ON CONTEMPLATING GOD
William of Saint Thierry
Translated from the Latin by
Geoffrey Webb and Adrian Walker
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the soul which loves god asks to be purged of its vices and of all attachment to worldly things; it begs to be raised up to heaven
1. "Come let us climb up to the Lord's mountain peak, to the house where the God of Jacob dwells. He shall teach us the right way." (Is 2.3.) Yes, come with me, my thoughts, will and desires, let us go up to that mountain: that is where God looks down on us and where we gaze on God. Cares and troubles, you must stay down here with the ass which is my body, and wait until the boy and I—by which I mean reason and understanding which speed us on our way—come down again to you after we have adored. For we certainly will have to return, and that, unfortunately, all too soon. That is because the truth of charity considers the brethren, and will not let us leave and disown you completely, although the charity of truth may draw us away from you awhile. But in spite of you, and although our natural needs hold us back, we will not give up that sweetness altogether. "Lord God of hosts, restore us to our own; smile upon us and we shall find deliverance." (Ps 80.18.) O God, my Lord, how forward it is for an unclean heart to wish to have sight of Thee! It is certainly not consonant with the rule of Thy truth and wisdom. But yet, in Thy goodness have mercy on me and be kind to me, light of my soul's sight, light of my heart! For when I contemplate Thy goodness I am cleansed of my sins and filled with hope and trust, and I taste of Thy justness towards me. Thou alone, Lord God, knowest how to say to my soul "I am thy salvation." (Ps 35.3.) Thou art the only master who can teach the things I long to know. So please say to this blind beggar, "What wouldst thou have me do for thee?" (Lk 28.41; Mk 10.51.) And because Thou hast already granted the request, Thou knowest what my heart will say to Thee. It will throw aside like rubbish all the wonders, the beauty and the pleasure of this world. It will turn its back on all things that stir up lust and ambition, and will cry out: "I have eyes only for Thee. I long for Thy presence, Lord. Do not hide Thy face. Do not turn away from Thy servant in anger." (Ps 27.8-9.)
2. I am quite shameless when I make these excessive requests, and yet in spite of that Thou dost remain my helper and unwearying protector. But it is only out of love for Thy love that I do these things. But Thy grace I am not for ever lusting after the delights of the flesh, and Thou hast put the world out of temptation's way for me. I search for Thee will all my heart. When I see Thy face I am overjoyed. Then, suddenly, Thou art gone, and once more I am alone. But how is this? Why dost Thou hide Thy face? Dost Thou take me for an enemy? Or art Thou just taxing me with the sins of my youth? Is it because the whole bent of my heart is not turned towards Thee? Or because Thou hast turned away from me? If it is my fault, bring me back to Thee. If it is Thou who hast turned from me look kindly on me again. For Thou didst say: "Draw near to me and I will draw thee to Myself. Come back to Me and I will come back to thy side." (Jer 4.1; Zach 1.3.) Thou knowest perfectly well what gifts of grace Thou hast poured into my poor heart, and now my heart is ready to serve Thee. Command whatever Thou wilt, and give me to understand Thine order. Thou hast given me the will to do Thy bidding, so give me now the ability to carry it out. Let Thy will be done by me, and in me. O God of hosts, draw us to Thyself. "Show us Thy face and we shall find salvation." (Ps 80.7.)
3. And then I hear Thy voice in my soul. Thine answer makes my mind stagger and my powers reel. The brightness and glory of Thy truth blind me. It is true that a man cannot see Thee and live. But what am I to do? for I am so completely taken up with sin that I cannot die to myself, let alone live for Thee. Then Thou biddest me stand securely on the rock of my faith, and this, by Thy grace, I do. Here I find that I am really close to Thee, and I kiss the hand which guides me hither, and shields me with its power. Now I can catch a glimpse of Thee by thinking over the economy of our salvation in Jesus Christ, Thy Son. I go up to our Lord, like the woman with the issue of blood, so that I may steal health for my sick soul by touching even the hem of His garment. Like Thomas, my one desire is to see Him as He really is, and to touch Him. I long to draw near to the wound in His side, which is the very gate of heaven itself, so that the whole of me, not just a finger or a hand, may enter right into the heart of Jesus. But when I try to approach Him I am heartbroken to hear "Do not touch Me!" (Jn 20.17) or those words of the Apocalypse, "There is no room here for dogs." (Rev 22.15.) To be driven off like this is a punishment I deserve, and it forces me to pay the penalty for being so presumptuous. So I start all over again and go back to my rock, like the hedgehog creeping back to its hiding place—except that I am covered not with prickles but with the stains of sin. Once again I kiss Thy hand which guides me and protects me with its power. The slight glimpse I caught of Thee, and the feelings I had at the time make my desire still more strong. And I am impatient while I wait for Thee to take away Thine overshadowing hand and pour out that grace of Thine which will enlighten me and give me full sight of Thee. I long to die to myself so as to live completely in Thee, because then Thou wilt answer my prayer as Thou didst promise to do, and I shall begin to see Thee face to face. I long for that vision because by it I will be drawn to cleave to Thee so as never to leave Thee again.
4. How happy is the soul that has been joined inseparably to Thee by that vision! "True to my heart's promise" it sings, "I have eyes only for Thee. It is Thy face, O Lord, that I seek." (Ps 27.8.) The law given on the mountain has modeled the soul into a true dwelling place for God. When I look deep into my soul I know that for me, too, there is only one desire, and that is to see Thee. I long that there may be no corner of the little world which is myself, that has not seen God and known His power to save. And I desire this so that I may love Him when I see Him, for to love Him is truly to live. As I long and desire, I often ask myself how it is possible to love something one cannot see. But he who yearns for Thee has no doubt that Thou canst be loved. I can see in everything—in heaven, on earth, in all Thy creatures—that Thou canst be loved without being seen, because everything speaks to me of Thy love, O God. The more I see this, the more I long for Thee. But these creatures and provide my surety, cannot themselves bring to that complete and perfect happiness which I will find in the never ending enjoyment of Thy Presence. They can only make me feel the pain which comes from a great desire, together with the absence of the thing desired (although this pain is not lacking in a certain sweetness). My prayers and sacrifices cannot be perfectly pleasing in Thy sight unless I offer myself with them. And it is just like that when we contemplate Thy goodness and find refreshment and sweetness in doing so: these are not fully satisfying unless Thou givest us Thyself as well."
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