The Experience of God According to St Bernard of Clairvaux

Author: Fr Paul Murray, OP

The Experience of God According to St Bernard of Clairvaux

Fr Paul Murray, OP
Professor of Spiritual Theology, Angelicum University, Rome

Watering dry places and illuminating dark ones

The feast day of one of the Doctors of the Church — St Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century mystic and reformer — falls on 20 August. The text which follows by Fr Paul Murray, OP, Professor of Spiritual Theology at the Angelicum University in Rome, is a shortened and amended version of a paper originally published as "The Word into Words: 'Grace and Truth' in St Bernard of Clairvaux", Communio: International Catholic Review, Vol. XXVIII, n. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 3-25.

Mystery into Words

What is it like, in practice, for a human being really to experience God in this life? Is an experience of this kind possible? And, if so, are there signs by which we can tell if the experience is genuine or false? And, when it is genuine, can it be described? And is it wise, in any case, to try to communicate something of this experience to others with whom we're speaking about God or to whom we're preaching? Is such experience not something that is attained only by a few rare contemplatives in this life? And is the task of the preacher, then, simply to proclaim certain truths about God — the central dogmas — but, for the rest, never to attempt to speak out of any kind of personal faith-experience?

In this context it is interesting to note a statement made by Pope John Paul II in Donum et Mysterium:"The minister of the Word", he wrote, "must possess and pass on that knowledge of God which is not a mere deposit of doctrinal truths but a personal and living experience of the Mystery". Experience — the word "experience" — may seem like a rather obvious word to use in this context, even a necessary word. But, for a good part of the 20th century — let us say the first thirty or forty years — the majority of Catholic theologians tended to avoid using the term. They did this largely because of its associations with Modernism, and because of the Modernist tendency to set up, over against the authority of tradition, and against even the great common statements of faith and dogma, the authority of individual religious experience. Since the middle of the 20th century, however, and certainly since the time of the Council, there has been a significant return by teachers in the Church and by theologians to an earlier, more confident use of the word "experience".

(a) Bernard and "the book of experience"

Of all the great Doctors of the Church, Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century mystic and reformer, is probably the one who uses the term "experience" most often, and uses it to the greatest effect. Speaking, for example, of what happens when an individual believer has received, in profound depth, the grace of the Spirit, and has become "wholly aflame with divine love", Bernard states that "then God is indeed experienced". But Bernard goes on at once to say that, even here, God is not experienced "as he truly is" (i.e. not in his inmost being), "a thing impossible for any creature". Bernard is well aware that at least as challenging as the question of experience, is the question of the communication of experience. And yet, in Sermon 74 of his Commentary on the Song of Songs, he is clearly intent on trying somehow to talk about what he calls "the wisdom hidden in the mystery". But how can he do it? How can such an infinite mystery be contained in mere finite words? How can he, an individual believer, and a limited human being, presume to preach the mystery?

In answer to those among his brethren and friends, who had asked that he share with them something of his own interior life and experience, Bernard says: "[Y]ou force me to walk in great matters and mysteries which are beyond me. Alas! how afraid I am to hear the words, 'Why do you speak of my delights and put my mystery into words'? Hear me then as a man who is afraid to speak yet cannot remain silent". Having made this statement in Sermon 74 of his Commentary, he continues: "Now bear with my foolishness for a little. I want to tell you of my own experience, as I promised. Not that it is of any importance. But I make this disclosure only to help you, and if you derive any profit from it I shall be consoled for my foolishness; if not, my foolishness will be revealed. I admit that the Word has also come to me — I speak as a fool — and has come many times".

What, in effect, Bernard is proposing to do here is to preach the Word of God by relating to his brethren something of his own individual experience of the Word. That experience carries with it a certain authority, of course, but not one that can be compared, obviously, with the authority of the Word in scripture. The contemplative experience is, at root, always a response to a visit from the Word. In this unique drama of love, it is the Word which takes the initiative, and the human heart which responds. And so the experience, when it is authentic, can be thought of almost as an echo of the Word, or even a cave for the Word in which to echo, a place or space that welcomes the Word with living faith and with love. But it is not the Word itself.

(b) The Visit from the Word

When St Bernard attempts to describe something of his own mystical or contemplative experience, he acknowledges, first of all, what was not involved in the experience. Thus he writes: "The coming of the Word was not perceptible to my eyes". Even at the moment of vivid encounter, when the Word is utterly present to Bernard, that presence appears somehow both elusive and strangely intangible.

