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.

In Sinu Jesu


A few weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a book by an anonymous Benedictine monk which had just been published: In Sinu Jesu. I have been reading it slowly in the adoration chapel of the seminary here in Heiligenkreuz, and although I haven’t finished yet, it has already made a deep impression on me. It is the sort of book that one wants to read in chapel; and this makes it difficult to write about. It a book about the intimacies of prayer, and therefore not one that lends itself to “blogesterial” discussion. It is a book that should be read in silence. It is a journal that the author kept at adoration, and consists largely of words “given” to Him by our Lord and our Lady. These words are mostly about prayer, and adoration, and sacrifice, about friendship with Jesus, and about the renewal of the priesthood. Readers who want to get a flavor of it can consult Peter Kwasniewski’s posts at Rorate Caeli and The New Liturgical Movementas well as the excerpts that Dom Mark Kirby has posted at Vultus Christi.

One theme that struck me particularly was the theme of loneliness, and the flight from loneliness into the trap of distraction, and the necessity of withdrawing from distraction in order to feel the pain of loneliness so that that pain can be healed by Communion with God. This is a theme that I have been reflecting on from from a quite different perspective in my dissertation on David Foster Wallace, and so I was struck by the words on it here. Consider the following passage:

I want you to tell priests of the desires of My Heart. I will give you many opportunities to do this. Make known to them these things that I have made known to you. So many of My priests have never really heard and understood the invitation to an exclusive and all-fulfilling friendship with Me. And so, they feel alone in life. They are driven to seek out in other places and in creatures unworthy of the undivided love of their consecrated hearts, the fullness of happiness and hope and peace that only I can give them. So many go forward in bitterness and disappointment. They seek to fill the emptiness within with vain pursuits, with lust, with possessions, with food and drink. They have Me, very often, near to them in the Sacrament of My love, and they leave Me there alone… (p. 27)

The theme is of course a traditional one, because it has to do with the condition of fallen man as such. Exiled from friendship with God through original sin, mankind wanders through the regio dissimilitudinis, and tries to numb the pain through importunitas mentis, inquietudo corporis, instabilitas (vel loci vel propositi), verbositas, and curiositas. 

The problem is a perennial human problem, but it takes on a particular character in the Cartesian universe of modernity, more prone to  anxieties of isolation and insecurity that to those of dependence and finality (to use Fritz Rieman’s jargon). The classic modern expression was given at the very dawn of modernity by Pascal in his analysis of diversion in the Pensées, and it recurs throughout the modern era— not only in Catholic writers such as Walker Percy, but also in non-Catholic ones as diverse as Kierkegaard, Paul de Legarde, Heidegger, and David Foster Wallace. Wallace is particularly interesting because of his insistence on loneliness as the root problem (cf. my discussion of this on The Great Concavity). I need scarcely say that while I think those authors are good at setting up the problem, most of them do not have a clear grasp of the solution…

In Sinu Jesu treats the problem particularly as it presents itself in the priestly life. The author is both a monk and a priest, and he shows how fitting it is for all priests to live at least some elements of monastic life. These elements are aimed at leading the soul into the “desert,” as it were, where it is free of diversions and distractions, and becomes able to feel the pain of the loneliness of sin, in order then to receive the healing consolation of Christ. In the Western Rite, all priests are at least required to live a celibate life, and In Sinu Jesu is in part a wonderful reflection on the beautiful and prophetic witness of celibacy. And yet priests engaged in the cura animarum, especially in a modern world that is so intent on diversion (and so skilled in producing it) can so easily fall into diversion’s trap and in “seek in other places” the consolation that can only really be found in Christ.

One of the most moving things about In Sinu Jesu is the constant repeated message that in this earthly pilgrimage true consolation can be found easily in the Adoration of Christ in the viaticum, the way-bread of our journey, in which we already have a foretaste of the union with God that we hope for in Heaven:

There is no need for you or any priest to remain alone. My Heart is open to all my priest sons, and to those who ask for it, I will not refuse the grace of a special intimacy with me, a participation in the unique grace given Saint Joseph and Saint John in the beginning. (p. 36)

I am He who understands every man’s loneliness, especially the loneliness of My priests. I want to share their loneliness so that they will not be alone with themselves, but alone with Me. There I shall speak to their hearts as I am speaking to you. I am ablaze to be for each one of My priests the Friend whom they seek, the Friend with whom they can share everything, the Friend to whom they can tell everything, the Friend who will weep over their sins without, for a moment, ceasing to love them. (p. 14)

The revival of Eucharistic Adoration among the Catholic movements of our time is one of the more unexpected “signs of the times”. If one looks for signs of life in the Catholic Church in Western Europe, one finds them almost always in movements and groups who put a good deal of emphasis on Eucharistic Adoration. A development that became very visible at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne. Who would have expected this development? The Liturgical Movement in the 20th century considered Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass to be a dangerous habit, which might lead hearts away from the Sacrifice of the Mass itself, into an “Emmanuel piety” of Divine presence divorced from the Cross (cf. Dom Gommaire Laporta’s extraordinary polemic Eucharistic Piety). But In Sinu Jesu shows how, properly understood, the Adoration of the Eucharistic presence leads into and deepens the participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice:

Many priests do not have a real and practical faith in My Eucharistic presence. Do they not know that the Eucharist encloses within itself all the merits of My Passion? Let them recover the faith of their childhood. Let them come to find Me there where I am waiting for them and I, for My part, shall work miracles of grace and holiness in them. (p. 14)

In adoration, and from it, as from an ever-flowing fountain, you will receive the love that makes suffering precious and makes you like Me in the hour of My Sacrifice on the altar of the Cross. The more you adore Me, the better equipped you will be to accept suffering and to live it in union with My Passion… (p. 146)

In a way, In Sinu Jesu reads like a commentary on Pope Benedict XVI’s sermon at the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2005. Not a speculative commentary, but an experiential illustration. I’m convinced that any reader who is willing to enter into the spirit of this book will be inspired with a new desire for union with God in prayer. I cannot recommend it too highly.

