St. Bernard on Ignorance and Sin

Fr. Sylvester Tan, S.J.’s brilliant paper on unconscious sin in Chrétien’s Li Contes del Graal makes the following point about how St. Bernard understood the role of ignorance in his theology of sin:

Unlike some of the scholastic theologians of his day, Bernard is not interested in using ignorance to justify the failings of those who do not know God. Rather, out of a genuine concern for the well-being of those sinners, Bernard sees ignorance as an impediment to salvation that must be removed before any person is to attain true life, whether in this life or the next. Bernard takes to heart the words ‘be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48) and exhorts all his listeners to rid themselves of all that would keep them from loving God, regardless of whether they can find an excuse whereby they ought not to be held accountable for indulging, or having indulged, in this or that vice.

There are some remarkable parallels between the controversy between St. Bernard and Abelard on this point, the controversy between Jansenists and Jesuits recounted in Pascal’s Provincial Letters, and current debates on Amoris Laetitia. One of these days I hope to write at length about them.

Solemn Profession of Vows in Heiligenkreuz

The video embedded above shows the Mass of the Assumption in Heiligenkreuz yesterday, during which four of my confrères made their solemn profession of vows. The Assumption is the patronal feast of all Cistercian churches, and it is very often the occasion of vows. During the glorious liturgy I thought back to the first time that I witnessed solemn vows in Heiligenkreuz on the Assumption day of the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. It was then that I decided to enter Heiligenkreuz myself. And, of course, I thought back to my own solemn vows on Assumption day of 2010. Each subsequent Feast of the Assumption has been for me a renewal of joy and gratitude at being a monk of this abbey. Continue reading

neither the examples of humility nor the proofs of charity are anything without the sacrament of our redemption

I wish to follow with all my strength the lowly Jesus ; I wish Him, who loved me and gave Himself for me, to embrace me with the arms of His love, which suffered in my stead; but I must also feed on the Paschal Lamb, for unless I eat His Flesh and drink His Blood I have no life in me. It is one thing to follow Jesus, another to hold Him, another to feed on Him. To follow Him is a life-giving purpose ; to hold and embrace Him a solemn joy ; to feed on Him a blissful life. For His flesh is meat indeed and His blood is drink indeed. The bread of God is He who cometh down from Heaven and giveth life to the world (S. John vi. 56, 33). What stability is there for joy, what constancy of purpose, without life ? Surely no more than for a picture without a solid basis. Similarly neither the examples of humility nor the proofs of charity are anything without the sacrament of our redemption. (St. Bernard, Letter On the Errors of Peter Abelard)


Volo totis nisibus humilem sequi Jesum; cupio eum qui dilexit me, et tradidit semetipsum pro me, quibusdam brachiis vicariae dilectionis amplecti: sed oportet me et Agnum manducare paschalem. Nisi enim manducavero carnem ejus, et bibero ejus sanguinem, non habebo vitam in memetipso. Aliud sequi Jesum, aliud tenere, aliud manducare. Sequi, salubre consilium; tenere et amplecti, solemne gaudium; manducare, vita beata. Caro enim ejus vere est cibus, et sanguis ejus vere est potus. Panis est Dei qui de coelo descendit, et dat vitam mundo (Joan. VI, 56, 33). Quis status gaudio, sive consilio, absque vita? Nempe haud alius quam picturae absque solido. Ergo nec humilitatis exempla, nec charitatis insignia, praeter redemptionis sacramentum, sunt aliquid.

You Will Be Honored in the Presence of All


Someone asked me for the text of a sermon that I preached last Sunday in Heiligenkreuz. So here it is reconstructed and translated from notes and memory.

“When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11)

Reverend Fathers, Venerable Brothers, dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The desire for honor, recognition, praise, good report, approval is rooted deep in our humanity. So is the fear of shame, exposure, and blame. Nor is this entirely a bad thing. There can be an innocent joy in being praised. C.S. Lewis notes that good children rejoice with innocent pleasure in the praise of their parents. And not just children even brute beasts–loyal dogs and horses–rejoice in the praise of their masters. There is something beautiful and graceful in this joy. It is, Lewis says, the specific joy of the inferior, “the pleasure a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.”

