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LETTER XXIV (circa A.D. 1126)
To Oger, Regular Canon
Some blame and some ridicule such a title as this, as
being a vicious pleonasm, since these two words differ only in the language from
which each is borrowed, and mean exactly the same thing; as if canons were
something different from regulars, or as if there were some canons who were
regulars and others who were not. But it may be seen in John Bapt. Signy Lib.
de Ord. Canon, B. ii., and Navarre, Com. I. de Regul. ad c. 12, Cui portio Deus, q. 1, where he shows that every pleonasm is
not necessarily a battology. For in legal documents certain expressions or
clauses are often repeated to give them more force. It is the same in Hebrew (Ps. lxxxvii. 5,
Ps. lxviii. 12
Vulg. and lxx.).
Oger was the first Dean of the Regular Canons of S. Nicholas des
Pres, near Tournay. Picard states this upon the authority of Denis Viller, Canon
and Chancellor of Tournay.
Bernard blames him for his resignation of his pastoral charge, although made from the love of a calm and pious life. None the less, he instructs him how, after becoming a private person, he ought to live in community.
To Brother Oger, the Canon, Brother Bernard, monk but sinner, wishes that he may walk worthily of God even to the end, and embraces him with the fullest affection.
1. If I seem to have been too slow in replying to your letter, ascribe it to my not having had an 95opportunity to send to you. For what you now read was written long since, but, as I have said, though written without delay, was delayed for want of a bearer. I have read in your letter that you have laid down with regret the burden of your pastoral charge, permission having been obtained with great difficulty, or rather, extorted by your importunity, from your Bishop; and only on the condition that you should remain under his authority, though fixing yourself elsewhere. But this not being satisfactory to you, you appealed to the Archbishop, and, obtaining the relaxation of this condition, you have returned to your former house and put yourself under your original abbot. Now you ask to be advised by me as to how you ought to live henceforth. An able teacher, indeed, and incomparable master am I! And when I shall have begun to teach what I do not know myself, it will soon be discovered that I know nothing. You act, in consulting me, as a sheep who seeks wool from a goat, a mill expecting water from an oven, a wise man expecting sound counsel from a fool. Besides this, you heap upon me, from one end of your letter to the other, complimentary speeches, and attribute to me excellences of which I am not conscious; and as I ascribe them to your kind feelings, so I forgive them to your ignorance. For you look upon the countenance, but God upon the heart; and if I examine myself with attention under His awful gaze, I find that I know myself much better than you know me, since I am much less far from myself than you are. Therefore I give greater credence to that which I see in myself than to what you suppose, without seeing, 96to be in me. Nevertheless, if you may have heard from me anything that is profitable to you, give thanks to God, in whose hand I am and all my words.
2. You explain to me also for what reason you have not followed
my advice, not only not to allow yourself to be discouraged or overcome by
despondency, but to bear patiently the burden laid upon you, which once
undertaken you were not at liberty to lay down; and I accept your explanations.
I am well aware, indeed, of the infertility of my wisdom, and I always hold
myself in suspicion for rashness and inexperience, so that I ought not to take
it ill, nor do I, when the course which I approve is not taken; and I wish, on
the contrary, that action should be taken on better advice than mine. As often
as my opinion is chosen and followed I feel myself weighed down, I confess it,
with responsibility, and await with inquietude, never with confidence, the issue
of the matter. Yet it is for you to see if you have acted wisely in not
following my advice about this thing;3535
Bernard had counselled him not to resign his abbacy,
and this advice he had not followed. Hence is suggested the serious question: Is
it lawful to lay down the pastoral charge, to withdraw one’s self from cares and
business, for the purpose of serving God in peace and quiet, and caring for
one’s own soul? The examples of so many holy men whom we know to have done this
add to the difficulty of the question. Many might be cited among prelates of
lower rank, not a few Bishops, Cardinals, and even some Popes. Bruno III., Count
of Altena, and afterwards Bishop of Cologne, quitted his see, in 1119, and
retired to the Cistercian monastery of Aldenberg. Eskilus, Archbishop of Lunden,
in Denmark, came to live at Clairvaux as a simple monk; Peter Damian, who, from
a Benedictine monk, became Cardinal and Bishop of Ostia, after he had rendered
signal service to the Church for a number of years, with wonderful constancy, in
the high office to which he had been raised, returned into his cell from love of
solitude and quiet, and passed the rest of his days in profound peace, in the
midst of his brethren; but was blamed by the Pope because he, a useful and able
man, postponed public usefulness to his private safety. One remarkable fact is
recorded of him, that the Pope imposed upon him a penance of a hundred years for
quitting his Bishopric: he was to recite Ps. 1. [li.] and
give himself the discipline every day for a hundred years; and this he completed
entirely in the space of one year. This I remember to have read somewhere (Works, Vol. i. ep. 10, new ed., Vol. iii. opusc. 20). To Pope
Alexander and Cardinal Hildebrand, who became Pope later under the name of
Gregory VII., he tries to justify his quitting his see, and opposes numerous
examples of conduct similar to his, to the blame of the Pope and the cardinals.