"Although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or of his going. And where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now... I have ascended to the highest in me, and look! the Word is towering above that. In my curiosity I have descended to explore my lowest depths, yet I found him even deeper".

What Bernard discovers in contemplative prayer, is that — this side of paradise — no human thought, no human feeling, can comprehend the mystery of God. But here there is a question that must be faced: if God's presence is so elusive and mysterious, how is it possible for the contemplative ever to speak about it, or even to know if the experience itself has actually taken place? This question Bernard wisely anticipates. He says: "You ask, then, how I know he was present, when his ways can in no way be traced?". St Bernard answers by speaking not of an immediate experience of God, but rather of experience at another level. He begins to share with us, in fact, some of the discernible effects of God's presence on his own interior life, effects which are both moral and spiritual. What we are being allowed to glimpse, then, with the help of St Bernard, are the signs of an amazing love: vivid, shining traces of the mystery of grace: "[A]s soon as he enters in, he awakens my slumbering soul; he stirs and soothes and pierces my heart, for before it was hard as stone, and diseased. So he has begun to pluck out and destroy, to build up and to plant, to water dry places and illuminate dark ones, to open what was closed and to warm what was cold; to make the crooked straight and the rough places smooth, so that my soul may bless the Lord, and all that is within me may praise his holy name".

Obviously, the coming of the Word brings with it enormous blessing. And so, it is natural to ask if there is some way we can prepare ourselves to receive from God such a gift. Bernard, in his answer to this question, doesn't talk about the need for new or novel methods of prayer or meditation. Instead, he speaks simply about two very down-to-earth realities: "good works" and "the practice of the virtues". Bernard even insists at one point that "the grace of contemplation is never owed except to the commandments". But Bernard also draws attention, in his teaching, to the vital importance of the emotion — the deep spiritual emotion — of desire. God, he says, will visit the soul "provided it is committed to seeking him with all its desire and love". But why desire? Why is it so important? Bernard explains: "The fire of holy desire ought to precede his advent to every soul whom he will visit, to burn up the rust of bad habits and so prepare a place for the Lord. The soul will know that the Lord is near when it perceives itself to be aflame with that fire". According to Bernard, objective instruction alone is no guarantee of progress in the spiritual life. The commandments and the law must, of course, be given to us. But the inner heart, if it is really to change, needs also to be moved, in some form or other, by grace".

Thus, in preparing for the Word's coming, the first thing of importance, we can say, is action or the keeping of the commandments. But also important is the drive or the urgency of an interior desire. Many spiritual teachers and directors will say that love — Christian love —exists in action but not in feeling. St Bernard, however, being (I suspect) uneasy with this rather sharp and extreme either/or distinction, seeks to establish or to recover what he calls "a middle path". And, in Sermon 50, he makes bold to declare: "Love exists in action and feeling". And then goes on to say: "Among the many great and grievous evils that the apostle ascribes to men I have read this one is reckoned: to be without affection".

When Bernard experiences the Word as present in his soul, he is filled with the emotions of delight and joy. But when the Word suddenly seems to disappear, and all is darkness again, Bernard's prayer becomes a deep and sustained cry of sorrow and longing. He writes: "[W]hen the Word has left me, all these spiritual powers become weak and faint and begin to grow cold... Then my soul will inevitably be sorrowful until he returns and my heart again kindles within me — the sign of his returning. When I have had such experience of the Word, is it any wonder that I take to myself the words of the Bride, calling him back when he has withdrawn?".

For Bernard, part of the experience of God — a major part — is, paradoxically, the experience of his "absence". Again and again, both in life and in prayer, we are — or so it seems — left completely on our own, bereft of the sense of God. Reflecting on this fact, Bernard quotes the words of Jesus in John's Gospel, words intended of course to console us: "A little while and you shall not see me, and again a little while and you shall see me" (Jn 16:16). But Bernard is not consoled. With real exasperation he exclaims: "Oh little while, little while! How long a little while! Dear Lord, you say it is for a little while that we do not see you. The word of my Lord may not be doubted, but it is a long while, far too long". As soon as Bernard loses sight of his divine Lord, he begins to search for him again in prayer. And, what is more, he begins to speak of this search for God in a number of his sermons. The effect is truly remarkable, for by speaking of God's "absence" in this way, by revealing to his readers, and to his brethren, something of his own spiritual anguish, the reality of God — the presence of God — is made more palpably real, perhaps, than ever before.

