I posted a bit on St. Benedict’s 12-step program for humility–the daunting Jacob’s Ladder in chapter seven of his rule. For some comments on the harrowing final rungs of that ladder, see the earlier post. Now I want to turn to how another Benedictine saint riffed on that chapter.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux is a criminally underrated spiritual author. Or at least I criminally underrated him; reading him in college was a chore and I only came back to him in small, infrequent doses. But again, getting inside the Rule a little bit changed me for the better. Getting older probably helped. When I re-read St. Bernard two years ago, he absolutely lit me on fire. He has a profound insight into human nature similar to that for which St. Augustine is justly famous. I was so stupid when I was nineteen! I try to remember that when I’m teaching.
One of his works, On the Steps of Humility and Pride, takes St. Benedict’s ladder and flips it around: instead of looking at the ascent of humility, he details the corresponding descent of pride. It sounds like a gimmick but it turns out to be quite profound. Among other things, it helps illuminate some of those harder-to-appreciate rungs near the top of St. Benedict’s ladder.
Here’s the ladder–or scary, subterranean staircase–down to hell:
- Curiosity about what is not one’s concern
- Light-minded chatter about trivialities
- Laughing about nothing
- Boasting and talking too much
- Trying to be a special little snowflake
- Thinking oneself holier than others
- Presumptuous interference in the affairs of others
- Self-justification and excuse-making
- Insincere confession
- Rebellion against superiors
- Feeling free to sin
- Habitual sin
Let’s crack the knuckles and get down to work. What does St. Bernard add to St. Benedict’s treatment?
For starters, he spends a lot of time talking about what we find at the top of the ladder of humility. This introduction is a dense network of Scriptural citations which grows out of John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Humility is the way, knowledge of the truth is the reward. And life? That’s both! A life of humility and the life of repose in the truth.
The entire thing from start to finish is an unfolding of the truth so he also spends some time talking about the way the truth grows in us. He ties in a lot of features, but I note with interest a further development of St. Benedict’s interior-to-exterior transformation (flip back to my post on humility for a thought or two on that). To reach the truth itself we must first find it in our neighbor, and to do that we must first find it in ourselves. Here’s a neat quotation from chapter 3:
But to have a heart which is sad because of someone else’s wretchedness you must first recognize your neighbor’s mind in your own and understand from your own experience how you can help him.
You will be pleased, no doubt, to know that he pairs this self-neighbor-truth progression with the course of the beatitudes. The “humility” stages give way to the “justice-and-mercy” stages, which finally give way to contemplation of the truth itself and repose therein. But this is not actually St. Bernard’s primary work on the beatitudes–that would be De Conversione, more on which I shall write in future days!
His heavy emphasis on contemplation and spiritual consolation, especially his frequent return to Song of Songs, and digressions on the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union all add a strong mystical dimension to the Rule. While St. Benedict’s Rule is clearly a work in the wisdom tradition, and takes spiritual progress toward a heavenly reward as its starting point, it it is overwhelmingly concerned with practical matters. St. Bernard dwells much more on the reward, putting him more in the orbit of later writers. I dislike speaking “spirituality” as a genre, but if that label has any legitimacy St. Bernard owns it.
In future posts I’ll look more directly at the ladder, match it up with St. Benedict’s version, and talk about how one illuminates the other. In the meantime, get a hold of some St. Bernard. He’s worth the work!
(although I think you have to shell out some $$ unless your Latin is up to snuff)