We waste a lot of time thinking something is owed us. We brood over injury. We are not self-contained. Lent helps us remember the real truth about ourselves and our situation. The wisdom of the saints, like St. Bernard, helps us see our actual situation. His teachings suggest we can be free of brooding and find a new kind of self-possession when we allow the Lord to preoccupy us with his immeasurable love. We are, in fact, loved so much more than we deserve, but we can only see this as God leads us out of ourselves and into Him.
For St. Bernard, conversion happens when we allow God’s love for us to cause a constantly expanding desire for Him in our hearts. We allow God to stir this growing desire whenever we act on what God’s love prompts us to do in our hearts. Growing in love in this way is infallible because God’s desire for our conversion never changes. The result is, as we desire God more, our freedom to act and to love grows ever stronger.
This next statement is a little paradoxical. Our freedom reaches its fullness in mature humility. The paradox resolves itself, at least partially, if we bear in mind the only kind of freedom Bernard believes in – the freedom to love. Mature humility is like a mountain top of self-possession or self-containment for St. Bernard. Love demands this kind of self-containment because to really love freely takes the full force of our being. In mature humility, the heart rests content in God’s bountiful love. It is a strange contentment because it demands constant vigilance, ongoing conversion. Bernard calls this spiritual warfare. It involves a constant struggle against our former way of life, against the gravitational pull of our big fat egos. Another way he looks at it is that this kind of contentment, to be sustained in the Lord, must keep vigil against the movements of pride.
For those who want to climb to union with God, Bernard teaches that there is one great truth of which we must come to complete acceptance. In his Ladder of Pride, he explains how we constantly work to fully accept God’s love for us. This love is not commensurate with anything we think we have done to earn it. The moment we start thinking we are owed something is the exact instant we climb the ladder of pride and fall out of the heights of humility.
There are probably a lot of people who think that this is psychologically unhealthy to think about. They would probably conjecture that any awareness one has of being loved more than he deserves is really just poor self-esteem. But humility is the virtue that regulates self-esteem. It is singularly unhealthy to esteem one’s self more or less than the truth about who one is.
St. Bernard would say that in truth, each of us is uncommonly loved by God, even though we have done nothing to deserve such love. We do not know why we are loved in this way. But we are, in all our unworthiness. It is humility to accept this. Paradoxically, progress is made in the spiritual life through the growing awareness of our own unworthiness in the face of God’s incalculable love.
In the heights of humility, however, we must fight against one uncharitable preoccupation which, while not seeming to be vicious, can utterly destroy our ability to learn to love. He calls it curiosity, but what he means seems to be closer to ambition. Biblically, it is the pursuit of “making a name” for oneself. Think of Babel or the history of Israel. The ambition to lord it over others and to draw attention to oneself always leads away from God. For St. Bernard, pride begins with the way that we look at our brothers and sisters, and it ends in a total rejection of God. His bottom line is that the heights of humility are a protected place as long as we are humble in our dealings with one another. But the gravity of pride constantly pulls at us and, he explains, this pull can only be resisted through prayer, fasting, and humble acceptance of those trials which come our way.
Prayer, fasting and the acceptance of trial helps us realize that our true value is in God’s love for us and in his love for those he has entrusted us. Real self-esteem is rooted in this realization. Our lives are meant to co-inhere: to co-inhere in God and to co-inhere in one another. This means the joys and sorrows of God, and my brothers and sisters, belong to me and are the proper place for my heart to dwell. Preoccupation with making a name for myself takes my heart out of this kind of self-possession. For Bernard, the self does not fully exist isolated from God or from others. The self, the human “I,” ought to be in communion with God and others, or it is less than itself. Thus, to be self-contained, means for Bernard, that our only concern has become communion with one another in Christ.
An interesting application with the observance of Lent presents itself: Traditionally, Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving…. Here, just a word on almsgiving which is not unconnected with the importance of bearing the trials that come our way: In giving alms to those in desperate need what we are really doing, according to Bernard’s perspective, is containing ourselves in a very small way. Our gift is a kind of sharing in the struggles of our brothers and sisters. Think of the poor plight of those in Chile or Haiti or even the homeless mentally ill on our own streets. Their sufferings are always connected to us because of who they are. And humility, knowing the truth about ourselves and how we are connected to them, does not afford us the luxury of ignoring their plight. Their plight is ours. For St. Bernard, to see it any other way is just pride.
Art: The Virgin Appears to St Bernard, Filippo Lippi, 1447; The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, circa 1670-71; both PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.