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St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Riddle of Human Desire: The Necessity of a Reversal of Priorities in the Human Life of Desire.


Is DESIRE A RIDDLE of human existence? It is evident that it is a puzzle. We seem to be more than anything else creatures of desire. Being a bundle of desires, we live in and by desire. Often it is not that clear whether we live our desires or the other way around. Often we do not know and cannot articulate what we really want. Moreover, we all know the perplexing situation in which we find more and more hidden desires emerging from the depths of our being. When shall we be able to truthfully claim that we live with complete clarity about our desires? Perhaps the whole of human life is an apprenticeship of desire, in which we may come to learn what our desire is all about. We people of the twenty-first century live in a peculiar predicament in connection with desire. Namely, we live in a consumerist culture where a social mechanism of inducing desires is operative in the form of the constant creation of desirable objects. But why is it that the people of our age remain unsatisfied despite the superabundant objects of desire? In this predicament, we are more than ever in need of learning about Christian wisdom concerning human desire.

If we are perplexed about our desires, we can well turn to the twelfth-century abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, St. Bernard (1090-115). His teaching on love-desire has special significance for us. It is a treasure trove of theological hermeneutics, psychological insights, and ascetic-contemplative wisdom. It combines and correlates profound theology with a rich phenomenology of the life of desire. So from him we can profitably learn a hermeneutics to discern our life of desire. Already before the time of Bernard, there had been profound Christian reflections on love and desire in the works of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Augustine. (1) They posited a necessary transformation of human love-desire on our way to union with and enjoyment of God as the ultimate object of desire. But the theme of "ordering of love" (ordinatio caritatis) took on new significance and urgency in twelfth-century Europe when monastic authors all earnestly took up "the problem of love" in their writings (2) and sought to offer a solution. (3) Inheriting the legacy of this tradition of Christian wisdom concerning desire, Bernard offered the people of his age a powerful teaching on the ordering of love. His writings contain a wealth of valuable insights and sagacious counsels regarding desire that were born out of his own life experiences and penetrating reflections. In Sermon 51.3 of the Sermons on the Song of Songs, he declares to the monks of Clairvaux: (4) "I am telling you of what comes within my own experience"; and in Sermon 3.1, he invites the monks to check whether or not his teaching makes any sense by probing "the book of our experience" in the light of his sermons. By measuring and testing Bernard's teaching against their own experience, each one was invited to decide for himself whether it makes sense or not. By this mystagogical strategy, Bernard still invites us today to do the same and think along with him about the mystery of human desire. (5)

The present article intends to visit some salient aspects of Bernard's teaching on the ordering of human love-desire as found in On Loving God (De diligendo Deo [Dil]) and the Sermons on the Song of Songs (Sermones super Cantica Canticorum [SCC]). (6) It focuses on the predicament of human desire, the abbot's theological anthropology, the ultimate destiny of human desire, the need for a reversal of priorities in our life of desire, two contrasting ways of living desire, his mysticism of the Word, and the dialectic between divine desire and human desire. In general, studies on Bernard's thought include a treatment of his teaching on love, which tends to focus on doctrine. (7) Certainly, any profound answer to and explanation of the nature of human desire cannot but resort to a metaphysics of love-desire that goes beyond a mere phenomenological description of experience. However, the particular mystagogical power of Bernard's teaching derives from the fact that his hermeneutics of desire rests on a correlation between his phenomenology and theology of love-desire. Paying close attention to this correlation, the present article aims to highlight a crucial practical key to the education of desire in Bernard: the necessity of a reversal of priorities in our life of desire. (8) In so doing, it will consider how human and divine factors work together to effect such a reversal.

1. The Predicament of Desire and Theological Anthropology

In On Loving God (VII. 18) Bernard indicates the fundamental predicament of human desire: "Every rational being naturally desires always what satisfies more its mind and will. It is never satisfied with something which lacks the qualities it thinks it should have."This is a succinct and seminal but ominous statement about the nature of human desire. An insatiable and unsatisfied desire always to seek more and more satisfaction is built into human nature as mirrored in every person's de facto experience. But Bernard claims (Dil VII. 18): "It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire.... Thus the restless mind, running to and fro among the pleasures of this life, is tired out but never satisfied." With this phenomenological observation, the dilemma of human beings' innate desire is clearly stated: a desire for ever more satisfaction is always at work; but in seeking more satisfaction in things of this world, that desire is self-defeating. It is in vain. It only works against the fulfilment and consummation of our very nature.

If desire is by nature fulfilled by being satisfied, however, what is that which can satisfy and fulfill it? In Sermon 18.6, Bernard gives a theological answer: "God is love and there is nothing in all created things which is able to fill the creature who has been made to God's image (factam ad imaginem Dei) except the Love which is God (nisi caritas Deus). For he alone is greater than the human being." (9) The reason why no created being can fulfill and satisfy human desire is that a human being is ontologically greater than any other created being. Only we are "made to God's image."This ad imaginem Dei is the core of the theological anthropology that provides Bernard with a theoretical key to unlock the riddle of human desire. (10) In later sermons (Sermon 80-82), Bernard identifies this image of God with the eternal Word (Verbum). Thus, the relation expressed in the proposition ad denotes an ontological condition of the human being: human nature has an innate tendency toward the image of God as expressed in the eternal Word. (11) For theologians of the early Church, the notion of human beings as made to the image of God implied a dynamic potentiality of the soul. (12) In their thought, a human being is by nature in suspension between the earthly and the heavenly, between this world and God. Therefore, we cannot belong altogether to the earthly realm; and if we live as if we do, we cannot but frustrate our nature. Bernard thus laments the stupidity and madness of such a benign, yet ignorant enterprise. Only God is greater than the human being, so God alone can fill and satisfy human desire.

