Lent, Day 14, St. Bernard on Freedom from Necessity

Continuing on in the selections from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’ essay On Grace and Free Will, we have a section (9ff) that doesn’t deal explicitly with grace, but as I’d like to finish what I have of this essay, I choose to go through it, bit by bit.

This first freedom, that from necessity, is part of every entity from God and the angels to human beings, who have some understanding and are not compelled by their nature to act in certain ways.  Animals have a limited freedom here, as so much is determined by instinct.  As Bernard says it, we have the freedom to choose good or to choose bad.  We are not impelled to choose good, nor are we impelled to choose bad.  That does not mean that we aren’t encouraged to choose good by some, and evil by others (everyone must have seen at least one cartoon in their youth where the hero comes to a crossroad, and has to make a choice — and immediately there appears on the hero’s shoulder two figures, one an angel (often blonde) with wings and dressed all in white, counseling the hero to choose good, the other a demon, all fire-engine red, with pitchfork and a mischievous grin, counseling the hero to choose bad.

Bernard’s main point in this section is to distinguish freedom from necessity from the freedom from sin.  Just because we lean towards choosing good (and we apparently can go either way), does not mean that we don’t slip into sin or sinful actions.  But we always have that freedom.

In some ways, this sounded to me a lot like the radical freedom of existentialism.  We are somewhat free of traditional moorings in the 20th and 21st century, and so we can choose to be a certain way, and that freedom is somewhat scary and anxiety producing.

Of course, in existentialism, we are free from religion as well, and that wide open world, where we have nothing on which to anchor our identity.  And I do wonder if we don’t need some such bedrock principle.  For Bernard and all the medieval philosophers, God would be that bedrock, and the grace of God would be some force animating and inspiring humans everywhere.  That would be the divine blanket over all the world.  I think that a belief in a blessings filled universe might serve the same purpose.  I think it does matter if we believe that the world around us is a garden and full of blessings, or if we think that the world is some sort of dog-eat-dog battlefield.  Either metaphor has consequences.  The battlefield metaphor is likely to turn out badly — instead of working together, we work at counter purposes and spend all our time fighting over what we see as scarce resources;  instead of loving one another, we view each other with suspicion and fear, and that view is reciprocated, which causes the cycle to repeat, and that cycle of fear and hate and violence reinforces the idea that the world is a battlefield and we have to “do it to him before he does it to us.”  The metaphor of a garden of blessings suggests that we don’t need to fear one another, but we need to allay our fears and look to the blessings all around.  A lot of the language and images we see on TV and elsewhere help to reinforce a negative world view and require discipline on our part to try to see past that metaphor to one that is life affirming.

Does that mean we are all dancing on a cloud, with little beyond our beliefs to support us?  I think that there must be some bedrock reality, but a lot of our lives, especially the lives we create with our minds are built on the metaphors we choose to believe and develop.  But any metaphor we choose to believe must also be one we choose to develop.  We don’t suddenly find ourselves in the garden which remains a place of wonder — the garden needs tending.

And that may be a way in which we can tap into grace in the world, and develop it within ourselves, and even help it grow.


Lent, Day 13, back to Bernard on Grace and Free Will

The selection from Pennington’s book on Bernard’s writing, is section 7b from the essay “On Grace and Free Will.”  In this section, Bernard speaks of three freedoms:  a “freedom from sin, freedom from sorrow and freedom from necessity.”   According to Bernard, we have the last freedom as part of our natural condition (as ensouled creatures, we have free will), and grace frees us from sin, and the freedom from sorrow we get as part of the community of God in heaven.

The idea that animals don’t have free will I’m not sure I entirely buy.  But animals are much more governed by instinct and drive than any cogitation.  The dogs my wife and I have, if food is present, will simply gobble down.  They don’t think about it, or consider if eating a lot of food is bad for them (they’re pugs, and so relatively small dogs, so eating a lot is not good).  They just do it.  Where my wife and I can decide on whether to eat a lot or a little, and can base our decision on reason and other considerations, the dogs don’t really have that capability.

