Benedict XVI's General Catechesis on the
ultimate task for every human being: to love sincerely and freely
Love inspired by the Creator
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 2 December ,
in St Peter's Square, the Holy Father reflected on William of
Saint-Thierry, a close friend and biographer of Bernard of Clairvaux who
compiled a number of treatises drawn from the teachings of the Fathers.
The following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In a previous Catechesis I
presented Bernard of Clairvaux, the "Doctor Mellifluus", a great
protagonist of the 12th century. His biographer
a friend who esteemed him
was William of Saint-Thierry on whom I am reflecting in this morning's
William was born in Liege
between 1075 and 1080. He came from a noble family, was endowed with a
keen intelligence and an innate love of study. He attended famous
schools of the time, such as those in his native city and in Rheims,
He also came into personal
contact with Abelard, the teacher who applied philosophy to theology in
such an original way as to give rise to great perplexity and opposition.
William also expressed his own reservations, pressing his friend Bernard
to take a stance concerning Abelard.
Responding to God's
mysterious and irresistible call which is the vocation to the
consecrated life, William entered the Benedictine Monastery of Saint-Nicasius
in Rheims in 1113. A few years later he became abbot of the Monastery of
Saint-Thierry in the Diocese of Rheims.
In that period there was a
widespread need for the purification and renewal of monastic life to
make it authentically evangelical. William worked on doing this in his
own monastery and in general in the Benedictine Order. However, he met
with great resistence to his attempts at reform and thus, although his
friend Bernard advised him against it, in 1135 he left the Benedictine
abbey and exchanged his black habit for a white one in order to join the
Cistercians of Signy. From that time, until his death in 1148, he
devoted himself to prayerful contemplation of God's mysteries, ever the
subject of his deepest desires, and to the composition of spiritual
literature, important writings in the history of monastic theology.
One of his first works is
entitled De Natura et dignitate amoris (The nature and dignity
of love). In it William expressed one of his basic ideas that
is also valid for us.
The principal energy that
moves the human soul, he said, is love. Human nature, in its deepest
essence, consists in loving. Ultimately, a single task is entrusted to
every human being: to learn to like and to love, sincerely,
authentically and freely.
However, it is only from
God's teaching that this task is learned and that the human being may
reach the end for which he was created.
Indeed, William wrote: "The
art of arts is the art of love.... Love is inspired by the Creator of
nature. Love is a force of the soul that leads it as by a natural weight
to its own place and end" (De Natura et dignitate amoris
Learning to love is a long
and demanding process that is structured by William in four stages,
corresponding to the ages of the human being: childhood, youth, maturity
and old-age. On this journey the person must impose upon himself an
effective ascesis, firm self-control to eliminate every irregular
affection, every capitulation to selfishness, and to unify his own life
in God, the source, goal and force of love, until he reaches the summit
of spiritual life which William calls "wisdom".
At the end of this ascetic
process, the person feels deep serenity and sweetness. All the human
intelligence, will, affection
rest in God, known and loved in Christ.
In other works too, William
speaks of this radical vocation to love for God which is the secret of a
successful and happy life and which he describes as a ceaseless, growing
desire, inspired by God himself in the human heart.
In a meditation he says
"that the object of this love is Love" with a capital "L", namely God.
It is he who pours himself out into the hearts of those who love him and
prepares them to receive him.
"God gives himself until
the person is sated and in such a way that the desire is never lacking.
This impetus of love is the fulfilment of the human being" (De
Contemplando Deo 6, passim,
SC 61 bis, pp. 79-83).
The considerable importance
that William gives to the emotional dimension is striking. Basically,
dear friends, our hearts are made of flesh and blood, and when we love
God, who is Love itself, how can we fail to express in this relationship
with the Lord our most human feelings, such as tenderness, sensitivity
and delicacy? In becoming Man, the Lord himself wanted to love us with a
heart of flesh!