In Sermon 27.10, Bernard speaks with admiration about the greatness of the human soul: "What a capacity (latitudo) this soul has, how privileged its merits, that it is found worthy not only to receive the divine presence, but to be able to make sufficient room!" The size, breadth, and capacity of the soul is such that it can accommodate even the divine presence of the Infinite God. In short, the human person has a capacity for God. Accordingly, however, until the soul's desire for God is fully filled or infused with the love of the divine presence (cf. SCC 18.6), it cannot rest in peaceful satisfaction. That desire thus gives evidence of a marvelous yet painful deficiency in our being that can be filled only by God. At its depths, human desire is thus a mysterious force working far deeper than any conscious choice or human control. It is desire for God that constitutes our most basic "state of being." (13) For Bernard, as Michael Casey aptly states, "Desire for God exists at the level of being before it rises to that of awareness and so becomes a factor in one's choice of personal orientation." (14) If one becomes convinced of this theological and metaphysical truth and comes to understand the meaning of what goes on in his or her life of desire, then one is faced with a choice about the fundamental orientation of life.

Is there evidence to support this theological or metaphysical idea about the nature of human existence as created ad imaginem Dei? For Bernard, the very life of the soul bears witness to its heavenly origin and the dignity of its nature. In Sermon 27.6, he points to certain signs of the soul's heavenly origin, that is, signs of the reality that the human soul is of "the world of the intellect and the spirit" (SSC 27.4). He maintains that the soul, intellectual and spiritual as it is, retains an innate heavenly likeness to the life of angels as pure spirits even "in the land of unlikeness," that is to say, in our human condition of exile from the face of God owing to our life of disordered love. (15) For Bernard, the innate likeness--even in the regio dissimilitudinis--is clearly shown in such heavenly or angelic acts of monks in adoring the one God, loving Christ above all things, and maintaining a chaste life in a frail and carnal body.

It is evident that in Bernard's hermeneutics of desire, phenom-enological observations about human life and theological anthropology inform and support each other. His theological hermeneutics rests on a correlation between phenomenology and theology. It is in touch with common human experiences. That is the reason why his teaching is still as fresh and relevant to people now as then. His theological anthropology demands practical, experiential orientation in daily life. In his study on Cistercian anthropology, Bernard McGinn says: "Telling man who he was had importance only insofar as it enabled man to do what he should." (16) Thus, for the Cistercian "school of charity" (schola catitatis) (17) Bernard begins Sermon 3 with the justly famous statement: "Today we read in the book of our experience (Hodie legimus in libro experientiae)." A mere passive acceptance of the abbot's words cannot have real impact on one's life of desire. One needs to achieve an experiential understanding of what goes on in his or her life of desire, and reorient himself or herself by conscious choices. Hence, in the Sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard repeatedly exhorts the monks before him to turn their attention inward so as to attend to their own consciousness of right or wrong in line with his hermeneutics of desire.

II. The Necessity of a Reversal in Orientations of Human Desire

Bernard's theological anthropology--as a theoretical key to explain the negative aspect of natural human desire--suggests that human desires should be integrated into the ontological desire for God, which is the imperative of human nature. Hence, St. Bernard offers a spiritual program for the education of desire that demands that one should cultivate both self-knowledge and virtue (Dil II.2-5). Let us dwell on his teaching on the need for genuine self-knowledge, as the acknowledgement of one's dignity made ad imaginem Dei.

On slowly coming to that self-knowledge and thus awakening to one's real identity, a person's desire may turn to God as its supreme object. According to Bernard, this normally becomes possible through the person's repeated experiences of misery due to frustrated desires. In order to drive his point home, Bernard portrays in On Loving God (VII. 19) an ironic but rhetorically effective picture of a life of desire that naturally and inevitably follows from what he calls the law of craving desire (cupiditatis lex): "By the very law of man's [craving] desire which makes him want what he lacks in place of what he has and grow weary of what he has in preference to what he lacks, once he has obtained and despised all in heaven and on earth, he will hasten toward the only one who is missing, the God of all." Everyone knows this is an impossible scenario. For, as Bernard says (Dil VII.20), "life is too short, strength too weak, competition too keen, men too fatigued by the long road and vain efforts; wishing to attain all they desire, yet unable to reach the end of all their wants." The power of Bernard's rhetoric, which rests on a phenomenology of the real, experienced life of human desire, makes one agree with him. If one gives free rein to the law of craving desire, one's life of desire cannot but be frustrated in mere vain efforts. Then what can be done? The abbot of Clairvaux, the spiritual mother of the monks, makes a gentle, yet crucial point (Dil VII.20): "How I wish that they willed to reach all in the mind and not in experience! They could then easily do so, and it would not be in vain. For the mind (animus) is indeed so much swifter than carnal senses, how much more penetrating....To wish first to try all things out [experientially] is a distorted way and an endless going round in a circle." (18) Helping the monks to recognize what goes on in their lives, Bernard suggests a wise alternative to a life of frustrated carnal desire. He calls them to make a conscious resolve to stop giving free rein to cupidity (craving desire). Assuring them that there is no need to try out everything experientially, he encourages them to make this crucial resolve to focus on a yearning of the soul, not the body. The human rational soul or the mind (animus) (19)--a higher level of the soul, which is also named mens--has a spiritual capacity to attain all that it seeks, so the human person can stop trying to experience all through carnal senses. Bernard encourages them to take seriously their nature as spirit. They may feel their carnal desires in a more immediate and real way than movements of the spirit and thus knowingly or unknowingly give priority to the realm of senses than that of spirit. However, he suggests that they need to question this seemingly indisputable state of affairs. In Sermon 30.9, he cites an example from St. Paul to locate the true self (ego) of a human person in the spirit (mens):
"When I say me," he [Paul] said, "understand it to mean what is most
excellent in me, that in which I exist by favor of God, my mind and
reason.... Not in the flesh, but in this spirit is my true self to be
found (Secundum mentem ego, secundum carnem non ego). What if the soul
(anima) still experiences carnal lusts? 'The thing behaving that way is
not my true self but sin living in me.' And therefore I do not regard
this carnal instinct as my real self, but as something possessed by my
self: in other words, by my sensitive soul."

