Normally I don’t start chapter talks with something on “why I chose this topic” but this time I do need to say something. On the feast of SS Peter and Paul Grace tied her reflection on the two great apostles to the theme of the year of faith, and it occurred to me that it might be nice to do the same with Bernard. Of course, “St Bernard on faith” is a huge topic (though probably small in comparison with “St Paul on faith”), so I will limit this talk to just two elements. The first is a look at one of his sermons in which faith is a major theme - Sermon 28 on the Song; and second, Bernard as an example and inspirer of faith.
Sermon 28 is the last of Bernard’s 4 sermons commenting on the 4th verse of chapter 1 of the Song (so note, it took him 24 sermons to get through the title and the first 3 verses of the Song). The text Bernard is commenting on here is “I am black but beautiful”. It was understood even in antiquity that this verse is being spoken by the Bride, and that’s how Bernard treats it in Sermons 25-27. He starts sermon 28 in the same vein, but very soon does a remarkable twist and the next thing you know it’s no longer the Bride but the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, he’s describing as “black but beautiful,” and then we get a whole sermon devoted to the difference between what’s visible on the exterior, perceived by the senses, and what is the deeper reality, perceived by faith.
Basically, St Bernard interprets “black” to mean the absence of light, that is, the absence of the manifestation of divine glory, and so “black” stands in for the humanity of Christ. And particularly, for that humanity at the point when the divine glory is most dimmed to human sight, namely, on the cross. This is the supreme point where Jesus may be described as “black but beautiful.” Precisely because death by crucifixion is so ignominious, because Jesus was an object not only of abuse but also of scorn, because the cross is the point of supreme shame, this is the moment when the divine glory is most deeply concealed. And yet, as we know, it’s also the point at which, to those who believe, the divine glory is most superbly revealed.
So how is it that we are able to perceive the true beauty and glory of Jesus when he is visually unpleasant, even repulsive to look at? Bernard naturally looks to Scripture for a solution to this riddle, and he notices that the centurion at the cross, who had never seen Jesus before and meets him only when he is no photo-op, makes a declaration of faith, “Surely this was God’s Son.” What leads him to this act of faith? Well, we need to look carefully at the text. The centurion “saw that he thus cried out and breathed his last” – this is what prompts his confession. So Bernard concludes that somehow the sound of Jesus’ voice is what penetrated this man’s heart and gave him faith: “It was the sound of his voice that inspired his belief, it was by the voice that he recognized the Son of God, and not by the face…The hearing succeeded where the sight failed. Appearances deceived the eye, but truth poured itself into the ear…to the ear the Son of God revealed himself, to the ear he made his beauty known.”
Faith is certainly a way of seeing, a way of knowing, as Bernard will make plain in numerous places; but it is only a partial way of seeing, to prepare us for the full vision. And of course he rolls out St Paul’s famous word to the Romans, “Faith comes by hearing.” This is Bernard’s basic conception of faith. It comes to us by hearing, and especially by hearing the Word of God; and then by obeying what we hear, which is really part of hearing.
Bernard sees a congruence between the loss and the recovery of our ability to see God. We lost this ability also by hearing – that is, by heeding the voice of the evil serpent. So our return to God must be by the same route, that is, by inner hearing and following. We all long to see God, that is, to have the full knowledge and revelation of the love and majesty of Jesus Christ that we were created for. The preparation for this seeing, Bernard says, is hearing. “How I wish the Lord would open my ear, that the word of his truth would enter into my heart, cleanse my eye and make it ready for that joyful vision…That even I, along with his other obedient followers, should hear from God: ‘You are clean by the word which I have spoken to you.’ Not all who hear are cleansed, but only those who obey, the blessed ones are those who both hear and keep the word. This is the hearing he asks for…and this is the response that such a person makes: ‘Let me hear what God the Lord will speak within me.’” Apparently the version of Ps 84 known to Bernard translates the line we know as “I will hear what the Lord God has to say” as “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak within me,” which encapsulates Bernard’s teaching on how we may grow in faith – by listening to the voice of God within, hearing it, and obeying.
