Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On the "Singer of Charity"
"Only One Task Is Entrusted to Every Human Being"
H.H. Benedict XVI
December 2, 2009
Dear brothers and sisters,
In a previous catechesis I presented the figure of Bernard of Clairvaux,
the "Doctor of Sweetness," great protagonist of the 12th century. His
biographer, friend and admirer was William of Saint-Thierry, on whom I
will pause in this morning's reflection.
William was born in Liege between 1075 and 1080. From a noble family,
gifted with a lively intelligence and an innate love of study, he
frequented famous schools of the time, as that of his native city of
Rheims in France. He entered into personal contact also with Abelard,
the teacher who applied philosophy to theology in such a particular way
as to incite many perplexities and opposition. William also expressed
his own reservations, requesting his friend Bernard to take a position
in confrontations with Abelard.
William responded to that mysterious and irresistible call of God, which
is the vocation to a consecrated life, entering the Benedictine
monastery of Saint-Nicaise of Rheims. Widespread at that time was the
need to purify and renew monastic life, to render it authentically
evangelical. William worked in this sense within his own monastery, and
in general in the Benedictine Order. However, he met with not a few
resistances in face of his attempts at reform and thus, notwithstanding
the contrary advice of his friend Bernard, in 1135 he left the
Benedictine abbey, took off the black habit and put on the white one, to
join the Cistercians of Signy. From that moment until his death, which
occurred in 1148, he dedicated himself to prayerful contemplation of the
mysteries of God, always the object of his most profound desires, and to
writing spiritual literature, important in the history of monastic
One of his first works is titled De natura et dignitate amoris (The
nature and dignity of love). Expressed there is one of William's
fundamental ideas, valid also for us. The main energy that moves the
human spirit, he says, is love. Human nature, in its most profound
essence, consists in loving. In a word, only one task is entrusted to
every human being: to learn to will the good, to love, sincerely,
authentically, freely. However, only at the school of God can this task
be accomplished and man can attain the end for which he was created. In
fact, William wrote: "The art of arts is the art of love. ... Love is
awakened by the Creator of nature. Love is a force of the soul, which
leads it as a natural weight to the place and to the end that is proper
to it" (The nature and the dignity of love 1, PL 184,379).
To learn to love requires a long and demanding journey, which William
articulated in four stages, corresponding to man's age: infancy, youth,
maturity and old age. In this itinerary the person must impose on
himself an effective ascesis, a strong control of himself to eliminate
every disordered affection, every shadow of egoism, and to unify his
life in God, source, goal and force of love, until attaining the summit
of the spiritual life, which William defines as "wisdom." At the
conclusion of this ascetic itinerary, one feels great serenity and
sweetness. All man's faculties -- intelligence, will, affection -- rest
in God, known and loved in Christ.
Also in other texts, William speaks of this radical vocation of love for
God, which is the secret of a successful and happy life, and which he
describes as an incessant and growing desire, inspired by God himself in
the heart of man. In a meditation he says that the object of this love
is Love with a capital "L," namely God. It is he who flows in the heart
of the one who loves, and renders him apt to receive him. He gives
himself to the point of satiating and in such a way, that from this
satiety the desire [for him] is never lessened. This rush of love is
man's fulfillment" (De contemplando Deo 6, passim. SC 61bis, pp. 79-83).
Striking is the fact that William, in speaking of the love of God,
attributes notable importance to the emotional dimension. Indeed, dear
friends, our heart is made of flesh, and when we love God, who is Love
itself, how can we not express in this relationship with the Lord also
our most human feelings, such as tenderness, sensitivity, delicacy? The
Lord himself, becoming man, wished to love us with a heart of flesh!
According to William, then, love has another important property: It
enlightens the intelligence and enables one to know God better and in a
more profound way and, in God, persons and events. Knowledge that comes
from the senses and from the intelligence, reduces, but does not
eliminate, the distance between the subject and the object, between the
I and the you. Love instead produces attraction and communion, to the
point that there is a transformation and an assimilation between the
subject that loves and the object loved. This reciprocity of affection
and attraction permits then a much more profound knowledge than that
operated only by reason. Explained thus is a famous expression of
William: "Amor ipse intellectus est" -- love itself brings knowledge.
Dear friends, we ask ourselves: Is it not like this in our own life? Is
it not perhaps true that we know only who and what we love? Without a
certain attraction one does not know anyone or anything! And this is
true first of all in the knowledge of God and his mysteries, which
exceed the capacity of comprehension of our intelligence: God is known
if he is loved.
