An emphasis in modern research is placed on attempting to identify the sources behind ancient writings—to prove how much of what an author says he or she borrowed from somebody else, and to add a footnote to each identified quote giving the reference. Supposedly, the more footnotes, the more learned were the author and the person being quoted by the author. A quotation from the Lord’s Prayer must have a reference to this or that Gospel, with chapter and verse—as if it could not have come out of the memory of the Christian writer; out of the Gospel through the reader of the Gospel. This approach, however, does not apply very well to the great genius of the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Though it has been possible to recognize the ideas of previous writers in his writings, it is, however, rare that Bernard quotes somebody else’s formulations, that he says that he has read this or that somewhere else. Certainly it happened that as he was writing a particular book he was at the same time reading a work of St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, or someone else. It is obvious that he has surely read in Latin the biblical commentaries of Origen. But in his writings he simply depends on the whole tradition of the Church Fathers, especially on the readings he has heard during divine services.

The most recent discovery concerning this is that he was well acquainted with the philosophical and theological works of the fifth-century thinker, Boethius, although he does not mention him by name. He certainly also read the treatise of Cicero, On Friendship, before writing his own book, On the Love of God, and he drew some ideas from it, though he interpreted them in a new way. He quotes some classical Latin writers, especially poets; but they are rather a source for his literary art and skill than for his own thoughts.

Some indications of his dependence on previous writings is the way he quotes the Scriptures according to the Latin translation given by the Rule of St. Benedict or by some other author. However, Bernard is not a professor; he scarcely gives quotations, with the exception of those from the Bible. He seems to have been a rapid reader, except when it came to reading one book: the Bible.

The Bible and
The Book of Experience

If Bernard can be said to have any “sources,” they are two: the Bible and his own experience. On one occasion he begins a work by saying “Today we are reading in the book of experience.” Actually he did so every day, and this experience (a word he uses frequently) is twofold: the biblical experience and his own experience interpreted in the light of the biblical one.

What did this biblical experience mean to him? First of all, it meant the experience of Jesus Christ himself. Then it meant the experience of all those who prepared the way for Christ, and of all those who after him thought about him: patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. Also, the experience of these forerunners and followers should provoke in the readers a Christian experience—a sharing in the experience of Christ.

Let us look at the first pages of the first treatise Bernard wrote. It was supposed to be On Humility. But from the very beginning, in the first lines, he quotes the Lord saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When he comments upon this line he does not write on humility, but on truth; the Truth that Jesus is in himself. Immediately, he comes across the experience of Christ: how did he, Truth as he was, become the Truth for us? He had to learn out of experience what it is to live as a human being. Bernard quotes the Epistle to the Hebrews asserting that Christ “learned,” and then says what he learned: “Our Saviour has given us the example. He willed to suffer so that he might know compassion; to learn mercy he shared our misery. It is written ‘He learned obedience from the things he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), and he learned mercy in the same way; … what in his divine nature he knows from all eternity he learned in time.’ ” (On the Steps of Humility, no. 1).

Page after page Bernard lingers on these key words: learning, misery, mercy, and chiefly experience, to which he returns a dozen times. He forces objections in favour of a less literal interpretation, but he insists on the fact that in Christ a real encounter took place between the misery of our human condition and his mercy. Bernard’s conclusion: Let us experience a “spirit of gentleness” in relation to Christ, according to Galatians 6:1, in regard to the weaknesses and shortcomings of our neighbours and of ourselves.

This is just one example among many of how Bernard looks at Christ’s experience as related in the Bible and draws personal application from it, but the whole of Bernard is like this. Even when he deals with topics which disconcert us today, as when he is calling upon knights to “carry the cross of Christ,” to “follow after him” (Luke 9:23) in a religious crusade, he sees this as an act of personal love, as did his contemporaries.

Reading the Bible, we must seize the opportunity to experience what it says, to re-enact it in our life, to live accordingly, to commit ourselves to Christ. Then we have to confront this first source of information with the second one—our own experience as human beings and Christians. Bernard analyzes this experience and discovers how deep our misery is, yet nevertheless, how much of hope, confidence, and joy we get in experiencing the mercy of God. Hence it follows that there is an enthusiastic, musical, poetic, and constant tune in everything that Bernard writes; it is all a “song in the Spirit,” a song of the Spirit of Christ in us.

The Book of Life

For Bernard, Jesus is really the only book we have to read in order to know the Truth, His Truth about Himself, about ourselves, and about the salvation of the world: “The book of life is Jesus opened to all who are called. Blessed is the one who comes to read this book. He should keep this book, which is Jesus, always before him, always in his hands: I mean, of course, in his heart and in his works. May Christ become his model as he is indeed the model for the clergy and for all the people.”

And if we read other books, let it be in order to find an answer to the greatest question: “Read in your heart. Become aware of your need of God, whose love never ceases to meet your need, to answer your expectations.” (from On the Song of Songs, 65.2)