MYSTICISM: Bernard Of Clairvaux, by Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman

An Anthology of Christian Mysticism

Bernard Of Clairvaux, by Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman

From Light From Light

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153): Abbot, ecclesiastical statesmen, mediator between warring armies, counselor of popes and kings, champion of orthodoxy, Bernard of Clairvaux was unquestionably the most influential person in Europe in the first half of the twelfth century.  But it is perhaps in the stamp he left on Christian spirituality that his most enduring influence is to be found.  At one point in the history of Western Christianity love became equated with the very essence of the spiritual life, and if we had to assign the beginning of that movement to one person, that person would have to be Bernard.  The passages from his writings below are intended above all to illustrate this centrality of love in his mystical theology.

Born the third son of a noble family near Dijon in 1090, Bernard received a broad, humanistic education at Chatillon and then, in the year 1112, and to his parents’ dismay, convinced thirty of his relatives and friends to join him in entering the new and struggling reform monastery of Citeaux, a few miles south of his home.  This sudden influx breathed new life into a community that had seemed to be on the verge of extinction.  A continuing stream of candidates led to the founding of many daughter houses, including the one at Clairvaux, over which Bernard was named abbot after having been a monk for only three years.  Gradually Bernard attained a wide reputation for holiness and wisdom and so became more and more involved in the ecclesiastical and political issues of the entire continent.  These often drew him away from his monastery for long periods of time and once led him to complain in a letter to his Cistercian confrere Pope Eugene III that “I am a kind of Chimera of my age, living neither as a religious nor as a layman.”  Toward the end of his life, the failure of the Crusade that he had preached at the request of the same pope brought much abuse upon him, so that in the eyes of many he died under a cloud of failure.  It was, however, only another twenty-one years before he was canonized by Pope Alexander III, and in 1830 he was officially declared a doctor of the church.

It is instructive to compare the writings of Bernard with those of his close friend William of St. Thierry.  In some ways the two men were kindred spirits; they shared the same monastic ideal and communicated or dedicated some of their works to each other.  But there were also some important differences, the recognition of which can help us better appreciate Bernard’s unique place in the history of Christian spirituality.  Perhaps the most significant contrast between the two men was the one summed up in the following words at the congress held at Dijon in 1953 to commemorate the eighth centenary of Bernard’s death: “In his work as a whole, Saint Bernard was interested less in knowledge than in love, whereas William of St. Thierry was more concerned with joining the one to the other and so arriving at a full knowledge of God.”  The basic reason for Bernard’s proportionately greater emphasis on love was his double conviction that all the disorder and sinfulness of human life is ultimately due to the turning of the will from God to self (voluntas propria) and that love alone engages a person at a sufficiently deep level to bring about true conversion to God.  As he writes in his treatise, On Loving God (De diligendo Deo): “It [love] alone can turn the mind from love of itself and the world and direct it to God.  Neither fear nor love of self can convert the soul.  They change the appearance of one’s deeds from time-to-time, but never one’s character.  Love truly converts souls because it makes them willing.”

For Bernard, the way to overcome immoderate self-love is not simply to hear and heed the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Rather, one must first love God, “so that in him you can love your neighbor, too, and the most effective way to arrive at this love is to reflect not only on God’s love for us in general (which even non-Christians can and should do), but on the surpassing love revealed to us in Jesus Christ: “The faithful know how utterly they stand in need of Jesus and him crucified.  They wonder at and reach out to that supreme love of his which surpasses all knowledge.  The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return.”  Knowing himself thus loved, Bernard responded with lyrical expressions of his own love for Christ, as in the following lines from his fifteenth sermon on the Song of Songs: “Write what you will, I shall not relish it unless it tells of Jesus.  Talk or argue about what you will, I shall not relish it if you exclude the name of Jesus.  Jesus to me is honey in the mouth, music in the ear, a song in the heart.”

Here is that new note of affectionate love for Jesus that has led so many commentators to speak, with good reason, of Bernard’s “affective mysticism.”  The experiences of the Word’s presence that elicited such love from Bernard are movingly described by him in a famous passage from the seventy-fourth sermon on the Song of Songs.  At such times, he writes, it is not by any of the five senses but only by the warmth of his heart that he knows the Word is present, and when he afterward suffers the departure of the Word “and all these things become dim and weak and cold,” then “I shall not cease to cry, as if after someone who is leaving, begging him with a burning desire to return; I will beseech him to give me the joy of his salvation and return to me.”

