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.

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