GREATLY IS JESUS TO BE LOVED BY ME THROUGH WHOM I EXIST, LIVE AND HAVE WISDOM

FEAST OF ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX: CHAPTER




G REATLY IS HE (JESUS) TO BE LOVED BY ME THROUGH WHOM I EXIST, LIVE AND HAVE WISDOM. With these words St. Bernard begins one of his stirring Sermons on the Canticle (XX.1 PL 183: 867A), after first citing a verse from St. Paul: "Whoever does not love the Lord Jesus, let him be anathema." As we celebrate St. Bernard's feast today, this theme expressed with such ardor and boldness offers us a view into his heart and so opens up one of the broadest of perspectives for appreciating his contribution to the traditions of the Cistercian Order. Bernard, after all, was named a Doctor of the Church; already in his life time he was considered not only the Master of the Order's spirituality, but a teacher for all monks and indeed for the whole Church. His vision was too broad to be confined within the limits of a single Order, or country or age, for he was truly a gifted contemplative who came to see all things in the light of God's redemptive activity in the world.

As we immediately appreciate upon reading the first paragraph of this sermon there is nothing hesitant in Bernard's style. His personality was bold, optimistic, assertive, ever advancing into new vistas of the spirit, he energized a whole generation of Christians in the service of the Gospel. He recognized this himself, revealing his own dispositions and character indirectly in a sermon whose theme is the various kinds of love.

Learn to love tenderly, to love prudently, to love courageously....Let zeal have nothing tepid, let it not lack discretion, let it not be timid (Sermones in Cantica XX.4 PL 183: 867).

His optimism is revealed here in the conviction that such love can indeed be learned, and he sets about teaching it precisely through a careful analysis of the qualities of the various kinds of love and its degrees. His unfailingly determined and confident attitude is also well expressed in a letter he wrote to a fellow abbot:

What good is it to follow Christ if it happens that you do not catch up with him? That is why St. Paul said "So run that you lay hold (1Cor 9: 24)."... And so if to progress is to run, the one who ceases to progress, ceases to run. Where you cease to run, then, you begin to fall back. Thus it is clear that to fail to progress is to lose out (Epistola CCLIV. 4 PL 182: 461 B,C).
St. Bernard, Abbot

Bernard, from his infancy, was formed by his surroundings to be a competent and ardent leader. His mother's deeply pious example and the special love and ambition she had for him from the womb gave him a strong sense of worth and confidence in the great value of his religious beliefs. His father's commanding character and the outstanding discretion he displayed in his role as advisor to his Lord dominated the circle in which he passed his most impressionable years. By the time he was twenty-two he exercised a dominance over mature men considerably his senior in years and experience of the world, and proved himself capable of persuading them to join his company of spiritual adventurers. When he came to Cīteaux he brought with him more than thirty men of formed character and high social standing who willingly acknowledge him as their leader. This group set a new tone in monastic formation. Until this time the large majority of monks were men destined for the cloister from their youth; many in fact entered the Benedictine monasteries of Cluny as children, were educated and formed there and chose to remain and take vows once they attained the requisite age. Cīteaux, however, beginning with St. Bernard and his followers, attracted many persons formed to be leaders . They were members of various professions in the world, including the court and the armed forces, clergy, university professors and administrators, even monks and abbots of considerable experience from the Benedictine tradition such as William of St. Thierry. Their professional qualifications and their higher education account in good part for the fact that the early Order was able to develop so rapidly and yet display a striking unity of spirit and practice.

The administrative skills required for organizing and maintaining such extensive and numerous foundations were often learned or at least prepared for by the formation received as seculars or clerics, prior to entering the Order (cf. Peter Dinzelbacher, Bernhard von Clairvaux, pp. 43, 44 among others). Thus it is not surprising that many Cistercian abbots became bishops, some cardinals and one even Pope, and proved very effective in their administrative activities as well as worthy spiritual guides. Bernard himself, though more than once offered high positions in the Church, consistently refused to accept such posts. He was persuaded that as abbot he was in the place God willed for him. Yet he was the original impulse behind this whole movement to integrate men of modern worldly culture into the Cistercian tradition.

