(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Bernard was born of a noble family, one of seven sons and a daughter. He was prepared more for the clerical life than for the martial arts, and when he decided to enter the cloister he spent a year in preparation and recruited some thirty relatives and friends. He entered Citeaux in 1112 and three years later was sent to start the abbey of Clairvaux, where he served as abbot until his death. He founded some sixty monasteries and assisted in the founding of more than three hundred others. Though his desire was for a secluded life, his great abilities involved him in the politics of church and state. He ruined his health with excessive asceticism when young, but found a freedom to live a life of complete love for God and for his fellows. He left many rich writings, including a commentary on the Song of Songs.

On Loving God was written in response to some questions addressed to Bernard by Haimeric, cardinal deacon and chancellor of the See of Rome. It incorporates a letter earlier addressed to the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, epistle 11 in Bernard’s corpus.

Immediately Bernard sets forth his basic response and the basic principles of his whole treatment of love: The reason for loving God is God himself. The measure for such love is to love without measure. These principles contain everything, yet they are not enough; it is necessary to know what they contain.

What Bernard says is very simple. He starts with three elementary chapters about the reasons for loving God, which he sets forth in a very logical yet very suggestive way. (Books of meditation as such did not come into being among the Cistercians until the thirteenth century, but this book is in fact a method of meditation. In other words, it is not broken up into points of meditation, but if we follow the steps of Bernard we will see a clear, logical order.)

We should love God because of his gifts to us: first of all himself, then all the gifts of nature, and finally the gift of ourselves.

God gave himself to us in a wholly gratuitous love. To quote Saint John, “He first loved us.” Almost in the style of a newspaper report, Bernard asks: Who, to whom, how much? Who loves? He who has not need of his creatures loves with the love of majesty that does not seek its own. The whole of the spiritual life is a response to this gratuitous love. Whom does he love? His extreme opposite, the nefarious sinner, who has disobeyed him. How has he loved? To the fullest extent possible: He has given his very Son to be crucified for us.

When Bernard comes to speak about the gifts of God in nature in general, he is eloquent, but this section lacks the strength and insight of the preceding and following. Bernard has a rich existential understanding of humanity.

God deserves to be loved even by infidels who do not know God but know themselves. Bernard’s view of human nature is very optimistic, to the glory of God the creator. If we know ourselves, we are already on the way to God, because God created us in his own image. He has endowed us with supreme dignity of freedom and the ability to know our own dignity.

Our dignity lies in our freedom to love God, Bernard writes. If we are aware we can love God, then what keeps us from loving him? We do not use our freedom precisely because we are not aware of it. Our understanding has been obscured by sin and passion. We cannot see on our own; we need the grace of Christ, which has been given to...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Butler, Cuthbert. Western Mysticism. London: Constable, 1922. Reprint. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. This classic excellently places Bernard of Clairvaux and his contribution in its historical context in the development of spiritual theology.

Evans, G. R. Bernard of Clairvaux. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Includes chapters on Bernard’s life, monastic theology, academic theology, exegesis and theology, positive theology, negative theology, moral theology, and political theology. Bibliography, index.

Gilson, Étienne. The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard. Translated by A. H. C. Downers. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1939. The most insightful study of Bernard of Clairvaux available in English, written by an eminent medieval scholar. Gilson also includes a masterful study of Bernard’s sources.

Leclercq, Jean. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercian Spirit. Translated by Claire Lavoie. Cistercian Studies 16. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian, 1976. Leclercq, who did the critical edition of Bernard’s writings and one of the more important biographical studies, here offers an updated and somewhat popularized presentation of the monk and his milieu.

Pennington, M. Basil. “Two Treatises on Love.” In The Last of the Fathers. Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1983. A comparative study of Bernard’s On Loving God and the study on love of his friend, William of Saint Thierry, who was both disciple and mentor.

Sommerfeldt, John R. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Spirituality of Relationship. New York: Newman Press, 2004. Includes chapters headed “Bernard, Society, and the Church,” “The Monastic Order of Daniel,” “The Clerical Order of Noah,” “Noah’s Many Virtues,” “The Lay Order of Job,” “Job’s Ministry of Governance,” “The Dissidents,” and “Daniel, Noah, and Job: A Hierarchy?” Bibliography, index.