Sin, as Bernard seems to define it, is a problem “of the flesh,” and into which we have “fallen freely and willingly.”  And this requires outside help — grace, which here Bernard associates with Christ who was free of sin, and sacrificed himself and who overcame death.  Here I have some problems.  First, there is this medieval fear or concern about the body, that we have to cleanse ourselves from the sins of the body in which we wallow.  Such a fear or concern can lead to and has led to extreme fasting (overcoming gluttony), wearing of uncomfortable material such as mohair (overcoming luxury and sensuality) and flagellation (overcoming pride and sensuality).  So rather than seeing the body as a blessing and sensuality as a blessing, it’s rather a curse, one we have to overcome through harsh discipline.  Strangely enough, that harsh discipline itself becomes something of an idol.  We can become fixed on the whipping, or the refusal to eat, and get caught up in the pride of just how good we are.  And such fixation on overcoming our appetites can give them even greater hold on us.  So instead of incorporating or addressing our desires, we deny them, but they pop up unannounced and fierce, when we least expect it, and when it becomes even tougher to control — consider the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

And though I agree somewhat that we need something extra to deal with sin (thinking that we can overcome it on our own can lead to pride, and often to a fall — think of people with substance abuse problems — they deny they have a problem, and when they are willing to admit it, they think they can overcome it on their own, and that seeking help is a sign of weakness, and such decisions to go it alone often result in defeat and despair).  That that extra has to be Christ I cannot accept, or even that it has to be God, as that requires a belief in God, and it seems to me that there are atheists who do deal with sin (the best definition I can find is “failure to love,” which covers most of the seven deadly sins) and there are people of faith who are not Christians, who address the disconnect that is sin.  Following along with my Color Purple motif, that outside force can be the world around us, and seeing in it something worth holding onto, on seeing something beyond and outside ourselves.  And so we avoid or can deal with our ego-fixation, and in seeing and feeling, even if for a moment, we can sense the interdependent web of which we are a part.  And accepting that we are part of something bigger can lead to our righting our course.  And that would be grace helping us out.

The freedom from sorrow is a bit more puzzling.  It seems to be connected with a belief in Jesus as the one who conquered death, so that we don’t have to fear death, whence comes sorrow.  This, of course, is tied directly to a belief in the trinity and in Jesus Christ as Savior and Liberator.  It seems to require, as does the grace element in this triple freedom, for some divine entity to enact, that we are unable to do this on our own.  It also seems to be tied to the afterlife more than I’m comfortable with.  There may be an afterlife, but I choose to believe in no such survival of my life force and consciousness.  So what happens after death lacks meaning for me.  And I think that the Buddhists are right in claiming as one of the four noble truths the truth of dukkha, suffering that comes from the transitory nature of earthly existence.  That is not something to be denied, I think, but something to be accepted and welcomed.  That we suffer when a loved one dies, or is sick, or has left, is a sign that we noticed that loved one, that s/he mattered to us, and that we feel the loss.  I think a continued fixation on that could be a problem, but no feeling of sadness would, itself, be sad.

So, so far as a freedom from sorrow — I guess I’m saying, I’m not sure I want it, and that whatever respite I get from sorrow, though it mainly comes from outside myself, is not dependent on a deity, a Savior, or a Liberator.


Lent, Day 12, a side trip on St. Bernard…

I didn’t get a chance to read St. Bernard on grace today, but did manage to get a look at a very short book that Thomas Merton wrote on the occasion of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Doctor Mellifluus, on the 800th anniversary of Bernard’s canonization.  Merton was himself a Trappist, which group is a subset of the Cistercians, the monastic order to which Bernard belonged.  I did take some time to read a little from it, and thought I’d reflect on what I read in this work today.