But it is necessary to hold to what the law prescribes rather than to the examples of other persons. The Angelical Doctor says: “Every pastor is obliged by his function to labour for the salvation of others, and it is not permitted to him to cease to do so, not even to have leisure for peaceful meditation upon spiritual things. For the Apostle regards the obligation to occupy himself with the salvation of others who depend upon him as being of such importance that it must not be postponed even to heavenly meditation: I know not what to choose, he says, for I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better; nevertheless, to abide in the flesh is more needful for you (Phil. i. 22–23). It may be added that the Episcopate being a state more perfect than that of the monk, it follows that just as it is not permitted to quit the second to re-enter the world, so it is not allowable to renounce the first in order to embrace the second, considering that the latter is less perfect than the former. That would precisely be to look back after having put one’s hand to the plough, and to show one’s self unfit for the kingdom of God” (S. Luke ix. 62). it must be decided also by those 97wiser persons than I, on whose authority you have relied, whether you have done according to reason. They will tell you, I say, whether it is lawful for a Christian man to lay down the burden of obedience before his death, when Christ was made obedient to the Father even unto death. You will reply, “I have acted by license, asked and received from the Bishop.” True, you have, indeed, asked for license, but in a manner you ought not to have 98done, and, therefore, have rather extorted than asked it. But an extorted or compelled license should rather be called violence. What, therefore, the Bishop did unwillingly, when overcome by your importunity, was not to release you from your obligations, but violently to break them.
3. You may indeed be congratulated, since you are thus exonerated; but I fear lest you have, as much as lieth in you, taken from the glory3636 Exoneratus; exhonoratus. of God, whose will you, beyond doubt, resist in casting yourself down from the post to which He had advanced you. Perhaps you excuse yourself by pleading the necessity of religious poverty; but it is necessity that brings the crown, in rendering achievements difficult and almost impossible; for all things are possible to him who has faith. But answer to me what is most true, that you have consulted your own quiet, rather than the advantage of others. Nor is this strange. I confess that I, too, am pleased that quiet should delight you, if only it does not delight you too much. For that, even although a great thing, which pleases us to such a degree that we wish to bring it about, even although by wrong means, pleases us too much; and because it cannot be brought about by right means, it ceases to be good. For if you offer rightly, but do not divide rightly, you have sinned (Gen. iv. 7, lxx.). Either, therefore, you ought not to have accepted the cure of the Lord’s flock, or, having accepted it, ought not to have relinquished it, according to those words: Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed (2 Cor. vii. 27).
4. But to what end do I strive in these arguments? 99To persuade you to take your charge again? You cannot, since it is no longer vacant. Or to drive you to despair by fixing upon you the blame of a fault which you are no longer able to repair? By no means; I wish only that you should not neglect the fault you have committed, as if it were nothing or nothing much, but that you should rather repent of it with fear and trembling, as it is written: Happy is the man that feareth alway (Prov. xxviii. 14). But the fear which I wish to inspire is not that which falls into the nets of desperation, but which brings to us the hope of blessedness. There is, indeed, a fear, useless, gloomy, and cruel, which does not seek pardon, and, therefore, does not obtain it. There is also a fear, pious, humble, and fruitful, which easily obtains mercy for a sinner, however great be his offence. Such a fear produces, nourishes, and preserves not only humility, but also sweetness, patience, and forbearance. Whom does not so blameless an offspring delight? But of the other fear the miserable progeny is obstinacy, excessive sorrow, rancour, horror, contempt, and desperation. I have wished to recall you to the remembrance of your fault, but only in order to awaken in you, not the fear which produces desperation, but that which produces hope; being afraid lest you should not have any fear at all, or should have too little.
