Saints and Heroes: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Reminds Us that 'Love Is Sufficient of Itself'
It was love that led St. Bernard to the fullness of truth; a way of life immersed in beauty and freedom
"It is true that the creature loves less because she is less. But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given. To love so ardently then is to share the marriage bond; she cannot love so much and not be totally loved, and it is in the perfect union of two hearts that complete and perfected marriage consists" -- St. Bernard, Doctor of the Church
GLADE PARK, CO (Catholic Online) -- St. Bernard was born in his father's castle in 1090, at Fountaines les Dijon, France. He was the third son in a family of seven children, consisting of six boys and one girl. Both his parents belonged to nobility and were devoutly Catholic, thus Bernard received a religious upbringing within the ecclesia domestica, the womb of the domestic church that was his family. His mother, Aleth, was a woman especially devoted to God who, with hand raised in the air as she traced the sign of the cross, died a good and holy Catholic death.
St. Bernard's personality is often described as warm and charming: he was a man of strong and affectionate friendships, as is evidenced by his appearance with thirty of his friends at Citeaux, the original Cistercian abbey, in order to gain admittance at the age of about twenty-three. Although his zeal for the fullness of truth and the holy Catholic Church often gave an incorrect impression of anger, those who knew St. Bernard understood it was the fiery charity within his heart, borne of the love of God, which moved him to speak and write in an often direct and piercing manner.
It would be an error to characterize St. Bernard as a man who emphasized quietude, for his life was filled with prodigious activity; yet, even so, he is known as one of the greatest contemplatives who ever lived. He would often nourish his soul by sitting outdoors and meditating on Sacred Scripture so that he could also gaze upon the astounding material beauty of God's creation. In this way, he was fed with both the supernatural revelation of the Word of God and the natural revelation of God's handiwork.
Called to Love by Love Itself
It was through contemplative prayer, which is a gift from God that can only be accepted in humility, and in which the soul seeks Jesus and the Father through the prompting of the Holy Spirit (see CCC 2709 ff.), that St. Bernard was enabled to speak and write with revealing accuracy of such sublime truths as love:
"Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love. Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it.
"Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return; the soul purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him."
Love of God: Called to Love The Mother of God
It was also through contemplative prayer that, held deeply in the loving embrace of Christ, St. Bernard was moved to such great love for the Mother of God: he was enabled to clearly recognize the honor and veneration due the sweet Virgin who ushered salvation into the world. It was Theotokos (God-bearer) whose fiat brought about the supreme pivotal moment in human history: the Incarnation of the Son of God. She nurtured our Savior in the tabernacle of her holy womb, gave birth to the Child in Bethlehem, and unwaveringly followed her Son as the disciple par excellence to the very end. In his letter to the canons of Lyons, St. Bernard wonderfully articulates the importance and beauty of the Virgin Mary:
"Let us honor her for the purity of her body, the holiness of her life. Let us marvel at her fruitful virginity, and venerate her divine Son. Let us extol her freedom from concupiscence in conceiving and from all pain in bearing. Let us proclaim her to be reverenced by the Angels, desired by the nations, foretold by the patriarchs and prophets, chosen out of all and preferred before all. Let us magnify her as the channel of grace, the mediatrix of salvation, the restorer of the ages, and as exalted above the choirs of angels to the very heights of Heaven."
Love of God: Called to Love The Holy Catholic Church
The following inscription from one of St. Bernard's literary works reveals his love for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church: "Who, bearing a heart of universal love, called against his will from the cloister, never ceased to defend, ardently, patiently, and humbly, the one and immaculate Church" (qtd. from The 33 Doctors Of The Church 299).
St. Bernard understood the necessity of the Catholic Church as a specific and definite, divine and human institution willed to exist by God in order that the fullness of revealed truth may be known to all men. The Church does not simply promulgate data or helpful things which we might ought to notice, but rather transmits to humankind the highest and most vital truth: God's own self-disclosure. Therefore the answer to the world's spiritual and moral illnesses, which are nearly always the result of incomplete or impoverished truth, is found in the bosom of the Church. It is here, in the arms of mother Church that, as minister of salvation, God's children are guided safely across the seas of life toward their eternal beatitude.
Perhaps one thing which led St. Bernard to understand the vital truth of the Catholic Church so deeply, is reflecting on both God's mercy and God's judgment. For instance, few devout Catholics would argue against the fact that there exists widespread presumption of God's mercy in contemporary society. In a word, we presume on mercy without repentance. This problem, of course, is directly related to the loss of the sense of the seriousness of sin. If we reflect on God's mercy as it relates to the Church, it is easy to see that the Church was founded by Jesus as an institution of mercy. After all, it is through the Church that we receive Baptism, the sacrament which incorporates us into Christ, opens the door to salvation, and grants us a share in the divine life of God. Is that not mercy?
It is also through the Church that we receive Penance and Reconciliation, the sacrament in which we experience a "new resurrection" from death into life, since through it we are restored to God's grace after having fallen due to our own disordered choices. Is this, too, not mercy?
Further, it is also through the Church that we receive the Eucharist: the sacrament of sacraments in which we partake of the true body, blood, soul and divinity of the Risen Lord. As we receive this incomparable gift, we are lifted to the immeasurable heights of Love Itself -- even though we are undeserving, finite men whose existence is rife with failure. Is this, also, not mercy?
On the other hand, if we reflect on God's judgment, we clearly see both the danger and the error of relegating the Church to "one institution among others." The Church flowed forth from our Savior's pierced side on the cross. Therefore the Church's life was gained at the cost of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here the light begins to flood in, the mist clears, and the Church becomes for us a gift of unimaginable significance.
Fr. Christopher Rengers wrote that if St. Bernard thought of "God's judgments too long, he grew fearful, and if he thought too long of God's mercy, he grew lax" (Ibid.). Thus, St. Bernard adopted a balanced approach in reflecting on these two attributes of God. "And this experience has taught me to sing not alone the mercies of the Lord, and not alone His judgments, but judgment and mercy united in one embrace" (Life of St. Bernard 232).
It is really all about love and gift and Gift and Love. God has first loved us. It is through the gift of grace that we are moved to faith; through faith we are made docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who thus leads us to Christ: God's only Son, sent into the vineyard of the world to convince us of his love. Through the Church, we are sacramentally swept up in his divine arms, led across the sea of life, and ushered toward our final end, which is Love Itself.
"The reason for loving God is God Himself. The measure is to love Him beyond measure" -- St. Bernard of Clairvaux
F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at his blog entitled joy in truth
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