St. Bernard: Beatitudes

Quite a while back I posted a few thoughts on the Beatitudes as taught by St. Augustine.  In fulfillment of my vague threat to post on the topic again, let’s look at how St. Bernard of Clairvaux interprets them in De Conversione.

Some Context

St. Bernard addressed On Conversion to a group of potential converts to religious life.  To understand how things unfold, it will help to keep two things in mind:

  1. St. Bernard is the Mellifluous Doctor, which means when his engine gets revved he really takes off.
  2. St. Bernard really hated the worldly corruption of the clergy he saw around him in 12th century France.

His vivid opening sequence flows from this: he personifies Reason and Will as locked in a struggle for control of the Self.  Reason tries to rouse Will to what it now knows to be good, but Will refuses.  Think Taming of the Shrew.  I won’t spoil the awesome imagery here…get a hold of some Clairvaux and start reading!  But this struggle is the starting point for St. Bernard’s take on the Beatitudes.

Oh, and it might not hurt to have the text in front of us:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall  be comforted

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Remember, this is Biblia Sacra Vulgata, so mourn and hunger are “out of order” from our perspective again.  This time I think it matters a lot less than it might for St. Augustine’s approach.

Poor in Spirit

Right off the bat St. Bernard puts us in new territory and makes me eat my hat on a constant complaint I’ve made about my students: he takes “poor in spirit” to be a bad thing instead of meaning humble!

Well, sort of.  It’s still the recognition of our sad state that matters more than the state itself.  Still, “poor in spirit” is not used as a cipher for a state of mind–it is the wretched condition of the soul in whom Reason and Will are locked in mortal combat.  That God deigns invite such a wretch to eternal glory is the hope and consolation that makes everything else in this program possible.

Standard theme in St. Bernard, as seen in my series on pride: the life we are leaving behind is a baaaaaad one.  Sin is ugly.  Sometimes it seems like St. Bernard gets a little carried away with this–how neurotic can one guy be?!–but we’re coming back to that in a bit.

From Meek to Mourning

No time to dwell on poor in spirit.  St. Bernard quickly moves on to what he sees as our fundamental problem: meekness.

In St. Augustine that translated to teachability–a docility before Scripture especially, in which we would learn our faults and the way out of our sad state.  For St. Bernard…well, here, just read:

“Check the wild emotions of the will and take care to tame the wild beast.  You are in bonds.  Strive to untie what you can never break.  The will is your Eve.  You will not prevail against her by using force.”

In other words, he ties meekness directly to temperance.  There is an unbridled-ness to the soul, what the Greeks would have called hubris (hey, look, back to the ladder of pride).

The next several pages are an extended rhetorical flourish, the Doctor Mellifluus being…well, mellifluous.  Lust, gluttony, vanity, curiosity, food and riches, all the worldly entanglements, all the ways we seek happiness but never find it, and indeed cease to enjoy the things we once craved–it’s all on display here.  He even brings in the four cardinal virtues and ties them into the four last things.  Kitchen sink time in the theological sandbox!

There is an extravagance to St. Bernard’s rhetoric here that nicely conveys the unbridled-ness of the soul, but is also shot through with the misery and unhappiness that walks him into the third Beatitude.  The ultimate medicine for a soul deluded by the vain promises of the world and wild against Reason’s control–and God’s–is to mourn.

“Let him mourn, but not without holy love and in hope of consolation.”  The effect of these tears of compunction is to kindle a desire for heavenly things–a kind of peaceful repose, an end to inner strife, which can be found in this life.  Like St. Augustine, the rewards of the Beatitudes are not simply deferred to the next life.

A New Hunger

This desire for a new kind of thing begins to reorient the soul–not without resistance, of course.  The appetites we have for food and stuff (St. Bernard never focuses on sexual temperance) are self-destructive, not only spiritually but also physically.  Our sick will fights to hold on to them, but a new appetite has been born–an appetite for justice.

One of St. Bernard’s most interesting lines is here: this hunger for justice is a “more natural and more powerful desire” that will ultimately cast out all other desires.  But he doesn’t mean an extreme asceticism.  Instead, the will becomes satisfied with food and possessions!  We “have enough” (that’s all satisfied means, after all) and no longer “sell the body into slavery and its former lusts.”

Reason at last has some hope of doing its job!


One of the recurring themes in St. Bernard is the progression self-neighbor-God: love works this way, knowledge works this way, peace, etc.  This shows up in an interesting way here, with the fifth step of mercy.  The first person we have to have mercy on is ourselves.