As has been suggested by Andrew Louth (Bernard and Affective Mysticism), we see in such passages from Bernard a shift in the understanding of the spiritual life.  For Augustine (and for Bernard’s friend William), the love of God and the knowledge of God go closely together, being united in wisdom (sapientia), the contemplation of eternal reality.  For Bernard, on the other hand, wisdom is characterized primarily not by the harmonious union of those two components but rather “by peace of mind and spiritual sweetness”; he even defines wisdom in affective terms as “a taste for goodness.”  To be sure, neither here nor elsewhere in his writings does Bernard radically disdain knowledge or understanding, but their place in the whole process of turning to and being united with God is nevertheless significantly reduced when compared with their place in Augustine’s works.  We are still far form the sharp dichotomy between thought and feeling, theology and devotion, which was to become so marked in many writers of the late Middle Ages, but in Bernard’s affective mysticism we already sense something of the shape of things to come.

On Loving God

VII.22. I said before that God is the cause of loving God.  I spoke the truth, for he is both the efficient and the final cause.  He himself provides the occasion.  He himself creates the longing.  He himself fulfills the desire.  He himself causes himself to be (or rather, to be made) such that he should be loved.  He hopes to be so happily loved that no one will love him in vain.  His love both prepares and rewards ours.  Kindly, he leads the way.  He repays us justly.  He is our sweet hope.  He is riches to all who call upon him.  There is nothing better than himself.  He gave himself in merit.  He keeps himself to be our reward.  He gives himself as food for holy souls.  He sold himself to redeem the captives.

Lord, you are good to the soul which seeks you.  What are you then to the soul which finds?  But this is the most wonderful thing, that no one can seek you who has not already found you.  You therefore seek to be found so that you may be sought for, sought so that you may be found.  You can be sought and found, but not forestalled.  For even if we say, “In the morning my prayer will forestall you,” it is certain that every prayer which is not inspired is half-hearted.  Now let us see where our love begins, for we have seen where it finds its end.

VIII.23.  Love is one of the four natural passions.  They are well enough known; there is no need to name them.  It is clearly right that what is natural should be at the service of the Lord of nature.  That is why the first and great commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God.”

The First Degree of Love: When One Loves Oneself For One’s Own Sake

But because nature has become rather frail and weak, we are driven by necessity to serve nature first.  This results in bodily love, by which a person loves himself for his own sake.  He does not yet know anything but himself, as it is written, “First came what is animal, then what is spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 15:46)  This love is not imposed by rule but is innate in nature.   For who hates his own flesh?  But if that same love begins to get out of proportion and headstrong, as often happens, and it ceases to be satisfied to run in the narrow channel of its needs, but floods out on all sides into the fields of pleasure, then the overflow can be stopped at once by the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

25.  But to love one’s neighbor with perfect justice it is necessary to be prompted by God.  How can you love your neighbor with purity if you do not love him in God?  But one who does not love God cannot love in God.  You must first love God, so that in him you can love your neighbor too.

God therefore brings about your love for him, just as he causes other goods.  This is how he does it: He who made nature also protects it.  For it was so created that it needs its creator as its protector, so that what could not have come into existence without him cannot continue in existence without him.  So that no rational creature might be in ignorance of this fact and (dreadful thought) claim for himself the gifts of the Creator, that same Creator willed by a high and saving counsel that we should endure tribulation; then when we fail and God comes to our aid and sets us free, we will honor God as he deserves.  For this is what he says, “Call upon me in the day of tribulation.  I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.”  And so in that way it comes about that one who is a bodily animal and does not know how to love anything but himself, begins to love God for his own benefit, because he learns from frequent experience that in God he can do everything which is good for him, and that without him he can do nothing.

The Second Degree of Love: When One Loves God For One’s Own Good

IX.26.  One therefore loves God, but as yet he loves him for his own sake, not God’s.  Nevertheless the wise person ought to know what he can do by himself and what he can do only with God’s help; then you will avoid hurting him who keeps you from harm.

If a person has a great many tribulations and as a result frequently turns to God and frequently experiences God’s liberation, surely even if he had a breast of iron or a heart of stone, must he not soften towards the generosity of the redeemer and love God not only for his own benefit, but for God himself?