5. There is something, however, which I fear still more for you, namely, that which is written of certain sinners, that they rejoice in having done evil and delight in wicked actions (Prov. ii. 14); that you should be deceived, and not only think that what you have done is not wrong, but also (which, God forbid) 100glory in your heart, thinking that you have done something great, and which is usually done by few, in renouncing voluntarily the power to command others, and, despising rule, have preferred to be subjected again to a ruler. That would be a false humility, causing real pride in the heart of him that should think such thoughts. For what can be more proud than to ascribe to spontaneous and, as it were, free choice that which the force of necessity or fainthearted weakness obliges us to do? But if you have not been forced by necessity or exhausted by labour, but have done it willingly, there is nothing more proud than this; for you have put your own will before that of God, you have chosen to taste the sweetness of repose rather than serve diligently in the work to which He has set you. If, then, you have not only despised God, but glory in utterly contemning Him, your glorying is not good. Beware of boastfulness and self-satisfaction; more useful for you were it to be always in care, always humbly trembling, not, as I have said, with the fear that provokes wrath, but with that which softens it.
6. If that horrible fear ever knocks at the door of your soul to terrify it, and to suggest that your service to God cannot be accepted, and that your penitence is unfruitful because that in which God has been offended by you cannot be amended; do not receive it even for a moment, but reply with confidence: I have done wrong indeed, but it is done and cannot be undone. Who knows if God has foreseen that good should come to me out of it, and that He who is good has willed to do me good even from my evil? Let Him then punish the evil which 101I have done, but let the good which He had provided for remain. The goodness of God knew how to use our ill-governed wills and actions to the beauty of the order which He established, and often, in His goodness, even to our benefit. O indulgent bounty of Divine love towards the sons of Adam! which does not cease to load us with benefits, not only where no merit was found, but often even where entire demerit was seen. But let us return to you. According to the two kinds of fear which are distinguished above, I wish you to fear, and yet not to fear; to presume, and yet not to presume. To feel that you may repent, not to feel that you may have confidence; and again, to have confidence that you may not distrust, and not to be confident that you may not grow inactive.
7. You perceive, brother, how much confidence I have in you, since I permit myself to blame you so sharply, to judge and disapprove so freely what you have done, when perhaps you have had better reasons for doing it than have hitherto been made known to me. For you have not perhaps wished to state those reasons in your letters, by which your action might well be excused, either through your humility or through want of space. Leaving, then, undecided for the present my opinion about any part of the matter with which I may not be fully acquainted, one thing that you have done I unreservedly praise, namely, that when you had laid down the yoke of ruling, yet without a yoke you were not willing to continue, but took up again a discipline to which you were attached, without being ashamed to become a simple disciple when you had borne the title of 102master. For you were able, when freed from your pastoral charge, to remain under your own authority, since in becoming abbot you were released from the obedience owed to your former abbot.3737 Because a monk, when he became an abbot, was freed from the control of his own abbot. But you did not wish to be under no authority but your own, and as you had declined to rule over others, so you shrunk from rule over yourself; and inasmuch as you thought yourself not fit to be the master of others, so also you did not trust yourself to be your own master, and in your distrust of yourself, even for your own guidance, would not be your own disciple. And rightly. For he who makes himself his own master, subjects himself to a fool as master. I know not what others may think of this; as for me, I have had experience of what I say, that it is far more easy and safe to govern many others than my own single self. It was, therefore, a proof of prudent humility and of humble prudence that, by no means believing that you were sufficient for your own salvation, you proposed to live henceforth by the judgment of another person.
8. I praise you also that you did not seek out another master nor another place, but returned to the cloister whence you had gone forth, and to the master under whom you had made progress in good. It was very right that the house which had nurtured you, but had sent you forth through brotherly charity, should receive you when freed from your charge, rather than that another house should have in its place the joy of possessing you. As, however, you have not obtained the sanction of the Bishop for 103what you have done, do not be negligent in seeking it, but either yourself, or through some third person, be prompt to give him satisfaction as far as is in your power. After this, study to lead a simple life among your brethren, devoted to God, submissive to your superior, respectful towards the older monks, and obliging towards the younger. Be profitable in word, humble in heart, pleasing to the Angels, courteous to all. But beware of thinking that you have a right to be honoured more than others because you were once placed in a position of dignity, but show yourself as one among the rest, only more humble than all. For it is not becoming that you should be honoured on account of a post, the labour of which you have shunned.
9. Another danger also may arise from this of which I wish to forewarn you and strengthen you against it. For as we are very changeable, and it frequently happens that what we wished for yesterday to-day we refuse, and what we shrink from to-day to-morrow we desire, so it may happen sometime by the temptation of the devil that, from the remembrance of the honour you have resigned, a selfish desire may knock at the door of your heart, and you may begin weakly to covet what you bravely resigned. The recollection of things which before were bitter to you will then be sweet; the dignity of the position, the care of the house, and the administration of its property, the respectful obedience of domestics, the freedom of your own actions, the power over others; it may be as much a source of regret to you that you have given up these things, as it was before of weariness to bear them. If you yield even 104for an hour (which may God forbid) to this most injurious temptation you will suffer great loss to your spiritual life.
