Celebrating the Humility of St Bernard of Clairvaux
What would be a way to celebrate St. Bernard today in this 21st century? Perhaps one way is to ponder: what would he strive to be in the sight of God and what would he call his brother monks to be? Or, what did Bernard so often refer to in his teaching, which forms the essential framework of his monastic theology? It can be described, I believe, in one word: love, charity. For Bernard, St. Benedict’s ‘school of the Lord’s service’, became the ‘schola caritatis’, the school of charity, the school of love. He taught about this school of love in many different ways and it pervades all of his writings.
“You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul…” (The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, John Sommerfeldt, p.89-90). Without humility our love for our neighbor is weak and empathy is not possible. Imagine: “Empathy is possible only to someone who is truly humble” (p.93). Humility embraces the truth of our selves; it recognizes our own weaknesses. When through the eye of the heart we see the failings of another, the first movement must be to return to our selves, this movement is already the beginning of a humble posture, for then we are better able to recognize that we have this same failing as well. It is only when we have this connection first to our selves that can we reach out to the other in true compassion. I wonder: can there be authentic love of one another without humility? The truth of our selves first puts us on humble ground, then mercy, compassion freely flow to our neighbor. Then we can truly be empathetic for the other. Bernard underscores this in these words: “Look well first to your self, brother, sister, so you may know how to be compassionate with your neighbor” (p.93).
Holding this relation of humility and love of our neighbor, here is another nuance, in the words of John Sommerfeldt: “The experience of one’s true self in love enables one to experience others in love” (p. 104). And from Bernard in the Song of Songs: “…If you are to experience your neighbor as she is, you will actually experience her only as you do your self, for she is what you are” (p.104). ‘She or he is what you are’: again this is saying we are not so different from the sister or brother we are criticizing. What would it feel like if we saw our sister or brother as we are? The plain fact is that we are not living from our true self nor living from a humble posture when get caught in our negative criticisms and fail to exercise loving kindness toward our sister. Bernard’s medicine is that experiencing our true self in love opens us to experience others in love.
And finally, Bernard says, in this most radical statement, from the same passage in the Song of Songs: “The love that is open does not permit the refusal of some feeling, however small, to any person, even to one’s greatest enemy” (p.104-105). ‘The love that is open’: what makes our love ‘open’ and not closed in on itself? I go back to Dom Thomas in the retreat he gave us: the abasement of Christ…that total self-emptying, kenosis, which enables love to flow live a stream, like a river…healing us and our neighbor. Jesus on the cross with outstretched arms: he is totally open: on the cross is God’s love open to all, every person, even those who attacked him and put him on the cross. And what of us? Those daily ‘martyrdoms of the heart’, an ancient monastic metaphor that describes an essential dimension of the monastic ascesis. Can we with the sisters and brothers we live with each day and the persons who cross the threshold of this monastery, can we say that our love is open, both individually and as a community?
This daily ascesis will be before each one of us as we face the usual irritations, reactions, one to another, the hurts and misunderstandings, our individual ways of controlling and pushing our own agenda and so on. Will our love be open? Will our love be open to help us find our true self rooted in a humble heart? Will we take the first step back into our selves before responding in a conflict? Will we trust enough the God who is always with us, whose Spirit is ready to breathe life and healing forth into a heart whose windows are open? Let’s keep the window of our heart open, let’s keep our love open, always the first movement inward, to re-find our true self and then the movement outward toward our neighbor exercising the transforming power of God’s love, loving our sister as we have been first loved.