Bernard shares the conviction of other twelfth-century writers of anthropological treatises on De anima that human nature is essentially spiritual. (20) In order to help his monks engender the needed reversal of priorities from carnal desires focused on this passing world to spiritual striving that properly befits their true identity, he appeals to the human person's identity as a creature made ad imaginem Dei and gives priority to the spiritual as one of the most recurrent themes of his teaching. (21) In Sermon 21.6, he explicitly calls attention to the necessity of a reversal of priorities in the orientation of one's desires as a spiritual being made in the image of God:
This noble creature, who is made in the image and likeness of his
Maker, demonstrates that he has received the dignity of this ancient
honour and that even now it is effecting his recovery, when he
considers it unworthy of himself to conform to this passing world. He
aims rather at being re-formed, according to St. Paul's teaching, in a
newness of understanding and in that same likeness according to which
he admits that he was made. In this way, he duly forces the world to be
conformed to him, for whose sake it was made. By such a marvelous
reversal (versa vice mirum in modum), all things begin to work together
unto good in their proper and natural form. (22)

Two phases exist in the consciousness of a person who works toward effecting the necessary reversal of priorities: one, recognition and acceptance of one's own true identity as a noble creature made in God's image and so endowed with a capacity for God; two, a resolve to live up to the truth of that identity. Proper self-knowledge is a sine qua non for the ordering of desire that can lead to one's human fulfillment. (23) As the abbot's friend William of St. Thierry well recognizes, "the soul's recognition of its own greatness leads to a leap toward God." (24 )The self-knowledge that Bernard advocates entails two contrary and complementary truths about a human being. On the one hand, one needs to know the greatness of the soul made in God's likeness with a capacity for God. On the other hand, one must recognize his or her nothingness apart from God. This second knowledge is called humility, that is, the recognition of the truth about human being's helplessness and vileness apart from God. (25) Bernard's monks need themselves to know and accept this truth about their true nature, and they should conform their life-choices to a pattern of life that is conducive to fulfilling that nature. They should stop allowing their undisciplined natural movements of the senses to prevail, for this makes them untruthful to their essential identity. In short, they should begin to live by an existential decision that Bernard calls a "marvelous reversal" of priorities in the orientation of their desire. To achieve this reversal of orientation, Bernard emphasizes in Sermon 77.5 an actual, affective love of the truth of the identity and dignity of the human person as endowed with the likeness of God--not a mere acknowledgement of this truth, but a loving embrace of it that manifests itself in a willing choice of a correct pattern of life. As Bernard says, "It is doubtless by nature's endowment that the divine likeness shines forth, and in this I am superior to all living creatures. Therefore my soul dares to rise up to the sweet and chaste embraces of truth." (26) He makes clear in Sermon 82.3 what happens to a soul that, on the contrary, is immersed in his or her enjoyment of earthly mortal things: "By enjoying things which are mortal (fruendo mortalibus), it clothes itself in mortality; but its robe of immortality, though stained with the likeness of death, has not been cast away." (27) Created, as it is, ad imaginem et similitudinem Dei, the soul belongs properly to the realm of immortality. When it allows itself to be absorbed in the pleasures of mortal things, it is assimilated to those mortal things; but its immortal nature is not destroyed.

In a life of love-desire focused on mortal pleasures, the soul cannot rise above the vacillation of things of the world. It is caught in a condition that is unworthy of its true identity. The verb frui (enjoy) of fruendo mortalibus is a technical term denoting an act of the will resting in the possession of something as its final goal. (28) In this context, it refers to a soul's fundamental choice for either created things or God in its willing choice to establish its well-being. For Bernard, however, who inherited Augustine's theory and program of Christian life, the human soul's only proper object of frui is God. (29) So, as Bernard insists, only by a "marvelous reversal" in priorities in the orientation of desire can the soul begin to be established in God and rest in the possession of God as its final end. What is at stake here is an act of the will in its capacity to love, which is most often identical to desire in Bernard's teaching. (30) For this reason, the "marvelous reversal" that is necessary for the education of desire is a crucial practical key to unlock the riddle of human desire.

