Lent, Day 15, St. Bernard on “Your Kingdom Come”

This covers “On Grace and Free Will,” Section 12 and 13.

The point in this section is that, while we have total freedom from necessity — we do have free will — that no one is free from sin, and that part of the intent in praying “Thy Kingdom Come” is that we earnestly wish for that time when we will be free of sin.

There are a couple of statements here that I find worth commenting on:

“Freedom of counsel is possessed only in part, and that only in the few spiritual ones among us who have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires so that sin no longer reigns in their mortal bodies.”

Here I have a problem with something that I see as an antipathy towards the body in the thinking of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. This is especially true in St. Augustine and later, that somehow our mortality and physicality make us susceptible to sin and that only by denying our bodies can we get to some spiritual enlightenment. And though there is a problem with wallowing in physicality, or seeing valuable only the matters that can be perceived through the senses, a denial of the senses as a way to a spiritual understanding seems wrong-minded. In making such a statement, Bernard seems to be suggesting that only a few can come to an adequate spiritual understanding, which leaves the rest of us in the dust. I don’t see how the denial of the flesh is a balanced approach, or how one avoids such denial becoming its own idol.

If one is not a theist, what would be the greater truth beyond this world? Would it even exist? And how, beyond the senses and rationality, could you get to this higher state?

Later, Bernard makes the following statement: “In the measure that grace’s kingdom is extended, sin’s power is weakened. It is a process which is still unfinished because of this perishable body which weighs down the soul…”

Again with the body and the body weighing down the soul, so that the soul, which should take flight, is stuck on the ground by our body, which is little more than dead weight. And though I get the problems the body brings — illness, and urges that are not always in our best interest, I think the body should be celebrated, a gift and not some anchor which keeps us from enlightenment or union with some greater truth. I think all of us are capable of sin, which I see as error or a failure to love, and that all of us will sin from time to time. We are not omniscient, so our ignorance will trip us up from time to time, and we are not omnipotent, or fully in control of ourselves, and that will cause us to mess up. That said, the view of the body as dead weight, as some sort of disabling condition, I reject. It sets up a false dichotomy between body and soul. The two are not separate entities, such that, if only we were rid of one (body) we’d be in some sort of celestial wonderland. Again, I have to reject that. Not only does such thinking lead one to take stuff out on one’s body (starvation, or physical punishment), but one is likely to do that to others (like kids) as a means of betterment. Such efforts, especially with the young, can lead to bad self-image, and a sense that one is bad and must be punished, and that leads nowhere good.

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