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St Bernard on the Stages of Contemplation

In Today’s Office of Readings, St Bernard invites us to devote ourselves to contemplation so that, “leaning with all our strength on Christ,” we might “see what he is saying to us and what reply we ought to make to his charges.”

But before we are able to ascend to the heights of contemplation to hear the voice of the Lord, St Bernard exhorts us to “constantly consider what God wants, what is pleasing to him, and what is acceptable in his eyes.” In other words, the first stage of contemplation is to decide in our hearts to abandon ourselves to His holy will.

Convinced that “what is according to his will is in every way more advantageous and fitting for us,” we must surrender even the best of our desires to the Lord, trusting in His loving care for us.

Such a disposition of heart does not come easily. Unless we are thoroughly convinced of our poverty and our dire need of the Lord, total surrender is not possible. As St Peter says, we must humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God that in due time he may exalt us.

Today’s passage from St Bernard concludes with these words,

“The whole of the spiritual life consists of these two elements. When we think of ourselves, we are perturbed and filled with a salutary sadness. And when we think of the Lord, we are revived to find consolation in the joy of the Holy Spirit. From the first we derive fear and humility, from the second hope and love.”

When we gaze inward at our own weakness and failings, we are rightly filled with sorrow. Self-knowledge of this kind can be the beginning of repentance. When it is not tainted by pride (which only leads to despair), it produces fear and humility before the Lord.

However, when from the depths of our native poverty, we are able to lift our minds to the Lord, we find the greatest of consolations in the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised he would not leave us as orphans. He knows our mortal frame more than we ever could. When God pulls back the veil to reveal our weakness, he does so in order that He might raise our eyes to heaven.

And it is then that we are filled with hope and love. It is then that we are able to “see what he is saying to us and what reply we ought to make to His charges.”

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