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St- Bernard of Clairvaux

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Day 37: Love stronger than death

Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of a depth of prayer that can properly be called "death" - not a death to life, but a death to what holds us back from true life and union with God.

How I long often to be the victim of this death that I may escape the snares of death, that I may not feel the deadening blandishments of a sensual life, that I may be steeled against evil desire, against the surge of cupidity, against the goads of anger and impatience, against the anguish of worry and the miseries of care... How good the death that does not take away life but makes it better; good in that the body does not perish but the soul is exalted. - Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard calls this deeper prayer of "death" contemplation.

This kind of ecstasy, in my opinion, is alone or principally called contemplation. Not to be gripped during life by material desires is a mark of human virtue; but to gaze without the use of bodily likenesses is the sign of angelic purity. Each, however, is a divine gift, each is a going out of oneself, each a transcending of self, but in one one goes much farther than in the other.

One of the main ways we open ourselves for this greater love to posses us is through prayer. We need to remember thought that the spiritual life is not primarily about certain practices of piety and techniques of prayer, but about a relationship. It's about responding to the One who has created and redeemed us, and who loves us with a love stronger than death, a love that desires to raise us from the dead. Much that is true of human relationships is also true of our relationship with God. Human relationships of friendship or marriage need time, attention, and care for them to continue and to grow. The same is true of our relationship with God. We have been called to union but we need to respond. As we turn to God in conversion or in a deeper awakening, besides turning away from deliberate sin - which deforms the soul, blocks the relationship and offends the Person who has sacrificed His life for us - we need to positively build the relationship by paying attention to God.

How great is the power of PRAYER!... I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus. - St. Thérèse of Lisieux

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Day 35: The Beloved loves to be leaned on!

St. Bernard of Clairvaux wants us to know that even in the midst of the struggle - whether it be with mortal sin or venial sin, worldliness or temptation, perseverance in prayer or growth in virtue, loving or forgiving - we profoundly need to "lean on the Beloved". Bernard knows that to "fight against yourself without respite in a continual and hard struggle, and renounce your inveterate habits and inborn inclinations" is very hard, impossible really, without the help of the Lord.

But this is a hard thing. If you attempt it in your own strength, it will be as though you were trying to stop the raging of a torrent, or to make the Jordan run backwards (Ps. 113:3). What can you do then? You must seek the Word... you have need of strength, and not simply strength, but strength drawn from above (Lk. 24:49).

The words from Hebrews come to mind:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (12:1-2)

The journey up the summit of the mountain of God (or Mount Carmel, as St. John of the Cross calls it) is difficult. And St. John of the Cross, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, and St. Francis de Sales know that it's impossible to attain the summit - spiritual marriage in this life, beatific vision in the next, without leaning heavily of the Beloved.

As Bernard, in accord with his fellow Doctors, explains:

"Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?" (Ps. 23:3) If anyone aspires to climb to the summit of that mountain (Ex. 24:17), that is to the perfection of virtue, he will know how hard the climb is, and how the attempt is doomed to failure without the help of of the Word. Happy the soul which causes the angels to look at her with joy and wonder and hears them saying, "Who is this coming up from the wilderness, rich in grace and beauty, leaning upon her beloved?" (Song 8:5). Otherwise, unless it leans on Him, its struggle is in vain. But it will gain force by struggling with itself and, becoming stronger, will impel all things towards reason... bringing every carnal affect into captivity (2 Cor. 10:5), and every sense under the control of reason in accordance with virtue. Surely all things are possible to someone who leans upon Him who can do all things? What confidence there is in the cry, "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me!" (Phil. 4:13)... "Thus if the mind does not rely upon itself, but is strengthened by the Word, it can gain such command over itself that no unrighteousness will have power over it" (Ps. 118:133). - St. Bernard of Clairvaux

The Good News is that the Beloved loves to be leaned on!

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Day 32: How to guard one's tongue - St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Living in the close quarters of a community of monks, Bernard is particularly sensitive to how unkindness in speech and attitude can damage relationships and wound souls.

It is not enough, I say, to guard one's tongue from these and similar kinds of nastiness [public insult and abuse, venomous slander in secret]; even slight offenses must be avoided, if anything may be termed slight that is directed against a brother for the purpose of hurting him, since merely to be angry with one's brother makes one liable to the judgment of God.

Bernard also counsels us to be careful how we respond when a wrong has been done to us.

So when an offense is committed against you, a thing hard to avoid at times in communities like ours, do not immediately rush, as a worldly person may do, to retaliate dishonorably against your brother; nor, under the guise of administering correction, should you dare to pierce with sharp and searing words one for whom Christ was pleased to be crucified; nor make grunting, resentful noises at him, nor mutter and murmur complaints, nor adopt a sneering air, nor indulge the loud laugh of contempt, nor knit the brow in menacing anger. Let your passion die within, where it was born; a carrier of death, it must be allowed no exit or it will cause destruction, and then you can say with the Prophet; "I was troubled and I spoke not."

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Day 29: The Dunghill - St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of how miserable it is to turn back to the slavery of our disordered passions once having tasted the grace of God. Such a person is doomed to continual frustration, as the things of the world simply can't satisfy our hunger and "ravenous curiosity" since the forms of this world are passing away. He bemoans the fate of the soul "who once fed so delicately now lies groveling on the dunghill (Lam. 4:5)." The vigorous effort that the saints urge us to make in the struggle against sin is firmly grounded in the Scriptures.

"Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind... Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you." (Jas. 4:7-10)

We need to determine, with the help of God's grace , never to freely choose to offend Him. St. Francis De Sales makes clear that such purification to the affection for sin must extend to venial sins also. Francis knows that as long as we're alive in this body the wounds of original sin and our past actual sins will cause affection for sin to spring up again and again. But it's our response to this bent of our nature towards sin that is determinative of the progress we make on the spiritual journey. We need to grow in our hatred for sin so we can resist it when it makes its appeals. More about that tomorrow.

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Day 19: The Fear of the Lord - St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Today, there is a great aversion to an appropriate fear of the Lord. And consequently, there is a trivialization of love and a great foolishness as regards relationship with God. Fear of the Lord is a gift of God; it is not opposed to love, but prepares for it. Fear of the Lord and love of the Lord go together. One of the reasons why there has been so much foolishness in the Church and in the world is because there has been so much lack of fear of the Lord. Bernard tells us that we don't learn wisdom in a lecture hall, but in an encounter with the Lord which produces appropriate fear.

For there we listen to Wisdom as a teacher in a lecture hall, delivering an all embracing discourse, here we receive it within us; here our wills are moved to decision. Instruction makes us learned, experience make us wise... Though Wisdom gives light to many to see what they should do, it does not immediately spur them on to action... And so with God: to know Him is one thing, to fear Him is another, not does knowledge make a man wise, but the fear that motivates him... How truly is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom, because the soul begins to experience God for the first time when fear of Him takes hold of it, not when knowledge enlightens it... Fear of Him is itself an experience... From the beginning it is a barrier to foolishness.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

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