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.

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