William of St. Thierry once abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St. Thierry in France, was a student and friend of the great Cistercian St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). William meditated deeply on the writings of St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Scottus Eriugena. Following the latter’s work William sculpted a vision of the human person that is analogous to the creation event. The soul is seen as created in the image (imago) and likeness (similitude) of God (Genesis 1:26). And he added this vision, that the body is a microcosm of God’s creation. So, each person in his or her self manifests the union of God and God’s creation. William reflected deeply on Christian love in its trinitarian dimensions: Creator as Source and Love, Incarnation as the embodied image and likeness in human form, and the Spirit as the Awakener of divine Love into all relationships.
Many mystical theologians prior to William’s appearance felt that the image of God within us is eternally pristine, but it is only our likeness to God has been damaged by sin. William sensed that the damage is worse and that sin also touches the imago within, although not as seriously as the likeness (similitude). Still, by grace, our deepest identity is imago trinitatis and we are gifted with the capacity to participate ever more completely in the life of the Trinity. One must begin with the intention to participate in the trinitarian life, and then one must develop the disciplines of prayer, contemplation and service. All along, William trusts the Desert Fathers’ vision, that everyone is created in God’s image and invited to be like God. The Holy Spirit is the one who guides seekers through the “land of unlikeness” (regio dissimilitudinis) as they seek to include more and more of their personal experience into the trinitarian dance of love.
William trusts the wisdom of this passage in 1 John 3:2, that as we shed our self-centeredness, we “will see God as He is and in seeing will be made as His, that is, like Him.”1 In this transformation, the Holy Spirit is the catalyst. She is the vehicle of Grace that elevates a person’s natural abilities so that one can meet the extraordinary invitation to walk over the bridge of unlikeness to God. It is the Holy Spirit who facilitates and activates the dormant imago trinitatis within seekers, gradually bringing a person to full participation in the perichoresis that dances at the center of reality.2 The Judeo-Christian story assumes that God freely chooses to share God’s life within creation and within all people. This story conveys the message that one can trust that the deepest dimensions of divinity are circulating within us even as we are created to be distinct from God with our own freedom visa-vie God. Thus, we are gifted with a vivifying creative grace (gratia creans). William writes that the realized imago is
. . .the unity of the Father and the Son, their very kiss, the embrace, the love, the goodness and whatever is common to both of them in that supremely simple union. That is entirely the Holy Spirit, God, Charity, both Gift and Giver. . . .Love itself is what you are. It is your Holy Spirit, O Father, who proceeds from you and the Son. . . .When the human spirit has merited to be drawn to the Spirit, spirit to Spirit, love to Love, human love becomes divine in a way. Already in loving God a human person is the worker, but God is working.3
After St. Augustine, William calls the Spirit-led integration of knowing and unknowing “learned ignorance” (docta ignorantia). As we make space within us for the indwelling of the spiritus vitae, our memories, intellect and will are all illuminated with God’s Love, and now we have entered into a whole new experience of our intellectual lives, where there is no difference between knowing and loving. William calls this experience, experientia divinae suavitatis (the aroma of divine experience). The great contemporary theologian and writer Bernard McGinn describes this spiritual “knowing” as
. . . . a form of connatural knowledge, or interpersonal awareness, based on the likeness or sympathy between two subjects, the transcendental exemplar of what we experience in friendship and in human love.4
At this point in the spiritual journey a person has entered into his or her own personal Song of Songs where all one’s inner experience points to the Presence of God. Now one loves almost without any reference to one’s own perspective or needs, and a completely unself-centered love is manifest in all that one knows and does. William describes this experience as one in which “true love of self and neighbor is nothing else but love of God.”5 A person’s inner life, animated by the pervasive Presence of the Spirit, becomes a harmonious song (ordinatio caritatis) and this music is what a person manifests in daily life.
McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad Press, 1994, p. 232.
McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad Press, 1994. Chapter 6, pp. 231-234.
Ibid., p. 244.
McGinn, p. 258.
William quoted in Ibid., p. 259.