Moreover, according to
William, love has another important quality: it illuminates the mind and
enables one to know God better and more profoundly and, in God, people
and events. The knowledge that proceeds from the senses and the
intelligence reduces but does not eliminate the distance between the
subject and the object, between the "I" and the "you".
Love, on the other hand,
gives rise to attraction and communion, to the point that transformation
and assimilation take place between the subject who loves and the
beloved object. This reciprocity of affection and liking subsequently
permits a far deeper knowledge than that which is brought by reason
alone. A famous saying of William expresses it: "Amor ipse
love in itself is already the beginning of knowledge".
Dear friends, let us ask
ourselves: is not our life just like this? Is it not perhaps true that
we only truly know who and what we love? Without a certain
fondness one knows no one and nothing! And this applies first of all to
the knowledge of God and his mysteries that exceed our mental capacity
to understand: God is known if he is loved!
A synthesis of William of
SaintThierry's thought is contained in a long letter addressed to the
Carthusians of Mont-Dieu, whom he visited and wished to encourage and
console. Already in 1690, the learned Benedictine Jean Mabillon, gave
this letter a meaningful title:
Epistola Aurea (Golden Epistle).
In fact, the teachings on
spiritual life that it contains are invaluable for all those who wish to
increase in communion with God and in holiness. In this treatise,
William proposes an itinerary in three stages. It is necessary, he says,
to move on from the "animal" being to the "rational" one, in order to
attain to the "spiritual".
What does our author mean
by these three terms? To start with, a person accepts the vision of life
inspired by faith with an act of obedience and trust. Then, with a
process of interiorization, in which the reason and the will play an
important role, faith in Christ is received with profound conviction and
one feels a harmonious correspondence between what is believed and what
is hoped, and the most secret aspirations of the soul, our reason, our
One therefore arrives at
the perfection of spiritual life when the realities of faith are a
source of deep joy and real and satisfying communion with God.
One lives only in love and
for love. William based this process on a solid vision of the human
being inspired by the ancient Greek Fathers, especially Origen who, with
bold language, taught that the human being's vocation was to become like
God who created him in his image and likeness.
The image of God present in
man impels him toward likeness, that is, toward an ever fuller identity
between his own will and the divine will.
One does not attain this
perfection, which William calls "unity of spirit", by one's own efforts,
even if they are sincere and generous, because something else is
This perfection is reached
through the action of the Holy Spirit who takes up his abode in the soul
and purifies, absorbs and transforms into charity every impulse and
desire of love that is present in the human being.
"Then there is a further
likeness to God", we read in the Epistola Aurea, "which is no
longer called 'likeness' but 'unity of spirit', when the person becomes
one with God, one in spirit, not only because of the unity of an
identical desire but through being unable to desire anything else. In
this way the human being deserves to become not God but what God is: man
becomes through grace what God is by nature" (Epistola Aurea
262-263, SC 223, pp. 353-355).
Dear brothers and sisters,
this author, whom we might describe as the "Singer of Charity, of Love",
teaches us to make the basic decision in our lives which gives meaning
and value to all our other decisions: to love God and, through love of
him, to love our neighbour; only in this manner shall we be able to find
true joy, an anticipation of eternal beatitude.
Let us therefore learn from
the Saints in order to learn to love authentically and totally, to set
our being on this journey.
Together with a young
Saint, a Doctor of the Church, Thérèse
of the Child Jesus, let us tell the Lord that we too want to live of
And I conclude with a
prayer precisely by this Saint: "You know I love you, Jesus Christ, my
Own! Your Spirit's fire of love enkindles me. By loving you, I draw the
Father here, down to my heart, to stay with me always. Blessed Trinity!
You are my prisoner dear, of love, today.... To live of love, 'tis
without stint to give. And never count the cost, nor ask reward.... O
Heart Divine, o'er-flowing with tenderness, How swift I run, who all to
You has given! Naught but your love I need, my life to bless" [To live