Earlier this year, I received an unexpected gift from Abbot Emeritus Thomas Davis, OCSO, of the Cistercian Monastery of New Clairvaux, located in the small town of Vina, just north of Chico. Abbot Thomas, who is well versed in Latin, had just published a new English translation of a Latin text written by William of Saint-Thierry, a medieval contemporary of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the founders of the Cistercian order in the 12th century. I was honored to receive a complimentary copy of Abbot Thomas’ translation entitled, “The Meditations, with a Monastic Commentary.”
While in the seminary, I was drawn to the writings of St. Bernard. At the time, Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was very popular. He re-introduced the monastic vocation and monastic thinking in the later part of the 20th century to a wider Catholic and non-Catholic audience. I had read some of his works, but these did not directly lead me to St. Bernard.
While perusing the shelves of the beautiful Spanish Baroque-style library at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, I stumbled upon the book, “On Loving God.” Though I was studying for the diocesan priesthood, upon reading this book by St. Bernard I chose him as a spiritual companion. Over the years, I have read a variety of his works. One of them was a series of homilies to diocesan clergy trying to convince them to become monks. While I have always remained committed to the diocesan priesthood, I found in his counsel a good guide for the ongoing examination of my chosen vocation.
With Abbot Thomas’ gift, I welcomed the opportunity to read the thoughts of a monastic contemporary and friend of St. Bernard. Both the translation as well as Abbot Thomas’ commentaries have been very beneficial reading during the Lent and Easter seasons.
William of Saint-Thierry meditated on the ascent to holiness, more precisely the ascent into the life of the Blessed Trinity. I would like to share from my readings of “The Meditations” a few reflections on the Eucharistic Revival. These reflections may not accurately portray the content of William’s work. For that, one should get a hold of the book itself or speak to Abbot Thomas directly for any necessary corrections of these few feeble musings.
For William, there was no greater human desire than to see the face of God. Echoing the plaintive words of the Psalms, “Let us see your face, O Lord, and we shall be saved.” (Ps 80:4) This innate, heartfelt desire is strained by a concurrent human apprehension that makes us tremble. While various texts in the Hebrew Scriptures express this deep longing to see God, other citations also carry an ominous warning. “No one sees the face of God and lives,” (Ex 33:20) the Almighty God said to his servant Moses. Even with such daunting apprehensions, William did not surrender his desire, choosing to continue his ascent through prayer. His was a hope common to the monastic vocation: To have one’s desire for the heavenly contemplation of God fulfilled during the earthly sojourn of faith. So promises the dictum attributed to another Catholic mystic, St. Catherine of Siena: “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
The path of this ascent to such an encounter with God, according to William, requires renunciation, penance, and a good dose of self-knowledge leading to humility. Pride – both spiritual and worldly – risks the wrath of God. Human hubris melts with shame in the blazing presence of divine charity. Only with authentic self-knowledge can one humbly kneel before the burning bush of God’s merciful gaze.
William cautioned against seeking an image of God that may only serve to keep one from approaching his true presence. Even images springing from an eager heart could be idols that block one’s view and lead to a spiritual complacency deterring the ascent to the heavenly holy of holies.
The one image that William encouraged was the contemplation of Christ crucified. William shared the perspective of John and the other evangelist, that Christ’s crucifixion is the awesome trembling glory of divine charity incarnate. As Luke portrayed in his passion narrative, those who witnessed the Crucifixion “returned home beating their breasts.” (Lk 23:48) The scene of Calvary was espousal in nature, in William’s meditation. The soul approaches the cross as the spouse seeking the face of one’s beloved. The divine bridegroom, in his own person, wedded both humanity and divinity and offered this union to those he loved. His tortured and beaten humanity became the veil that leads his spouse into the heavenly wedding chamber. (Heb 10:19-20)
William spoke of this part of the ascent as a kiss. He referred to the repentant thief as having received this kiss. (Lk 23:39-43) Simon Peter, repentant and remorseful after the passion, received this kiss from the risen Christ on the lakeshore. (Jn 21:15-19) Mary Magdalene also received this kiss as she wept for Christ outside the tomb. (Jn 20:11-18) All these holy encounters revealed both the anguishing humility of self-knowledge and the amazing splendor of God’s mercy.
This holy, shuddering encounter is also found in the Eucharist. The medieval monk spoke of the Eucharist in the course of his meditation on the cross. The Eucharist is also a kiss. In speaking of the reception of holy Communion, William cited the words of delight expressed by Adam in the Book of Genesis, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen 2:23) These words spoken at the first creation, are now given new meaning by Christ, the new Adam, in the sacramental genesis of the Eucharist. Jesus says to us with delight, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The beautiful insight of the friend of St. Bernard reminds us in every sacrifice of the Mass how blessed are those invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
I conclude this reflection with the prayerful words of William of Saint-Thierry spoken to Jesus: “Just as you prayed to the Father when about to enter into your passion, this the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us by grace what is by nature in the Father and in you, his Son, from all eternity, namely, that as you are one, so we may be one in you.” (Meditations, 8.8)