The Preacher of Grace and Truth

To deepen further our understanding of Bernard's contemplative experience of God, and to gain some insight into his way of preaching, it will be helpful to take up and examine two words which St Bernard repeats over and over again in Sermon 74: the word "grace" and the word "truth".

(a) Bernard and Grace

By "grace", Bernard means the wonderful experience in faith of coming to know God as "goodness and mercy", as someone "full of joy and radiance" —"festivus et splendidus". It means discovering for oneself God's great power to soothe and awaken the heart, and it means also perceiving with contemplative love and with wonder, "the excellence of his glorious beauty". There can, I think, be no doubt whatever that, in the 12th century, there was no one more than Bernard of Clairvaux who deserved the title "preacher of grace". According to his contemporary and good friend, William of St Thierry, "The force of his preaching began to shine out especially in the way in which he softened to conversion even the hard hearts of his hearers, and he rarely came home without a catch".

God, in St Bernard's opinion, wants us to "breathe freely", and to be confident in the knowledge that, when we turn to him in prayer, no matter how great our sins appear, his kindness is even greater. "Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary", we are told, "but it should not be an endless preoccupation". Thus, when it comes to private prayer, "the just man", Bernard notes, "is not always accusing himself". If, on occasion, he does so, it is "only in the opening words". But, normally, his prayer will conclude "with the divine praises". St Bernard sees clearly that it is never enough to confront the truth of oneself within the courtroom of private conscience. "As for me", he writes, "as long as I look at myself, my eye is filled with bitterness. But if I look up and fix my eyes on the aid of the divine mercy, this happy vision of God soon tempers the bitter vision of myself'.

(b) Bernard and Truth

St Bernard was not only a remarkable preacher of grace, he was also a preacher of truth. "The fullness of grace", he declared, in an astonishing phrase in Song of Songs, Sermon 74, "does not consist of grace alone". The Word, it is true, delights to come to us as our redeemer and friend, and even sometimes, in prayer, as our bridegroom. But, when he comes, Bernard says, he comes to us as truth as well as grace, as judge as well as friend. "[B]y the movement of my heart... did I perceive his presence". There is, first of all, then, an awakening to grace and a profound sense of consolation. But there is also, Bernard notes at once, an experience of purification and a new awareness of truth. Things within us, which are opposed to the new life, are "plucked out", we're told, and even "destroyed". And the heart that was as "hard as stone and diseased" finds itself pierced through. "I knew", Bernard says, "the power of his might because my faults were put to flight and my human yearnings brought into subjection. I have marvelled at the depth of his wisdom when my secret faults have been revealed and made visible". Effectively, what St Bernard is saying here is that if, in prayer, we experience only and always a sustained series of spiritual consolations and delights, but never what he calls "the truth of our condition in God's sight", then what we are experiencing is certainly not God. For this reason, in Sermon 74, Bernard implores the Word to come to him "full of grace and truth".

"I need both of these: I need truth that I may not be able to hide from him, and grace that I may not wish to hide. Indeed, without both of these his visitation would not be complete, for the stark reality of truth would be intolerable without grace, and the gladness of grace might appear lax and uncontrolled without truth".

Clearly, all that applies to prayer in this context, applies also to preaching. Bernard is well aware that, in the hands of the preacher, truth without grace, is a harsh, fundamentalist weapon. But he is also equally aware that grace without truth, is a mere sentimentality. "How many people", he writes, "have received grace without profit because they have not also accepted a tempering measure of truth? In consequence they have luxuriated in it too much, without reverence or regard for truth.... To them it could be said... 'Go, then, and learn what it means to serve the Lord in fear, and rejoice in him with awe' ".

Fear! One of the most notable characteristics of St Bernard's spirituality, is that, at every stage of thespiritual journey, our deepest human emotions — fear and desire, sorrow and joy — far from being eliminated, are seen to play a vital role in the search for God. Thus, in the very earliest stages of conversion, even fear can be used by grace to help us in our awareness of God, and sometimes in a way that is far more effective, Bernard says, than the knowledge we receive from books or from a lecture hall. Love is God's very nature, and so it is clearly not wise to keep thinking of him only as a "judge" or as a "teacher", or to keep looking for him always at the "bar of justice" or in "a teacher's auditorium".

