Benedict XVI recalls life of William of Saint-Thierry and his teachings on love

In today's general audience, Pope Benedict XVI delved into the life and teachings of William of St. Thierry, a Cistercian monk who wrote extensively about the nature of love.

Today's audience continues the Pope's tradition of tracing the history of the Church beginning with the Apostles and continuing with the Doctors of the Church and influential saints throughout the ages.

William of St. Thierry was a friend of Bernard of Clairvaux and helped reform monasticism in the 12th century.  He also wrote prolifically on monastic theology and on love, which, he claims, “is the principal force that moves the human soul.”

William was a member of a noble family and was well-educated. He became a Benedictine and entered the Monastery of Saint-Nicaise in Reims. He then went onto become abbot at the Monastery of Saint-Thierry, where he was unable to institute the reforms he desired. He abandoned the Benedictines and became a Cistercian at the Abbey of Signy, where he continued to write.

One of William's fundamental ideas, the Pope said, is found in his  "De Natura et Dignitate Amoris" (The Nature and the Dignity of Love).  This idea is that “The principal force that moves the human soul is love. The truth is that only one task is entrusted to each human being: learning to love sincerely, authentically and freely.”

Though man himself was made to love, “learning to love is a long and arduous path,” said the Holy Father. This journey of love requires that “people impose an effective asceticism upon themselves in order to eliminate any disordered affections and unify their lives with God - source, goal and power of love - until reaching the summit of spiritual life, which William defined as 'wisdom',” the Pope continued.

“At the end of this ascetic itinerary, we experience great serenity and sweetness,” said the Holy Father.

Pope Benedict also spoke of the incarnation, and explained that William contributes considerable importance to “the emotional dimension” because “our heart is made of flesh and when we love God, Who is Love, how can we not express our human feelings in this relationship with the Lord?” Because the Lord himself took on the flesh and became a man, he “chose to love us with a heart of flesh.”

Love, for William of St. Thierry, “illuminates the mind and enables a better and more profound understanding of God and, in God, of people and events.” It “produces attraction and communion to the point of effecting a transformation, an assimilation, between the lover and the loved.”

“This holds true, above all, for knowledge of God and of His mysteries, which surpass our mind's capacity to understand. God is known if he is loved," Benedict XVI affirmed.

The Holy Father concluded his address by quoting the “Epistola Aurea” which was originally addressed to the Cistercians of Mont-Dieu and is a good summary of William of St. Thierry's ideas on the subject of love. 

“The image of God present in man impels him towards resemblance; that is, towards an ever fuller identification between his will and the divine will.”

William calls this drive towards resemblance, towards perfection, “unity of spirit.” It cannot be achieved through individual effort, the Pope said. But it is done “by the action of the Holy Spirit which purifies and transforms into charity all the desire for love present in the human being.”

“In this way man becomes by grace what God is by nature,” the Holy Father concluded.

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