I first “met” St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a graduate student in theology making a retreat at a Cistercian monastery in Dallas, TX. My little brother had befriended the Abbot and several of the monks there. They invited me to stay with them for a few days on one of my visits to my brother.
Upon departing, the Abbot told me I must read two texts from St. Bernard before we spoke again: The Steps of Humility and Pride, and On Loving God.
Having promised as much, I found the books when I returned from vacation and added them to my reading list. The next time I saw the Abbot I confided in him that I had read the texts, but was not terribly impressed by them. I asked what he had wanted me to see in them – a bold question for a young graduate student to pose to a profound theologian of the Abbot’s ability.
The reply was as direct and piercing (as one should expect from a Cistercian Abba). He asked in what language I had read St. Bernard. I confessed, “English.” He smiled and told me that he meant for me to read them in St. Bernard’s Latin. This was a true lesson in humility, which is the foundation of St. Bernard’s Benedictine theology.
Humility is the root of love.
Reclaiming my place as the “young monk” I really was, instead of the haughty graduate student I was pretending to be, I returned to St. Bernard. Slowing down to read him in the original and not being hindered by the bad translations I had found fundamentally changed me and my understanding of Benedictine monasticism.
St. Bernard experienced God’s abiding love even in this earthly life, and it gave him profound insight into humanity and Christian transformation. Genuine and honest humility is the constant mile-marker of that journey, according to Bernard, because “God first loved us.” This first love implies humility because we must recognize that God’s love is fundamental to the world. God’s love is fundamental to my existence.
My life and my love is rooted in God’s, and not the other way around.
God’s love is fundamental to the world because “God is love,” and God is the Creator of the world. (1 Jn 4) God’s love is not blind. It does not look away from our sins, brokenness, and failings, but rather redeems them. Only the God Who is Love can become Incarnate for us, stooping to our level, to redeem us. Only the God Who is Love can transform us into lovers of neighbor and lovers of God.
The steps the Christian takes on the journey of baptized love start with selfish love. We want things for ourselves, but we quickly realize we are not sufficient to provide for ourselves. We cannot achieve all that we want for ourselves on our own. And so, even selfish love opens itself to admit the love of a neighbor. Simply put, we need others even to attain our selfish ends. This love allows us to recognize that others are loved by God just as much as we, and we convert from selfish love for our own sakes to a kind of selfish love for the sake of others.
Something similar happens in our love for God. Since “God is love,” when we love our neighbors, we open ourselves to God. Eventually we mature to recognize that loving God well is not simply to our benefit, but it is the only appropriate response to the God who loves us. We become willing lovers of God because of Who God is, and not because of what God has done for us.
The most difficult love to perfect, according to St. Bernard, is the love of self, and thus, it is the final stage of Christian life.
This is only achieved definitively in Heaven, according to St. Bernard. Only true humility can admit that there is a God, that I should love that God for His own sake, and that I should even love myself for the sake of God who first loved me.