Weekly General Audience December 2, 2009

William of Saint-Thierry: ‘Singer of Love and Charity’


During his general audience on Dec. 2, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middles Ages. He spoke about William of Saint-Thierry, an outstanding monastic theologian who was a close friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and who was active in the 12th-century movement of monastic renewal.

William was a prolific writer on spirituality. A central theme of his writings is the nature and power of love, seen as the ultimate vocation and the driving force of the human spirit. This innate human drive finds perfection in the love of the triune God, the source and goal of all love. Love of God brings supreme human fulfillment and a profound experiential knowledge of both God and the world about us.

Dear brothers and sisters,

During an earlier catechesis, I spoke about Bernard of Clairvaux, the “Doctor of Sweetness” and a leading figure of the 12th century. His biographer — a friend and admirer — was William of Saint-Thierry, to whom I will devote today’s reflection.


Early Formation

William was born in Liege sometime between 1075 and 1080. He was from a noble family and was blessed with a keen intellect and an innate love for study.

He attended several famous schools of his time, both in Liege and in Reims, France. He was in personal contact with Abelard, a teacher who first applied philosophy to theology in such an original way that it provoked widespread confusion and opposition.

William too expressed his reservations in this regard and called upon his friend Bernard to take a stand against Abelard.

Responding to God’s mysterious and irresistible call to consecrated life, William entered the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Nicaise in Reims in 1113 and several years later became the abbot of the monastery of Saint-Thierry in the Diocese of Reims.

At that time, there was a widespread need for the purification and renewal of monastic life in order to make it truly evangelical. William worked within his own monastery as well as within the Benedictine order with this goal in mind.

Unfortunately, he encountered considerable resistance to his attempts at reform.

As a result, he left the Benedictine abbey in 1135 against the advice of his friend Bernard, who opposed this move. William exchanged the black robes of the Benedictines for the white robes of the Cistercians, whom he joined in Signy.

From that moment forward until his death in 1148, he devoted himself to prayerful contemplation of the mysteries of God, which had always been his most profound desire, and to composing works of spiritual literature, which remain important in the history of monastic theology.


The Nature of Love

One of his first works is entitled De Natura et Dignitate Amoris (On the Nature and Dignity of Love). It expresses one of William’s basic ideas, which is relevant to us too.

According to William, the principal force that motivates the human spirit is love. Human nature, in its deepest essence, consists of loving. In the end, only one task is entrusted to each human being — learning to love sincerely, authentically, freely. However, it is only at God’s school that this task can be achieved and that man can attain the end for which he was created.

“The art of arts is the art of love,” William writes. “Love is inspired by the Creator of nature. Love is a spiritual force that leads the spirit by natural gravitation to its proper place and purpose” (La Natura e la Dignità Dell’amore 1, PL 184,379).

Learning to love requires a long and arduous path, which William articulated in four stages corresponding to the ages in a person’s life: infancy, youth, maturity and old age.

In this journey, people must impose upon themselves an asceticism that is effective — that is, strong self-control in order to eliminate any disordered affections and any yielding to selfishness — thereby unifying their life in God, the source, goal and power of love, until reaching the summit of spiritual life, which William defines as “wisdom.”

At the end of this ascetic journey, we experience great serenity and sweetness. All of a person’s faculties — intellect, will, affections — then rest in God, who is known and loved in Christ.


Love Itself Brings Knowledge

In other works, William also speaks of this radical call to love God, which constitutes the secret of a successful and happy life, and which he describes as an incessant and growing desire that God himself inspires in a person’s heart.

In one meditation, he says that the object of this love is Love — with a capital “L” — namely God. “It is God himself who pours himself into the hearts of those who love and renders their hearts capable of receiving God.

“God gives himself to the fullest in such a way that the desire for God never grows less. This impetus to love is man’s fulfillment” (De Contemplando Deo 6, passim, SC 61bis, pp. 79-83).

The fact that William attributes considerable importance to the emotional dimension when speaking about the love of God is striking.