III. The Need for Interpersonal Motivation: Mysticism of the Word

The monks were in need of a strong, positive motivation for embracing Bernard's challenging teachings on the reversal of priorities in their orientation of desire. So his overarching mystagogical strategy was to provide them with a mysticism of the Word, in which the human soul and the Word are conceived as bride and Bridegroom, living in an intense relation of conjugal love and mutual yearning for each other in the most intimate union possible. The interpersonal vision of the abbot's bridal love-mysticism must have encouraged his monks to shape their life of desire in this newly focused way and thus form a spiritual self through which their deepest desire for God is tapped and channeled.

In Sermon 83.1 of the Sermons on the Song of Songs, the abbot prompts his monks to seek union with the Word. He grounds their confidence in such a venture in the noble origin of their soul. By this stage in the Sermons on the Song of Songs, the doctrine of the soul's origin had come to have a specifically developed meaning. In Sermon 33, he had for the first time identified the image of God in which we are made with the Word. (31) In Sermon 80.2, he argues for a "natural kinship" (cognatio) between the Word (imago Dei) and the soul (made ad imago Dei); and he specifies the soul's dynamic tendency toward and desire for God as a thrust toward and desire for the Word. This is the reason why the soul is capable of and yearns for the properties of the Word: truth, wisdom, and righteousness. The attainment of these properties, however, is not the final destiny of the soul's life of desire. In Sermon 81.1, Bernard discloses the possibility of the innermost likeness that the soul can confidently aspire to as the embrace of the Word. For the final goal of the life of desire that is built into the dynamic ad of the human being is union with the Word. Accordingly, "the more fully the soul recognizes its origin, the more it will blush for the unworthiness of its life--more than this, it will be anxious to make every effort to reform what it sees in its nature to be deformed by sin, so that by God's help it may rule itself in a way worthy of its origin, and faithfully approach the Word's enfolding (ad amplexus Verbi)." Here Bernard emphasizes that a person's willing choice and embrace of aright pattern of life is necessary for being truthful to his or her essential nobility. By a reversal of priorities in one's orientation of desire, one needs to take a conscious turn toward the Word of God as the supreme object of one's desire. The mysticism of the Word thus can become a definitive interpersonal vision in accord with which one can sharply focus one's desire in terms of the ideal of union with the Word as the deepest possible call in our life of desire. In Sermon 83.1, however, Bernard asks: who is it who can dare seriously to take up such a call "to aspire to the nuptials of the Word" (aspirate ad nuptias Vetbi)? In Sermon 83.2, he exploits his literary and rhetorical gifts to give his monks this earnest exhortation and stern warning: "Why then does it [the soul] not set to work? There is a great natural gift within us, and if it is not allowed full play the rest of our nature will go to ruin, as though it were being eaten away by the rust of decay." Here, Bernard puts forward a crucial truth about human nature. The "great natural gift within us" is nothing other than the real identity and dignity of the soul created ad imaginem Dei: the capacity for union with God. It is the "principal and supreme entity" (principale ac supremum quoddam) of the human person (SCC 30.9). However, the remaining aspect of our human nature--the sensual and carnal aspect--is something that belongs to our real identity. There is a definite hierarchical order between these two aspects of the human person, and a person's conscious life-choices need to be conformed to this objective order of human nature.

The problem is that a human being lives in the wake of the Fall with a natural tendency of degenerated human nature to give priority to the inferior, carnal aspect of our nature. Human nature is frustrated unless one vigorously reorders its aspects--toward the spiritual and toward the material--through a conscious reversal of priorities of choices in one's desire. But when a person lives in accordance with his or her original identity toward (ad) God, one comes to allow one's whole nature to be consummated. Hence, one must spare no pains in the diligent hard works (industria) needed for such a reversal of priorities. One needs earnest spiritual exercises in the form of self-reflective consideration/meditation (consideratio/meditatio) and especially meditations on the life of Christ the Incarnate Word, which are particularly efficacious to bring about the necessary self-transformation.

For the sake of empowering his monks to pursue this difficult transformation, the abbot of Clairvaux makes use of a striking contrast of images. Already in Sermon 24.7, he puts forward a typology of contrasting "bent" and "upright" souls: "Souls bent (curiae animae) in this manner are not able to love the bridegroom. ...To seek and take delight in things which are on this earth is to have a bent soul (curritas animae). Uprightness (rectitudo), on the contrary, consists in constantly keeping in mind and in desire the realities that are above. For this to be complete, an act of will must follow the choice." Bernard clearly indicates the demarcation line between a bent and upright soul: whether a soul follows its natural tendency to be motivated principally by the pleasures of finite things in this world, or whether it works against its downward, bending trend of gravity and holds firmly to the primacy of spirit over body.

The abbot's contrast between the wicked (impii) and the just (iusti) in On Loving God (VII. 19-21) revolves around essentially the same theme: "The wicked, therefore, walk round in circles (in circuitu), naturally wanting whatever will satisfy their desires, yet foolishly rejecting that which would lead them to their true end, which is not in consumption but in consummation (non consumptioni, sed consummationi). Hence they exhaust themselves in vain instead of perfecting their lives by a blessed end. They take more pleasure in the appearance of things than in their Creator." Bernard's pun in the phrase "not in consumption but in consummation" gives adequate expression to a stark contrast between two kinds of "runners" (currentes) in the pursuit of their desires, the wicked and the just. All run or, still better, cannot but run due to the pressure of their desires. However, the wicked or godless simply run to and fro among things of this world with no ultimate horizon in view. They just walk around in circles. In contrast, the just run, as it were, straight through things toward a horizon.

