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William of Saint-Thierry

WILLIAM OF SAINT-THIERRY

Twelfth-century theologian and mystic, Benedictine abbot of saint-thierry and later Cistercian monk of Signy; b. Liège, c. 1085; d. probably Sept. 8, 1148.

Life and Writings. William was born of a noble family, studied along with a certain Simon (his brother?), probably at Laon, under Anselm, disciple of St. Anselm, the abbot of Bec. In 1113 William entered the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Nicasius at Reims, where he became thoroughly versed in the scriptures and the Fathers.

In the years 1116 to 1118 he made the acquaintance of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. In 1119 he was elected abbot of SaintThierry near Reims. In the next three years he wrote his first two works, De Natura et dignitate amoris and De contemplando Deo. Feeling little inclined to administrative work and preferring the life of silence and contemplation, he sought to enter Clairvaux, a desire that Bernard resolutely opposed. During the 1120s when the conflict between the Cluniacs and the Cistercians arose, William urged St. Bernard to defend the order of Cîteaux, and this resulted in Bernard's famous Apologia (1124), dedicated to William. Again in 1128 it was to William that Bernard dedicated his De Gratia et libero arbitrio, and William in turn dedicated to him in that same year his work De Sacramento altaris. During the years 1128 to 1135 William compiled a number of treatises drawn from the teachings of the Fathers: an exposition of the Canticle of Canticles drawn from SS. Gregory the Great and Ambrose that shows the influence of Origen; De Natura Animae et corporis, in which he synthesizes the teachings of East and West; an exposition on the Epistle to the Romans, drawn from St. Augustine, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. His Meditativae orationes (113045) reflect his ardent soul much in the same manner as the Confessions did that of St. Augustine.

In 1130 he took part in the first general chapter of Benedictines of the Reims province, held at the Abbey of St. Medard near Soissons. However, in 1135, seeking a more contemplative life, he resigned his office of abbot of SaintThierry and entered the recently established Cistercian foundation of Signy. Here he spent his time reading and in contemplation and prepared other treatises on the spiritual life and the problem of faith: Speculum fidei and Aenigma fidei (114044). Here too he urged Bernard to take up his pen against Peter Abelard, and William himself wrote his Disputatio adversus Abelardum and one entitled De Erroribus Guillielmi de Conchis (between 113540). In 1144 after a visit to the charterhouse of Mont-Dieu, near Reims, he wrote his Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei, or the "Golden Epistle" as it is called, a work for many years attributed to Bernard. About this same time he wrote part of the life of Bernard known to us as the Vita prima Bernardi.

Doctrine. William's spiritual doctrine is an elaboration of his conception of the ascent of the soul toward God. His synthesis is rooted in the 12thcentury theology of the image of God in man and is Trinitarian in character. Man, separated from God by sin, is destined to make his life a return to God that is realized in successive stages. In his early work, De Natura et dignitate amoris, William outlines the three degrees of love in which this image is restored. Love is the gift of God that is made to man through Jesus Christ in the Spirit; it is a possession of God and a participation in His life. Asceticism prepares the soul for this gift. By degrees, man passes from "animal" to "rational" and finally to "spiritual" life, in which he realizes union with God in the Spirit, a state that is an anticipation effected through contemplation here upon earth of the life of eternity. As the soul ascends through these stages, it experiences a gradual liberation: from the obedience of "necessity," it passes on to "loving" obedience, and finally reaches a "unitive" obedience. Contemplation flowers into an experimental knowledge expressed in the formula amor ipse intellectus est by a participation in the life of the Spirit. The whole of the spiritual life is Trinitarian. William's conception of the image is related directly to the Trinity and exhibits the influence of St. Augustine and the Greek Fathers. For William, the image is dynamic and, by its essential constitution, impels the soul toward its archetype in the Trinity. The image is not merely the capacity for resemblance but the very process of actualization up through the three stages of animal, rational, and spiritual life. William places memoria in relation to the Father, ratio to the Son, and amor to the Spirit. Hence the three Persons are conceived of as raising man to a life superior to himself by supernaturalizing the dynamism of the image in man that from his creation has impelled him toward God.

Bibliography: william of saintthierry, Un Traité de la vie solitaire: Epistola ad fratres de Monte Dei, crit. ed. m. m. davy, 2 v. (Paris 1940); Deux traités de l'amour de Dieu: De la contemplation de Dieu, De la nature et de la dignité de l' amour, ed. and tr. m. m. davy (Paris 1953); De la contemplation de Dieu, l'oraison de Dom Guillaume, ed. and tr. j. hourlier (Sources Chrétiennes, 61; Paris 1959); Deux traités sur la foi: Le Miroir de la foi, L'Énigme de la foi, ed. and tr. m. m. davy (Paris 1959); Le Miroir de la foi, ed. and tr. j. m. dÉchanet (Bruges 1946); Eng. The Mirror of Faith, tr. g. webb and a. walker (London 1959); Commentaire sur le Cantique des cantiques, ed. and tr. m. m. davy (Paris 1958); Exposé sur le Cantique des cantiques, tr. m. dumontier (Sources Chrétiennes 82; Paris 1962), Lat. text, introd. and nn. j. m. dÉchanet; Méditations et prières, ed. and tr. j. m. dÉchanet (Brussels 1945); The Meditations of William of St. Thierry, tr. a religious of csmv (New York 1954); Oeuvres choisies, ed. and tr. j. m. dÉchanet (Paris 1944); Lettre d'or aux frères du Mont-Dieu, ed. and tr. j. m. dÉchanet (Paris 1956); The Golden Epistle of Abbot William of St. Thierry to the Carthusians of Mont-Dieu, tr. w. shewring, ed. j. mccann (London 1930). o. brooke, "The Trinitarian Aspect of the Ascent of the Soul to God in the Theology of William of St. Thierry," Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 26 (1959) 85127; "The Speculative Development of the Trinitarian Theology of William of St. Thierry in the Aenigma Fidei, " ibid. 27 (1960) 193211; 28 (1961) 2558; "William of St.Thierry's Doctrine of Ascent to God by Faith," ibid. 30 (1963) 181204. j. m. dÉchanet, "Amor ipse intellectus est: La Doctrine de l'amour intellection chez G. de St.Th.," Revue du moyenâge latin 1 (1945) 349374; Aux sources de la spiritualité de G. de St.Th. (Bruges 1940); G. de St.Th.: L'Homme et son oeuvre (Bruges 1942). t. koehler, "Thème et vocabulaire de la fruition divine chez G. de St.Th.," Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 40 (1964) 139160. j. leclercq et al., "G. de St.Th. et la mystique trinitaire," La Spiritualité du moyen âge, v.2 of l. bouyer et al., Histoire de la spiritualité chrétienne (Paris 1961) 249254. l. malvez, "La Doctrine de l'image et de la connaisance mystique chez G. de St.Th.," Recherches de science religieuse 22 (1932) 178205, 257279. l. bouyer, The Cistercian Heritage, tr. e. a. livingstone (Westminster, Md. 1958) 67124. p. godet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 6.2:198182.

[b. lohr]

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