Over the past couple of days, I picked up – via the Kindle app on my 4-year old, cracked-up Ipad – a book I’d started reading several months ago, and then forgotten about. I think what probably happened is that early on, I decided I needed to have more background before I continued…and then I just…forgot.
But I returned to it this week, and so I’m going to let the author dominate my 7 Quick Takes this week for several reasons. First, these are thought-provoking quotations that are worth your time and you might find helpful. Secondly, they concern the papacy, which is of great interest these days.
The book is De Consideratione by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. It is really a set of letters written to Pope Eugenius III by the saint. Here’s some background before we get to the quotes.
Bernard’s spiritual writing as well as his extraordinary personal magnetism began to attract many to Clairvaux and the other Cistercian monasteries, leading to many new foundations…Although he suffered from constant physical debility and had to govern a monastery that soon housed several hundred monks and was sending forth groups regularly to begin new monasteries (he personally saw to the establishment of sixty-five of the three hundred Cistercian monasteries founded during his thirty-eight years as abbot), he yet found time to compose many and varied spiritual works that still speak to us today. He laid out a solid foundation for the spiritual life in his works on grace and free will, humility and love. …
In 1145, one of Bernard’s students and a fellow Cistercian was elected Pope, taking the name Eugenius III. These were quite tumultuous times for the papacy. A very, very short version:
Eugenius was elected on the same day Lucius II, his predecessor, died – killed, a contemporary historian tells us, in the midst of a battle against opponents of the pope’s temporal power. Elements of Roman society – primarily merchants and craftspeople – had been attempting to resuscitate the Roman Senate and diminish papal temporal powers. This was an intense, years-long struggle which came to involve other European rulers. After Lucius’ death, the conclave gathered and elected a Cistercian monk who had Bernard of Clairvaux behind him, an indication, I suppose, of what they thought it was going to take to fix the mess.
And so Bernard wrote this treatise for his student over several years, advising him on how to conduct himself as Pope. It reflects all of these controversies and tensions, but at the core of it is a very simple call: remember you are dust.
So why care about these almost 1000-year old words of advice to a pope? A few reasons, I think.
First, Bernard was a spiritual writer giving spiritual advice to a man seeking to maintain his focus on Christ and the essence of his vocation in a landscape in which his office had been corrupted and temptation to give in to that corruption was strong. I think that’s a tension many of us experience: how do I keep my eyes fixed on Christ in the midst of distractions and temptations? How do I know when to act, when to listen, when to withdraw, when to engage? How many times have you thought, You know, I could be a much better Christian if I were in different circumstances…..
Secondly, it’s just interesting and always valuable to see the mess the Church – and the papacy – has been in the past. While it can certainly be scandalous and challenging to understand, it also..helps us understand. It can help us distinguish between rock and sand in the present moment.
Third, it gives us a look at some papal criticism. Yes, Bernard was a saint, spiritual master and Eugenius’ spiritual father, in a way, so he had standing. But even if none of us stand in that position to this or any other pope or even bishop, it’s helpful to read and study what Bernard says to Eugenius – what he deems fair game for challenge and examination, how he goes about it, and what he thinks it’s important to warn Eugenius about.
One more thing: sometimes when people allude to historical problems with the Church and papacy, it becomes a silencing weapon: Calm down! See! The Spirit always brings us through! Well, here’s the thing: The life of the Church is not a performance with the Holy Spirit pulling strings and waving wands, and the rest of us watching from the audience. The Holy Spirit works to preserve the Church through reformers, annoying critics, weird historical events and who knows what else.
Learning a bit of history does not offer any prescriptions for the present, nor does it define the present moment in either positive or negative ways. What I hope learning a bit of history does is disrupt the current of ideological narratives and root us a bit more firmly in events, actions and possibilities, both past and present.
These first two certainly specifically apply to the distractions of the papal office, but also can apply to any of us. Have peace from distractions, but don’t make peace with them. Meme-worthy, Bernard!
The second quote intrigues me as he advises Eugenius to not get complacent – you might feel all right now, but don’t take that for granted.
I desire indeed that though shouldst have peace from distractions, but I do not want thee to make peace with them, that is, by learning to love them: there is nothing I fear more for thee than this. 1:1
Rely not too much on thy present disposition for there is nothing in the soul so firmly established as that it cannot be removed by time and neglect. A wound grows callous when not attended to in time and becomes incapable of cure in proportion as it lose sensibility. Furthermore, pain that is sharp and continuous cannot long endure : if not otherwise got rid of, it must speedily succumb to its own violence. mean to say : either a remedy will soon be found to assuage it, or from its continuance a state of apathywill result. What disposition cannot be induced, or destroyed, or changed to its contrary by the force of habit and usage ? How many have come by use to find pleasure in the evil which before inspired only horror and disgust ?
