LOVE ITSELF IS KNOWLEDGE

Chapter: 2nd Sunday in Lent




Christ our Friend

WHEN WE LOVE THE HEAVENLY REALITIES WE HEAR ABOUT, WE ALREADY KNOW WHAT WE LOVE, FOR LOVE ITSELF IS KNOWLEDGE.. (Gregory the Great, Homilia XXVII in Ev. PL 76: 1207A). . These words of the holy Pope occur in explanation of the statement of Jesus in the last discourse: "I shall no longer call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master does. I shall call you friends for I have made known to you all that I have heard from the Father (Jn 15: 15).". Amor ipse notitia est. Love is already in itself a way of knowing. If this is the case, surely it is a truth that has profound significance for the inner life and in particular for the life of prayer, as well as for the way we conceive the nature of the human person. Obviously, the way we understand our human nature will exert a strong influence on the concept we form of the way to arrive at its eventual fulfillment and perfection.

This being the case, it is hardly surprising that St. Gregory's insightful statement was to make a forceful impact on a number of the most influential theologians and spiritual masters of the twelfth century. Blessed William of St. Thierry takes up this idea in several of his works, explicitly naming St. Gregory as his source. (cf. Disputatio Adversus Abelardum, c.II PL 180: 252C) In fact, he alters the wording of Gregory's text, seemingly unconsciously, in a significant substitution of the word understanding (intellectus) for knowledge (notitia). Amor ipse intellectus est. William's wording, as K. Sander demonstrates (cf. Amplexus, 312f, which I follow closely here), brings out the process by which love is converted into understanding and relates William's view, not only to Pope Gregory's but also to that of St. Gregory of Nyssa who, writing in the fourth century, had already stated that: Knowledge becomes love . Whereas Pope Gregory has in mind knowledge as the fruit of love, the Cistercian abbot envisages understanding as a faculty that can convert love into a form of true knowledge, without ceasing to remain love. It would even seem that for him love itself operates after the manner of a faculty or organ. In any case, it so functions as to transform the intellect so that he can write elsewhere that Reason passes over into love (cf. Exposition sur le Cantique des Cantiques 92, S. Chr. 82, 212). In the same paragraph he also refers to the sense of love that is illuminated.

There are two eyes of contemplation, reason and love. In keeping with the words of the prophet "The riches of salvation are wisdom and knowledge (Isaiah 33.6)", the one following the dictates of knowledge, examines into human affairs; the other, in keeping with wisdom's nature, looks into divine matters. But when they are enlightened by grace they help one another very much indeed for love gives life to reason and reason enlightens love... It often happens that these two eyes become one eye when they faithfully cooperate with one another.

This teaching does not imply, as has been affirmed, that reason is suppressed and replaced by loving desire; rather, William considers that reason, enlivened and refashioned through being penetrated and taken up by the love of God, attains its perfected form. What he describes here in detail is the process by which knowledge of God is converted into experience of a loving encounter with Him under the influence of the Holy Spirit (cf. Sander, op. cit., 318). In this personal meeting with God knowing (cognoscere) is transformed, being converted to taste (sapere) and to experience (experiri) under the action of love.

At the beginning of his discussion of the spiritual man, he provides an outline of the transition to this higher stage of growth.

When one occupies his mind with the things of God or with what leads to God, and will arrives at the point where it becomes love, without delay the Holy Spirit infuses himself by way of love, and brings everything to life. He assists in prayer and meditation and in dealing with the one thinking about his weakness. Immediately memory becomes wisdom as the good things of God taste sweet, and what he thought is applied to the intellect and fashioned into emotion. The intellect of the thinker becomes the contemplation of the lover, forming it into certain experiences of spiritual or divine sweetness and subjecting them to the sight of the thinker which becomes a source of joy (Epistola Ad Fratres De Monte Dei, II.3 PL 184:347).

The Cistercians were not the only ones who pursued the line of thought set out by Sts. Augustine and Gregory after him. Richard of St. Victor developed this theme in a way that was to have a considerable impact on mystical thought. He wrote that "Love is an eye; to love is to see (De gradibus dignitatis, PL 196 1203)." Among others, St. Bonaventure and St. John of the Cross were to follow up this manner of conceiving love in the higher stages of faith, giving it a priority over knowledge and reason. As often is the case in Gregory the Great's writings, the concept that love is the basis for understanding and is even itself a mode of knowledge itself is not original with him, but is found in a less developed form already in St. Augustine. Gregory had the gift of coining memorable phrases, as we note in this instance, and of so assimilating ideas found in the Bishop of Hippo's works that it is not possible to demonstrate with certitude that he was influenced by the North African writer. In any case, Augustine has already expressed the same insight a number of times. In one passage, he uses the formula: we know in proportion as we love (tantum cognoscitur quantum diligitur). In De Trinitate VIII. 9, he states that the more manifestly God is known, the more firmly is he loved (cf. Sander, loc. cit.), where love is considered to be a fruit that spontaneously grows out of knowledge. William follows this same line of thought as well, only slightly modifying the expression: Already the bride begins to know as she was first known, and in so far as she is known she begins to love, as she was first loved."