In his brief biographical entry on Bernard, Merton refers to the “enigma of sanctity.”  He also says “Sanctity is born of conflict — of contradictories resolved into union,” an idea he repeats later.  So, for him, sainthood is born from a conflict within a person and between the person and his time or society, and that bridging that split is key into achieving sanctity.  He also emphasizes that though we can talk about the events of Bernard’s life, and his actions, it is the invisible element, the mystery of the man, that is the essential element.

Of what I read, I was a bit taken aback by Merton’s statement that the invisible is the important, or more essential element.  I think we can learn a lot through physical signs and outward shows.  Admittedly, there is more at work than simply what we can see, but I think we do have an entree into mystery through the senses, and not simply through contemplation.

One especially flowery passage noted that “the thoughts and acts and virtues of a saint are not wonderful in themselves, but they are meant to be deeply significant flashes sent forth from the dark bosom of the mystery of God.  For the saint does not represent himself, or his time, or his nation: he is a sign of God for his own generation and for all generations to come.”

I agree that a sainted person (and I think I’d include most people in this category, at least in potential) radiate something in their actions, or their words, or by their very presence.  I’m not sure I’m one to speak of the “dark bosom of the mystery of God.”  If there is no personal God, this does not hold up.  But I think that there is something within us that we demonstrate every day that speaks to something greater.  There is a flash within us that will shine forth, and does.  Merton says that “saints not only have life, but they give it,” and I think we all have the potential to do this, and do inspire others and help them in their works and lives.

And that something special within might be seen as grace, whether coming from beyond, radiating from God, or from the world, and from each of us as part of the world.  As the hymn goes, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  Even if grace is something special and beyond our individual capabilities, other than to accept it and reflect it, there is something of grace within us.  But we have to say yes to grace in the world, and yes to the grace within ourselves.


Lent, Day 11, St. Bernard on grace

Well, I did run through what there was on grace in the Catholic Catechism, and so I’m moving on to some snippets from Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote an essay on “Grace and Free Will,” dedicated to William of Thierry, his fellow monk.  A book I have, Bernard of Clairvaux: a Lover Teaching the Way of Love, ed. by M. Basil Pennington, a Cistercian monk who has done a lot of work on his fellow Cistercian, St. Bernard, has about 6 selections from this essay.  So, this week, I’ll be looking at those and considering them.

In this opening section, Bernard retells a conversation he had with someone (it is assumed to be William himself) in which his interlocutor asked him about grace and free will.  ‘What part do you play, then, or what reward or prize do you hope for, if it is all God’s work?’  And Bernard himself recalls the scripture saying ‘Without me (God) you can do nothing’ and ‘It depends not on the one running, nor the one willing, but on God who has mercy.’

These statements would seem to undercut our part in the whole grace equation.  And what would this mean then for an atheist or agnostic or someone who does not see any personal deity at work?  Well, then, the idea of God would be out, and the figure who inspires and sustains behind the scene would be missing.  And how could there be grace without God?  Well, I’ve suggested this before that we might see grace in nature and in the world around us.  Does that work?

Well, the Catechism and St. Bernard both seem to emphasize that grace is not deserved nor earned.  It is a free gift from a loving deity according to those sources.  But what of the beauty in the world, or the joy in birdsong?  Those elements are not deserved — there is beauty in the world not for us alone, nor because of our actions.  A sunset or waterfall or field of wildflowers would be beautiful no matter our actions.  It might be noted that we can so poison the world that fields of wildflowers might die out, but short of our own bad ecological choices, those elements of beauty are there whether we notice them or not, and not because of something we’ve done to earn it.  That is a free flowing sort of generosity.

And that beauty in the world, or a generous gesture from a pet or a fellow human, can have a salutary effect — we can notice them, and respond to them, and let their generosity infect us as well as the generous outpouring of nature.

Would that not be a way out of requiring that their being a God?  Of course, a theist would see in those bits of wonder about us some divine aspect, so those bits of beauty and joy do not preclude a deity.  I’m somewhat concerned that, when we see the wonder in some transcendental entity, we lose sight of it in our world and in our lives.  We can blind ourselves to the wonder around us by looking for something beyond what is before our senses.