The Third Degree of Love: When One Loves God For God’s Sake

One’s frequent needs make it necessary for him to call upon God often, and to taste by frequent contact, and to discover by tasting how sweet the Lord is.  It is in this way that the taste of his own sweetness leads us to love God in purity more than our need alone would prompt us to do.  The Samaritans set us an example when they said to the woman who told them the Lord was there, “Now we believe, not because of your words, but because we have heard him for ourselves and we know that truly he is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42)  In the same way, I urge, let us follow their example and rightly say to our flesh, “Now we love God not because he meets your needs; but we have tasted and we know how sweet the Lord is.” (Psalm 33:9)

There is a need of the flesh which speaks out, and the body tells by its actions of the kindnesses it has experienced.  And so it will not be difficult for one who has had that experience to keep the commandment to love his neighbor.  He truly loves God, and therefore he loves what is God’s.  He loves chastely, and to the chaste it is no burden to keep the commandments; the heart grows purer in the obedience of love, as it is written.  Such a person loves justly and willingly keeps the just law.

This love is acceptable because it is given freely.  It is chaste because it is not made up of words or talk, but of truth and action.  It is just because it gives back what it has received.  For one who loves in this way loves as he is loved.  One loves, seeking in return not what is his own, but what is Jesus Christ’s just as he has sought not his own but our good, or rather, our very selves.  One who says, “We trust in the Lord for he is good” love in this way.  One who trusts in the Lord not because he is good to him but simply because he is good, truly loves God for God’s sake and not for his own.  One of whom it is said, “He will praise you when you do him favors,” does not love him in this way.  That is the third degree of love, in which God is already loved for his own sake.

The Fourth Degree of Love: When One Loves Oneself For The Sake Of God

27.  Happy is he who has been found worthy to attain to the fourth degree, where one loves oneself only for God’s sake.  “O God, your justice is like the mountains of God.” (Psalm 35:7)  That love is a mountain, and a high mountain of God.  Truly, “a rich and fertile mountain.” (Psalm 67:16)  “Who will climb the mountain of the Lord?” (Psalm 23:3)  “Who will give me wings like a dove, and I shall fly there and rest?” (Psalm 54:7)  That place was made a place of peace and it has its dwelling-place in Sion.” (Psalm 75:3)  “Alas for me, my exile has been prolonged!” (Psalm 119:5)  When will flesh and blood, this vessel of clay, this Earthly dwelling grasp this?  When will it experience this kind of love, so that the mind, drunk with divine love and forgetting itself, making itself like a broken vessel, may throw itself wholly on God and, clinging to God, become one with him in spirit and say, “My body and my heart have fainted, O God of my heart; God, my part in eternity,” (Psalm 72:26)?  I should call him blessed and holy to whom it is given to experience even for a single instant something which is rare indeed in this life.  To lose yourself as though you did not exist and to have no sense of yourself, to be emptied out of yourself and almost annihilated, belongs to Heavenly, not to human love.

And if indeed any mortal is rapt for a moment or is, so to speak, admitted for a moment to this union, at once the world presses itself on him, the day’s wickedness troubles him, the mortal body weighs him down, bodily needs distract him, he fails because of the weakness of his corruption and – more powerfully than these – brotherly love calls him back.  Alas, he is forced to come back to himself, to fall again into his affairs, and to cry out wretchedly, “Lord, I endure violence; fight back for me,” (Isaiah 38:14); and, “Unhappy man that I am, who will free me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24)

28.  But since scripture says that God made everything for himself, there will be a time when he will cause everything to conform to its Maker and be in harmony with him.  In the meantime, we must make this our desire: that as God himself willed that everything should be for himself, so we, too, will that nothing, not even ourselves, may be or have been except for him, that is according to his will, not ours.  The satisfaction of our needs will not bring us happiness, not chance delights, as does the sight of his will being fulfilled in us and in everything which concerns us.  This is what we ask every day in prayer when we say, “Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  O holy and chaste love!  O sweet and tender affection!  O pure and sinless intention of the will – the more pure and sinless in that there is no mixture of self-will in it, the more sweet and tender in that everything it feels is divine.