This fact that so many of the recruits to the Order were already mature and well formed men of a certain standing, too meant that the formation given in the monastery could be more focused on spiritual realities. It also demanded that such teaching be given in a manner treated with great respect the views and character of the men who came to the monastery to be effective. It is a very different style that is required when one deals with experienced and solidly formed men on the one hand, and young, impressionable students on the other. The climate of early Cīteaux and Clairvaux was determined in good measure by this recruitment from among the higher and maturer ranks of society. Unless we advert to this newly established monastic atmosphere we fail to appreciate the setting in which St. Bernard and the other outstanding abbots of the Order did their preaching and administered the Order. Bernard himself was the one who initiated this movement, for the three founders of the Order were all men who had been formed in the conditions prevailing in the Cluniac world. Their monastic experience of formation included the presence of children in the cloister being trained by monks and living alongside the professed day by day.

The vigorous, confident even at times aggressive tone that is so characteristic of experienced, successful men of affairs, army officers and of certain scholarly circles, is nearly everywhere present in St. Bernard's writings. It is not the exclusive feature, however, of his character and style. No one prior to Bernard had displayed a greater range and intensity of affectivity than did the abbot of Clairvaux, or a more responsive sympathy and sensitivity to human relations. IN fact, it is more in this area of the affective aspect of spiritual experience that he made the most original and durable contributions rather than in the domain of new ideas and intellectual insights. In the same Sermon on the Canticle cited above, Bernard dwells at considerable length on the place of a human love for the incarnate Savior as the starting place for a more spiritual attachment to the Word of God who is eternal wisdom, justice, goodness and the rest.

Note that the love of the heart is in a certain way carnal, for the human heart is more affected by what Christ did or commanded in the flesh. Filled with this love it experiences more readily compunction at words of this kind....I believe this is the principal reason why the invisible God wished to be seen in the flesh and to live with men as a man, namely so that He might draw back to Himself all the affections of carnal men who were unable to love except carnally, to a salutary love of his flesh. (Sermones in Cantica XX. 6 PL 183:870).

As desirable as such devotion is, he continues, it remains limited and

although it is a gift, and a great gift of the Spirit it is carnal in respect of that love which considers the Word not so much as flesh but rather the Word as wisdom, the Word as justice, the Word as truth, the Word as holiness, piety, virtue.

This love of the human Christ is a great grace, he explains, for it enables us to get free from carnal sins and to despise and overcome the world. As it progresses it also becomes increasingly guided by reason; and when it is perfect it is dominated by the spirit. To make sure he is properly understood here, Bernard spells out in some detail what it means to be subject to reason and then to the Spirit.

To go on, it is rational when reason holds in faith all that is fittingly thought about Christ in such a way that it does not deviate from the purity of ecclesiastical sense, nor is it misled by any likeness of truth or any heretical or diabolic deception. Likewise in private conversation it so remains cautious as not to exceed the bounds of discretion whether through superstition or levity or by some vehemence of a more fervent spirit. (op. cit., XX. 9).

Although Bernard does stress the importance of human affection for the human Christ in the spiritual life, yet he does not separate it from the more spiritual attachment of a higher love, but holds the two together. In fact, he sees the more human affection as a preliminary form of love that, as it progresses is complemented by the more spiritual and gradually transformed into the higher form of attachment.


But if also such great vigor of the Spirit who assists us should also come upon the soul so that through no force, whether of labor or of torments or even the fear of death, would it ever desert justice, then truly it also loves with all its strength and possesses spiritual love (ibidem).

