational background are unknown, his theology shows indications of Victorine influence. By 1147 Isaac was abbot of Stella, a Cisterican abbey. He was no longer abbot by 1169. Little more is known, except that he spent some time on the island of Ré in the 1150s. Decades ago Gaetano Raciti theorized that Isaac was forced into exile on Ré because of his support for Thomas Beckett, but that theory has fallen out of favor amongst modern scholars because there is no firm evidence to support it. It seems more likely Isaac's stay on Ré was to help establish the abbey of Notre Dame des Châteliers. Ultimately, scholars know far more about Isaac's theology than his life due to his extant sermons and treatises. Isaac's entire extant corpus is comprised of fifty-five sermons, three sermon fragments, and two treatises.

This book completes the long-awaited English translation of Isaac of Stella's sermons. Hugh McCaffery translated the first part of Isaac's sermons into English in 1979. Complete translations in French and Italian have already appeared. [1] This English translation is based on the critical edition edited by Anselm Hoste as part of Sources chrétiennes (vols. 207 and 339). Regrettably, this volume does not contain the Latin text, so scholars attempting to compare the Latin text with the English translation must switch back and forth between books. The occasional odd Latin word is included in the margins, such as leviathan (33) or habitus (97). Lewis White must be credited for creating a translation which has a good flow and is easy to read. It is unfortunate that the book lacks any discussion by White upon his decisions as translator. The inclusion could have provided a better understanding of how the present translation was reached, as well as insight into Isaac's use of Latin.

This volume contains several sermons which have played important roles in scholarship. Sermon forty-eight contains a wealth of information and has been mined by historians to shed light upon life at the abbey of Stella. Sermons twenty-seven and thirty-one evoke island imagery, which may indicate that they were composed while Isaac was on the island of Ré. Sermons twenty-seven and thirty-eight possibly contain clues that Isaac was born into a good family. Sermon fifty-two uses Bernard of Clairvaux as a shining example. Other sermons provide insight into the complexities of Isaac's theology. Notable examples are sermons thirty-three to thirty-seven which discuss predestination and sermon forty-two which outlines Isaac's Christology. The translation of these sermons into English invites a larger audience to engage in these various discourses.

The introduction by Elias Dietz provides a helpful introduction to Isaac and his sermons, but serious readers should still consult Bernard McGinn's introduction to volume one in order to better appreciate the sermons. [2] Dietz is one of the foremost scholars on Isaac of Stella and incorporates the latest research into his introduction with an up-to-date select bibliography. He sketches Isaac's biography and briefly comments upon the sermon collection itself. Both are necessary. Isaac's sermon collection is notable in that it does not completely follow the liturgical year. Most sermon collections begin with Advent while Isaac's begins with All Saints. Furthermore, Isaac's collection is missing sermons for both Advent and Christmas. Whether or not this was intentional is a matter of debate. None of the extant manuscripts contain all of Isaac's sermons which leads Dietz to suggest that Isaac's sermons circulated in small groups. Dietz also provides a general discussion of Isaac's style of writing before including a useful reading guide to the sermons in both English volumes. He divides each sermon into three categories which also correspond to their difficulty. The first category is composed of sermons which introduce the reader to various aspects of Isaac's theology. The second category contains groups of sermons which are best read together. The third category includes sermons which delve into dense philosophical and theological concepts. This categorization will be quite useful to students and scholars approaching Isaac of Stella for the first time.

The sermons themselves generally follow the liturgical year. In theory, each of the sermons would have been preached by Isaac on a given feast. The sermons contained in this volume cover Quinquagesima Sunday to the nativity of Mary, plus sermons for the dedication of a church and three fragments. There are multiple sermons for the same feasts--three sermons each for the feast of St. John the Baptist and the Assumption of Mary. Isaac's sermons would have met the preaching demands for multiple years (apart for Advent and Christmas) if they had been preached. The sermons generally explicate the passage drawn from the feast's liturgy. Little attention is given to discussing the meaning of the holy day under celebration. Thus, the sermon for Mary's nativity focuses more on Creation and humanity than the feast itself (189-193). Isaac prefers to delve into theological issues in his sermons, many of which are quite complicated. Though able to interpret Scripture according to the traditional four senses, he shows a predilection for the allegorical sense of Scripture and often focuses on the mystical. He interweaves metaphors and imagery into his sermons. Such a technique requires the audience (or reader) to pay close attention. Dietz's discussion concerning Isaac's style of writing is quite useful in orienting the reader to the main types of imagery Isaac uses.

There are signs that the text of the sermons may have differed from the sermons delivered orally. The three sermons for quinquagesima Sunday show signs of this. A footnote on page seven usefully points out that the second sermon for quinquagesima Sunday includes references to time which do not make sense in regards to how the sermons would have been preached. Additionally, Isaac's sermons on predestination, sermons thirty-three to thirty-seven, contain repeated references to "yesterday's sermon." The references correspond to the previous sermon. These sermons would have been given on the second Sunday of Lent over several years, not "yesterday." Therefore, it seems likely that there was some departure in the sermons' text and how Isaac may have preached them. There are also suggestions in sermons forty-five and forty-eight that Isaac may have preached in the vernacular though the sermons were written down in Latin. Isaac notes in sermon forty-eight that, in addition to his fellow monks, he is preaching to the "simple" crowd of the laity who gather on solemn days (155). In sermon forty-five he mentions that he is preaching for "simple and unlettered brothers" (129). All these examples are warnings that Isaac's sermons must be understood as a form of "written rhetoric." It is difficult to know for certain how the sermons were actually preached, or even if they were.

The Cisterican Fathers book series is noted for its exemplary inclusion of biblical and patristic citations. This book maintains that tradition. It also includes an index of Biblical citations along with one for patristic and medieval works, allowing one to clearly see what texts Isaac drew upon in his sermons. Naturally, Isaac drew heavily upon the Bible, Augustine, and Bernard of Clairvaux. But he also referenced pagan writers, especially Plato and Plotinus. The general index is also helpful in allowing the reader to search for various topics.

Considering the exorbitant prices of scholarly monographs and primary sources, this book is relatively inexpensive. Despite the price, the book still seems to be of high quality. Hopefully, this translation will introduce Isaac of Stella to a wider audience and spur additional research into his theology.



1. Isaac de L 'Etoile: Sermons I, eds. Anselm Hoste and Gaston Salet, Sources Chrétiennes vol. 130 (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1967); Isaac de l'Etoile: Sermons, Volume II, eds. Anselm Hoste and Gaetano Raciti, Sources Chrétiennes vol. 207 (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1974); Isaac de l'Etoile: Sermons, Volume III, eds. Anselm Hoste and Gaetano Raciti, Sources Chrétiennes vol. 339 (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1987); I Sermoni, trans. Domenico Pezzini, vols. 1-2 (Milan: Paoline, 2006-2007).

2. Bernard McGinn, "Introduction," in Isaac of Stella, Sermons on the Christian Year, vol. 1, trans. Hugh McCaffery (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1979), ix-xxx.