As a Cistercian abbot, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) had the responsibility of teaching monks through commentary on the Rule of Benedict and Scripture. In partially meeting this responsibility the founder of Clairvaux Abbey, and subsequently named Doctor of the Church, wrote more than 700 sermons in his life.
Monastic Sermons, translated by Daniel Griggs and recently published by Cistercian Publications, collects more than 100 of the saint’s sermons that were delivered outside of liturgy to monks.
The sermons cover a large number of topics equally good as instruction for the monk, clergy, or laity. Among them: Deceptions in life, obedience, prayer, particular psalms and Scripture passages, bitterness in teaching, vigilance over thoughts, wisdom, the conscience, the heart, mercy, ministry, and good will.
There is also a fascinating (and I pray I am correct in seeing it as a mildly humorous) sermon with the title of “Concerning the Qualities of Teeth” that opens with commentary on a line from the Song of Songs.
Overall, in these sermons to instruct the monks under his care, Bernard speaks often of charity, death, desire, evil, the eyes, faith, the flesh, the heart, love, mercy, and the soul.
Monastic Sermons reveals Bernard, who was well-studied in literature and poetry, as a clear and lively writer with an unimpeachable knowledge of Scripture. Many of the sermons begin with a line of Scripture that Bernard elucidates and many include a dozen or more references to specific passages.
Bernard opens the first sermon of this collection with a comment on Job 7:1 that perfectly sums up our daily life: My brothers, it is absolutely true that the life of humans on earth is a temptation. If indeed it is deceptive, then its deceptions are not usually simple.
Life deceives us, Bernard writes, by leading the sinner to bemoan its shortness, the well-educated to hate those equally well-educated, and the rich to hate for others to gain wealth.
Bernard spends a good part of his time on the shortness of life in this sermon, perhaps because some of the monks were finding their daily life a bit too burdensome, too arduous, just as we all find life from time to time.
Here he teaches how to see through deception by reminding us of why a life focused on earthly temptations can only lead to misery: People rejoice in food, they rejoice in parades, they rejoice in wealth, they rejoice in vices, but such joys end in grief, because any joy in a transient good must change with changing circumstances.
The river of life’s pleasures dries up, Bernard tells us, but not the river of abundance that flows from God: For in truth the expectation of the just is not something joyful, but joy itself.
Joy itself, Bernard tells us, is: … life, glory, peace, pleasure, pleasantness, happiness, delightfulness, and exaltation that our Lord God has treasured up for us.
Throughout these sermons Bernard’s insight into passages of Scripture, even the best known, often open the way to deeper understanding of a primary source of temptation and misery. Speaking of Genesis and our first parents, for example, Bernard writes:
[A] lion or bear did not trip up our first parents, but rather a serpent more cunning—not stronger than the other animals. Nor did the man trip up the woman, but rather the woman the man. The serpent, O Eve, deceived you. He surely deceived, but he did not impel or force. O Adam, the woman gave to you from the tree by merely offering, not compelling you with violence. It happened by your own will rather than by Eve’s power: You have obeyed more the voice of your wife than of God.
Here, Bernard reminds us, we too often obey the voice of the world rather than that of God. The remedy, he reminds us, is a strong will, one bound to the will of God: The world equally must be renounced, and our will. For the world seduces us, and our will gives in to it.
As great a preacher as he is, Bernard’s sermons exude humility. This is because he knows that he depends on God for his insights. In the sermon “Concerning Bitterness in Teaching that Should be Tempered by Preachers,” he writes:
So a wise steward does not bring; rather he orders a meal to be brought, because he does not provide, but rather he encourages others to have charity. Charity, as a seasoning, renders sweet what previously seemed bitter. For in fact a preacher can make loud warnings about salvation for the ears of those who are gathered around him, but no one except God alone has the power to pour a taste of charity onto the plate of the heart.
Along with Bernard’s sermons, Monastic Sermons includes an excellent introduction by Michael Casey that provides the reader with insight into Bernard as a writer of sermons, as well as into monastic life and conversion, prayer, and obedience.
Although written originally for monks, Bernard’s use of Scripture, the wealth of his knowledge, and the clarity of his thought and language as presented in Grigg’s excellent translations makes this collection an excellent source of spiritual reading for any Christian, and a superior example of the art of writing sermons for clergy seeking to learn or hone their own skills.