The great Lewis scholar Thomas Howard gives the following example. In a documentary on the day-to-day workings of Windsor Castle, the old servant in charge of hoisting the royal standard was interviewed. There are hundreds of servants at Windsor so of course the Queen cannot know all of them, but this old man said, with evident joy, “She knows who I am.”

There is a graceful, a beautiful joy in praise, but there is also a warped, perverse, sinful craving for praise. Man was originally clothed in glory and grace, but through sin he was stripped naked. Poor and exposed, man tries to cloth himself in something to forget his nakedness and misery. St. Bernard says of those on the first step of pride–curiosity–that not being able to stand the knowledge of themselves they turn outward. But soon the distractions of curiosity are not enough and they seek the praise of others to hide their shame. They seek a lie with which to deceive themselves.

What a miserable life vainglory gives those enslaved to it. The vainglorious despise the others and consider their own judgement better except with regard to themselves; when they are praised they suddenly find the judgement of others trustworthy. The vainglorious Pharisees in the Gospel cannot enjoy the banquet since they are so occupied with their own honor. The vainglorious learn no truth in conversation since they are only concerned with saying something clever and appearing brilliant.

St. Bernard describes how this leads to higher steps of pride. The eighth step is particularly insufferable and ubiquitous–even in the monastery. Those on the eighth step are so caught in the lie that they cannot abide any legitimate criticism, anything which breaks the illusion, and so they violently defend themselves against all blame:  “A man either says ‘I did it not’ or if he did it “I acted rightly in so doing’, or if he acted wrongly ‘not to a serious extent,’ or, if he was seriously wrong, [that worst and most insufferable of all excuses:] “I meant well”. (De Gradibus Humilitatis et Superbiae XVII)

We have to stop this, brothers. If we don’t free ourselves from the lie, we will be exposed when it really matters: at the Judgement of God. All our nightmares of being embarrassed, found out, seen through; of stuttering and forgetting our lines on stage; of failing our exams; the panic, the burning shame–they will all be fulfilled in the most horrible way. “Our only response could be sheer spleen, screaming, and mockery… infinite torture… hatred, irrationality, and burning.” This is hell: to be exposed for all eternity before the undeceivable eyes of all the justified of every nation, the hosts of angels, and our Creator Himself.  “And then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.”

The only means of escaping this fate is humility: giving up the lie, admitting our smallness, poverty, and sinfulness. “Humility,” St. Bernard writes, “is the virtue which enables a man to see himself as he truly is, and thereby to discover his worthlessness.”

But humility need not be bitter humiliation. It can be sweet. When we praise God, when we are filled with wonder and reverence before His glory, then we desire  to confess our smallness before Him. To me the most beautiful thing about the monastic Liturgy of the Hours is the Gloria Patri: after every Psalm we step out of our stalls and bow low in reverence and awe before the majesty of the Most Blessed Trinity. What joy!

This is the joy that todays epistle imparts:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… (Hebrews 12:18-24)

Our confrère Pater Robert Abeynaike has demonstrated that this passage refers to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Lord becomes really, truly,  substantially present on the altar, but He does not cease to be enthroned at the right hand of the Father; no, the whole heavenly court becomes present with Him. Untold saints kneeling before Him, hosts of angels veiling their faces before His Glory, they are with Him here. And we enter into this mystery and bend our knees, and adore, and wonder, and are filled with joy and humility.

But if we are humble then our Lord promises to crown our humility with another reward: with praise. “When your host comes he [will] say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all…” Amen.

