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Gems of Wisdom from St. Bernard of Clairvaux

August 20, 2021


Today, the Church honors the memory and witness of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), abbot and Doctor of the Church. He is a saint whose insights into God’s love have a refreshing relevance that revitalize our efforts to evangelize in our time. Here, I explore three gems of wisdom and light from his writings that can help our mission of evangelization to become more effective and fruitful.

Love Has a Source

First, Bernard of Clairvaux teaches that love has a source. Through saints like Bernard, the Lord takes us back, time and time again, to the truth of who he is; he is not a distant deity or an impersonal being, but love itself—a personal God who invites those he loves to enter into a loving communion and friendship with him. In one of his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard teaches about the nature of love as having a source: “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” (Sermon 83).

With this beautiful image of moving water, Bernard draws our attention to the generative effect of God’s love as the source of all love. Authentic love flows from its source before it changes those who receive that love. For those who are missionaries of that love of God in the world, the living water of love that they share will be replenished each time they return to the fountain. In this way, God’s love is like a well that never runs dry.

What stands out in St. Bernard’s writings on the love of God is the accessibility of that love for everyone. God’s unconditional love is so accessible and available that we often struggle to believe it. Often, in conversations with people in the parish or in spiritual direction, I try to assure them that despite what they are going through, God knows them, loves them, and is at work in their lives. And when this message is heard, it’s like a light goes on within them. Something changes as the Holy Spirit moves them by this most important of truths. In the words of Bernard, it is God’s humble love that comes first and engages our love for him: “The more he humbles himself on my account, the more powerfully he engages my love” (Sermon 1 on the Epiphany). Over four hundred years later, St. John of the Cross teaches something similar when he writes, “God engages the soul through spiritual affection. Through spiritual affection, God refreshes, delights, and gladdens the soul” (Spiritual Canticle, 11.3).

The accessibility of God’s love presents a challenge to those of us who evangelize today. It brings us back to the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope, or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love” (CCC 25). 

Thanks to saints like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the primacy of love in all our pastoral and evangelical efforts is kept front and center.

God’s Love Is Beautiful

God’s love isn’t just accessible. It is beautiful too. In his teaching, Bernard insisted not just on the proper content of faith but on the loving tone with which it is shared. He clarifies, “All food of the soul is dry unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savor for me unless I have read Jesus in it” (On the Song of Songs, 15). For Bernard, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. This is one of Bernard’s great legacies to the Church—that everything we teach and stand for be shared with a spirit of love and affection for the people we evangelize. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “This is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus. It is having an experience of his closeness, friendship, and love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!” 

Pope Benedict XVI points to Bernard’s example as a warning to all theologians, scholars, and teachers against a dry and academic faith that is divorced from a deep and prayerful relationship with God: “Bernard reminds us that without a profound faith in God, nourished by prayer and contemplation by an intimate relationship with the Lord, our reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming an empty intellectual exercise and losing their credibility…Together with Bernard of Clairvaux, we too must recognize that humans seek God better and find him more easily in prayer than in discussion. In the end, the truest figure of a theologian and of every evangelizer remains the Apostle John who laid his head on the Teacher’s breast” (General Audience, October 21, 2009).

Grace and Truth

St. Bernard wrote about God’s love as being accessible and beautiful, which did not mean that it was sugary or sentimental. Bernard was a realist. He knew himself to be flawed and in need of a savior. Coming before God in prayer was not about seeking a sustained series of spiritual consolations and delights but an encounter with “the truth of our condition in God’s sight.” For this reason, Bernard of Clairvaux implores the word to come to him, full of grace and truth: “I need both of these. I need truth that I may not be able to hide from him and grace that I may not wish to hide. Indeed, without both of these, his visitation would not be complete. For the stark reality of truth would be intolerable without grace, and the gladness of grace might appear lax and uncontrolled without truth” (Sermon 74).

The holy abbot and Doctor of the Church appreciated that God’s love was invasive and revealing—showing us ways in which we need to repent and become more perfect in love. Encountering God’s love always involves knowing him and knowing ourselves in the process: “If you lack self-knowledge, you will possess neither the fear of God nor humility” (Sermon 36). In this, Bernard follows St. Augustine by teaching that knowing God leads to us knowing ourselves and begins the process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ himself.

I conclude with another gem from St. Bernard that speaks to all evangelists who have a burning desire to make Christ known and loved so that others might come to believe in him too: “How will you then be able to set the hearts of others on fire by your words and witness? If, gazing on the face of Christ, you feel unable to let yourself be healed and transformed, then enter into the Lord’s heart, into his wounds, for that is the abode of divine mercy” (Sermon 61).

As we honor St. Bernard of Clairvaux on his feast day, we give thanks to God for his life and for the inspiration his insights provide for us today into the nature of divine love—it is accessible to everyone, beautiful, and bears the truth within it. St. Bernard, pray for us, so that we may speak of God as beautifully as you did!