I see some value, even from an atheistic perspective, to seeing grace as something that requires something outside ourselves.  Our own egos cannot bring about this grace by some sort of mental command.  The idea of grace does seem to require something outside ourselves, and reciprocity is key.

On the matter of free will being important, I have to say that I find St. Bernard’s discussion intriguing.  As a kid, there is the concern one has that, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, how is it that anything we do has value?  Why even bother?  And yet, Bernard is clear that, for the system to work, we must be free to choose.  If we aren’t free then nothing we do does matter, as we are enslaved to some power.  Such a relationship is not love, but one of control.  For the magic of grace to work, there has to be more than just the beauty of the world around us.  That’s always there, whether we notice it or not, if we happen to be distracted or in a foul mood.  But only if we notice it, and let it touch us, does the magic happen.

Again returning to Alice Walker and The Color Purple — God (or Nature) is always trying to please us, and God (Nature) is pissed off when we pass the color purple and don’t notice it.  Grace may be the free outflowing of wonder from God or Nature, but our noticing it and assenting to it, that is key for it to mean anything.


Lent, Days 9 and 10, Grace cont’d

As it turns out the section specifically on grace in the catechism ran out on Thursday.  I meant to post yesterday, but failed to do so, so I’m doubling up today.  I’ll be looking at a couple of other Catholic sources on grace in the coming weeks, but will be doing something of a sidestep today.  Even missing a day or two, it is important to keep up one’s practice.

So today’s source will be from one of my email missives from the Enneagram Institute.  One can go to the site — just Google Enneagram Institute and you’ll see how you can sign up — and  you can get daily postings (affirmations) specific to your Enneagram type.  My type is 6 — a figure who is both loyal, but also skeptical.  It ends up being very confusing at times.  I am eager to find a group to belong to, or with which I can identify, but, at the same time, there is profound doubt which causes me to test or question any such group or relationship.  As I’m familiar with the type and this predilection within myself, I can usually accommodate it and compensate for it.

This was the posting from yesterday:

Holy Faith gives us an unshakable confidence in the inherent goodness of life and of the universe, not as something we profess to believe, but from our own direct experience of it. (Understanding the Enneagram, 54)

The counter to doubt is faith, and so faith is a cardinal virtue for my type.  Strangely enough, deep down, I think I do believe in the “inherent goodness of life and of the universe.”  When I’m feeling down, I generally don’t feel surrounded or put upon by the world at large, and a realization of the goodness of the world around me can help me get past my doubts to regaining faith and confidence in the world, and in myself.  As a kid, I found myself very much identifying with Charlie Brown and especially Charlie Brown the baseball player — his team never won, and they were misfits, not well suited to being a team, but after shrugging off the disappointment of failure, Charlie Brown always got up and had faith that, next time, he would do better.  Much of the rest of the team had no such belief, and Charlie Brown often seemed foolish for such a belief (after all, his team wasn’t that good, and didn’t have their hearts in it), but I found that belief glorious.

For me, a sense of the underlying goodness and beneficence, and even generosity of the world around — nothing personal, necessarily, as I don’t believe in a personal God — gives me a sense of optimism, no matter how bad things are, or how bad they get.  When I act and live from the basic idea, I find myself in a pool of grace, or a bubble of grace.  And I believe I can tap into that goodness and beneficence and generosity.  And when I do that, I find, more and more, a calm dedication settling in.  It’s a good feeling, and I may be deluding myself to get that good feeling, but with that feeling often comes a great deal of hard work, so I think that such an idea must have something more than the “pleasure principle” behind it.

So, I’m thinking that grace is the color purple, but also our noticing the color purple, and realizing that we have that color (and a whole spectrum of colors) within us.  There are those in the world who will question this and may try to tear down such a belief in us.  But keeping that sense helps me quite a bit, and helps me come closer to my best self.