After a while, when thou hast become a little accustomed to it, it will not appear so very dreadful. Later on it will shock thee less; later still it will have ceased to shock thee at all. Finally thou wilt begin to take delight in it. Thus, little by little, mayest though proceed to hardness of heart and from that to a loathing for virtue. And in this way, as I have said, a continuous pain will soon find relief either in a complete cure or in utter insensibility. 1:2
— 4 —
Some firm reminders of what humility means – and remember the political and social context, which involved the question of the pope’s role:
That thou has been raised to the pinnacle of honour and power is a fact undeniable. But for what purpose hast thou been thus elevated? Here is a question that calls for the most serious consideration. It was not, as I suppose merely that thou mightiest enjoy the glory of lordship…..Consequently let us likewise, that we may not think too highly of ourselves, always bear this in mind ,that a duty of service has been imposed on us, and not a dominion. 2:6
Go forth into the field of thy Lord, and consider diligently with what a wild luxuriance of thorns and thistles it is covered even today from the ancient malediction. Go forth, I say, into the world, because the world is the field that is committed to thy care. Go forth, then, into this field, not however as the owner, but as the steward, in order to supervise and look after the things wherof thou shalt one day have to render an account. Go forth, I repeat, with the two feet, as it were, of attentive solitude and solicitous attention…. 2:6
For where is the man to whom something is not always wanting? Indeed he who considers that he is wanting in nothing proves himself thereby to be wanting in everything. What if thou art the Sovereign Pontiff? Dost thou think that, because thou art supreme in authority, thou art likewise supreme in every respect? 2.7
Can there be any doubt that thou art more a man than a bishop? ….Thinkest thou that thou didst enter the world wearing the tiara? Or glittering with jewels? Or clothed in silk? Or adorned with plumes? Or bespangled with gold? No. If, then, from before the face of thy consideration thou wilt with a breath, so to speak, blow away these things as morning mists that quickly pass and disappear: thou shalt behold a man, naked and poor, and wretched and miserable; a man grieving that he is a man, blushing for his nakedness, lamenting that he is born, complaining of his existence..and hence living in alarm. 2:9
Whenever thou rememberest thy dignity as Sovereign Pontiff, reflect also that not only wert thou once, but that thou art still nothing better than the vilest slime of the earth. 2:9
— 5 —
He offers various pointers for the Pope as an leader of an organization and of his own household, observations which are startling in their continued applicability. First – the problem of leaders believing too easily what they are told by those who surround them.
The fault to which I refer is excessive credulity, a most crafty little fox, against whose cunning wiles I have never known any of those in authority to be sufficiently on their guard. Hence the indignation which they so often exhibit without any reasonable cause; hence the frequent verdicts given against the innocent; hence also the condemnations pronounced against the absent. 2:14
Then…how to speak.
Thy lips have been consecrated to the Gospel of Christ. Therefore it is unlawful for thee now to use them for jesting, and a sacrilege to have them thus habitually employed…Observe that it is not jests or fables but the law of God that is to be sought from the mouth of a priest. 2:13
An interesting complaint about how supplicants use the Pope to their own advantage, bypassing the local authorities, going straight to the Pope, telling their side, and then waving the flag of papal approval:
“…has recourse to thee, and returns in triumph ,boasting of thy protection, whose avenging justice he ought rather to have experienced.” 3.2
How the Pope should relate to his household. Before this, Bernard tells Eugenius to trust the details of the household to others, but…
But keep informed of ….the character and conduct of each member of thy household. Thou shouldst not be the last to know the faults of thy domestics, which, as I have reason to believe, is commonly enough the case with bishops…charge thyself personally with the discipline of thy house…
….I would not have thee to be austere in thy manner, but only grave. Austerity is wont to repel the timid, whereas the effect of gravity is to sober the frivolous. …Be the Pope in the palace, but at home show thyself more as a father. Make thyself loved, if possible, by thy domestics; otherwise let them fear thee. It is always good to keep a guard over thy lips, yet not so as to exclude the grace of affability. 4:6
I do love the distinction between austerity and gravity and his observation on the effect of both. So wise and still true.
Now here is a great quote. Fascinating. First, Bernard lets loose on “the Roman people” who have been giving popes such fits. Hmm. He might want to work on his accompanying skills.
But then..the second part of the quote is applicable to all of us..well, me at least. These are very wise words about how we should view our own efforts in relation to God’s will and power. Stick that in your Ministry Fruits Evaluation Pipe and smoke it.
But what shall I say of thy people? They are the Roman people! I cannot express what I think of them more briefly and forcibly than by giving them this title. What fact has been so well known to every age as the arrogance and pride of the Romans? They are a people who are strangers to peace and accustomed to tumult; a people ferocious and intractable even until now; a people that know not how to submit whilst resistance is possible. Behold thy cross…..nevertheless do not lose heart. What is required of thee is not the cure of the patient but the solicitous care of him. “Take care of him,” said the Good Samaritan to the innkeeper, not “cure him” or “heal him”.[what follows are several Pauline references to the point that ‘success’ is not the goal, for we don’t know what ‘success’ means in God’s eyes, but rather our dedication and labor] . I beseech thee, therefore, to do what is thy part. As for the rest, God will be able to accomplish what appertains to Him without any need of thy care and solicitude. Plant, water, spare no pains, and thou has discharged thy duty. It belongs not to thee, but God to give the increase whenever it pleaseth him.
Finally, this, which is just beautiful:
We must still go on seeking Him Who has not yet been sufficiently found and Who can never be too much sought. But perhaps it will be more becoming to seek Him, yea, and more easy to find Him, by fervent prayer than by argumentation. Therefore let me now put an end to the book, although not to the seeking.
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