Easter and Spiritual Freedom

The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:26)

The Risen Lord shows a remarkable freedom with respect to earthly things. Not only is he entirely free from all weakness and suffering, but not even locked doors are no barrier to him, His body is full of intese and perfect life, and everything is easy to Him. Having conquered sin and death He has won for Himself the perfect peace of victory.

“Peace be with you.” The peace that He has won for Himself He gives to us. Perfect freedom from all mortality and suffering will come to us only after our own bodily resurrection, but even now we share in Christ’s freedom through the holiness given us in Baptism.  Blessed Columba Marmion teaches (Christ in His Mysteries, ch. 15) that holiness consists in two elements: first perfect freedom from sin and detachment from all creatures, and second belonging totally to God. Both elements are luminously manifest in the Resurrected Christ: For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God

The readings for this season emphasize again and again that we, having died to sin with Christ, must now live entirely “to God.” If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2) The joy of the Resurrection should enable us to delight in God alone and to achieve a total freedom from all attachment to creatures. “Get rid of the old leaven.” (cf. Col 3:1) Put away all the disordered desires and attachments that are the roots of sin and death, and rejoice only in God. This is what St Ignatius calls “indifference.”

St Bernard of Clairvaux in a remarkably stern Easter Sermon warns his monks, that having passed through the Red Sea with with Christ, they must take care not to look back to the carnal consolations of Egypt:

Woe to you, whoever you are, if like a dog you turn back  back to your own vomit, and like a pig you wash only to wallow again in the mire! (cf 2 Pet 2:22) I speak not only of those who bodily return to Egypt, but also those who return in their hearts, who seek after the joys of this world, and so lose the life of faith, which is love (caritas). For, “if any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (1 Joh 2:15)

In another sermon he warns his monks not to abandon the freedom they have won through the hard fast of Lent:

Nothing of the spiritual exercises [of Lent] should be lost or diminished at the coming of the Holy Feast of the Resurrection. Let us rather strive to pass over to a better life. For any one who, after the tears of penance, does not return to the consolations of the flesh, but advances to trust in the Divine Mercy and enters into a new devotion and joy in the Holy Spirit; any one who is not so much tormented by the memory of past sins, as he is full of delight and inflamed with desire for the eternal rewards; such a one is he who rises with Christ, who celebrates the Pasch, who hastens to Galilee. You therefore, dearly beloved, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2) Just as Christ rose from death through the glory of the Father, so might you too walk in the newness of life. (cf. Rom 6:4) You should pass from temporal joy (saeculari laetitia) and the consolations of this world by compunction and godly sorrow, to holy and spiritual devotion passing over with rejoicing and exulting. May He grant this to you who has passed over from this world to the Father, who draws us after Himself, and deigns to call us to Galilee to show us Himself, who is over all things, God, blessed for ever. Amen.

transire gaudeatis exsultationem

“Nec quidquam in nobis pereat aut minuatur de exercitio spirituali sacrae resurrectionis adventu, sed transire magis et excrescere studeamus! Quicunque enim post lamenta poenitentiae non ad carnales redit consolationes; sed in fiduciam divinae miserationis excedit, ingreditur novam quamdam devotionem et gaudium in Spiritu sancto; nec tam compungitur praeteritorum recordatione peccatorum, quam delectatur memoria et inflammatur aeternorum desiderio praemiorum: is plane est qui cum Christo resurgit, qui Pascha celebrat, qui festinat in Galilaeam. Vos ergo, charissimi, si consurrexistis cum Christo, quae sursum sunt quaerite, ubi Christus est in dextera Dei sedens; quae sursunt sunt sapite, non quae super terram (Coloss. III, 1, 2): ut quemadmodum Christus resurrexit a mortuis per gloriam Patris, ita et vos in novitate vitae ambuletis (Rom. VI, 4); ut a saeculari laetitia et consolatione mundi per compunctionem et tristitiam, quae secundum Deum est, ad devotionem sanctam, et spiritualem vos transire gaudeatis exsultationem, ipso praestante, qui transivit ex hoc mundo ad Patrem, et nos quoque trahere post se, et in Galilaeam vocare dignatur, ut semetipsum nobis ostendat, qui est super omnia Deus benedictus in saecula, Amen.” (S. Bernardus Claraevallensis, In die sancto Paschae)