In VII. 21 of On Loving God, Bernard uses the saying "the path of the just is straight, and straight forward for walking" to relate their path to their choice of the Incarnate Word: "These are the ones who take a salutary shortcut and avoid the dangerous, fruitless roundabout way, choosing the shortened and shortening word (verbum abbreviatum et abbrevians eligentes), not desiring everything they see." Their path (semita/callis) is narrow, yet straightforward. Choosing the "shortened and shortening word" is a shortcut to the consummation of their truest desire in a conscious reversal of priorities. Made, as it is, ad Verbum, the soul has a dynamic tendency of desire to be united with the Word and attain complete likeness to the Word. Once this mysticism of the Word is at play in one's life of desire, a human being consciously and lovingly chooses the eternal and infinite Word that became "shortened" in the Incarnate Word, Christ. "O word shortened, yet living and efficacious!" (SSC 59.9), exclaims Bernard. This shortened word, however, is also a shortening word. When a person chooses to embrace it, he or she is on a shortcut to the true consummation of desire ad nuptias Verbi. In Charles Dumont's words, Christ "leads us by a saving shortcut to the very Origin of this infinite desire within us and also its true Object, the only One who can grant it fulfillment." (32) Practically speaking, this choice normally takes place in the mysticism of the Word; it entails intense spiritual exercises, such as meditations on the life of Christ, that can lead to affective union with the Word.

VI. The Dialectic Between Divine Desire and Human Desire

According to Bernard, a person's spiritual exercises are by themselves not sufficient for overcoming the gravity of natural love-desire: "It is difficult, impossible for a man, by his own power of free will... to turn wholly to the will of God and not rather to his own will" (Dil I.1). For the human condition is such that our free will does not and cannot enjoy its free exercise because it is impaired by sin and weakness. The conversion of will (love-desire) becomes possible in practice only when a person comes to receive and embrace charity (caritas). Bernard's theology of charity (Dil 7.35) has deep implications for the human being's life of desire. Charity is both God and the gift of God. As a divine substance, it brings together the Trinity in unity, "in the bond of peace" (in vinculo pacis); and when given as God's gift, it bestows on the human person this very substance. When a person comes to receive the gift of charity and embraces it, it thus works in the person to the effect of bringing together the person and God in unity, "in the bond of peace." On the other hand, without the gift of charity as this bond with God, the human will (love-desire) only falls back on itself so as to run in an endless circuit of pursuing earthly objects. For that reason, in order to be consummated, human love-desire needs to be joined to and influenced by God's gift of charity, which is the transcendental love-desire of God.

For Bernard, the mystery of human love-desire is thus linked with that of God's love-desire for the human person. Taking on an interpersonal character, the mystery of the life of human desire thus deepens. In the final analysis, moreover, the riddle of our desire is unlocked supernaturally in and through the Word Incarnate; for it is in Christ that God first loves the human person in such a way that allows one to fulfill and consummate his or her desire in one's return of love to God. This is the reason why, following Christian writers before him, Bernard was able to propose the mysticism of the Word as a bridal love-mysticism. Hence, in his interpretive phenomenology of the actual life of human desire, he highlights the interpersonal dialectic between the divine love-desire and the human love-desire.

In On Loving God (VIII. 24-IX. 26) the abbot of Clairvaux describes how a person's gradual conversion to God comes about in real life and how it is an outcome of this dialectic attunement of two (divine and human) love-desires.
God makes himself lovable and creates whatever else is good. a
deep and salutary counsel, the same creator wills that man be
disciplined by tribulations so that when man fails and God comes to his
help, man, saved by God, will render God the honor due him. ...In this
way, man who is animal and carnal, and knows how to love only himself,
yet starts loving God for his own benefit ...If man's tribulations,
however, grow in frequency and as a result he frequently turns to God
and is frequently freed by God, must he not end, even though he had a
heart of stone in a breast of iron, by realizing that it is God's grace
which frees him and come to love God but for the sake of God? Man's
frequent needs oblige him to invoke God more often and approach him
more frequently. This intimacy moves man to taste and discover how
sweet the Lord is. Tasting God's sweetness entices us more to pure love
than does the urgency of our own needs.

A person's conversion to God entails a conscious reversal of priorities in the orientation of desire. However, such an act of will is in effect activated by God's visit to the person and takes place in the context of a kind of divine pedagogy. By the phrase "by a deep and salutary counsel," Bernard indicates the pedagogy by which a person comes to learn the goodness of God through personal experiences. Unless one is educated and disciplined by God through frequent tribulations, his or her turning to God is an unrealistic possibility. Moreover, one needs to experience and taste the sweetness of God that frees himself or herself from a frustrated life. In the whole process of turning to God, this taste of the sweetness of God is necessary and crucial. It entices the person to seek and turn to God more purely, and it empowers the person to go beyond his or her natural inclinations of clinging to the pleasures of the worldly realm. As Michael Casey puts it, the soul's turning to God is a "process of weaning": "The person has to be educated in the appreciation of spiritual realities; as his taste for these develops and he finds himself more attracted to them, his need and desire for lower pleasures slowly recedes." (33)

So the abbot of Clairvaux in the first place underlines the divine initiative toward a human person as the condition and foundation for a person's seeking God in love-desire (Dil VII.22): "No one can seek you unless he has already found you. You wish to be found that you may be sought for, and sought for to be found." Speaking in Sermon 84.3 about a soul desiring to seek the Word, he expresses the same conviction:
The soul seeks the Word, but has been first sought by the Word.... For
if a soul is left to herself she is like a wandering spirit which does
not return.... if a soul desires to return and asks to be sought, I
would not say that it was entirely dishonored and abandoned. Whence
does it obtain this desire (voluntas)? If I am not mistaken, it is the
result of the soul being already sought and visited, and that seeking
has not been fruitless, because it has activated the will, without
which there could be no return.

