St Bernard on Capax Dei “As I have said, the soul’s greatness is measured by its capacity. What hope of salvation could there be for one who had no capacity for receiving it?” (Sermon #80, Song of Songs, p.149). In these words St. Bernard is giving us a very profound insight into the nature of the human person created by God. Do we realize all that is being said here? The measure of the soul’s greatness is its capacity to receive: to receive salvation, to receive grace, to receive God’s love. Even when we go off the path, when we sin, when we don’t choose life the soul never loses its capacity for the eternal.
I am struck by the word ‘capacity’…capax Dei…capacity for God, capacity for the eternal. Here in sermon #80 On the Song of Songs Bernard’s teaching offers excellent Cistercian anthropology and theology. Out of it we are given a spirituality not only fitting for our times, but one that is healthy and whole, showing a way for our humanity to blossom into the fullness of life to which we are all called. Bernard, more or less, begins this sermon by considering the “word and soul” together (p.146). He asks: ‘Why would you consider these two together?’ His own answer to his question is that there is a “natural kinship, in that one (the Word) is the Image of God, and the other (the soul) is made not only in the image of God but in his likeness” (p.146). In other words Bernard is saying that the Word, Christ, is the Image of God, that is, of the same substance, where the soul is made in the image and likeness of God. Bernard then continues by describing what constitutes the Image: “…righteousness, wisdom and truth. For the image, the Word is righteousness from righteousness, wisdom from wisdom, truth from truth, as he is light and God from God. The soul is none of these things, since it is not the image. Yet it is capable of them and yearns for them; that perhaps is why it is said to be made in the image. It is a lofty creature, in its capacity for greatness, and in its longing we see a token of its uprightness” (p.146). Notice that Bernard uses two words to describe the soul that is made in the image and likeness of God: capacity and uprightness. He will say we can lose our uprightness but never our capacity for the eternal.
To be upright: imagine the soul as upright, not bent over. When we are not ‘upright’ we become bent over, wrapped up in our selves, the world begins and ends with ‘me’. We are self-absorbed, closed, defensive, shut down by our self-defending tapes. Still, when we are caught, stuck in this space we have this capacity for truth, for wisdom, for righteousness (right relationship). Remember: we never lose this capacity. Bernard will say that the soul “made in the image (of God) should conform to the image…” (p.147). Christ is the image of God, Christ is the living reality that we are to ‘conform’ to. The word ‘conform’ I know is not a favorite word today because used as we do in ordinary speech it means to comply to rules, standards, or laws; to adapt our behavior to certain social standards and so on. However, ‘conform’ also means “similar in form or nature”. We are not being asked to ‘conform’ to social standards but to the form and nature of the Word, Christ, who is the wisdom and love of God, the truth and righteousness of God. To be upright in the sense that Bernard is speaking, is to be ‘Christ-like’. It is to be upright in the truth of self-knowledge, it is to be upright in loving as we are loved, forgiving as we are forgiven, it is to be righteous in our relations one to another and all of creation, it is to ”inculcate in our daily lives the values by which Jesus lived and died” (Michael Casey, Fully Human Fully Divine, p.11). To be upright in our daily living is to exercise our capacity for the eternal, it brings us into communion with the One whom we seek, the One with whom we strive to root our lives.
Sr Kathy DeVico