Letter of Saint Bernard to Guigo

From a letter of Saint Bernard to Guigo, the Prior, and to the other monks of the Grande Chartreuse

I received the letters of your Holiness with a delight equalled only by my longing eagerness for them. I have read them and mused upon them and they have fired my heart like so many sparks from the fire which the Lord came to spread over the earth. How great must have been the fire burning in your meditations to have sent out such sparks as these! Your burning and kindling greeting seemed to me, I confess, to have come, not from man, but from him who sent word to Jacob. It was no ordinary greeting such as one gives in passing on the road, or from habit; I could feel it came from the heart, a welcome and unexpected benison. May the Lord bless you for troubling to meet me, your child, with such a blessing in your letter to me that you have given me the courage to write back to you, after I had for so long wanted to, but not dared. For I was loath to harass your holy peace in the Lord, to disturb even for one moment your unbroken silence from the world, by my uncalled-for scribbling.

I rejoice on my own account and on yours; I congratulate you on your charity, and myself on the profit my soul has derived from it. For that is true and sincere charity to be attributed entirely to a pure heart and unfeigned faith which leads us to love our neighbours’ good as well as our own. The man who loves his own good in preference to his neighbours’ good or who loves only his own good proves, by the very fact that his love is not disinterested, that he does not love the good with a chaste love. Such a one could not obey the Prophet when he says: Praise the Lord because he is good. He may praise the Lord because he is good to himself, but not because he is Goodness itself. And he should know that the same Prophet is casting a reproach at him for this when he says: He will praise you when you do well to him. There are those who praise the Lord because he is powerful, and these are slaves and fearful for themselves; there are those who praise him because he is good to them, and these are hirelings seeking themselves; and there are those who praise him because he is Goodness itself, and these are sons doing homage to their father.

Both those who fear for themselves and those who seek themselves are acting only for themselves; only the love of a son seeks not itself. On this account, I think that the words The Law of God is unspotted refer to charity, because it alone can turn the heart from love of self and the world, and direct it to God alone. Neither fear nor love of self can turn the soul to God; they may sometimes change the aspect or influence the actions of a man, but they will never change his heart. Even the slave sometimes does God’s work, but because he does not do it willingly he proves that his heart is still hard. And the hireling too will sometimes do God’s work, but because he only does it for reward, he is known to be attracted only by his greed. Where there is self-seeking, there too is self-esteem; where there is self-esteem, there too is private interest; and where private interest makes a corner for itself there rust and filth will collect. Let fear itself be the law of a slave, by it he is bound; let greed be for the hireling his law, by it he also is confined when by it he is led off and enticed away. Neither of these two laws is unspotted, neither can turn the soul to God; only charity can do this, because she alone can render a soul disinterested.

I would call his charity unspotted who never keeps anything of his own for himself. When a man keeps nothing of his own for himself everything he has is God’s, and what is God’s cannot be unclean. Therefore the unspotted law of God is charity, which seeks not what may benefit itself, but what may benefit many. Charity is called the law of the Lord, either because the Lord himself lives by it or else because none may have it except by his gift. Let it not seem absurd that I should have said that even God lives by law, for I have also said that the law is nothing else but charity. What else but charity preserves that supreme and unspeakable unity in the blessed Trinity? Charity is therefore a law, and it is the law of the Lord holding together, as it were, the Trinity and binding it in the bonds of peace. Yet let no one think that I speak of charity here as if it were a quality or something accidental to the Godhead, as if I were saying may it be far from me to say any such thing! that there was something in God which is not God; but I say that charity is the divine substance itself. And there is nothing new or strange about this, for Saint John himself has said, God is charity.

The Spirit bears witness to my spirit that while your law is also mine, I too am one of your sons; and as you are, so also may I be in this world. For it is certain that those who fulfil the words of the Apostle and owe no man anything except to love him are in this world even as God; not hirelings nor yet slaves but sons. Therefore neither are the sons of God free from law, unless anyone should think differently on account of the words. The law is not made for the just. But it should be understood that the law promulgated in fear by the spirit of slavery is one thing, and the law given graciously by the spirit of liberty is quite another. Sons are not bound by the former, but neither are they suffered to live without the latter.

Good and sweet is the law of charity, not only light to bear, but also an easement of the law of slaves and hirelings. For it does not destroy these laws, it brings them to perfection, according to our Lord’s words: I have not come to set aside the law, but to bring it to perfection. Tempering the one and controlling the other, it eases both. Charity will never be without fear, but a chaste fear; nor ever without self-interest, but an ordered self-interest. It brings the law of the slave to perfection by inspiring it with devotion; and also the law of the hireling, by controlling self-interest. When devotion is mixed with fear it does not nullify it, but amends it; it takes from it the anguish which it never lacks when it is servile, and renders it chaste and filial. The words Perfect charity casts out fear must be understood as meaning that it removes the anguish which, as I have said, is never lacking to fear so long as it is servile. It is a common mode of speech, putting the cause for the effect.

And the self-interest inherent in the law of the hireling is controlled by charity, so that it entirely rejects what is evil, prefers what is better to what is good, and what is good only for the sake of what is better. And, when this is fully effected in the soul by the grace of God, the body and all created good are only loved for the sake of the soul, and the soul only for the sake of God, and God for his own sake. Because we are flesh and blood born of the desire of the flesh, our desire or love must start in the flesh, and it will then, if properly directed, progress under grace by certain stages until it is fulfilled in the spirit for that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards that which is spiritual, and we must first bear the image which is earthly and afterwards that which is heavenly. At first a man loves himself for his own sake. He is flesh and is able only to know himself. When he sees that he cannot subsist of himself, then he begins by faith to seek and love God as necessary to himself. And so in the second stage he loves God, not yet for God s sake, but for his own sake.

However when, on account of his own necessity, he begins to meditate, read, pray, and obey, he becomes accustomed little by little to know God and consequently to delight in him. When he has tasted and found how sweet is the Lord he passes to the third stage wherein he loves God for God’s sake and not for his own. And here he remains, for I doubt whether the fourth stage has ever been fully reached in this life by any man, the stage, that is, wherein a man loves himself only for God’s sake. Let those say who have experienced it; I confess that to me it seems impossible. It will come about, doubtless, when the good and faithful servant shall have been brought into the joy of his Lord and become inebriated with the fullness of the house of God. For he will then be wholly lost in God as one inebriated and henceforth cleave to him as if one in spirit with him, forgetful, in a wonderful manner, of himself and, as it were, completely out of himself.

Source: The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux, Bruno Scott James, Burns Oates, 1953. In: Lectionary for Matins – Sanctoral B – 20 August – Readings 1 to 8 (Saint Hugh’s Charterhouse 2021)

Painting: Saint Bernard of Clarivaux visits Guigo I at the Charterhouse (Vicente Carducho)