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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Bernard and Facing the Truth about Ourselves

If anyone thinks that what he is asked to do by God is easy, he knows nothing about spiritual warfare. This is what St. Bernard explained to university students and professors over eight hundred years ago. It is a good reminder for today. In his teaching to this lay audience, Bernard appeals to the inner angst which troubles the human heart, a shared human experience. Indeed, we all have this feeling, at least for a few moments. In the spiritual traditions of the West, this feeling is attributed to guilt. How is guilt to be dealt with? Bernard knows that only the forgiveness of sin can remove guilt and without the removal of sin from our hearts, we are already suffering a living death. He knows that the Lord died that we might know his loving mercy and forgiveness. He also knows that unless we face the truth about the sin in our hearts, we cannot know this forgiveness and our life is not really any life at all, but a living death. Bernard's solution to this dilemma is to turn inward and face the truth about ourselves. On this point, he invites us to search our memory and to reflect on things that trouble our conscience. He calls this seeing ourselves as we really are. As we become aware of what is disturbing us interiorly, he says we discover three things: our reason is blind and weak, our memory is filled with filth, and our will is infested with soars. We discover to our own disgust that we actually prefer wickedness to what is good to such an extent that we no longer see how much we hurt others or our very selves. To drive home this experience of ourselves, he describes an interior vexation within our hearts in terms of a marital strife between our reason and our will. This will, he says, is an ugly old woman covered with festering ulcers who, in a fit of righteous indignation, accuses reason of adultery. Who has not suffered at least for a few moments resentment when someone who loves us points out a sinful area in our lives? It is even worse when spouses must admonish one another. But the worst of all is when we find ourselves vexed at our own mind which has seen a truth that we do not want to accept, that we are not able to accept. How do we deal with this interior conflict, this spiritual poverty? Bernard pleads with us to listen to the voice of Christ, "Blessed are the poor of spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

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