The Body as Deep Mud, a Donkey, and the Hinge of Salvation

nativity copy

I am plunged into deep mire, and there is no standing. Ps 69(68):2

When Christ came into the world, he said, […] a body hast thou prepared for me. Heb 10:5

Caro salutis est cardo. (Salvation hinges on the flesh). Tertulian, De Resurrectione Carnis, VIII

For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Heb 1:5

The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Is 1:3

The Psalm verse about being plunged into deep mud where there is no standing is usually applied to the Passion, but Charles De Koninck in Ego Sapientia (ch. 20) shows that it can also be applied to the Incarnation. The “deep mud” is the potentiality of matter into which the eternal Son, the pure act of Divinity, is sunk in becoming man. Fashionable theologians throw up their hands in horror at this sort of application. Not only on exegetical grounds, but above all because they are very sensitive to accusation that Christianity despises the body, and material reality. They hastily quote Tertulian’s famous pun, “Caro salutis est cardo.” (Salvation hinges on the flesh). But they seldom quote something else that Tertulian calls the flesh in the very same chapter of De Resurrectione Carnis: “huic substantiae frivolae ac sordidae” (this poor and worthless substance). Tertulian does indeed defend the body against Gnostics and Platonists – the body is neither evil nor pure privation, it is good and created by God – but neither does he have any illusions about its nobility, considered merely according to its nature. Indeed, it is the very lowliness of matter that enables the flesh to be the hinge of salvation. Continue reading

Everywhere That Mary Went


If you consider of whom she is the mother, how great will be your admiration of her exalted dignity! Do you feel as if you can never sufficiently praise it? Do you not judge, and rightly, that she who has the God-man for her Son is exalted in greatness above all the choirs of angels? Did not Mary confidently call the God and Lord of Angels her Son, saying: “Son, why hast thou done so to us” Which of the angels would have presumed thus to speak? It is sufficient for them and something great, that while by nature they are spirits by grace they are made and called angels, as David says: “Who maketh his angels spirits.” In confidently calling God her Son, Mary acknowledges herself mother of that Majesty Whom those angels serve with reverential awe. Neither does God disdain to be called what He vouchsafed to be. For the Evangelist adds shortly after, “And he was subject to them.” Who was subject? God, to man. God to Whom the angels are subject. God, Whom the powers and principalities obey, was subject to Mary. And not only to Mary, but to Joseph also for Mary s sake. Consider, then, and choose which you will most admire, the gracious condescension of the Son, or the surpassing dignity of the mother. Both are amazing; both are miraculous. That a God should obey a woman is humility without example; that a woman should command the Son of God is a dignity without parallel. In the praise of virgins we hear that wonderful verse: “They shall follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.” But what praise, think you, is worthy of her who leads the way before Him ? Continue reading

Our Lady as the Pearl of Great Price


A virtuous Woman who can find? Her price is far beyond pearls. – Proverbs 31:10

Again, the kingdom of heaven is as if a merchant were looking for rare pearls: and now he has found one pearl of great price, and has sold all that he had and bought it. – Matthew 13:45-46

Cornelius a Lapide mentions that one can take the pearl of great price to mean Our Lady. But in that case who is the merchant? The merchant is God Himself Who searched through all generations till He found the “virtuous woman” who was to be the Mother of His Son. And He was willing to pay all He had for her. In an earlier post I looked at how the Our Lady can be seen as the final cause of the entire universe; she is more than all other purely created things the end and motive that God had in mind when He created the world. And it was above all for Her that the Divine Son paid the ultimate price on the Cross. There is a beautiful meditation on this in Fr. Antonio Maria Sicari’s Way of the Cross for the Jubilee of Priests: Continue reading