This is decidedly not the contemporary “I give myself permission to…” or self-affirmation stuff that comes to mind with that expression.  Self-directed mercy is, for St. Bernard, repentance and that most monastic of spiritual prizes, tears of compunction.  Sounds quite a bit like…mourning, right?

One of the surprising (to me, at least) features of St. Bernard’s Beatitudes is that they are less stage-like than St. Augustine’s.  There is much less sense of “ok, stage two mastered, on to stage three” and more of an ongoing struggle.  The circularity of looping Mercy back into Mourning is part of this.

From self-mercy we extend outward to mercy toward others.  St. Bernard unsurprisingly binds the two together with reference to the Lord’s Prayer.  The Benedictine tradition leans heavily on the sacred pact of forgiveness in that too-easily-taken-for-granted prayer.

Pure of Heart

The triumph of mercy both within and without effects an interior transformation–a house-cleaning, or given his predilection for window imagery, a window-cleaning.  Everything distracting us from the contemplation of God is uprooted (over time) and we become capable of doing what we were made to do–behold the vision of God.

St. Bernard ties this especially to the purification of memory.  This short chapter is St. Bernard at his most profound.

Memory can be a trap for us, an obstacle, and a temptation to sin.  Our sins live on in our memories and wound us, discourage us, surprise us with how far into our lives they reach.  St. Bernard compares this to a parchment which has been thoroughly soaked in ink–what could ever get it out again?

But it would be a disaster to just mind wipe us, right?  Memory is the basis of prudence, it’s how we learn.  How will we avoid sins if we can’t remember doing them?  What we need is something that can clean memory and yet keep it intact–a way to get the ink out.

What we receive in divine forgiveness, says St. Bernard, is precisely this: God’s pardon wipes out sin and transforms the memory so that it becomes not an obstacle but a memorial to God’s goodness and mercy.  We do not lose ourselves or what we have done, but we lose the shame and the burden of having done it.

This is a powerful corrective to the potentially-kinda-sorta-neurotic elements in St. Bernard’s writing.  It’s an incredible approach to the sacrament of confession, and one of those true-as-soon-as-you-hear-it insights.  If that paragraph were the only thing he’d ever written he’d still be an immortal teacher.


He claims to be racing to the end now, but it’s so he can get revved up in the next section.  Here he makes a very interesting distinction in types of peacemakers.

One might happen to be in a state of peace–to wish harm to none and to repay good with good.  Happy the person who finds such a state, even for a little while!  But not exactly praiseworthy, is it?

One might be patient–to bear injury and to to refrain from repaying evil with evil.  Patience is an underrated virtue, especially when we consider the interior dimension of patience.  If you have to grit your teeth and keep the anger bottled up, that’s not really patience.  Not the way Jesus talks in the Sermon on the Mount, any way.  Patience endures wrongs with joy.  So patience is quite a virtue.

But a peacemaker–now that’s a whole new game entirely.  A peacemaker, in the words of Jesus, repays evil with good and is ready–ready, primed, rarin’ to go–to do good for those who harm her (or him).

The first is like a child, and easily disturbed by the wicked world.  The second possesses his soul, a marvelous expression that Aquinas will also enjoy using.  But the third, the peacemaker, wins souls.  The peacemaker makes peace happen.  It seems to me that we just don’t appreciate the significance of the word “peacemaker”–probably  because we don’t really get the significance of the word “peace.”


St. Bernard gets it.  And I know this because now the Doctor Mellifluus roars the engines one last time with a multi-page diatribe against corrupt clergy who dare to pretend to be peacemakers without embarking on the difficult road (outlined above) to really become peacemakers.  Calling for peace is not the same as making it.

His full-court press against hypocrisy carries over into the last beatitude, Blessed are the persecuted…  His clerical focus puts a very interesting spin on this one: the hireling from St. John’s gospel who sees the wolf coming and flees.  He makes his point entirely in the negative, wishing to the heavens that his clerical contemporaries would at least be hirelings, would at least do their job until trouble comes, would not expose the flock to danger and lead them into destruction.

“They do not suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake so much as prefer to endure persecution rather than maintain righteousness.”

In the final paragraph he pivots back to what we might call the more constructive approach, and it’s a smooth landing after a pulse-pounding adventure.  The implicit point, of course, is that if wicked men will endure persecution for base gain, what can the saints endure?  Explicitly:

“Those whose treasure is in heaven have no reason to fear.  There is no reason for them to complain about many tribulations when they are confident of a manifold reward.  No, let them rather rejoice as is fitting that it is not so much persecution which is increased as reward…as long as righteousness is your purpose and Christ your cause, with whom the patience of the poor will never perish.  To him be glory now and forever, world without end.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s