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23.11.09 Davis (trans.), William of Saint-Thierry, The Meditations with a Monastic Commentary

23.11.09 Davis (trans.), William of Saint-Thierry, The Meditations with a Monastic Commentary

It is hard to review a translation and commentary, especially one that is obviously a labor of love by Fr. Thomas Davis, a Cistercian monk for more than seventy years. Davis’s translation is the first revisiting of William of St. Thierry’s Meditations (in Latin, Meditativae orationes) since Sister Penelope Lawson’s translation of 1954 (rev. 1971). Davis’s translation presents the Meditations as one continuous treatise, thus emphasizing how the work is “explaining the life of a seeker in an autobiographical format” (3). Davis includes so-called Meditation 13 at the end of his edition, supporting J.-M. Déchanet’s view that Meditation 13 is authentic and at least partially authored by William. Davis’s edition contains extensive, helpful biblical citations in the footnotes. But none of this, in my mind, is what makes Davis’s edition distinctive for the modern reader. What makes it special is Davis’s particular, monastic point of view in his commentary on William’s work. As David N. Bell says in his foreword, “Fr. Thomas’ commentary is not written from the outside, but from the inside. That is to say, it is the commentary of a monk writing on a monk’s writing” (xx). This is what makes it a valuable publication: the fact that it is compiled by a man (Davis) who has a lived understanding of William’s attempt to “ascen[d] into contemplative intimacy” (6, fn. 6), because he has attempted it himself.

I will not dwell on Davis’s clear, modern English translation (5-88), nor his brief bibliography (241-247) in this review, as much as I will on the “monastic commentary” that follows the translation and makes up the majority of the book (91-239). (Though I will, as an aside, quickly take this opportunity to recommend William’s Meditations’ enigmatic understanding of Jesus’ humanity to any scholars of so-called “affective piety”--be sure to check out Meditation 5, 8, 10.4-12!)

William’s Meditations start with a beautifully articulated question:

“...the earthen vessel recoils from the hand of the one who shaped it... it recoils from the hand holding and carrying it. About to fall, about to break, about to crumble, it shrieks: What more does he want?...Why have you made me this way (sic)?” (5).

Davis notes that “this way” (in Latin, sic) is used 79 times in the Meditations and 15 times in Meditation 1 alone; so, in footnotes, Davis helpfully records each time sic appears throughout his translation. In this way, sic becomes the throughline that justifies Davis’s presentation of the Meditations as a continuous composition about how humans, mere earthen vessels, might live their lives. “Destined to be clay,” (7) William pleads directly to God, seeking wisdom about how to live sic, flawed human lives. Underlying Davis’s commentary there emerges a struggle parallel to William’s, as monk-commentator Davis incorporates William’s perspective, voice, and struggle into his own, attempting to reassure the reader much as William seems to reassure Davis himself.

As a lay historian of medieval monasticism, I found Davis’s insider’s commentary helpful, because it aided my seeing William’s text as alive (and once lived), not as a mere hollow, academic argument. For instance, Davis calls Meditation 1.9 “Ascending vs. Circling,” helpfully highlighting the metaphors of ascent and circling in William’s text, and connecting these to Augustine’s idea of a “circle of error” and Aelred of Rievaulx’s theology of walking in a circle in his sermons (99). This allowed me to see the metaphors at work in William’s text, but it also helped me to hear how the text could have functioned emotionally in William’s monastery, underscoring the interior tumult of the monastic worshipper. Davis’s commentary regularly takes on a reassuring tone, as if speaking to monastic novices, e.g., “the consequence is that God eternally bestows this goodness on all persons, although not all are ready to accept it” (99). So often the distance required of lay scholars creates a coldness in our scholarship; in contrast, Davis is not afraid to show how he is enamored with and aided by William, calling his ideas “remarkable” (107) or his problems “treacherous” (147) or his work “effective” (184). Davis’s commentary reminds us of the stakes of William’s writing, as well as his ingenuity as a thinker.

There are a few shortcomings of such an insider’s commentary. While Davis is a medievalist, his commentary does not explore the way that William’s text is a product of its proper historical context. For instance, Davis discusses concepts like the role of the abbot, “conversion,” “affectus,” “obedience,” “charity,” “humility,” “experience,” and “memory” without any reference to the various historical and/or historical-textual studies about these notions and concepts in the twelfth century and the twelfth-century Cistercian monastery specifically. Davis assumes a Christian theological uniformity thanks to the intellectual ancestors shared between William and himself--Augustine, Origen, Gregory the Great, etc.--but the resulting matter-of-factness in Davis’s commentary does not totally satisfy. Davis assumes that William understood himself as a modern individual (e.g., Davis labels William’s “narcissistic self,” his “more magnanimous self,” his “identity shift[s],” “his inner self,” and “his sense of personal instability,” 138-139, 187), bypassing decades of debate and historiography on whether twelfth-century people shared our notions of individuality, interiority, and selfhood. Davis’s commentary on William’s notion of love, which he calls “ardent willing” and “an essential dynamic in human life” (125-126) reads like an insider’s simplification of a concept much more tumultuous and complicated in William’s text. Davis uses the word “intuitive” a lot in his commentary (e.g., William’s “intuitive vision of God,” 193), which often inhibits his explication of William’s text for the lay reader, ignoring the historical work that we often need to do with texts that are 900 years old. All of this makes me hesitant to use this edition with undergraduate or M.A. students. Moreover, Davis’s translation is often quite faithful to the Latin and/or the biblical intertext, which would probably prove confusing to the uninitiated (e.g., “Like your clean animals, we bring [the Crucifixion] up again from the depths of our memory into our mouths, so to speak,” 51). And the commentary also assumes a basic understanding of medieval intertexts like the Song of Songs--so “spouse,” “kiss of his mouth,” and “breasts,” for example, are presented without explanation in the commentary (184).

Still, “a monk writing on a monk’s writing” (xx) is an increasingly rare occurrence in 2023. Gone are the days of Jean Leclercq, Thomas Merton, Benedicta Ward, and André Wilmart. As lay historians who have little inside knowledge of the monastic life, sometimes we have to turn off the hyper-intellectual cynicism, sit back, and see what there is to learn about monastic prayer from people who have actually done it themselves.