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The Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride: Spiritual Formation Book 13

"Love is a sweet and pleasurable food because it gives rest to the tired, strength to the weak, and joy to the sorrowful. Love makes the yoke of truth easy to bear and its burden light."

Bernard of Clairvaux was born in 1090. At the age of 22 he became a Cistercian monk, and persuaded about thirty of his relatives and friends to join him on this path. He became the abbot of Clairvaux when he was 25 years old. During his lifetime he founded many other monastic communities.

This edition includes two of St Bernard's books: The Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride and On Loving God. They are short books, with very short chapters, often only a page or so long. The first was written for his fellow monks; the second for "the illustrious Lord Aimeric, Cardinal-Deacon and Chancellor of the Roman Church", who had apparently been asking Bernard questions about the faith.

What is the book about?

Twelve Steps spends its first half describing what the goal of humility is, before moving on to outline the twelve steps of pride (St Bernard feels himself more capable of talking about pride than humility). He says that the goal of humility is to find the truth. "On it [the path of humility] truth is sought, love is gained, and the fruits of wisdom are won." The steps of pride lead downward, but the steps of humility will bring you back up again.

On Loving God answers the question, "Why should we love God?" by dividing it into two questions. Firstly, what makes God worth loving, and secondly, how does loving God benefit us. The short answer is, "The reason for loving God is God himself and how he should be loved is to love without limit." St Bernard immediately adds, "Is this a sufficient answer? Perhaps, but only for the wise"! Fortunately, he condescends to expand a little for those of us who are less wise.

What encouraged you?

I really liked chapter 3 of Twelve Steps. St Bernard starts by saying, "we must look for truth in ourselves, in our neighbours, and in truth itself." In ourselves, through self-examination (with humility); in our neighbours, through empathy and compassion; and in truth itself, through a direct vision from God. We can't jump straight to a knowledge of the truth if we don't learn to see it in ourselves and others first.

He then talks about the verse from Hebrews chapter 5, that Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered". I do like the book of Hebrews, but had always been slightly puzzled by this verse. I thought St Bernard's interpretation was a good one. He says that of course Jesus, as God, knew what compassion and obedience were in theory, but "as he had no experience of sorrow or subjection, he lacked the opportunity of practising [them]". In becoming a man, he learned compassion and obedience through personal experience, and "we now know for certain that he has strength to sympathise with us because of his suffering". I found that very encouraging.

What challenged you?

Bernard isn't anywhere near as bad as Thomas à Kempis, who thought he should be as low as the mud on someone's shoes. But he does say that "my self-examination resulted in my having a very low estimate of myself". I still struggle with that aspect of Christian faith. The idea, I know, is that you are meant to realise how awful you are, and then realise how wonderful God thinks you are, but it seems very difficult to simultaneously believe that you are both awful and wonderful. 

I know some people who really do have a low estimate of themselves, and it seems like a very uncomfortable place to be. That place seems entirely different to "concentrat[ing] on your neighbour's failings without keen attention to your own," or not thinking about "how easy it is for you to be tempted, and how prone you are to sin". I can heartily agree that those are pride, and that humility is "the ability to see himself as he really is," as St Bernard defines it in chapter 1. I'm just not sure I can agree with the second part of his definition: "and so discover his own unworthiness". Maybe I'm too proud. I'm honestly not sure.

How has it changed how you see things?

I didn't find the twelve steps of pride particularly helpful. I mean - inquisitiveness and light-hearted laughter? They might be inappropriate for medieval monks, but I'm not sure I would label them as pride. Also, if we are meant to be somewhere on these steps of humility or pride, I would find it difficult to discern where I am.

Likewise, in On Loving God, St Bernard outlines four degrees of love:
  1. Man loves himself for his own sake
  2. Man loves God for man's sake
  3. Man loves God for God's sake
  4. Man only loves himself for God's sake
Again, I struggled to apply these to where I am, or have been, in my Christian faith. So perhaps this book hasn't changed me in quite the way St Bernard would have hoped.

However, while I was reading this, I also read a short "thinkabout" which Penelope Wilcock had posted on her blog, also on the topic of love. She said that some people are romantics and some are pragmatists. I have a feeling that St Bernard is more of a romantic (he certainly likes the Song of Songs) while I am a pragmatist. When I read, "I love you [God] as much as I can, and although this is less than is due, it is as much as I am able to do," I think: I don't know if I'm loving God as much as I can. How do I know? What does it look like?

So that made me think a bit. Perhaps romanticism and pragmatism get you to the same goal in the end, but by rather different paths.

What would you like to explore further?

Both St Bernard and St Teresa quote extensively from the Song of Songs. This very romantic and poetic book of the Bible doesn't get much airtime in modern churches. But they clearly saw it as a key theological document. For example, St Bernard says this of the Church:

"She sees the Father's only Son carrying his cross... the creator of life and glory nailed to the cross... finally giving up his precious life for this friends. The Church sees it all, and the sword of love pierces her soul even more so that she repeats 'strengthen me... for I am faint with love.'"

That last line is a quote from Song of Songs 2:5, and he carries on the metaphor through the chapter, talking about fruit and flowers and all sorts. Even a hardened pragmatist like myself can appreciate a bit of poetry! I think the Song of Songs might be due a re-read.

What is one thing you will remember?

Going right back to the beginning of the book, St Bernard starts by saying that Jesus is our example of humility. When Jesus says, 'I am the way, the truth and the life', St Bernard says, "It's as if he were saying, 'I am the way because I lead to the truth; I am the truth because I promise life; and I am myself the life which I give.'" That seems to me to be a very generous way to understand a verse which has often been used in a restrictive sense. 

Later in the chapter it says, "Jesus promises to give us his life-support during the journey." And don't we all need that?


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