Throughout the course of our spiritual lives, Bernard says, we can expect a "twofold help from above": the first help we receive is "correction", but the second is "consolation". He writes: "The first imbues us with the fear of God, the latter tempers that fear with the joy of salvation". Fear, then, considered as the beginning of wisdom, is an experience of correction. But, what comes at the end of wisdom — the consolation of union — is clearly an experience of quite extraordinary joy and peace, a true haven of rest. But even then,, it would seem, even as God pours out his wonderful gifts of joy and rest, he also actively wounds the heart with love, and "in a way that is wondrous yet delightful, he teases the awe-struck seeker until he reduces him to restlessness". Effectively, what this means is that God, as "grace and truth", is somehow always testing the heart of the one who seeks him. And this happens even in the very early stages of our conversion.

Sometimes, in the spiritual life, we like to imagine that, with our thoughts and feelings, we can reach out and directly, touch or experience God. But, on the evidence of the Old and New Testaments, our human "experience" of God, although it does quicken, for a time, real depths of spiritual emotion, is never as important or as sacred as the call to loving obedience, for example, or to daily surrender. God is the one, we have to say, who desires to "experience" us. And thus, when we encounter his "truth", or when he comes to us as truth, this is not merely an abstract code against which our thoughts and deeds are being judged. It is, rather, the reality of a profound touch probing and testing our hearts. What the Word asks, when he comes to an individual in prayer, is not, "Do you experience me?" but "Do you love me?", "Do you keep my Word?", "Do you listen to my Word?", "Do you put it into practice?".

As we read through Bernard's homilies, one thing emerges very clearly: an authentic preacher of the Gospel cannot be a preacher of grace only, or of truth only. The Word, which Bernard proclaims, and the Word which he encounters in prayer, comes to him always "full of grace and truth". Unfortunately, in the actual practice of preaching, there has been a tendency, in almost every age, to emphasize one aspect of the mystery, and to ignore the other. Preaching, in the early part of the 20th century, for example, was characterized by an active and robust preaching of moral and dogmatic truth. God was the giver of the commandments, and the upholder of Church law. But, often, there was little or nothing said about God's prodigal kindness and compassion. In contrast, preaching in the second half of the 20th century marked a return to a Gospel emphasis on God's astonishing grace, and to a renewed focus also on the humanity of Christ. But with this renewal — inspired, I have no doubt, by God's own Spirit — there was a tendency at times to speak almost exclusively of the grace of God, and of the mercy of God, but to say nothing or almost nothing about God's truth or God's law. The end result was that, for many in the Church, including many young people listening to school talks on religion or to Sunday homilies, even the great sacred words such as "grace" and "compassion" began to lose their salt and their savour.

Once preaching is no longer based on the full Gospel message, and no longer grounded on what St Bernard calls "inward experience", then the Word itself becomes somehow debased, and sacred truth degenerates into mere ideological conviction. On the one hand, then, we have the extreme proponents of a false rigorism, and on the other, the no less extreme proponents of what might be called cheap or easy grace. What I find so enormously impressive in Bernard as a preacher, is the way he is able to go beyond these opposites. His words bear the full weight of the mystery of God, the paradox, that is, of a truth which lets us off with nothing, and of a grace which lets us away with everything.


What matters finally, for Bernard, is that all those to whom the Word of God is preached, should begin to see, or to experience in faith God's true nature. He writes: "This vision of God is not a little thing. It reveals him to us as listening compassionately to our prayers, as truly kind and merciful, as one who will not indulge his resentment. His very nature is to be good, to show mercy always and to spare. By this kind of experience, and in this way, God makes himself known to us for our good". Truth, then, is fundamental to prayer, in St Bernard's understanding, but grace is essential. The idea or the hypothesis that, at some stage, the Word might come to Bernard, only "as a judge", but not as a friend, not as "a bridegroom", that he might come as truth, therefore, but not as grace, prompts Bernard to exclaim: "God forbid that this may ever happen!". Bernard, as a preacher, is well aware that "Truth is bitter unless seasoned with grace". So, in the concluding words of Sermon 74, he prays that the Word of God would not approach merely "with the stern gaze of truth", but would enter, rather, "as one who brings peace, joy, and gladness".

These words of Bernard are words born of a profound faith-experience. They are wise and sacred words, instinct with that sure hope which comes from faithful prayer, and from a profound knowledge of the Word. It is true, of course, that as a preacher, Bernard tells us he is "afraid to speak". Nevertheless, again and again, he dares to put "mystery into words". Burdened with the joyful knowledge of God's nature, he "cannot remain silent". His whole desire, as a man of living faith, and a humble initiate of the Gospel, is to proclaim the knowledge of God in Christ, not as "a mere deposit of doctrinal truths", but rather, to use the expression of Pope John Paul II, as "a personal and living experience of the Mystery".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12/19 August 2009, page 8

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069