Book Review: Bernard of Clairvaux
Author: Bernard of Clairvaux
Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco ISBN: 9780060750677
It is hard to quantify the enormous value I have gleaned from studying from the classic spiritual writings. The Christian community has such a wealth of wisdom in her history and I am so very grateful and fortunate to draw from this wonderfully rich and deep well .
The HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series is edited by Emilie Griffin and includes a number of writings from the Christian tradition. Some of the titles in the series follow: John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, John and Charles Wesley, William Law, and the subject of this review, Bernard of Clairvaux.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a Cistercian (Trappist) monk and founding abbot of Clairvaux Abbey in Burgundy. He was a very distinguished and influential leader during the course of his life and left a vast collection of writings that have significant impact upon the shaping of Western monasticism and Christian mystical traditions. It is said that his writings had a profound effect on the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin. This volume in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series, bearing his name, is an accessible introduction to some of Bernard’s foundational writings that shaped Western religious thought and culture.
This small book introduces the reader to four primary works of Bernard; they are On Conversion, On Loving God, Sermons on the Song of Songs, and Selections from His Letters.
It is hard for me to choose a favorite chapter as each of these writings has influenced me in uniquely specific ways at different points of my spiritual journey. If I were pressed to choose one writing however, it would be On Loving God as it is a teaching that continues to circulate in my memory and affect my daily living more than some of the others. In describing the journey of loving God, Bernard details four stages or degrees of love. He identifies the stages as follows: First degree—love of self for self’s sake, Second degree—love of God for self’s sake, Third degree—love of God for God’s sake, and Fourth degree—love of self for God’s sake.
“What are the four degrees of love? First, we love ourselves for our own sake; since we are unspiritual and of the flesh, we cannot have an interest in anything that does not relate to ourselves. When we begin to see that we cannot subsist by ourselves, we begin to seek God for our own sakes. This is the second degree of love; we love God, but only for our own interests. But if we begin to worship and come to God again and again by meditating, by reading, by prayer, and by obedience, little by little God becomes known to us through experience. We enter into a sweet familiarity with God, and by tasting how sweet the Lord is we pass into the third degree of love so that now we love God, not for our own sake, but for himself. It should be noted that in this third degree we will stand still for a very long time.” -Bernard of Clairvaux; The Love of God
It is my opinion there is no substitute for learning from these spiritual classics. I am reminded of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews who said, “Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith” (Hebrews 13:7 NLT). There is much we can learn from those who have traveled the journey that is the Christian life. Some of the original writings from these great spiritual masters can be hard to obtain and very difficult to read. I am thankful for those who have brought these ancient writings to us in a package that is accessible and affordable.