“Do You See What I See?” – St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Source: the author.

“Thanks to David P. Perrin I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about saints recently. In his latest book, The 20-Minute Retreat, he presents 18 of them as the basis for a series of prayerful meditations.*

He provides a brief biographical outline of each saint and then moves to a thematic discussion, shifting from biography and tradition toward a more personal and contemporary exploration in order “to see better how your story is part of the Christian story.” (p. 9)

Inspired by this thoughtful approach, I opened up my copy of the personal writings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola to look for any mention of saints in his reminiscences, diary, letters, and Spiritual Exercises. Which saints would I encounter? I was fascinated by what I found, and I was even more surprised by what was not to be seen.

Ignatius doesn’t mention many saints by name, though obviously, even in the sixteenth century, there were hundreds he could have mentioned. He doesn’t mention Catherine of Siena, Brigit of Sweden, or any of the saints (real and/or imagined) who overcrowd the pages of Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend.

What examples of saintly life does Ignatius of Loyola refer to in his writings? Not very many, it would seem. Does he present any details of inspiring saintly lives?

It appears that it’s rarely a saint’s life story that attracts his attention as much as the books they may have written. Besides the Evangelists, it’s the great theologian saints that he names and quotes most often. This, for example, comes toward then end of the Spiritual Exercises:

We should praise both positive theology and scholastic theology, for as it is more characteristic of the positive doctors, such as St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory to move the heart to love and serve God Our Lord in all things, so it is more characteristic of the scholastics like St. Thomas [Aquinas], St. Bonaventure, the Master of Sentences [St. Peter Lombard] etc., to define or explain for our times what is necessary for eternal salvation and for more effectively combatting and exposing all errors and fallacies.

This is because the scholastic doctors, being more recent, not only have the benefit both of the true understanding of Sacred Scripture and of the holy positive Doctors, but while being themselves enlightened and illuminated by divine grace, they can avail themselves of the councils, canons, and decrees of our holy mother Church. (paragraph 362)*

And then there’s the “Mellifluous Doctor” himself, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153), the great monastic reformer. Ignatius quotes this Cistercian abbot and acclaimed letter writer no fewer than seven times my collection of his letters.

The remains of Clairvaux Abbey now a heritage site. Source: Clairvaux Foundation Museum.

It’s as if he has found a mentor in St. Bernard, and in all those pages of letters and sermons he sees a form of “religious order handbook” to help him with that unruly entity he founded, the Society of Jesus.

It is St. Bernard’s no-nonsense, hard-won approach to effective leadership, strict discipline, and earned obedience that Ignatius shares with his readers. Here are seven examples.

1: Nothing in Excess

Thus, it is as St. Bernard says, that the enemy has no mechanism so effective for removing true charity from the heart than that of making the heart’s growth in charity something reckless, out of keeping with spiritual common sense. The philosophical dictum ‘Nothing in excess’ applies to everything.   (Letter 16, quoting St. Bernard, Canticum canticorum.)

2: Enemies of Peace

The same St. Bernard rightly calls those who scandalize others ‘spoilers of unity and enemies of peace.’ The sight of one person’s fall does frighten many others and retards their spiritual growth, and the people concerned run the risk of pride and vainglory, following their own judgment rather than anyone else’s, or at least taking over a role that is not rightly theirs. (Letter 16, quoting St. Bernard’s letter, #82, to Guy, Abbot of Molesme)

3: The Stages of Obedience

If unity is to come about and be preserved through … obedience, it must not be simply a matter of practical directives observable in public. It must also extend, as it were, to a person’s desires (as St. Bernard puts it, ‘Those who do not make the wish of the Superior their own have not reached even the first stage of obedience’)… such a union of wills will not last and cannot be preserved if divergent opinions are maintained. (Letter 20, quoting St. Bernard On Obedience.) 