How is Bernard himself an exemplar of faith? Where do we see him listening to the Word of God and obeying, and gaining clearer sight from this listening?
One perhaps obvious example in his life is his decision to enter Citeaux. Bernard had lots of ecclesiastical choices in front of him, but he was drawn to this new monastery, one of many following the Rule of St Benedict, one of a number experimenting with ways to live the Rule more fervently, but perhaps distinguished from the rest by the seriousness of its reform enterprise, a clarity of vision regarding dis-entanglement from the worldly structures of the time, and perhaps above all the visionary genius of its third abbot, St Stephen Harding. An inner voice not only told Bernard that this was his way to sanctity, but filled him with conviction that it was the best way available at the time of seriously living the Gospel. This conviction was so strong in Bernard, and he was able to articulate it so well, that its effect on his whole extended family was a powerful movement of conversion among them all.
So, Bernard heard what Jesus was calling him to, and obeyed so whole-heartedly that God did give him a clearer vision, one that he was able over the course of a lifetime to communicate effectively to others. This was possible only because he continued to listen. Another sign of Bernard’s listening is of course his brilliant use of Scripture. To know Scripture very well indeed was not particularly unusual in 12th century monastic circles; but his ability to weave various Scriptures in truly creative ways shows how thoroughly he prayed and assimilated the depths of the Word of God.
One part of Bernard’s biography that has always struck me as somewhat singular was his steadfast refusal to become a bishop. The move from abbot to bishop was not uncommon, and Bernard could easily have made the step. In the 12th century it wouldn’t even have meant abandoning a monastic lifestyle; on the contrary, monks who became bishops were expected to keep to their monastic regime in many respects – far more so than today. So why didn’t Bernard make the move? My own guess is that, above all, it was because he knew it was God’s will for him to remain in the monastery. There were also lots of good reasons: certainly he had plenty of power and prestige just as Bernard of Clairvaux; he was able to do plenty of work for the church all over Europe without being a bishop; perhaps there were even advantages to being part of a universal, rather than diocesan, organization. Maybe, too, as a charismatic figure he mistrusted his own inclinations (if he had them) for the kind of power that would have come with, say, a major ecclesiastical appointment. It’s hard to know, and it’s one of the things I want to ask him when I meet him! But surely, underlying all these, is his utter faith in the Lord Jesus and in his plan for Bernard. And like many saints who clearly hear and obey the Lord regularly, he was quite clear in his own mind that as abbot of Clairvaux he was exactly where God wanted him to be; and he trusted Christ would use him well right there.
But probably Bernard’s most important contribution to the faith of the Christian community was the way God used him to be his voice to the church of his time. When Bernard spoke, people lit up with the fire of the Holy Spirit, were filled with joy and conviction and desire and indeed the grace to change their lives. This means Bernard was not just a gifted orator. There’s an anecdote about two of the great Greek orators, Pericles and Demosthenes. Pericles ruled Athens in its golden age; Demosthenes came on the scene later, when the glory days were passing and the free Greek states were about to be swallowed up by Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The anecdote goes like this: “When Pericles speaks, the people say, ‘how well he speaks!’ But when Demosthenes speaks, the people say ‘Let us march!’”
Like Demosthenes, Bernard got people marching. Yes, he was a consummate artist with words. But far more than that, he reflected on and understood on a profound level the needs and aspirations of his time (which were really the deepest needs and aspirations of all people at all times) – and indeed he shared those aspirations. His voice brought spiritual clarity and purpose and strength to thousands of people, because his heart shared the same desires and his faith understood the roots of these desires and how they found their answer in the love of Jesus.
We thank God for our father and ask his blessings on us, that we too may hear, obey, understand, and love Jesus greatly. We ask his blessing on our Order, that we too may be a great blessing to all whose lives we touch. And ask his blessing above all on the Church in our time, that we too may be so on fire with the Holy Spirit that the world may come to know how all it hopes for and needs is found in Jesus of Nazareth.