I wrote the following last month for Biola University’s weekly newspaper The Chimes. Perhaps it has something to say to readers of Scriptorium as well:
Anyone who knows me knows that I like monks. Actually, I really like monks. I know a few monks (and nuns) personally and I like them as people but that’s not why I like monks. I think monks and nuns are cool because of the great things that they have said over the years. For me, monastic writings contain a wealth of wisdom that can really benefit the believer who takes the history of the church seriously. That is, if we truly believe that the Holy Spirit is the Lord of all life and that God himself is the Sustainer of his creation throughout the ages, then we must conclude that God is sovereign over the history of his one, holy and apostolic church. Thus, we can learn from that cloud of witnesses who have come before us and currently surround us (cf. Hebrews 12:1).
One of my favorite monks is Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was born in 1090 and died in 1153 after spending most of his life as a Cistercian monk at his monastery near Dijon, France. Bernard wrote a lot, some of which isn’t all that great. However, his On Loving God is a real treasury of spiritual wisdom. In this work, Bernard talks about the four ways that we love: (1) that we love ourselves for our own sake; (2) that we love God for our own good; (3) that we love God for God’s sake; and (4) that we love ourselves for God’s sake. For Bernard we should always be striving to love God since the “cause of loving God is God himself.” God gives us the desire and capacity to love him and we do this best once we have come to love ourselves for God’s sake. That is, once I understand that I am created in the image and likeness of God, that I am the object of God’s love, that I am the person for whom Christ died, then I am able to see the person and qualities of God most clearly.
This thought, that I can know God best by knowing myself, is not new to Bernard. In the Christian tradition it goes back at least to Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century. This concept of “knowing oneself” is not some narcissistic, self-involved sentiment (that would equal Bernard’s first degree of love), which gives you or me the right to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Rather, looking into ourselves reveals God’s character very clearly since he made us and we are his children. Alongside the Scriptures then, God has given us the ability to learn about him from ourselves (as well as from knowing and loving others). So, in order to love God most highly, says Bernard, we should come to love ourselves. Perhaps this bit of monastic wisdom can help us to see that knowing ourselves is important but not in some sinful way, since most of us are already too concerned with our own self-image. Rather, we can have our perspective corrected so that knowing ourselves comes to serve a more holy end—in love of God.
So, what are my “wise words”? Know yourself! Moreover, read more monastic writers. They have a lot to teach us if we are willing to listen and learn.