St. Bernard: Guide to the Uncreated Light

In The Divine Comedy, Dante (saint of the week here) proceeds from Hell to the greatest height of Heaven with three guides. Virgil takes him through Inferno and Purgatorio. At the top of Mount Purgatory, he meets Beatrice (allegorically Divine Wisdom) who is to be his guide through Paradiso.

In Canto XXXI of Paradiso, Beatrice leaves Dante to join the saints in her place in the great Rose where they sit in their thrones, beholding and praising the Trinity. In her place, and for the last three Cantos of the Comedy, Dante’s guide is St. Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here).

When I saw that St. Bernard was to be Dante’s final guide, I smiled with glee and squirmed in my seat, so pleased with the choice. St. Bernard is known in Cistercian circles as ‘the last of the Fathers’ (indeed, such is the title of a book by Thomas Merton). He gains this title not simply for his role in helping establish the Cistercian Order but because of his mystical theology, for St. Bernard is one of the great contemplative theologians of the Middle Ages (although I first learned of him as the great expounder of Crusade theology in my secularist mediaeval history classes).

He stands within the exegetical tradition/trajectory of Origen in interpreting the Song of Songs mystically and allegorically. However, where Origen sees the Beloved as the Church, St. Bernard considers the Beloved to be the soul of the individual Christian. I believe both are valid interpretations of the book, despite the modern Orthodox claim that Bernard’s version has led to a ‘feminization’ of western Christianity. He expounds upon Song of Songs in several sermons available online here.

His other major mystical writing is On Loving God, wherein Bernard distinguishes the four loves (made popular by CS Lewis’ book of that name). The highest love we are to have is love for God, who first loved us and who sacrificed himself for us. If we love God fully, we will enter into the vision of the Divine in the Heavens.

This vision of the Divine St. Bernard is said to have beheld in this life now, having reached beatitude (purity of heart, I reckon — for ‘blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God’ — fulfilling John Cassian’s call upon the monastic life).

And so, in Cantos XXXI-XXXIII, Dante is shown by Bernard the throne room of God in the Primum Mobile, that point from which the spheres of the universe hanging and which moves them — or, rather, out of love for which all things move. And then Bernard turns his gaze upwards, to that vision of God reserved for the blessed:

And so my mind, bedazzled and amazed,
Stood fixed in wonder, motionless, intent,
And still my wonder kindled as I gazed.

That light doth so transform a man’s whole bent
That never to another sight or thought
Would he surrender, with his own consent;

For everything the will has ever sought
Is gathered there, and there is every quest
Made perfect, which apart from it falls short.

That light supreme, with its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

Eternal light, that in Thyself alone
Dwelling, alone dost know Thyself, and smile
On Thy self-love, so knowing and so known! (Canto XXXIII, ll. 97-105, 115-126; trans. Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds)

Would that we could all ascend from the depths of our sin (Inferno) through cleansing of our souls (Purgatorio) through to the heights of justice, wisdom, and then contemplation of God (Paradiso), rising upwards by prayer, good works, discipline, and — above all — the grace of God (as we learn in the Syriac Liber Graduum [post here] or St. John Climacus’ Ladder [saint of the week here]).

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4 thoughts on “St. Bernard: Guide to the Uncreated Light

  1. “the modern Orthodox claim that Bernard’s version has led to a ‘feminization’ of western Christianity”

    Just out of curiosity, who made the claim and why?

    • The claim comes from Frederica Mathewes-Green, At the Corner of East and Now wherein she mentions the ‘feminization’ of western Christianity, saying:

      Author Leo Podles traces this situation all the way back to the thirteenth century and the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. St. Bernard’s mysticism was based on imagining oneself the Bride of Christ, which made it immensely popular with women though less accessible to men. As this emotional, individualized, and self-focused spirituality spread, there arose in reaction the dry and deliberate Scholastic theology epitomized by St. Thomas Aquinas. The outcome was an enduring and unfortunate split in the West between heart and head. In annoying confirmation of stereotypes, women generally preferred and patronized heart-based spirituality, while men went for the head.
      As far as popular practice is concerned, heart won. (p. 90)

      I do not agree with Mathewes-Green’s anti-western polemics that so falsely characterise both St. Bernard and St. Thomas, but I’ve heard that study by Podles quoted on Ancient Faith Radio (the Eastern Orthodox internet radio station) at least once by someone else. I fear that many Orthodox (Vladimir Lossky springs to mind) are hostile to the western Middle Ages and Thomism in particular without really fully understanding the spirituality/theology involved.

      Finally, I do not think Edith M. Humphrey, recently converted to Orthodoxy from Anglicanism, would share this view, nor Fr. John Behr, which is hopeful for relations between eastern and western Christendom.

    • Also, this fact of some modern Orthodox vs. St. Bernard is part of why the title was chosen, for ‘uncreated light’ is a typically Orthodox expression.

  2. I’m reminded of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Why create strife and division where there is none? Pitting female against male, heart against head, west against east, something against another, is perhaps good for sensational novel, but not theology.

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