Basically, dear friends, our hearts are made of flesh, and when we love God, who is Love itself, how can we not express in this relationship with the Lord our most human feelings, such as tenderness, sensitivity, considerateness?

The Lord himself, by becoming man, wanted to love us with a heart of flesh!

According to William, love has yet another important property: It enlightens the mind and enables a more profound understanding of God and, in God, of people and events.

This understanding, which comes from the senses and the intellect, reduces but does not eliminate the distance between subject and object, between the “I” and the “you.” Instead, love produces attraction and communion to the point of bringing about a transformation and assimilation between the lover and the beloved.

This reciprocity of affection and of sympathy allows a deeper understanding than the understanding that is the result of reason alone. This provides an explanation for one of William’s famous statements: “Amor ipse intellectus est (In and of itself, love is already a beginning of knowledge).”


Spiritual Growth

Dear friends, let us ask ourselves: Is this not the situation in our own lives? Is it not true that we truly know only who we love and what we love?

Without a certain amount of sympathy, we cannot know anyone or anything! This holds true, above all, for knowledge of God and his mysteries, which surpass our mind’s capacity to understand. God is known if he is loved.

A synthesis of William of Saint-Thierry’s thinking is contained in a long letter to the Carthusians of Mont-Dieu, whom he had visited and whom he desired to encourage and console.

In 1690, Jean Mabillon, a Benedictine scholar, gave this letter a significant title: Epistola Aurea (The Golden Letter). Indeed, the teachings on the spiritual life contained in this letter are valuable for all those who wish to grow in communion with God, in holiness.

In this treatise, William proposes a journey consisting of three stages. He says that it is necessary to pass from the “animal” man to the “rational” man in order to get to the “spiritual” man.

What did William mean by these three terms? In the beginning, we accept the vision of a life that is inspired by faith through an act of obedience and trust.

Then, through an interior process in which reason plays a large role, we accept faith in Christ out of deep conviction, and we experience a harmony between what we believe and hope and the most secret aspirations of the spirit — our reason, our affections.

In this way, we reach the perfection of spiritual life, where the realities of our faith are the source of intimate joy and communion with God that is truly satisfying. We live in love and for love alone.

William based this journey on a concrete vision of man that was inspired by the ancient Greek Fathers of the Church, especially Origen, who had taught rather audaciously that the vocation of man was to become like God, who created man in his image and likeness.

The image of God present in man impels him towards this likeness, that is, towards an increasingly fuller identification between his will and God’s will.

This perfection, which William calls “unity of spirit,” is not attained through individual effort, no matter how sincere and generous it may be, because something else is necessary.

This perfection is achieved through the work of the Holy Spirit, who takes up his dwelling in the soul and purifies, absorbs and transforms into love every impulse and every desire for love present in the human being.

“Then there is another likeness with God,” we read in the Epistola Aurea, “that is no longer called likeness but rather unity of spirit, when man becomes one with God, one spirit, not only by unity of an identical will, but by not being able to will anything else. In this way, man merits to become not God, but what God is. Man becomes by grace what God is by nature” (Epistola Aurea 262-263, SC 223, pp. 353-355).


Message for Today

Dear brothers and sisters, this author, whom we may describe as the “singer of love and of charity,” teaches us to make a basic choice in our lives that gives meaning and value to all other choices: to love God, and out of love for him, to love our neighbor. This is the only way in which we can find true joy, a foretaste of eternal happiness.

Therefore, let us join the school of the saints in order to learn how to love in a genuine and complete way, in order to learn how to embark on this journey within our being.

Together with St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, a young saint and a doctor of the Church, let us also tell the Lord that we wish to live for love! I will conclude with a prayer from this saint: “I love you, and you know it, divine Jesus! The Spirit of love kindles me with its fire. Loving you, I draw near to the Father, whom my weak heart keeps, without fleeing. O Trinity! Be a prisoner of my love. To live for love, here below, is an endless giving of myself without asking for recompense. ... When one loves, one does not make calculations. I have given everything to the divine Heart that overflows with tenderness. And I run lightly. I have nothing left, and my only wealth is to live for love.”

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