The conscious act of seeking God while maintaining the primacy of spirit over body is thus actually made under the influence of God's initiative. In other words, God's own desire is in some unknown way operative in a person's conscious appropriation of the natural desire for God that is built into human nature. The will to seek God is indeed the person's will, and yet activated by God's visit. Therefore, Bernard declares in On Loving God (VII. 21): "He [God] makes you desire, he is what you desire." The abbot employs technical vocabulary to refer to this state of affairs: God is "the efficient and final cause of our love" (Dil VII. 2 2). Bernard states succinctly how God's initiative of grace works as a person comes to love God in desire: "He [God] offers the opportunity, creates the affection, and consummates the desire (desiderium)." In the various immediate desires of a person, the desire for God is actually at work; and it runs deep in the depths of the person that lie beyond any conscious act of the will. In this situation, God first offers the person opportunities by which he or she may realize that God is what he or she actually desires; and it is God who creates affections for God in that person so that desire for God can be consciously appropriated by the person through his or her affection and seeking for God. Moreover, being the final cause of love-desire, God consummates that desire as well. In this way, human desire can be fulfilled and consummated only by God when it tends to God.

It is by charity, then, that the integration of human desires into desire for God can actually take place. As Bernard says in On Loving God (XIV 38), such integration is what the ordering of love is all about: "Cupidity in turn is set in right order by the arrival of charity, which moves one to reject evil altogether and prefer what is better to what is good, desiring what is good only on account of what is better." In Sermon 18.6 he teaches, furthermore, that only charity can bring to fulfilment the human being made ad imaginem Dei. According to him, charity is that something called justice (iustitia) by which God fills the desire of a human being with good things (Dil VII.21). Hence, as charity is infused into the human soul, the whole realm of desires and affections of the person begins to be set in right order. All human desires and affections, as manifold yet ambiguous manifestations of a desire for God, begin to be caught up in the working of divine love, charity. Under the influence of charity, all such desires and affections are integrated in such a way that the person is able to "prefer what is better to what is good, desiring what is good only on account of what is better." In his or her desire, the person then begins subjectively to assimilate the objective order of values in things: body (material realm), then spirit (spiritual realm), and finally, beyond all, God.

In On Loving God (XII. 34), St. Bernard again touches on this integration of human desires into desire for God while discussing a threefold progress in the ordering of love: first, a slave (servus) who does not love God; second, a hireling (mercenarius) who loves something more than God; third, a son (films) who does not seek his own things, but loves God for God's sake. The son's love-desire for God in charity is characterized as a state of being pleasing-chaste-just. The experience of charity is granted properly and characteristically in and through this state. Therefore, it is through charity and its experience that the human desires of the slave and the hireling are in effect integrated into the love of God: "The law of charity is good and sweet. It is not only borne gaily and easily, it also makes the laws of the slave and the hireling bearable, for it does not destroy them but fulfills them.... Charity will never be without fear but it will be a chaste fear; never without cupidity but it will be in order" (Dil XIV.38). Thus, however much ascetical resolve and spiritual exercises may be needed to reorder affections and desires on the part of the human person, the ordering of love is possible only within the context of God's initiative to feed those desires.

Furthermore, the abbot of Clairvaux is convinced that the experience of charity is granted to the person who loves God as the ultimate object of his or her desire. In On Loving God (I.1), he puts forward two reasons why God should be loved for his own sake: "No one can be loved more righteously and no one can be loved with greater benefit." Surely the "greater benefit" of loving God includes more than anything else the gift of salutary satisfaction of one's desire, granted in and though the experience of charity. Therefore, Bernard speaks of the law of charity (lex caritatis) in contrast to the law of craving desire (lex cupiditatis). While the law of craving desire when left to itself frustrates the life of human desire, the law of charity--though it demands a disciplined life of virtue--fulfills the life of human desire. Moreover, for Bernard, the bride, the human soul who loves the Word, relies in memory on the charity of the Bridegroom "lest bending down it [the intention of her mind] should be enticed by carnal and worldly desires. Because 'the corruptible body weighs down the soul and the earthly dwelling preoccupies the mind busy with many thoughts'" (Dil IV. 13). The human soul is always under the influence of the gravity of carnal and worldly desires in the body. This carnal instinct in the body weighs down the soul and so makes it bend down; and to the degree it is bent down, it loses the likeness to the Word, the Bridegroom. Therefore, in order to counteract the down-weighing gravity of the flesh and so keep the soul upright, the bride should rely on the charity of the Bridegroom. In sum, it is through Christ's charity that human love-desire is freed from imprisoning, craving love, and that the human person's capacity for God is restored.