To love in this way is to become like God.  As a drop of water seems to disappear completely in a quantity of wine, taking the wine’s flavor and color; as red-hot iron becomes indistinguishable from the glow of fire and its own original form disappears; as air suffused with the light of the sun seems transformed into the brightness of the light, as if it were itself light rather than merely lit up;  so, in those who are holy, it is necessary for human affection to dissolve in some ineffable way, and be poured into the will of God.  How will God be all in all, if anything human remains in one?  The substance remains, but in another form, with another glory, another power.  When will this be?  Who will see this?  Who will possess it?  “When shall I come and when shall I appear in God’s presence?” (Psalm 41:3)  O Lord my God, “My heart said to you, ‘My face has sought you.  Lord I will seek your face.'” (Psalm 26:8)  Shall I see your holy temple?

29.  I think that cannot be until I do as I am bid: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  Then the mind will not have to think of the body.  The soul will no longer have to give the body life and feeling, and its power will be set free of these ties and be strengthened by the power of God.  For it is impossible to draw together all that is in you and turn towards the face of God as long as the care of the weak and miserable body demands one’s attention.  So it is in a spiritual and immortal body, a perfect body, beautiful and at peace and subject to the spirit in all things, that the soul hopes to attain the fourth degree of love, or rather, to be caught up in it; for it lies in God’s power to give it to whom he will.  It is not to be obtained by human effort.  That, I say, is when one will easily reach the fourth degree: when no entanglements of the flesh hold him back and no troubles disturb him, as he hurries with great speed and eagerness to the joy of the Lord.

But do we not think that the holy martyrs received this grace while they were still in their victorious bodies – at least in part?  They were so moved within by the great force of their love that they were able to expose their bodies to outward torments and think nothing of them.  The sensation of outward pain could do no more than whisper across the surface of their tranquility; it could not disturb it.

XI.30.  But what of those who are already free of the body?  We believe that they are wholly immersed in that sea of eternal light and bright eternity.

What Is Impossible For Souls Before the Resurrection

It is not in dispute that they want their bodies back; if they thus desire and hope for them, it is clear that they have not wholly turned from themselves, for it is evident that they are still clinging to something which is their own, even if their desires return to it only a very little.  Until death is swallowed up in victory, and the everlasting light invades the farthest bounds of night and shines everywhere – so that Heavenly glory gleams even in bodies – these souls cannot wholly remove themselves and transport themselves to God.  They are still too much bound to their bodies, if not in life and feeling, certainly in natural affection.  They do not wish to be complete without them, and indeed they cannot be.

And so before the restoration of their bodies souls will not lose themselves, as they will when they are perfect and reach their highest state.  If they did so the soul would be complete without its body, and would cease to want it.  The body is not laid down nor resumed except for the good of the soul.  “Precious in God’s sight is the death of his saints.” (Psalm 115:15)  If death is precious, what must life be, and such a life as that?  It need not be surprising that the glorified body should seem to confer something on the soul, for it was of use to it when it was weak and mortal.  O how truly did he speak who said that all things work together for good to those who love God.  Its weak body helps the soul to love God; it helps it when it is dead; it helps it when it is resurrected, first in producing fruits of patience, secondly in bringing peace, thirdly in bringing completeness.  Truly the soul does not want to be perfected without that which it feels has served it well in every condition.

31.  It is clear that the flesh is a good and faithful companion to the good spirit.  It helps it if it is burdened, or if it does not help, it relieves it; at any rate, it is an aid and not a burden.  The first state is full of labor, but fruitful; the second is a time of waiting, but without weariness; the third is glorious.  Listen to the Bridegroom in the Song holding out this threefold invitation: “Eat,” he says, “and drink, friend; be intoxicated, dearest.”  He calls those who are laboring in the body to eat.  Those who have set aside their bodies he calls to drink.  Those who have resumed their bodies, he encourages to drink their fill.  These he calls “dearest,” for they are filled to overflowing with love.  For there is this difference between these and those others he calls “friends,” not “dearest,” so that those who groan because they are still laboring in the flesh are held dear for the love they have; those who are free from the weight of the flesh are more dear because they are made more ready and quicker to love.  More than both are they called “dearest” (and so they are) who, having received the second garment, are in their resurrected bodies in glory.  They burn the more eagerly and fiercely with love for God because nothing is left to them which can trouble them or hold them back in any way.

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