Chapter 1: Reflection 19 – A Fecundity Which Must Pour Itself Out

What has been said of Bernard of Clairvaux might well be said of Julian of Norwich: “Everything he concerns himself with either leads to love or is explained by love.” 1 The early Cistercian abbot was a very significant presence in TM’s religious, spiritual, and theological development. Two quotations from insightful historians paint an introductory image of this monastic pioneer. In the first, Bernard McGinn offers the following portrait of his namesake:

This twelfth-century mystic, a many-talented man whom one can well imagine to have been capable of such alternate careers as crusader, courtly poet, or politician (ecclesiastical or lay), was a figure larger than life, both to his contemporaries and to subsequent generations. Although he won his greatest fame as a contemplative, the abbot of Clairvaux was a man of action, deeply involved with a wide range of issues of his time and engaged in more than a few acrimonious controversies. But Bernard does not appear to be a harsh or unlovable figure. His personality was so attractive, his powers of persuasion so difficult to withstand, that we are told that mothers hid their children and wives clung to their husbands lest he seduce them into the monastery. 2

The second depiction is that of the historian and Trappist monk, Chrysogonus Waddell, whose skillful and poignant writing captures something of the very real struggles and challenges that faced Bernard – and, by extension, that earliest generation of Cistercians whose luminous qualities and achievements only later came to be recognized as the Order’s “Golden Age”:

Physically frail, chronically ill, and ridiculously young and inexperienced to be, at the age of twenty-five, head of a monastic community, Bernard of Fontaines had been sent from the abbey of Citeaux in mid-June of 1115 at the head of a group of twelve monks, to found a new abbey in the district of Langres, not far from the river Aube. ‘The “Valley of Wormwood” men called it in times past,’ writes Bernard’s first biographer, William of St. Thierry, ‘either because of the wormwood growing there in abundance, or because of the bitter pain experienced by the victims of the local robbers.’ In time this Valley of Wormwood was to become the Vale of Light, ‘Clairvaux;’ but only after a period of much darkness and heartbreak.    

While not the founder of the Cistercian Order, Bernard was a primary architect of its charism and character. Reverence for this distinct role can be heard in TM’ 1953 affirmation: “I want with all my heart to become a son worthy of our Father Saint Bernard.” 4 And yet relationships between sons and their fathers are frequently not without their complexities and ambivalences, as can be heard in this aside in TM’s 1963 conference notes on St. Anselm: “[I]f it was a choice between who I had to have as my abbot, Bernard or Anselm, I would have much preferred St. Anselm … He’s more my speed, I think.” 5 Yet TM’s generative bond with Bernard was real and deep:

Bernard is a man who, plunging to the depths of his human nothingness, comes back to us resplendent with divine mercy …. [He] was plainly conscious of the fact that his own life was to serve as evidence of the outpouring of God’s mercy upon the world … This outpouring of divine grace … is a manifestation of the inexhaustible love and mercy within God Himself – a fecundity which cannot contain itself but must pour itself out … 6


