Saint Bernard

Initial Capital with BernardTuesday afternoon I began reading Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux (Classics of Western Spirituality) while appropriately sipping a bottle of Chimay Grande Réserve Trappist ale at Weaver Street Market. As I mentioned in my post for the feast of Saint Benedict (July 11), yesterday’s feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot and doctor of the Church, is further occasion for reflection in my ongoing exploration of the insights of the twelfth-century Cistercian reform of Benedictine monasticism.

The Introduction to Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux is written by Jean Leclercq, OSB, editor of Bernard’s Opera Omnia.

Bernard saw his teaching role as essentially that of a biblical exegete. He was fully aware that he could exercise that function only with the help of God’s grace; accordingly, he often asked, at the beginning and end of his sermons, for prayers for enlightenment. Tradition has regarded him chiefly as an exegete and the earliest artists depicted him holding the Book, opening it and explaining it. His very title Doctor Mellifluous was bestowed because of his interpretation of Scripture and has nothing to do with the characteristic sweetness of honey. Instead, the epithet is in keeping with a traditional explanation, derived from Origen and developed by Bernard himself. According to the theory, one draws the hidden meaning from the literal sense of the biblical text, just as honey is made to flow from the honeycomb or as Moses drew water from the rock (33).

Bernard is probably most well known for his development of a spirituality of love, a point not unique to Christianity in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (see Preface, 5-7). Bernard’s way of love, from humility to ecstasy (pp 35 ff), and his entire doctrine for that matter, has as its

point of departure…an intense, personal experience of the interior struggle [between]…a deep realism that causes humility and a sure hope that gives rise to courage and optimism. These are the two traditional aspects of what has been described as compunction by St. Gregory the Great and the monastic tradition (35-36).

Although perhaps surprising to those who are familiar with the strictness of the Cistercian Order, in Bernard’s theology, not only the body but also flesh itself is not opposed to the spirit, but rather the path toward the Spirit

Bernard sees man’s redemption more in terms of the incarnation [like Irenaeus of Lyon] than of Christ’s death and resurrection. The incarnation is the fundamental Christian mystery from which the other mysteries unfold; it also marks the completion of all the divine preparations [cf. divine pedagogy]…At long last, God took flesh for the sake of people who delight in flesh, so that through it they may learn to delight in the spirit as well (6, 3) (46).

Moreover, Bernard always taught that love for God, far from excluding love for human beings, transformed it instead and made it a precious gift of charity. The affections of the heart present no obstacle to the experience of God, once they have been freed from all egotism and every trace of self-interest, and directed toward the living Christ a the center of one’s being (54).

The first installment of Bernard’s Selected Works, On Conversion, is addressed to secular clergy and invites them (and all Christians) to convert, in the sense used by Catholics in Lent: turning away from sin (again and again) and believing in the Gospel (ever more deeply). In the Foreword, Gillian Evans writes that in response to the foundation of new reformed monasteries, such as Cîteaux, that they now had to adapt to the demands of adult vocation and try to make monks and nuns of grown men and women…unprepared for the realities of the life they were entering (1). It is to this task that Bernard’s On Conversion (excerpted below) is devoted:

the conversion of souls is clearly the work of the divine voice, not of any human voice (67)
lift up the ears of your heart to hear this inner voice, so that you may strive to hear inwardly what is said to the outward man (67)
It is not wretchedness but mercy which makes a man happy, so that humiliation turns to humility and need to strength (76)
Do not think that this inward paradise of pleasure (Gn 2:8) is corporeal. It is not with the feet but with the affections that a man enters it. Nor is it the plentifulness of earthly trees that makes it desirable to you, but the joyous and lovely (Ps 146:1) plantation of spiritual virtues which grows there. It is an enclosed garden (Sg 4:12), where…the vision of pure truth illuminates the eye of the heart (Eph 1:18). The most sweet voice of the inner Comforter brings joy and gladness to the ears (Ps 50:10), There the most lovely odor of a fruitful field which the Lord has blessed (Gn 27:27) is carried to the nostrils of hope (Sg 2:14). There a foretaste of the incomparable delights of love is enjoyed, and the mind, anointed with mercy…rests happily with a clear conscience (Acts 23:1; 1 Tm 1:5). These are not among the rewards of eternal life. They should be thought of as wages of the soldiering of this life (1 Cor 9:7). They do not belong to what is promised to the Church in the future, but rather to what she is promised now (Gal 4:23-25; 1 Tm 4:8). For this is the hundredfold reward which is set before those who despise the world (Mt 19:29). You do not need any speech of mint to commend this to you, The Spirit reveals it himself (1 Cor 2:10). You do not need to look it up in the pages of a book. Look to experience instead (84-85).

The last quarter of Bernard’s On Conversion uses the beatitudes (Mt 5:3ff.) to show the road to conversion:

in this gate of paradise the voice of the divine whisper is heard (Gn 3:8), a most holy and secret counsel, which is hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to little children (Mt 11:25) (86).
just as our bodily vision is impeded either by a humor within or by dust from outside entering the eye, so too is our spiritual vision disturbed by the desires of our own flesh or by worldly curiosity and ambition. Our own experience teaches us this, no less than the Sacred Page (89)
while we are in this body we are in exile from the Lord (2 Cor 5:6)…[which is] not the body’s fault, except in that it is yet mortal (Rom 7:24); rather it is the flesh which is a sinful body (Rom 6:6), the flesh in which is no good thing but rather the law of sin reigns (Rom 7:23, 25) (89-90).
A man is in a state of peace when he renders good for good (Rom 12:17ff.; 1 Thes 5:15)…then there is the peacemaker who returns good for evil an is ready to do good even to someone who harms him (90).
Flee from the midst of Babylon, flee and save your souls (Jer 48:6; 51:6). Fly to the cities of refuge [i.e., monasteries] (Jos 21:36) (95)
it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for the sweet fruit of love to ripen from the bitter root of ambition (95-96)

While there certainly is a Bernardine theology, grounded in the Incarnation, it is Bernard’s method and counsel that has earned him the greatest renown, by which he called his brothers (and all Christians) to contemplation of God’s beauty through the experience of love as exemplified in his Sermons on the Song of Songs. In his On Humility and Pride Bernard outlines the steps by which the heart is overtaken by pride in order to show the path by which, removing the plank of pride from our own souls, we may attain humility:

We ascend the first [step of truth] by striving to be humble, the second by compassion, and the third in the ecstasy of contemplation. In the first, Truth is discovered to be severe; in the second, holy; in the third, pure. Reason leads to the first, in which we think about ourselves. Affection leads to the second, in which we think about others. Purity leads to the third, in which we are lifted up to see what is out of sight (116).

In addition to my studying Saint Bernard and other early Cistercians for their spiritual insight (an extremely brief introduction is given in Basil Pennington, OCSO‘s School of Love: the Cistercian way to holiness which explores the writings of Bernard’s closest friend, William of Saint Thierry, and others including Aelred of Rievaulx and Guerric of Igny), I am also grounding in history a fictional story set in the foundational years of the Cistercian Order which I am in the process of piecing together as an outlet for theological reflection among other things.

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