St. Bernard of Clairvaux: A model of peace for these troubled times
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” – Matthew 5:9
How do we deal with the violence, war, and conflicts that we face in our world today? How can we serve as true peacemakers in our 21st century culture?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian abbot, a contemplative, theologian, and mystic of the twelfth century is an excellent example for us to follow. Due to the numerous schisms which had arisen in the Church during his age, he traveled throughout Europe, restoring peace and unity. Not only did he deal with divisions in the Church, but he also mediated in secular disputes and was sought out as an adviser and an arbitrator by the ruling powers of his era. What was his secret for restoring peace and unity to a troubled world? He was merely a modest monk with no worldly power or possessions. What made him so influential and valuable to others was the fact that he was a man of heroic virtue. Which virtues made him effective as a peacemaker in his environment and which should we strive to imitate today? Let us listen to the voice of St. Bernard Clairvaux, who instructs us in his own words.
St. Bernard had a burning flame of love in His heart for God. He was on fire with love for the Lord! As a contemplative, he practiced a strong prayer life, which led him into a deep and intimate union with his Creator. In his treatise On Loving God, he reveals that the manner of loving God is to love Him without measure and describes the ascent up the spiritual ladder through four degrees of love. In his Sermon on the Song of Songs, St. Bernard interprets the Song of Songs in terms of the love between God and the soul. He emphasizes that God is profoundly in love with each one of us, and desires our love in return. This love between the soul and God, which is the most intimate love imaginable, is expressed in the analogy of bride and bridegroom.
How does he describe love the love between God and the soul? “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 sole purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him.
The Bridegroom’s love, or rather the love which is the Bridegroom, asks in return nothing but faithful love. Let the beloved, then, love in return. Should not a bride love, and above all, Love’s bride? Could it be that Love not be loved?
Rightly then does she give up all other feelings and give herself wholly to love alone; in giving love back, all she can do is to respond to love. And when she has poured out her whole being in love, what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent of that original source? Clearly, lover and Love, soul and Word, bride and Bridegroom, creature and Creator do not flow with the same volume; one might as well equate a thirsty man with the fountain.
What then of the bride’s hope, her aching desire, her passionate love, her confident assurance? Is all this to wilt just because she cannot match stride for stride with her giant, any more than she can vie with honey for sweetness, rival the lamb for gentleness, show herself as white as the lily, burn as bright as the sun, be equal in love with him who is Love? No. 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 total marriage consists. Or are we to doubt that the soul is loved by the Word first and with a greater love?”
— Excerpted from Sermon on the Song of Songs
He tells us that loving our neighbor involves self-sacrifice: “A temperate and righteous love practices self—denial in order to give one’s brother what he needs.”
He stresses the importance of serving others: “There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.”
He divulges how deep intimacy with God brings inner peace: “O place of true rest. . . For we do not here behold God either, as it were, excited with anger, or as though distracted with care; but His will is proved to be ‘good and acceptable and perfect.’ This vision soothes. It does not frighten. It lulls to rest, instead of awakening our unquiet curiosity. It calms the mind instead of tiring it. Here is found perfect rest. God’s quiet quietens all about Him. To think of His rest is to give rest to the soul.”
St. Bernard was filled with hope, never despairing, despite the difficulty of his duties. How can we, too, remain hopeful in the midst of our trials?
He encourages us to place our hope in the ‘Safe Haven’: “Place all your hope in the Heart of Jesus; it is a safe asylum; for he who trusts in God is sheltered and protected by His mercy. To this firm hope, join the practice of virtue, and even in this life you will begin to taste the ineffable joys of Paradise.”
He reassures us that the Blessed Virgin Mary will be our protection: “In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name depart from your lips; never suffer it to leave your heart. And that you may more surely obtain the assistance of her prayer; neglect not to walk in her footsteps. With her for guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.”
“If the hurricanes of temptation rise against you, or you are running upon the rocks of trouble, look to the star- call on Mary!”
A member of the nobility, the brilliant St. Bernard gave up wealth, ambition, and notoriety to become a humble monk. In The Steps of Humility and Pride, he takes the reader down the steps of pride to teach us what true humility is.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, when asked what the four cardinal virtues were replied: “Humility, humility, humility, and humility.”
“As patience leads to peace, and study to science, so are humiliations the path that leads to humility.”
“It is no great thing to be brought humble when you are brought low, but to be brought humble when you are praised is a great and rare achievement.”
“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.”
“Great graces cannot be obtained without humility. When you yourself experience humiliation, you should take it as a sure sign that some great grace is in store.”
~ copyright Jean M. Heimann August 2014