  1. Emero Stiegman, “An Analytical Commentary,” in Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995, page 45. Professor Stiegman writes: “In the works of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) we meet a writer whose engagement in many subjects reveals one literary passion, love. Everything he concerns himself with either leads to love or is explained by love. In his first major work, The Steps of Humility and Pride, the God who awaits us at the pinnacle of our climb is ‘love itself’ [ipsa caritas]. In his most esteemed theological treatise, On Grace and Free Choice, Bernard sets out to demonstrate that what he has said about the loving God working within us does not exclude a role for the human lover. In his contemplative masterpiece, On the Song of Songs, he celebrates ‘the gift of holy love’. In the great body of his sermons, what posterity has cherished is his ability to draw from the Scriptures their spiritual meaning, the revelation of God’s love.” (Ibid., page 45).
  2. Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great through the 12th Century. Volume II of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996, page 163. Acknowledging that some of Bernard’s actions in life have led to his being found to be a “’difficult saint,’” Professor McGinn writes: “But whether we judge him right or wrong on particular issues, we cannot accuse Bernard of tepidity, indifference, or of a failure to shoulder what he conceived to be his responsibility.” (Ibid., page 163.) Regarding the Cistercian’s writing, the professor states: “Among the Latin authors of the Middle Ages, Bernard may possibly have equals, but surely no superiors. The sumptuous elegance of his Latinity, his genius at alternating soaring passages of complex periodic sentences with terse epigrammatic formulations summarizing key points, and, above all, the unmistakable personal tone he achieved throughout his work, mark him as the greatest stylist of an age of many distinguished Latinists.” (Ibid., 163.) And of the heart-center of Bernard’s writing, the professor is clear: “’Deus caritas est’ [God is love.] (1 John 4:8). No text from the whole of scripture meant more to our Cistercian than this passage. Bernard thought that it conveyed the most that we can ever really know about God – and all that we ever need to know.” (Ibid., 193).
  3. Chrysogonus Waddell, “Introduction,” from Bernard of Clairvaux, Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Translated by Marie-Bernard Said. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1993, page xiii. Like Professor McGinn, Father Chrysogonos celebrates Bernard’s writing and wonderfully identifies its well-spring and boundless source: “His most congenial habitat was the garden of Holy Writ, in which he could walk and move about freely, listening to God speaking to him in the cool of the evening breeze. Bernard was happiest, then, when he could simply take the word of God, internalize it, and then communicate it to others with an enthusiasm and a beauty of expression all his own.” (Ibid., xv). Continuing, Father Chrysogonos marvels at the Cistercian’s manner of reading Holy Scripture, his practice of lectio: “Not a comma escapes his scrutiny. Every word is studied, but studied in a climate of reverence and love … Bernard’s assimilation of the words of Sacred Scripture is so absolute that his own literary diction is wholly conditioned by it. The Bible has become an organic and living part of his substance, so much so that it becomes virtually impossible for us to reduce Bernard’s use of Scripture to any precise system or technique. At times he will study a text with all the objectivity of a modern exegete; biblical words will be used with a maximum of precision, and related texts brought together in such a way that the meaning of each individual text is clarified and re-enforced. At times, a mere allusion, a single contextually significant word or two suffices to provide a biblical dimension or point of reference for what our Abbot is saying. At other times, a text is cited simply as an example. And still other times, the serious reader will be alarmed to note that, for all his piety, Bernard, the Last of the Fathers, is weaving into his discourse threads from Holy Writ which have nothing to do, strictly speaking, with what Bernard is saying: mere words or phrases wrenched from the proper context and put to a quite new use. The truth of the matter is that, within Bernard’s basic attitude of awe when face to face with the word of God, there is plenty of room for playfulness and for the guileless simplicity and freedom of the sons of God.” (Ibid., pages xv-xvi). Finally, Father Chrysogonos affirms that Bernard’s engagement with scripture is always communal: “There is no question, then, of Bernard as a lone individual tete-a-tete with the word of God. His contact with Scripture was always a family affair in which Bernard pores over the sacred page with Origen beside him, and Augustine and Ambrose and Gregory and the anonymous compilers of liturgical texts.” (Ibid., xvi).
  4. Chrysogonus Waddell, “Merton of Gethsemani and Bernard of Clairvaux.” The Merton Annual 5 (1992), page 128. Father Chrysogonos offers additional context for TM’s expression of devotion and genuine commitment by explaining that it is found in a letter dated August 13, 1953, to the Abbot general of the Cistercians, Dom Gabriel Sortais. In it, TM speaks of having read Doctor Mellifluus, an encyclical issued by Pope Pius XII in May of 1953 in anticipation of the 800th centenary of Bernard’s death: “The reading of the encyclical has done me a lot of good, and I want with all my heart to become a son worthy of our Father Saint Bernard.” (Ibid., 128). A decade later, in his teaching notes for a conference for the Gethsemani novices entitled, “The Cistercian Fathers and Their Monastic Theology,” TM begins with these words: “A most important part of Cistercian formation {is} getting acquainted with our Father St. Bernard, who did more than any other to shape the spirituality of the Order – to be a Cistercian is in fact to have the spirit of Bernard, and since he has left so many writings in which that spirit is found, we must learn to read him at no matter the cost. It is very rewarding.” (Thomas Merton, The Cistercian Fathers and Their Monastic Theology: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 8. Ed. Patrick F. O’Connell. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016, page 1.) Beginning his teaching with a consideration of the 1953 papal encyclical, TM writes: “We here briefly outline the points made by Pope Pius XIII, who emphasizes the mystical and ascetical teaching of St. Bernard, and in particular his doctrine of charity, which is the root of his teaching on contemplation. Cistercian theology is primarily a theology of love.” (Ibid., page 1).   
  5. Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences. Editor Patrick F. O’Connell. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2018, page 54.
  6.  TM’s words are quoted in Chrysogonus Waddell, “Merton of Gethsemani and Bernard of Clairvaux.” The Merton Annual 5 (1992), page 130. The activity, energy, and movement expressed by the words “pour’ and “outpouring” resonate with words from Bernard’s eighty-third sermon on the Song of Songs. These come from a larger passage of that particular sermon which is quoted in the papal encyclical, Doctor Mellifluus, and which, in his teaching notes, TM reminds himself read to his monastic students: “Love is sufficient of itself; it pleases of itself, and for its own sake. It counts as merit to itself and is its own reward. Besides itself love requires no motive and seeks no fruit. Its fruit is its enjoyment of itself. I love because I love, and I love for the sake of loving. A great thing is love, if yet it returns to its Principle, if it is restored to its Origin, if it finds its way back again to its Fountainhead, so that it may be thus enabled to continue flowing with an unfailing stream.” (Emphasis mine.) Latin: “Is per se sufficit, is per se placet, et propter se. Ipse meritum, ipse praemium est sibi. Amor praeter se non requirit causam, non fructum. Fructus ejus, usus ejus. Amo, quia amo; amo, ut amem. Magna res amor, si tamen ad suum recurrat principium, si suae origini redditus, si refusus suo fonti semper ex eo sumat, unde jugiter fluat.” Patrick O’Connell graciously presents the English translation in his Thomas Merton, The Cistercian Fathers and Their Monastic Theology: Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 8, note # 8, page 5. The entire original Latin text of Bernard’s set of eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs is available on the website of The Matheson Trust: For the Study of Comparative Religion: See page 157 for the present reference. The verb with which Bernard ends his sentence, “fluo,” can be translated as “to flow, stream,” – and “to pour” and “to overflow.” And indeed, the very title of the 1953 encyclical, Doctor Mellifluus, means “teacher flowing with honey.” However, TM cautions: “Let us not, by any means, associate the sweetness of Saint Bernard with the insipid sentimentality and bad taste of a piety that is untrue …. The preaching of Bernard of Clairvaux does have emotional repercussions. Let us not be so foolish as to deny the emotions a part either in our life or our religion. But for Bernard emotion is never the end in view. It would be quite false to suppose that the deep and rich religious experience everywhere reflected in St. Bernard’s writings and in his life was something that had been sought for its own sake. The sweetness of Bernard remains clean because he seldom stops to think subjectively about sweetness. It is not at all self-conscious. It does not even spring up from any source within Bernard himself. It is an overflow from the goodness and mercy and charity of God.” (Emphasis mine.) The quotation comes from: Thomas Merton, The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter, Doctor Mellifluus. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954, pages 11 and 12. Internet Archive:

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