V. The Disciplined Life of Virtue

For Bernard, human desire in the end has an eschatological destiny. Only in the fatherland (patria) will it arrive at its perfect fulfillment through a beatific vision of God. During the journey (via), it cannot possess complete fulfillment, satisfaction, and rest. Nevertheless, it can still enjoy salutary satisfaction in and through experiences of charity. In the patria, the desire will enjoy the possession of its supreme object, God. In via, it enjoys memories of experiences of charity, which are a foretaste of that possession. In the bridal mysticism of the Sermons on the Song of Songs, such memories are understood as those of the experiences of the presence of Christ the Bridegroom who comes to visit the soul as bride. Hence, Bernard gives the assurance in On Loving God (III. 10) that "the consolation from memory will not be lacking to the elect, to whom the full satisfaction from presence [of God] is not yet granted." (34) However, the upshot of experiences of charity as "testimonies of love" (dilectionis testimonia) is to make the desire and longing for God increase all the more. Hence, the fulfillment of the desire for God, into which all human desires are gradually and increasingly integrated, is never complete in via, but is, nonetheless, a satisfaction that is salutary in itself and that leads to the eschatological consummation.

For the present, the integration of human desires into the desire for God, which is required for the fulfillment of those desires, cannot but be an ongoing process. It has to take place gradually through a disciplined life of virtue in the context of human cooperation with divine initiatives. Thus, in On Loving God (II. 2-5) Bernard maintains that, along with self-knowledge, one should cultivate virtue (virtus), which is defined essentially in terms of strength of the mind to seek and adhere to God. He elaborates in his works on various aspects of a disciplined life of virtue, which includes not only the practice of various virtues, starting with humility, but also spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, and contemplation. In fact, by acquiring virtue, a human being will naturally come to the practice of contemplation (contemplatio) and so taste the sweetness of God in charity, which is crucial in the whole process of a person's conversion to God. Contemplation is a sine qua non for unlocking the riddle of desire. It is in and through contemplation that a person can gradually achieve an integration of his or her desires into the desire for God.

For Bernard the term contemplatio denotes "a continuum of the experience of God's presence symbolized in visual form." (35) Since contemplation is essentially the practice of the soul's love-desire for God, as an experience it is above all "the experience of a lover" that takes place in an intimate relationship with God. It involves delight and rapture in ecstatic union with God, (36) through which human desire attains a restful possession of a certain, yet faint presence of its

supreme object (God). Significantly enough, quies (rest, peace) is the favorite term for Bernard to denote the heights of contemplation. (37) It indicates the state of the human will's resting with satisfaction in the object desired and obtained, in short, in fruitio (enjoyment). Thus, for Bernard, contemplative quies is a foretaste of the ultimate fulfillment of human desire in the patria. Owing to his own personal experience of the heights of contemplation in excessus or raptus, (38) he is confident that one can obtain such contemplative experiences on earth. But it is on the condition that one should undergo the education or apprenticeship of desire in the "school of charity." Then, along with the process of the transformation of desire, a person becomes open to the gift of contemplation, never completely fulfilled, and yet still a foretaste of complete fulfillment in the patria.

Contemplation for Bernard is also, as Casey puts it, "a matter of being lifted up beyond the confinement of earthly existence into the unrestrained freedom of heavenly life." (39) In the transcendent experience of the heights of contemplation (excessus/raptus), there occurs "an interruption of the activities of the senses and a movement away from the priorities of sensual life." (40) In Sermon 52.5, Bernard says:
This kind of ecstasy (excessus), in my opinion, is alone or principally
called contemplation. Not to be gripped during life by material desires
is a mark of human virtue; but to gaze without the use of bodily
likenesses is the sign of angelic purity. Each, however, is a divine
gift, each is a going out of oneself (excedere), each a transcending of
self (teipsum transcendere), but in one one goes much farther than in
the other.

Even in rather ordinary contemplation, something of this state of excessus may be obtained. Thus in the practice of contemplation a human being comes gradually and experimentally to ascertain and recover the reality of one's spiritual nature and thus to bring about the reversal of priorities in the orientation of desires.

The abbot of Clairvaux introduces the topic of "wisdom" (sapientia) in connection with contemplation. As the fruition of contemplation, wisdom flows into the soul as a foretaste of the fulfilment of human desire. Thus it is wisdom that actually brings about the reversal of priorities in the orientation of desire. For wisdom, being a "taste for goodness" (sapor boni), amounts to a taste for Wisdom (Sapientia, i.e., the Word). In Sermon 85.8 says Bernard: "When wisdom enters, it makes the carnal sense taste flat, it purifies the understanding, cleanses and heals the palate of the heart. Thus, when the palate is clean, it tastes the good, it tastes wisdom itself, and there is nothing better." Moreover, wisdom is what makes virtue tasty, which is otherwise tasteless and bitter in itself. Virtue is "that by which man seeks continuously and eagerly for his Maker and when he finds him, adheres to him with all his might" (Dil II. 2). It is a habit forged by will and therefore laborious, but infused wisdom empowers virtue to be strong and abiding. How does it do so? Since wisdom "purifies the understanding, cleanses and heals the palate of the heart," a person who receives it loses gross taste of material and carnal things. The taste of the goodness-and-sweetness of God that wisdom brings can make it easier for the person to go beyond his or her natural inclination of clinging to the pleasures of the world. Wisdom thus aids and strengthens the human will so that human love-desire and divine love-desire work together dialectically in the whole process of a person's turning to God. In that process, the person hopefully climbs the ladder of love-desire toward the purest love-desire that tastes Wisdom itself.


