Little is known about Hugh’s life. About 1115 he entered St Victor, the abbey of Augustinian Canons in Paris and lived there till his death and made a name for himself as philosopher, theologian and mystical writer. He is sometimes spoken of as “alter Augustinus” because of his great familiarity with the writings of Augustine. The Church Historian Adolf Harnack called him the “most influential theologian of the twelfth century.” His teaching was one of the foundations of Scholastic theology, and his influence has affected the whole development of Scholasticism, for he was the first, who after synthesizing the dogmatic treasures of the patristic age, systematized and formed them into a coherent and complete body of doctrine. That was the work of a genius. But his great merit as head of the school of St Victor is that when the heterodoxy and doctrinal temerity of Abelard endangered the new method which was being applied to the study of theology, Hugh and his followers, by their prudent moderation and unimpeachable orthodoxy, reassured alarmed believers and acclimatized the new scientific method in the Church. Study and contemplation were, indeed the fabric Hugh’s life. For Hugh, everything was ultimately subordinated to the contemplative life. From study (lectio) man must go on to meditation (meditatio) by which the soul tries to discover the Divine thoughts hidden under the veil of both creatures and the Scriptures and to achieve purity of life and strive after loving contemplation (contemplatio).
Noah’s Ark is a mystical work written between 1125-1130. It is a collection of spiritual writings, mostly of a devotional nature, centred around the figure of the ark. The ark stands as an image of the Church and Hugh argues that the task of the Church is to teach humankind the way to heaven and if this task is to be accomplished, it needs a clergy both learned in Scripture and practised in prayer, after the model of the great Fathers, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great. Living in a time of intellectual ferment, when serious thinkers were asking what direction the Church should take, this was a sound advice.
Hugh speaks about the restlessness and instability of the human heart until it finds rest in God and this he attributes to the attachment to the creatures. When human beings try to divide their love between Creator and creature they experience distraction. But at the same time, Hugh calls the world with its distractions “God’s house.” The whole of creation is a sacrament, a visible form of an invisible grace. The world also has the function of the ark, of saving man from destruction. The ark is also the image of the Church and thus is the medium of salvation for human beings. The ark is also an image of the house that human beings build for God within their souls. The notion of God abiding in the heart of the believer is fundamental to Christian teaching. But Hugh gives it a new turn when he puts the emphasis on humanity’s part in building a place for God. The discipline of Noah in building the ark is compared to the task of bringing order and discipline into the chaos of our interior life. It alone can make the human heart a worthy house for God. Thus Hugh shows that the ark, besides representing the Church afloat in the stormy world, also represents a secure place in the heart of the believer, surrounding which the floods of concupiscence and other temptations continue to rage. There are people who have no ark and who know no world except that of the flesh. There are others who have an ark but do not abide in it. Finally, there are those, who have an ark and abide in it. For every man, so long as he lives in the corruptible world, has to struggle against fleshly desires. “In the good, the waters of this flood do indeed begin to lessen according to the difference of their graces. But the earth of the heart of man can never be entirely dried out while this life lasts.” Thus Hugh’s advice to the spiritual seeker is that the flood of concupiscence never dries up and so we need the ark – the grace of God.