4: To be Fixed in the Memory

I would like you to be well aware of a truth spoken by St. Bernard, and to have it fixed in your memories: ‘If anything happens without the will and consent of the spiritual director, it is to be counted as vainglory, not as merit.’…What greater pride could there be than that of preferring one’s own wishes and opinions to those of the one whom you have formally acknowledged to be you superior in the place of Jesus Christ?  (Letter 20, quoting St. Bernard Canticum canticorum.)

5: God’s Will, Not Yours

St. Bernard’s words, those of a man of experience, are worth quoting, ‘Those who openly or secretly intrigue so that their spiritual fathers will order them to do what they themselves already want, are deceiving and flattering themselves under the guise of obedience, instead of obeying their superiors in such matters, the superiors are obeying them!  (Letter 32, quoting St. Bernard De praecepto et dispensation.)

6: The Cloak of Malice

And when we fail to subordinate our opinions, our obedience is mixed with discontent, unhappiness, slowness, negligence, criticisms, excuses, and other considerable imperfections and drawbacks. These impair the value and merit of obedience. Thus St. Bernard rightly describes people who are unhappy, because ordered by the superior to do things with which they disagree, as follows: ‘If you begin to be irritated, to criticize superiors and inwardly condemn them, then even if outwardly you comply with the order given, there is no real virtue of patience here, but a cloak of malice.   (Letter 31, quoting St. Bernard’s de Sermo de circumcision.) 

7: Through the Eyes of the Soul

Similarly St. Bernard says: ‘Whether God or a human person, as standing in for God, gives a particular order, it is to be accepted with equal care and deferred to with equal reverence, provided of course that the human person gives no order contrary to God.’ If you proceed in this way, using not the eyes of the flesh to look at the external person but the eyes of the soul to see God, then you will have no difficulty in brining your desires and opinions into conformity with the rule you have adopted for your actions. (Letter 31, quoting St. Bernard De praecepto et dispensation.)  

Source: Cistercian Publications.

What a discovery! In Ignatius I found an intriguing window through which to watch St. Bernard, who, in recent years as I read more deeply the work of Thomas Merton, and now Bernard’s own letters and sermons, I began to see him as a truly human, powerful, vulnerable and creative person with incredible charismatic influence, enough to make him a complex, frequently annoying but always surprising and inspiring saint.

Argumentative, unrelenting, psychologically perceptive, repetitive, combative, emotionally fragile, tough as nails, and a deeply engaging, prolific and brilliant writer. Just read any of his letters, or all 469 of them! ***

After summing up the complexity of Bernard’s life, Merton writes, “at the heart of all this is the beautiful simplicity of his doctrine itself, in which there is nothing difficult, nothing esoteric, nothing complicated: only the depth and the lucidity of the Gospel.”

Merton then leaves the last word to Bernard: “It does not behoove thee …to cross the seas, to penetrate the clouds, or to climb the Alps [in search of God]. No great journey is necessary…Seek no further than thy own soul: there wilt thou find thy God!” ****

Do you see what I see?


*The 20-Minute Retreat, David B. Perrin, Novalis, 2019.

**These quotations are from Personal Writings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, trans. Joseph A Munitz and Philip Endean, Penguin, 1996.

***The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, trans, Bruno Scott James, Cistercian Publications, 1998.

****“The Man and the Saint”, Preface to Honey and Salt, Selected Spiritual Writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Vintage, 1954/2007.

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 01:19h, 04 March Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

  • Art White, SJ
    Posted at 13:55h, 04 March Reply

    Wonderful insight, Kevin. We enjoyed your recent visit to Pickering. Br Art White

  • Suzanne Renaud
    Posted at 16:17h, 04 March Reply

    WOW! Thank you!

  • Joan Levy Earle
    Posted at 09:09h, 05 March Reply

    I learned so much from this article. Thank you Kevin for the effort, the research and the inspiration. I may not havve seen all that you saw but feel my heart was given nourishment and my Lenten awareness enhanced. BRAVO!

Post A Comment

Subscribe to igNation

Subscribe to receive our latest articles delivered right to your inbox!