ON CONTEMPLATING GOD
William of Saint Thierry
Translated from the Latin by
Geoffrey Webb and Adrian Walker
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William of Saint Thierry was born towards 1085. It is highly probable that he was a student of Laon under Master Anselm. It was some time about the end of the first decade of the twelfth century that he took the habit of a Benedictine monk in the abbey of Saint Nicasius in Rheims. In 1118 he had his first meeting with the Cistercian Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux.
Although William of Saint Thierry considered himself as Saint Bernard's disciple, it is important to remember M. Gilson's observation that "William is not to be regarded as a young man coming to Saint Bernard as to a master who is to teach him everything, and receiving a doctrinal synthesis already complete." (Gilson, The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard, p. 5. London, Sheed and Ward, 1940.) The two monks were exactly contemporary, William being the elder by five years. Their first meeting was at Bernard's hermitage in the Val d'Absinthe in 1118, but long before then William's doctrine was as complete as Bernard's—perhaps more so.
One wonders how significant it is that neither of them seems to have written seriously before the date of their first meeting. Their literary careers cover the same thirty years. The influence of one on the other is impossible to judge, but William's life of Bernard, and what little remains of their correspondence with each other, is sufficient witness to the depth of their friendship. One recalls those words in the Symposium, . . . "The true order of being led by another to the things of love, is to use the beauties of earth as steps, along which we move upwards for the sake of that other beauty, the divine beauty, pure, clear and unalloyed. And holding converse with the true beauty, divine and simple, bringing into being true creations of virtue . . . In that communion only is it possible to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities." Such was their friendship. It is not extravagant to think of Bernard's work On the steps of humility and of William's On contemplating God, as part of the first fruits of their mutual affection.
About the time of this first meeting with Bernard, William was elected abbot of Saint Thierry or Theoderic, near Rheims, and it was in 1130 that, joined in love to the abbot of Clairvaux, tired of the abbatial burden, and filled with admiration for Cistercian observance, he asked his friend's advice, for he wanted to join the white monks. Bernard replied without hesitation that he should stay where he was, as that was what God wanted of him. But five years later, William's longing forced him to make up his own mind, and he entered the monastery of Signy. Here he lived out his life, devoting his time to writing, because his health would not allow him to take part in the manual labour of the community. On the birthday of the Blessed Virgin in the year 1148, after a last sickness, his spirit "returned to God who gave it," "to the source and beginning to which we must all return."
The image of God is the central concept of all monastic spirituality, it could be said, for the spiritual life is a perpetual development of self-knowledge. The seventh chapter of Saint Benedict's Rule, and the Delphic "know thyself," are things on which a strikingly large number of the contemporaries of Bernard and William wrote. Many a tractate on self-knowledge is to be found; sometimes they were called tractates on the soul, or meditations on our human condition. The actual nature of the image of God in man, is, however, one of the more interesting points of difference between Bernard and William. For Bernard the "Godlikeness" of man is his freewill. For William it is the ability to love.
Love, according to William, begins as a mere capacity for loving; this capacity, the will, being deformed by sin, must be reformed. The process of reformation starts with the recollection of God's presence in the soul. And this presence is recollected by means of the memory, which reminds William that God is only to be found "in love, for that is where He lives." Thus the image of God in the soul begins to emerge. In William's vocabulary of "form" alone, we can discover the whole of the process of our return to God. In the preface to his soliloquy On contemplation God, he complains that God is punishing him for taking lightly that form in which he was made. Elsewhere he will claim that "when the substance of the inner man has been softened up by the long practice of penance," it is "impressed and informed anew." The passage from 2 Corinthians iii, "Beholding the glory of the Lord with face uncovered, we are transformed into the same image," is the leitmotiv of William's development of the process: the term he has in mind, and the transformation itself.
The reformer of the image is the Holy Spirit, and the birth of love is visualized as a sort of marriage of the Spirit, with our human will. The will is informed by the Spirit and is gradually transformed hereby into its original beauty—formasitas. To be indwelt and transformed by the Holy Spirit, is to live in the central point of the Trinity, for the Holy Spirit is the common will of Father and Son; He is their mutual cohesion and circumincession. Therefore to love in the Holy Spirit, is to love God in God, and to love all mean in God. Or as William will often say, it is God loving Himself in Himself. In chapter seven we read that the Holy Spirit brings God close to us, joining us in the love of God because "He is the unity of the Father and the Son." The soul is united to God in virtue of the same principle by which the three Persons of the Trinity are one.
Love is the social activity par excellence, implying ipso facto plurality of persons in human society, just as it does in the Trinity. This is where the monastery plays its part in the development of love. Charity is envisaged less as an infused virtue and more as the result of the Holy Spirit's indwelling. William holds fast to the doctrine which Lombard held and of which Saint Thomas Aquinas disapproved, (Summa theologica, II. IIae xxiii. 2) namely that charity in the soul is the Holy Spirit Himself. It is a gift from God, true, but it is the giver Himself under the form of gift. The common life of the monks in their monastery allows for the expansion of all those human loves which belong by right to human nature as created by God. Our fellow man is as much God's image as we ourselves. This implies that we can and must love and worship God in each other, as we love and worship Him dwelling in ourselves.
For a better understand of the process of reformation, one must consider William's use of the concept of desire. This is, after all, the whole climate of the spiritual life between the soul's initial conversion and the final fruition of God in heaven. For William, our life is an interim; for the soul who desires God, life can only be a matter of waiting for the shadows to pass away. Love in this life, therefore, must be so coloured with desire as to require almost another name—for Rolle it was lovelonging; for William, desiderium (desire). He asks, for instance, "how can one love that which one cannot see?" He longs to touch and hold the Lord of Whose presence he is conscious, but he cannot even begin to enjoy it in its fulness. The most one can hope for in this life is that God will implant in us the desire for loving and desiring Him.
We would like to add finally, that many of the passages in this work are mosaics of quotations from Scripture, and it has been hard to piece them together in translation so that they retain the beautiful rhythm and unity of the Latin. Therefore translations have been taken from several different versions, so that the one which would fit into the context most satisfactorily has been used. References are to the Vulgate. For leave to quote from Mgr. Knox's translation of the Bible, we have to thank the publishers, Messrs. Burns, Oates & Washbourne. The text used for the translation was Migne P.L. Vol. 184.
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