The holy man of the mountain

October 15, 2007

The Golden Epistle (c.1145)
A Letter to the Brethren of Mont Dieu
William of St Thierry (Cistercian Publications, 1971)
150 p. First reading.

William of St Thierry was a Benedictine abbot, a friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In the middle of his life, he resigned his position as abbot to join the nascent Cistercian order for which Bernard was such an eloquent spokesman. A number of his works have survived. Of those, the present epistle has historically been the most widely read, but for a peculiar reason: it was wrongly thought to have been written by St Bernard himself. But its value persists even when that famous name is stripped away, for William was an intelligent, deeply perceptive man in his own right.

The Golden Epistle was written to encourage and instruct the brothers at the newly established monastery of Mont Dieu. It is both a manual of ascetic spirituality and a treatise on the meaning and purpose of monastic life. William calls the monastic vocation “the loftiest of professions”, for the monk dedicates himself to the recovery, within himself, of “likeness to God”. But anyone who attempts to tread that path will encounter difficulties. The very structure of the monastic life is designed to assist him in these struggles — it encourages him, for example, to let his external life be governed by reason rather than whim, to avoid self-indulgence in eating and sleeping, to avoid idleness, to read and study worthy subjects, and to do so prayerfully, with God and the goal of life set always before him, and, not least, to undertake manual labour, which besides being an obligation in Scripture will also, says William, aid concentration and unity of being. Adding to these external helps, William offers a variety of advice to beginners: make inner piety, “the continual remembrance of God”, the foundation of the inner life; do not judge others, for no man can know another as he can know himself; imitate a worthy model, and in turn set a good example for others; be moderate in asceticism, for though the body be at times weak, yet it is not evil; let your activity be meaningful; cultivate prudence, modesty, and simplicity of spirit; remember that the humble life of the monk imitates Christ, who humbled himself to share in our redemption; be patient and persistent in prayer; do not speak idly of the graces God grants you, but keep them close to your heart; love your cell.

This matter of the monastic cell is one that comes up frequently as William writes. Each monk spends the greater part of his time alone in his cell, and in William’s thought the cell itself becomes an active influence in the monk’s life. It should, he says,

be a dwelling-place of peace, an inner chamber with closed door, a place not of concealment but of retreat… For the cell cherishes, nourishes and enfolds the son of grace, the fruit of its womb. It leads him to the fullness of perfection and makes him worthy to hold converse with God. But one who does not belong to it or is brought in under false pretenses it quickly disclaims and casts out. That is why the Lord said to Moses: “Undo the shoes from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” For a holy place or holy ground is quite unable to endure for long the carrion of dead affections or a man who is dead at heart.

Thus the cell is a testing ground, which either purifies or casts out. My own limited experience in this area bears that judgment out, for on visits to monasteries I have known the intensity which the inner life takes on when deprived of distraction, and I have seen others bolt from their cells under the same pressure. Those who imagine that such a life is dull have, I suspect, never tried it. It is in his cell that the drama of a solitary is played out, and in which he reaches his fulfillment, if he is reach it at all: “The man who has God with him is never less alone than when he is alone. It is then he has undisturbed fruition of his joy, it is then he is his own master and is free to enjoy God in himself and himself in God.”

William sketches his understanding of the whole arc of monastic life, distinguishing three main stages, which he calls the animal, rational, and spiritual, and I think it is worth looking into his scheme for a few moments. Although each man is making progress in each stage at all times, it is generally the case, says William, that novices begin mostly in the animal stage, struggling with the body and its discipline, and, God willing, they gradually progress through the other stages.

In the animal stage, one is motivated more by enthusiasm or authority than by reason. The will is undisciplined, and progress is made primarily through growth in self-control. Attempts to found self-control on pride, as when a man refuses to indulge some vice for fear of what others might say of him, is self-defeating, for pride too will block spiritual growth. Instead, it is humility, a simple and good will, which is the only sure foundation for the spiritual life. Nevertheless, beginners will struggle with sensuality, both in their body and their imagination, and temptation may be very severe, prayer may be difficult, and often the novice will chafe against discipline and lust after novelties. For these reasons, William counsels that it is best that beginners not try to govern themselves, but submit in obedience to a wise spiritual father. And there is wisdom in this, for it is true that the will draws more strength from externally imposed laws than from those which are self-imposed, for the latter may be self-unimposed all too easily when temptation arises. Self-mastery is an indispensable requirement for growth in virtue and love, for how can we give ourselves in love until we have command of ourselves? “How can we see the gods face to face”, said C.S. Lewis, “till we have faces?” William agrees, and makes the acquisition of virtue — stable good habits confirmed by a good will — the goal of the first stage.

