ADVENT MEDITATION: In Defense Of Humility by Bernard of Clairvaux

In Defense Of Humility by Bernard of Clairvaux

From Annunciation Dialogue

“Behold,” Mary said, “the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.” The virtue of humility is always found closely associated with divine grace: for God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6)

Mary replies then with humility, that the dwelling of grace may be prepared.  How sublime is this humility, which is incapable of yielding to the weight of honors, or of being rendered proud by them!  The mother of God is chosen, and she declares herself his handmaid. It is in truth a mark of no ordinary humility that even when so great an honor is given her, she does not forget to be humble.  It is no great thing to be humble when in a low condition; but humility in one that is honored is a great and rare virtue.

If, for my sins or for those of others, God should permit that the church, deceived by my pretensions, should elevate such a miserable and humble man as I to any – even the most ordinary – honor, should not I immediately, forgetful of what I am, begin to think myself such a one as men (who do not see the heart) imagine me to be?  I should believe myself to be the more holy, the higher was the position I occupied.  You can frequently see in the church men sprung from the lower ranks who have attained to the higher, and who from being poor have become rich, beginning to swell with pride, forgetting their low extraction, being ashamed of their family and disdaining their parents because they are in a humble condition.  You can see also wealthy men attaining rapidly to ecclesiastical honors, and then at once regarding themselves as men of great holiness, though they have changed their clothes only and not their minds.

I see (much to my regret) some who, after having despised and renounced the pomp of this world in the school of humility, habituate themselves still more to pride, and under the wings of a master who is meek and humble in heart, become more and more insolent and impatient in the cloister than they had been in the world.  And what is more perverse is that many who would have had to bear contempt in their own homes cannot endure to do so in the house of God.  They have not been able to obtain honors in the world, where all desire to possess them, and yet they expect to be loaded with honors, where all have made profession to despise them.

I see others (and it is a thing not to be seen without grief) who, after having enrolled themselves anew in the affairs of the world, and plunge again into worldly things: with earnest zeal they build up walls, but neglect to build up their own characters; under pretext of the general good, they sell their words to the rich and their salutations to matrons; but in spite of the formal order of their sovereign, they cast covetous eyes on the goods of others, and do not shrink from lawsuits to maintain their own rights.  Is it so that they have crucified themselves to the world, and that the world is crucified to them, that those who before had scarcely been known in their own or village are now seen traversing provinces, frequenting courts, cultivating a knowledge of kings and the friendship of the great?

What shall I say of their religious habit itself?  In it they require not so much warmth as color, and they have more care of the cleanness of their vestment than the culture of their virtues.  I am ashamed to say it, but women are surpassed in their study of dress by monks, when the price of clothing is studied more than utility.  These soldiers of Christ strive to be adorned, instead of arming themselves for battle.  Even when they prepare for struggle, they prefer to present themselves in careful dress, and thus show themselves willing to yield without resistance – without the striking of a blow.  All these evils only come when, renouncing those sentiments of humility which have caused us to leave the world, and finding ourselves thus drawn back to the unprofitable tastes and desires for worldly things, we become like dogs returning to their vomit.

Whoever we are who find such inclinations in ourselves, let us mark well what was the reply of her who was chosen to be the mother of God, but who did not forget humility.  “Behold,” she said, “the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  “Let it be to me” is the expression of desire, not the indication of doubt.  These are words of prayer.

And certainly no one prays for anything unless he believes that it exists, and hopes to obtain it.  But God wills that what he has promised should be asked of him in prayer.  And perhaps therefore he in the first place promises many things which he has resolved to give us, that our devotion may be excited by the promise, and that thus our earnest prayer may merit what he had been disposed to bestow upon us freely.  This is what the prudent virgin understood when she joined the merit of her prayer with the previous gift of the promise freely bestowed upon her, saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.”  Let it be to me according to your word concerning the Word.  Let the Word that was in the beginning with God become flesh from my flesh.

Let the Word, I pray, be to me, not as a word spoken only to pass away, but conceived and clothed in flesh, not in air, that he may remain with us.  Let him be, not only to be heard with the ears, but to be seen with the eyes, touched with the hands and borne on the shoulders.  Let the Word be to me, not as a word written and silent, but incarnate and living.  That is, not traced with dead signs upon dead parchments but livingly impressed in human form upon my chaste womb; not by the tracing of a pen of lifeless reed, but by the operation of the Holy Spirit.  Let it thus be to me, as was never done to anyone before me, not after me shall be done.

I desire that he may be formed, not as a word in preaching, not as a sign in figures, or as a vision in dreams, but silently inspired, personally incarnated, found in the body, in my body.  Let the Word therefore deign to do in me and for me what he needed not to do, and could not do, for himself, according to your word.  Yes, let it be done for the sake of the whole world, but specially let it be done unto me, according to your word.

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