We keep the memory of the greatest convert in the Church after St Paul. St Augustine – monk, bishop, theologian, preacher, writer – appeals universally to everyone with a God-seeking heart. Listening to him exultant in his Confessions (Bk X.38) we might make his own new song our own today:
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back, far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness. You flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you. I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
The early Cistercians knew St Augustine’s writings well, and held fast to the influence which he had upon them. From meditation on man created in the image and likeness of God, our dwelling in the land of unlikeness, driven far from God’s presence by our sin and the disordering of love within us, the desire to be united to God in Christ by a desire which God himself plants within us, to the triumph of love in Love itself. Perhaps one of the most mystical of our Fathers, William of St Thierry, sings with St Augustine in all this, and summarises much of our own yearning:
O the incalculable blessedness of the soul that merits so to be acted upon by God, that through unity of spirit she loves in God, not just some property of his, but God himself, and even loves herself only in God! Like God, she loves and approves in herself what God must approve and love, that is to say, himself. Or, to put it in another way, she loves and approves in herself that which must be loved by both God the Creator and by his creature. In a word, neither the name of love nor love itself belong by right to anyone, nor is owed to any, save to yourself alone. O you who are true Love, love-worthy Lord, this also is the will of your Son in us, this is his prayer for us to you his Father: “I will that, as you and I are one, so may they themselves be one in us.” This is the goal, this is the consummation, this is perfection, this peace, this is the “joy of the Lord,” this is joy in the Holy Spirit, this is the “silence in heaven”. (On Contemplating God, 7)
Should we leave the last word to St Bernard? Perhaps of all the Fathers he allows himself to be overtaken by the Spirit in pouring himself out in praise of love:
Give me a man who loves God before all things with his whole being, self and neighbour in proportion to their love of God, the enemy who perhaps some day will love, his physical parents very deeply because of the natural bond, but his spiritual guides more generously because of grace. In like manner let him deal with the other things of God too with an ordered love, disregarding the earth, esteeming heaven, using this world as if not using it, and discriminating between the things used and those enjoyed with an intimate savouring in his mind. Let him pay but passing attention to things that pass, as existing needs demand. Let him embrace eternal things with an eternal desire.
Give me such a man, I repeat, and I shall boldly proclaim him wise, because he appreciates things for what they really are, because he can truthfully and confidently boast and say: ‘he set love in order in me’. But where is he, and when shall these be? In tears I ask. How long shall we smell and not taste, gazing toward the fatherland and not taking possession, sighing for it and saluting from afar? O Truth, fatherland of exiles, end of their exile! I see you, but held fast by the flesh I may not enter. Filthy with sins, I am not fit to be admitted. O Wisdom, reaching mightily from end to end in establishing and controlling all things, and arranging all things sweetly by enriching the affections and setting them in order! Guide our actions as your eternal truth requires, that each of us may confidently boast in you and say: ‘he set love in order in me’. For you are the strength of God, and the Wisdom of God, Christ the Church’s bridegroom, our Lord and God who is blessed for ever. Amen. (Sermons on the Song of Songs, 50)