Our author is careful, then, to maintain the integrity of spiritual experience, that is to say, to associate the more human affection that characterizes the initial stages of conversion to Christ, with the higher, final state of the believer. Thus, by persevering in the work of purifying the heart and cultivating the virtues, the believer becomes capable of contemplating and knowing in some measure the Word of God in his Divinity. His senses throughout this process are gradually transformed so that he can sustain the purity of the divine light and the intensity of the eternal life that is God Himself. In this conception of the nature of the spiritual journey, Bernard does not separate human experience from the spiritual, as Andrew Louth has wrongly asserted. Rather, he maintains their integrity even while displaying more distinctly than had anyone done prior to him, the specific characteristics of each of these spheres. Later on, it is true, those who, having read and meditated Bernard's teaching were formed by this distinction, widened the distance between the human and divine in experience, until there was formed the gulf between the two that was to become unbridgeable for so many in the modern period. This has resulted in a situation in which academics distance themselves from the spiritual as if there is an intrinsic opposition between the two. The current moral drift increasingly evident in our society has resulted from this hardening of a distinction until, from being a separation of constitutive elements of human perception, it has been erected into a barrier so that a person is classified as either correctly subjective and accepts that there is no such thing as absolute truth, or is hopelessly objective and so authoritarian and arbitrary.

Louth has discussed the bearing of this dissolution of an original integrity on the modern conception of the nature of theology and of spiritual life generally held today, and presents the opinion that Bernard stands at its source.

According to this view, study of the Bible is freed from the suffocating nets of allegorizing tradition and becomes an intellectually respectable subject. The breakup of the original unity is seen as a release. But that is not an unquestionable interpretation of the events nor one that commends itself... With Augustine... knowledge and love are held together: there is a coinherence of love and knowledge- we cannot love what we do not know, nor do we progress in knowledge unless we love- ... With Bernard this is no longer the case: knowledge and love are juxtaposed, and love is more fundamental (Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery, 5).

But, what Louth fails to note is that love and knowledge are not merely juxtaposed in Bernard's life and work, but remain in dynamic interaction: the one impacts upon the other, guiding it along and reforming it until both are refashioned at some point further long the way that leads to union with the Word and so with the Blessed Trinity. It is true, however, that Bernard did not always draw the line between the two at the proper point, especially when he was under the influence of heated theological argument. On such occasions he gives the impression of being anti-intellectual when he asserts an opposition between human knowledge and loving faith in areas where today we recognize there is no intrinsic contradiction between the two. But in his spiritual, non polemic writings, he avoids such exaggerations. It is from these works that present his integral views of the spiritual life that we can be helped to reunite these two polarities of human experience, the psychological and the spiritual, the carnal, as Bernard puts it, and the divine, nature and grace.

The necessity of rediscovering an integral way of treating the human condition is very widely discussed currently in a wide variety of areas. One reads about it in works treating of medicine, psychiatry, diets, education and school reform, sociology, ecology, politics, peace and war as well as in hermeneutics, exegesis, theology, prayer and contemplation. To take an instance from a current work that has just come to hand. In an article in "The Journal of Fellowship in Prayer" by M. J Kephart (August 2000) entitled "A Transforming Experience" we read that

Even when under medical care as a child and young adult, I yearned for a higher form of medicine that included the integration of mind, body, soul and spirit. When my family's religion failed to present this kind of integration or even what I felt were basic tools for life and success, my search began (p. 20).

And in the opening sentence of the body of his work "Discerning the Mystery", Andrew Louth states the situation he addresses himself to in the following terms.

A consciousness of division, a yawning gulf, that generates into our very heart and mind, a failure, an inability to relate: much of this is characteristic of modern culture (p. 1).

St. Bernard's example, both from his life and from his teaching taken as a whole, presents us with a great deal of material that can instruct and encourage us in our effort to live a life together here that is at once centered on God, dedicated to the search for union with him, and at the same time, humanistic in its tone and the atmosphere we create as a community. The Cistercian heritage calls for just such a communal way of life as encourages the cultivation of a deeply interior, strongly personal life in each member and the common social structures which assist in living out this demanding program year after year. Each of us, in the measure that he is true to his own particular gift for living his vocation, has a personal contribution to make to such a community spirit and tone. May we aid one another in furthering this work at all levels of our life together and thus witness not only to those who join us in the cloister, but to the Church in this State and in this country to the living power and truth of the Gospel, which is given through Christ as a beacon guiding all persons of good will on their return to the Father.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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