Speaking to a group of scholars and students of the University of Paris in the year 1140, St. Bernard described how the Lord calls us to conversion by revealing the truth about ourselves to ourselves. He claimed that such conversion was not something that could come about merely by his own words, but rather by the Word of the Lord alone. He saw himself as a prophet, one proclaiming the voice of God which was already resounding in the hearts of those who were listening. About twenty of his listeners abandoned their careers on the spot and followed him, becoming monks of Clairvaux. What did he say which so moved the members of this academic community?
He touched on three key themes in the Catholic Tradition of Christian spirituality which remain as relevant for us today as they were for those who heard them proposed in Paris: the agony of guilt, the certainty of death, and the yearning of the heart for God. It is true that most spiritualities deal with these realities in one way or another, but the Christian faith proposes a connection between these realities. Through faith in the Risen Lord, Christians have experienced not only relief from guilt but a healing of the very cause of guilt in us. In the face of death, they have found a way to cling to an invincible hope which nothing, no amount of suffering or privation in this life, can take away. Finally, through Christ crucified, they claim to have realized a union with God in love already in this life and feel sustained by the living presence and power of the One they profess to be at the right hand of the Father.
In our next post, we will consider how Christ is the answer to guilt, death and our desire for God in the thought of St. Bernard.