‘The way is humility; the goal is truth.’ The way, humility and the fruit, truth is profoundly described in St. Bernard’s first treatise On the Steps of Humility and Pride. Bernard’s other well-known treatise, On Loving God, was written not long after this first work. I find it interesting to connect these two treatises one to the other: the way is still humility and the goal in this second treatise is now expressed as ‘love’ or charity. Truth leads to mercy and compassion, love grounds itself always in truth, so no wonder they are the ‘goal’, the realities we are tending towards, leaning into, living into. There is a classic work titled The Mystical Theology of St Bernard by Etienne Gilson where Gilson studies the theology on which Bernard’s mysticism rests (p.vii). What Gilson asserts is that Bernard’s “mystical theology is essentially the science of a way of life” (p.viii). Both these treatises give us a praxis that is very down to earth while leading us to ‘Divine Union’, which is the essential longing of the soul. Gilson in reflecting on Bernard’s theology writes: “The beatitude of heaven is union with God Who is Charity” (p.85). God is Love and what Jesus teaches is what he himself is: the fullness of God’s Love. Therefore the work of the monastic is to “restore in the heart…the life of charity” (p.85). Gilson in reflecting on Bernard’s theology will show how divine love is taught in the monastic school as the monastic enters an “apprenticeship of charity” (p.65).
Gilson expands on this; he writes that the Cistercians interpreted the Rule of Benedict by stating that the aim of our lives is the “acquisition and preservation of charity, that is because it is a rule of life, and because as the soul is the life of the body, so is charity the life of the soul” (p.67). Here I want to stress how important is to remember daily, to keep in our consciousness that charity is the life of the soul. Those experiences of when we are lacking in charity are a mirror for us of the state of our soul. This heart-felt knowing, then, opens us to see what we need to do as part of our daily apprenticing in restoring charity in our hearts: “The first thing to be done then, by whoever would walk in the ways of charity, is to learn to know one’s self; and that is the true science, the only one the Cistercian needs…” (p.69). Charity as understood by Bernard is “the liberation of the will” (p.90). This is what the way of humility and self-knowledge can effect in our lives. The ‘will’ needs to be liberated for ‘love’…so that it wills what God wills…so that it loves as God loves.
How then does Bernard understand the ‘will’? Our ‘will’ becomes contracted by fear and it also becomes bent on itself, in Bernard’s words, the “curvature of self-will” (p.90). Gilson describes the liberated will in these words: “Instead of willing a thing out of fear of another, or of willing a thing out of covetousness for something else” (p.90), the will is free, as evidenced by a ‘simple’ and ‘spontaneous movement’ to love for love’s sake, to love “without measure” (p.90). And the object of this love is God…we reach God in and through charity…love. We are created in the ‘image and likeness of God’. Within the human soul, the image remains intact and the ‘likeness’ needs to be restored….To ‘restore in the heart the life of charity’ happens through the liberation, the transformation of our will. In Gilson’s words: “God lives by charity…and those who would live the life of God can do so only by living this same charity, that is to say by receiving it from God as a gift” (p.94-95).
What is “the essential character of charity”? For Bernard, writes Gilson, “It is by definition the common will: chaste, that is to say disinterested; immaculate, that is to say unclouded by any shadow of self-seeking or ‘proper will’” (p.95). Let me tease out these two images: What is a will that is ‘disinterested’? What is a will that is ‘immaculate’? First a will that is ‘disinterested’: it is a will that is not attached in the sense of being enmeshed…in other words we don’t do something in order to get something back, rather we do an act of will because we are simply motivated by love…because love is leading us…there is no self gain in the movement to do the loving act. A will that is ‘immaculate’: is this not ‘purity of heart’…purity of intention? The self-seeking will is prone to manipulate and control relationships. By the way, Gilson calls this Bernard’s “doctrine of liberty” and he says it “is one of the essential factors in his mysticism” (p.97).
The psychiatrist, Gerald May in his book Will and Spiritdistinguishes between two fundamental attitudes: willingness and willfulness. Willingness restores charity in the heart…willfulness separates us from the One who is Love. Joining our will with God’s will is beatitude…it is life, it is grace, it is the experience of oneness with ourselves, with one another, with God and all creation.
In conclusion: we are apprentices, ever learning…the apprenticeship of humility and the apprenticeship of charity, and we have One who stands before us as God’s living icon of humility and love: Christ.
____________ + The Rule of life…the first thing it teaches is to recognize our misery…and as we do this we accomplish the apprenticeship of humility….and humility tends towards its goal charity: Having ascended all these degrees of humility, one arrives at that charity of God which casts out all fear” (p.71).
+ “The displacement of fear by charity by the way of the practice of humility—in that consists of the whole of St. Bernard’s ascesis, its beginning, its development and its term” (p.72). Bernard “discerned and shows us the profound connection between self-knowledge and judgment of self, and between judgment of self and charity” (p.72). “Charity…is the ‘common will’ as opposed to the ‘proper will’;…it is the will common to man and God” (p72).