10. This is the whole of the wisdom of that most accomplished and eloqueut Doctor, by whom you have wished to be taught from such a distance. This is the eulogy, desired and waited for, which you have been so eager to hear. This is the sum of all my wisdom. Do not look for any other great thing from me; you have heard all. What can you require more? The fountain is drained, and would you seek water from the dry sand? I have sent you, according to the example of that widow in the Gospel,3838 S. Luke xxi. 2–4 out of my poverty all that I had. Why art thou ashamed, and why does thy countenance fall? You have obliged me. You have asked for a discourse; a discourse you have. A discourse, I say, long enough, indeed, but saying nothing; full of words, empty of meaning. Such is the discourse which ought to be received by you with charity, as you have requested it, but which only seems to reveal my lack of knowledge. Perhaps it would not be impossible for me to find excuses for it. Thus I might say that I have dictated it while labouring under a tertian fever, as also while occupied with the cares of my office, while yet it is written, Write at leisure of wisdom (founded on Ecclus. xxxviii. 25). I should rightly put these reasons forward if I had adventured upon some great and laborious work. But now, in such a brief treatise that my engagements afford me no excuse, I can allege nothing, 105as I have often said already, but the insufficiency of my knowledge.
11. But I console myself in my mortification by considering that if I had not done as you requested, if I had not sent what you hoped for, you would not have been quite sure of my goodwill to-day. I hope that my good intention will content you when you see that the power to do more was wanting to me. And although my Letter be without utility to you, it will profit me in promoting humility. Even a fool when he holdeth his peace is counted wise (Prov. xvii. 28), for that he holds his peace is counted to him as the reserve of humility, not as want of sense. If, then, I had still kept silence, I should have had the benefit of a similar judgment, and have been called wise without being so. But now some will ridicule me as a man of little wisdom, some laugh at me as ignorant, and others indignantly accuse me of presumption. Do not think that all this serves little to the profit of religion, since humility, which humiliation teaches us to practise, is the foundation of the entire spiritual fabric. Thus humiliation is the way to humility, as patience to peace, as reading is to knowledge. If you long for the virtue of humility, you must not flee from the way of humiliation. For if you do not allow yourself to be humiliated, you cannot attain to humility. It is a benefit to me, therefore, that my ignorance should be made known, and that I should be rightly put to confusion by those who are instructed, since I have often been undeservedly praised by those who could not form a correct opinion. The fear of the Apostle makes me fear when he says, I forbear, lest 106any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me (2 Cor. xii. 6). How finely he has said I spare [restrain] you. The arrogant, the proud, the desirous of vainglory, the boaster of his own deeds, who either takes merit to himself for what he has done, or even claims what he has not done, he does not restrain himself. He alone who is truly humble, he restrains his own soul, who is even afraid to let the excellency that is in him be known, that he may not be thought to be what he is not.
12. Great in truth is the danger, that any one should speak of us above what we feel our desert to be. Who shall give me to be as deservedly humiliated among men for well-founded reasons as I have been undeservedly praised for ill-founded ones? I should, then, be able to take to myself the word of the Prophet: After having been exalted I have been cast down and filled with confusion (Ps. lxxxviii. 15, Vulg.), and this, I will play and will be yet more vile (2 Sam. vi. 21, 22). Yes, I will play this foolish game that I may be ridiculed. It is a good folly, at which Michal is angry and God is pleased. A good folly which affords a ridiculous spectacle, indeed, to men, but to angels an admirable one. Yes, I repeat; an excellent folly, by which we are exposed to disgrace from the rich and disdain from the proud. For, in truth, what do we appear to people of the world to do except indulge in folly, since what they seek with eagerness in this world we, on the contrary, shun, and what they avoid we eagerly seek? Upon the eyes of all we produce the effect of jugglers and tumblers, who stand or walk 107on their hands, contrary to human nature, with their heads downwards and feet in the air. But our foolish game has nothing boyish in it, nothing of the spectacle at the theatre, which represents low actions, and with effeminate and corrupt gestures and bendings provoke the passions, but it is cheerful, honourable, grave, decent, and capable of delighting even the celestial beings who gaze upon it. This it was he was engaged in, who said, We are made a spectacle to Angels and to men (1 Cor. iv. 9). May it be ours also in this meantime, that we may be ridiculed, confounded, humiliated, until He shall come who puts down the powerful and exalts the humble, to fill us with joy and glory, and to raise us up for ever and ever.
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