In the rational stage the soul is led by knowledge of the good, but not yet animated by love. Progress is made by determined adherence to what one knows to be good, a habit that eventually bears fruit in a spiritual affection for the good. Reason leads onward toward love, until the two become one thing. Reason, in William’s sense of the word, is not only instrumental or discursive reason (what he calls “reasoning”), but “a gazing on truth”. Reason is how we apprehend truths, and contemplate them. This reason, being the highest thing in man, naturally seeks that which is higher than itself. Reason thirsts not merely after facts, but after understanding, and always pushes to deepen, enrich, and enlarge that understanding. Ultimately, in other words, it seeks God, even more so because it is itself made in the image of God: “the devoted image hastens to cling to its exemplar” (209). Thus we can perceive a two-fold movement: with the growth of self-mastery, the will is more and more liberated from what has shackled it, and this in turn frees reason, understood in this rich sense of knowing, to conform more and more to truth. For William is well aware that our sin, our willfullness and selfishness, prevent us from freely pursuing truth, preferring to flatter ourselves. This must be broken, and our waxing freedom makes possible a truer reception of the world, and a growing capacity for love.

In the spiritual stage it is this love that pulls one forward. It is desire that works within to transform the soul into the image of that which is loved. In his discussion of this final stage, William’s thought mounts up on heights where I have difficulty following. This is to be expected. Briefly, however, he says that in this stage the mind learns to entertain only worthy thoughts of God, and the will, animated by love, unites itself to God, so that the soul becomes like God, which is the goal of the spiritual life. “Man becomes through grace what God is by nature” (263). When this happens, it is only as a gift of God, and no one can persist long in that state of perfection.

…grace sometimes as if in passing touches the affections of the lover and takes him out of himself, drawing him into the light of true reality, out of the tumult of affairs into the joys of silence, and to the slight extent of which he is capable, showing him for a moment, for an instant, ultimate reality as it is in itself. Sometimes it even transforms the man into a resemblance of ultimate reality, granting him to be, to the slight extent of which he is capable, such as it is. (269)

It is probably wisest to remain silent in the face of such words, but I’ll just say two things. First, notice how the passage is permeated by language of love and joy. Second, notice how the spiritual life, which is here reaching its apex, is always oriented toward reality, toward the truth of things. Both of these points seem to me important.

All too often I forget the privilege a book offers me when I pick it up. In the whole of my life, I may never meet in the flesh anyone with the intellectual or spiritual gifts of those who have left me their thoughts in their writings. There, in those pages, they speak directly to me. Reading William has reminded me of this privilege.

[Idle and meaningful activity]
“It is ridiculous to take up idle pursuits in order to avoid idleness. A pursuit is idle which either has no usefulness or does not tend to some useful purpose. The aim of activity should not be merely to pass the day more or less enjoyably or at least without becoming too weary of leisure but also that when the day is over it always leaves something in the mind that will contribute to the soul’s advancement and that some fresh treasure is added each day to the heart’s store. A good hermit should consider that he has lost a day of his life if during the day he cannot remember having done any of the things for which a man lives in solitude.” (82)

[Continuity]
“When you go to sleep always take with you in your memory or your thoughts something that will enable you to fall asleep peacefully and sometimes even help you to dream; something also that will come to mind when you wake up and renew in you the previous day’s purpose. In this way light will be shed on the night for you and it will be as the day, and the night will be your illumination in your delights. You will fall asleep peacefully, you will rest in tranquillity, you will wake up easily and when you rise you will have no difficulty in returning with your wits about you to what you have not wholly laid aside.” (136)

[The Holy Spirit]
“He it is who gives life to man’s spirit and holds it together, just as it gives life to his body and holds it together. Men may teach how to seek God and angels how to adore him, but he alone teaches how to find him, possess him and enjoy him. He himself is the anxious quest of the man who truly seeks, he is the devotion of the man who adores in spirit and truth, he is the wisdom of the man who finds, the love of him who possesses, the gladness of him who enjoys.” (266)

[Dynamics of the inner life]
“We must first of all know that Wisdom, as we read in the book that bears its name, “anticipates those who desire it and comes to meet them, joyfully revealing itself to them on the way” (Wis 6:14). Whether it be in the effort to advance or in meditation or in study “it reaches everywhere on account of purity” (Wis 7:24). For God helps with his countenance the man who looks upon him; the splendour of the Highest Good moves and leads onward and attracts the man who contemplates it.
And when reason as it progresses mounts on high to become love, and grace comes down to meet the one who so loves and desires, it often happens that reason and love, which produce those two states, become one thing, and likewise wisdom and knowledge, which result from them. No longer can they be treated or thought of separately. They are now one thing, flowing from one activity and one faculty, both in the perception of understanding and in the joy of fruition. And so although each must be distinguished from the other, since the matter stands so, each must be thought and treated of with the other and in the other.” (195-6)

[Modesty and reticence]
“But before everything he should not think highly of himself, beyond his just estimation but have a sober esteem of himself, according to the measure of faith which God has apportioned to him. He should not entrust his treasures to men’s mouths but conceal them in his cell and hide them away in his conscience, so as to have this inscription always in the forefront of his conscience and on the front of his cell: “My secret is my own, my secret is my own.” (Is 24:16)” (300)

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2 Responses to “The holy man of the mountain”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    I think I wrote my senior paper in monastic history on the relationship between William and Bernard and used this letter as part of the primary source research. I’ll try to find it for you sometime. I think it is on my old laptop without internet. You might like to have the bibliography.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Christina, I do recall your special interest in the twelfth-century (the second-greatest of centuries?). I’d be very interested to peer into your paper, and especially, as you suggest, the bibliography. At your leisure.


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