Tilman Riemenschneider, Last Supper - Detail

Pascal on Beatitude as a Common Good

Some seek good in authority, others in scientific research, others in pleasure. Others, who are in fact nearer the truth, have considered it necessary that the universal good, which all men desire, should not consist in any of the particular things which can only be possessed by one man, and which, when shared, afflict their possessor more by the want of the part he has not, than they please him by the possession of what he has. They have learned that the true good should be such as all can possess at once, without diminution and without envy, and which no one can lose against his will. And their reason is that this desire being natural to man, since it is necessarily in all, and that it is impossible not to have it, they infer from it … (Pensées, Brunschvicg 425; Lafuma 147).

The Only Thing Worth Writing About

Pale King Cover

This year’s Big American Novel is the long-awaited, unfinished book that David Foster Wallace had been working on up to his death in 2008. The Pale King is about the dull lives of IRS bureaucrats, and, as DFW wrote in one of the notes appended to the manuscript (p.545), it has two “broad arcs”: the first arc has to do with boredom and paying attention and the differences between people and machines; the second has to do with with being an individual vs. being part of something larger, civics. Both of these arcs are closely related to the central theme of pretty much all of Wallace’s writing. Continue reading

Jerome K. Jerome and S. Bernard on Sleep


No Novel has made me laugh so much as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The humor of Three Men in a Boat is remarkably universal. Comic writing is often the most time-bound and least universal sort of writing. The ridiculous has to do with the concrete; it is bound up with the fact that material. Man’s immortal soul is the form of an immortal body, and he is thus caught up in all the imperfections of matter. Much comic writing turns on the circumstances of embodied human life, the vagaries of culture; it tends to be full of references to particular events, politicians etc. This is what makes Aristophanes so obscure. There is a certain amount of such humor in Three Men in a Boat, but that is not its main mode of humor. What makes Three Men in a Boat so much funnier than its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, is that the latter is so much more particular, fueled primarily by concrete contrasts between Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. Three Men in a Boat on the other hand is fueled by the absurdities of the human condition an sich. The contrasts that it thrives on are the contrasts inherent in human life itself, the contrasts between matter and spirit, between eternal destiny and dependence on the trivial.

There is something very Pascalian about Jerome K. Jerome’s sensitivity to the contrasts of the human condition. It is not just a sensitivity to the absurdity of embodied spirit; it is a sensitivity to the fallenness of the world, to original sin, or, as J.K.J. calls it, “the natural cussedness of things in general.”

Perhaps the most Pascalian scene in Three Men in a Boat is on the morning of the day that the three men set out. Jerome and Harris wake up late and snarl bad-temperedly at each other till they see that George is still asleep:

There he lay – the man who had wanted to know what time he should wake us – on his back, with his mouth wide open, and his knees stuck up.

I don’t know why it should be, I am sure; but the sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up, maddens me. It seems to me so shocking to see the precious hours of a man’s life – the priceless moments that will never come back to him again – being wasted in mere brutish sleep.

There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused. He might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead of sprawling there, sunk in soul-clogging oblivion.

It was a terrible thought. Harris and I appeared to be struck by it at the same instant. We determined to save him, and, in this noble resolve, our own dispute was forgotten. We flew across and slung the clothes off him, and Harris landed him one with a slipper, and I shouted in his ear, and he awoke.

The Pascalian element is of course the brilliant juxtaposition of eternal destiny with the habit of diversion. Jerome and Harris cannot propose any alternative to the soul-clogging oblivion of sleep except the waking sleep of diversion.

I have discovered [Pascal writes] that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. [… ] When, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

I have often thought that Pascal here gives us the key to understanding the monastic life. The monastic life consists in sitting still in one’s own chamber, in facing the misery of the human condition squarely, weeping over it, and watching and waiting eagerly for the coming of the master who frees us from it. Woe to the servant whom the master finds sleeping when he comes!

Bernard_of_Clairvaux_-_Gutenburg_-_13206In his part of the Vita Prima William of St. Thierry writes (n.21) about S. Bernard’s scorn for sleep (rough translation):

What should I say of sleep, which in other men is a restoration after labor, a recreation of sense and mind? From that time till now he was awake more than is humanly possible. For no time did he regard as so wasted as the time of sleep. He held the comparison of sleep and death for very fitting; for as the sleeping seem dead to men, so the dead are sleeping in the eyes of God. Hence he could scarce keep his patience when he saw a religious in sleep who either snored too loud, or sprawled indecently; he thought such a one a carnal or worldly sleeper. The meagerness of his sleep was proportionate to the meagerness of his food; in neither did he indulge his body to satiety, in both he was satisfied if he had any at all. As for night-watches, he considered a watch moderate if he did not spend the whole night sleepless.

At the rare times when he slept he could truly make the words of the bride his own, “I slept but my heart was awake.” (Sg 5:2)