This article has considered Bernard's theoretical and practical keys to the riddle of human desire. He suggestively yet confidently sets forth an educational program of desire in his expositions and sermons. The whole point of his theoretical-practical key to the riddle of human desire is to achieve, in Charles Dumont's felicitous phrase, the "integration of human love into the mystery of divine love," which demands a reversal of priorities in the orientation of human desire. (41)

This is not a matter of mere dogmatic proclamation. Everyone needs to act and see. The abbot of Clairvaux is confident about the truth that he himself experienced and knew about the nature of desire. He thus tells us today as then: "Today we read in the book of our experience."


(1). Andrew Louth, The Origins of The Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 66-67, 96-97, 175-7; Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (London: SCM Press, 1991), 118-27, 160-61, 165-68, 179-80, 258-62.

(2.) Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 149-57, thinks that the ordering of love is the key to understand the central aspect of major mystical authors of the twelfth century.

(3.) Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990), 3.

(4.) In this article, "Sermon" means an individual sermon of the Sermons on the Song of Songs. Unless otherwise noted, translations are from Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs. 4 vols., trans. by K.Walsh and I. Edmonds (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1971-1980). For a French translation with Bernard's Latin texts, I consulted Bernard de Clairvaux, Sermons sur le Cantique, tome 1-5, [Sources Chretiennes no. 414, 431, 452, 472, 511] (Paris: Cerf, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2007).

(5.) McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism, 223-24, claims that this appeal to experience was the point where Bernard marked a new departure in the history of Western mystical tradition.

(6.) Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God, ed. Emero Stiegman (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995). For a French translation with Bernard's Latin texts, I consulted Bernard de Clairvaux, L'amour de Lieu & La Grace et le Libre Arbitre, [Sources Chretiennes no. 393] (Paris: Cerf, 1993).

(7.) For instance, Gilson, The Mystical Theology of St. Bernard; Michael Casey, Athirstfor God: Spiritual Desire in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987); John R. Sommerfeldt, The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991); Charles Dumont, Pathway of Peace: Cistercian Wisdom According to Saint Bernard (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1999); McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism, 158-24.

(8.) For a better understanding of this point in Bernard's teaching, I am particularly indebted to Casey, Athirstfor God, 142, 178, 183, 299, 301.

(9.) Here, I follow the translation of Casey, Athirstfor God, 140.

(10.) For two different versions of theological anthropology found in Bernard's works, see McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism, 168-74.

(11.) For a dynamic sense of the preposition ad, see Casey, Athirst for God, 137, 163.

(12.) Lars Thunberg, "The Human Person as Image of God: I. Eastern Christianity," in Christian Spirituality: Origins to theTwelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclercq (NewYork: Crossroad, 1985"), 297-99.

(13.) Casey, Athirstfor God, 316.

(14.) Ibid., 132.

(15. )For a full explication of the notion regio dissimilitudinis in Bernard, see Gilson, The Mystical Theology, 33-59.

(16.) Bernard McGinn, ed., Three Treatises on Man: A Cistercian Anthropology (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 78-79.

(17.) For the Cistercian life at the monastery as schola caritatis, see Gilson, The Mystical Theology, 60-84.

(18.) Here translation is mine.

(19.) Bernard and other twelfth-century authors such as William of St. Thierry generally considered the soul to be composed of two levels--anima being the lower (animal and sensuous) level, and animus/mens the higher (more rational) level. See McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism, 233.

(20.) Casey, Athirstfor God, 136.

(21.) Ibid., 183.

(22.) Here, I follow the translation of Casey, Athirstfor God, 142.

(23.) For the theme of self--knowledge, see Gilson, The Mystical Theology, 69-74; Dumont, Pathway of Peace, 46-49.

(24.) McGinn, Three Treatises on Man, 46.

(25.) For the place of humility in Bernard's spiritual program, see Sommerfeldt, The Spiritual Teachings, [pounds sterling]5-65.

(26.) Here, translation is modified.

(27.) Here, translation is modified.

(28.) In Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 12, a. 2 ad 3, St. Thomas Aquinas states that enjoyment fruitio) implies a rest in the end (guies in fine), which pertains to the last end alone (solum ad ultimum finem). That is, as he says in ST, I-II, q. 1 2, a. 1 ad 4, fruitio occurs when intentio--the act of will (actus voluntatis) in moving toward the end--reaches and rests in the end. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, vol. 77, 80, 81, 83, 87 (Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos: Madrid, 1963ff); St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 5 vols. (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1981).

(29.) Bernard's discourse on frui is based upon Augustine's theory of uti-frui (use-enjoy), expounded especially in the Book I of On Christian Teaching. For a short and useful exposition on Augustine's theory of utifrui, see Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 859-61.

(30.) Dumont, Pathway of Peace, 77.

(31.) Casey, Athirstfor God, 153.

(32.) Dumont, Pathway of Peace, 79.

(33.) Casey, Athirstfor God, 177-78.

(34.) Here, translation is mine.

(35.) McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism, 211. For Bernard's understanding of contemplatio, see Sommerfeldt, The Spiritual Teachings, 213-50.

(36.) Sommerfeldt, The Spiritual Teachings, 216, 217.

(37.) McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism, 212.

(38.) Sommerfeldt, The Spiritual Teachings, 221-22.

(39.) Casey, Athirstfor God, 290.

(40.) Ibid., 291.

(41.) Dumont, Pathway of Peace, 53.

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Author:Pak, Pyong-Gwan
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
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Date:Sep 22, 2018
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