A synthesis of the thought of William of Saint-Thierry is contained in a
long letter addressed to the Carthusians of Mont-Dieu, to whom he had
gone on a visit and who he wished to encourage and console. The learned
Benedictine Jean Mabillon already in 1690 gave this letter a significant
title: "Epistola aurea" (Golden Epistle). In fact, the teachings on the
spiritual life contained in it are noteworthy for all those who wish to
grow in communion with God, in sanctity. In this treatise William
proposes an itinerary in three stages. One must pass, he says, from
"animal" man to "rational" man," to come to "spiritual" man. What does
our author intend to say with these three expressions? At the beginning,
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
reason and will play a great role, faith in Christ is received with
profound conviction and one feels a harmonious correspondence between
this real and satisfying communion with God. One lives only in love and
for love. William bases this itinerary on a solid vision of man,
inspired by the ancient Greek Fathers, above all Origen, who, with an
intrepid language, taught that man's vocation is to become like God, who
created him in his image and likeness. The image of God present in man
drives him toward likeness, namely, toward an ever fuller identity
between his own will and the divine will. One does not attain to this
perfection, which William calls "unity of spirit," with personal effort,
even if it is sincere and generous, because another thing is necessary.
This perfection is attained by the action of the Holy Spirit, who makes
his dwelling in the soul and purifies, absorbs and transforms in charity
every outburst and every desire of love present in man. "There is then
another likeness with God," we read in the "Epistola aurea," "which is
no longer called likeness but unity of spirit, when man becomes one with
God, one spirit, not only by the unity of an identical will, but by not
being able to will something other. Thus man merits to become not God,
but that which God is: Man becomes by grace that which God is by nature"
(Epistola aurea 262-263, SC 223, pp. 353-355).
Dear brothers and sisters, this author, who we can define as the "Singer
of love, of charity," teaches us to make in our lives the ultimate
choice, which gives meaning and value to all other choices: to love God
and, for love of him, to love our neighbor; only thus will we be able to
find true joy, anticipation of eternal blessedness. Let us put ourselves
then in the school of the saints to learn to love in an authentic and
total way, to enter in this itinerary of our being. With a young saint,
doctor of the Church, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, let us also say to the
Lord that we want to live for love.
And I conclude in fact with a prayer of this saint: "I love you, and you
know it, divine Jesus! The Spirit of love kindles me with its fire.
Loving You I attract the Father, whom my weak heart keeps, without
escape. O Trinity! Be a prisoner of my love. To live from love, down
here, is a giving of oneself immeasurably, without asking a salary ...
when one loves one does not make calculations. I have given everything
to the Divine Heart, which overflows with tenderness! And I run lightly.
I no longer have anything, and my only wealth is to live from love."
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in different languages. In English, he
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, we now
turn to William of Saint-Thierry, an outstanding monastic theologian and
a close friend of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. William took active part
in the twelfth-century movement of monastic renewal and, after serving
as abbot of Saint-Thierry, he entered the Cistercian monastery of Signy.
A central theme of his writings is the nature and power of love, seen as
the ultimate vocation and the driving force of the human spirit. For
William, this innate human drive finds perfection in the love of the
triune God, the source and goal of all love. As the culmination of a
process of purification and integration of the affections, the love of
God brings supreme human fulfillment, and a profound experiential
knowledge of both God and the world about us. In William's celebrated
phrase, Amor ipse intellectus est -- love itself brings knowledge. By
contemplation of the mysteries of the faith, we grow in the image of God
and, by uniting our will to his, we become one with him. May the example
and teaching of William of Saint-Thierry strengthen our desire to love
God above all things and to let that love overflow in love of our
neighbour. May we thus discover authentic joy and the foretaste of
I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims present at
today's Audience, including the priests from Scotland celebrating their
ordination jubilees and the students and staff from Saint Mary's High
School, Casino, Australia. May your Advent visit to Rome be a time of
deep spiritual renewal. Upon all of you I invoke God's abundant
Copyright 2009 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[In Italian, he said:]
Finally, I greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Today in fact is
the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the apostolic exhortation "Reconciliatio
et paenitentia," which called attention to the importance of the
sacrament of penance in the life of the Church. On this significant
anniversary, I wish to evoke again some extraordinary "apostles of the
confessional," tireless dispensers of divine mercy: Sts. John Mary
Vianney, Joseph Cafasso, Leopold Mandic, Pio of Pietrelcina.
May their witness of faith and of charity encourage you, dear young
people, to flee from sin and to plan your future as a generous service
to God and neighbor. May it help you, dear sick people, to experience in
suffering the mercy of Christ crucified. And may it solicit you, dear
newlyweds, to create in the family a climate of faith and of mutual
May the example of these saints, assiduous and faithful ministers of
divine forgiveness, be finally for priests -- especially in this Year
for Priests -- and for all Christians, an invitation to always have
confidence in God's goodness, approaching and celebrating with trust the
sacrament of reconciliation.
[Translation by ZENIT]
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