Rightly to evaluate William's spirituality requires a very attentive reading of his works and a particular care in noting the nuances of his thought. He has so much in common with St. Bernard that his best known work, considered by many to be also his masterpiece, The Golden Epistle, was, for a very long time, thought to have been written by the abbot of Clairvaux and passed under his name. The fact that William had substituted his own word intellectus, for the term notitia of Pope Gregory would seem to all but the most alert of readers an insignificant alteration, perhaps even an unintentional lapse of memory. But, as Sander has pointed out (loc. cit.) it is evident that he had formed his own views on the relation of understanding and love. This is impl;ied in the wordking of his quotation from ST. Gregory the more clearly when compared with St. Bernard's citation of this same passage of the Pop. Bernard quotes him exactly, without the alteration imported by his friend, William (cf. De Diligendo Deo SBO VI.1, 290 ). He has not felt the need to analyze this concept in such detail as did William quite characteristically, and so remains more objective in his treatment of it.

A. Dechanet, the learned Benedictine editor and commentator of William, informs us that he had to read William many times before he came to recognize his originality relative to the abbot of Clairvaux. He signals out this text in particular as providing a key that opens the door that leads to a recognition of the more creative and personal insights of William's teaching. Even so perceptive and erudite a commentator as Gilson, in Dechanet's opinion, failed to appreciate the true import of William's insistence on the word understanding (intellectus) which is so fundamental to his spirituality at its highest level (cf. his Introduction to the English translation of The Golden Epistle, xxvii-xxx CF 12, Kalamazoo1971).

Although Blessed William was influenced by Augustine and Gregory and stimulated by their views, yet his experience of prayer and his reflections on the role of the Holy Spirit in particular, led him to go beyond their expressed teaching and to elaborate a doctrine that is essentially mystical. He had come to the conviction that the final stages of the spiritual journey were of another quality than the psychological processes and transformations as interpreted by certain scholars in their treatment of this theme of the relation of love to knowledge. William's concept of intellectus is that it is totally dependent upon the gift of the Spirit of God. He does not intend to maintain that all love of God is understanding; rather, that the love of God found in the person whose heart has been sufficiently purified so that the Holy Spirit becomes active in a new manner leads to a higher understanding. This is the love of unitas spiritus, unity of spirit between God and the believer with a pure heart. For William the Holy Spirit is not only the love of the Father and Son, but also the knowledge that they share. As he states it in his Mirror of Faith, the Spirit is "loving knowledge" and "knowing love". The truest understanding we can obtain in this life is not from reasoning about God expressed in human words, but from faith that leads to vision. For this it is necessary that we have our deepest inner self transformed by the Spirit so as to become what William calls affectus. Dom Thomas Davis provides an extensive discussion of the subtle and pregant signification of this word which he chose rather to preserve than atempt to translate in his English version of The Mirror of Faith. He makes in part the following comment in the appendix that treats of this term, which indicates that affectus results from unity of spirit with the Lord..

A person who has glimpsed for a passing moment the vision of God that touches his affections, begins to be as God is by entering into the foolish wisdom of the Passion of Jesus only to realize that he is becoming one spirit with God... the route from faith to this unity of spirit is the affection: the deepest aspect of a person's tending toward God, his goodness and blessedness (The Mirror of Faith, p. 93, 94, CF 15 Kalamazoo 1979).

As he penetrated more deeply into the thought of the Abbot of St. Thierry, Fr. Dechanet came to recognize, upon contact with the Eastern tradition of theosis (deification) how firmly this Cistercian body of teaching was rooted in Byzantine teaching. Familiarity with this doctrine explains more fully the views and language of William, and allows us to relate more explicitly our Cistercian heritage to the Greek Fathers and the teaching on prayer. The roots of our own spiritual heritage are now better understood and this knowledge is an invitation for us to enter more consciously and with greater understanding into the life of the Spirit in the Church today.

The purpose of our lectio divina, and indeed of our Cistercian way of life as a whole, is the same today as it was for William of St. Thierry and Bernard as well as for Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor who had taught them. We are to live at the heart of the Church today by attaining to unitas spiritus, that is through being transformed by the Spirit of God so as to be one in Christ with the Father. This is the primary aim of our vocation as Cistercians. Each of us has a particular, personal manner of realizing this purpose, as our current Constitutions recognize. Some by lives of greater silence and solitude, some by more emphasis of manual labor and service, others by a measure of communication within and outside the community. St. Bernard spoke of these as the three kinds of monks in the communities of our Order, symbolized, he taught, by the three friends of Jesus, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. There is not only room for all three in our way of life; each community that remains true to our heritage must have all three types and at the same time preserve the primacy of this essential goal, the mystical transformation of our affectus so that we become one spirit with the Lord Jesus even now, amidst all the changes and alterations of life in our present day world. May the Lord so bless and guide us that each of us prove faithful to this call, persevering in the monastery until the end, seeking the greater glory of God in all things.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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