Lent, Day 8, Grace cont’d

2005 Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. However, according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits” – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”

“Since it belongs to the supernatural order” — well, this is only true if we accept that there is something supernatural.  It is true that there is a lot in the natural order which we do know know in the way we might know the taste of burgundy or chocolate, or recognize the shapes of letters and understand the words they spell.  That said, I think that “grace” would not be something we experience in the same way as we experience physical pain, or sensory pleasure, which we can often pinpoint and replicate — dropping a weight on our foot will hurt, and if we do it again at some other time, it will hurt again in like manner and we can likely predict that feeling.  But grace surely belongs to categories like love, faith, hope or other emotional states.  We cannot put our fingers on grace, or sense it with eyes, or ears, but, if we believe that there is something like grace, just like we believe there is something called love, I think we can be aware of it, or feel it intuitively.

“Reflection on God’s blessings in our  life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us…”  As I’ve noted before, I have a great fondness for the passage in The Color Purple in which one character explains how God is always trying to please us, and that it pisses God off if we pass by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.  And this passage seems to suggest something like that.  If we adopt an “attitude of gratitude,” if I can borrow a phrase from the more positive bible thumpers, we heighten our overall awareness of the blessings around us.  That awareness and gratitude make us even more aware of such blessings.  In a sense, our belief helps us see the world in a positive way, and acting on that, help to enact the very positive world we imagine.  And I think we can reflect on blessings in our world and our lives, even if we don’t believe in God, and I think we can reflect on saints, or heroes, and try to see the lessons in the lives of those extraordinary people, or characters, which lessons and examples we can imitate.

The quotation attributed to Joan of Arc, is one which I find beautiful, though I don’t believe in God.  It is a statement of one who has faith in that Interdependent Web (Joan of Arc would have said God) and her place in it.  If she strayed from her true path, the universe (God) would call her back.  That response was to a questioner who hoped to trap her — the inquisitor was expecting her to say Yes, and then would pounce on her for presuming to know God’s will, which she, as a poor farm girl, could  not know.  Her response given covered all bases, not claiming absolutely any state of grace, but hoping for it, or for God (the universe) to direct her to it.


Lent, Day 7, Grace, cont’d

2004 Among the special graces ought to be mentioned the graces of state that accompany the exercise of the responsibilities of the Christian life and of the ministries within the Church:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Of the passages encountered in the Catholic catechism, this is the one that has the strongest resonance from my youth, and still resonates today.  In fact, this strikes me as one that would be especially dear to Unitarians and many people of faith — it’s what The Epistle of James is all about — “Faith, without works, is dead.”  There was a song we sang in Mass when I was a kid — “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  That song, too, seemed to imply that the love was manifested in deeds.  So, it is not enough to think right, but to live right by acting right.  

And the list of jobs one might fill are provided as examples and are not an exhaustive list.  The last three items, though, add something to the mix.  For it says the teacher manifests grace in teaching — nothing surprising here.  But it suggests that in contributions, be liberal — so don’t just give, but give generously;  and if you help someone, do it zealously, with enthusiasm;  and if you are kind to someone, do it cheerfully.  That last element has always hit home — often in giving help to another, we see it as something of a potential quid pro quo — we help Joe out now, and Joe owes us.  But this clearly says that you do kindnesses cheerfully, which implies that doing a kindness is or should be its own reward — it’s not some mercantile interchange, but a free gift.

It can be suggested that if we give freely and build up a community of wealth and good feelings, that will redound upon us, and, when we need that community, it will be there for us.  But there is something liberating about generosity.  Oftentimes, I find myself second guessing, but when we give freely of ourselves, that very act itself is an affirmation of positive intent to the world of which we are a part, and a statement that our gift, however small, has some value, and that we as the givers, have value.  For those who believe in a beneficent God, one could see that, in so acting, we are imitating God and making that divine blessing live in the world.


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