Commentary on the Song of Songs

The first half (sermons 1-43) of the Commentary on the Song of Songs by St. Bernard of Clairvaux is now available on this website. Thanks to the Internet Archive and Br. Sean (a monk) for the text–the text of the Song of Songs Commentary here is identical to that on the Internet Archive, except for the correction of a few typographical errors and some formatting changes. Each sermon is given as a unit.

A child is born to us

nativity of jesus

"Puer natus est nobis, et filius datus est nobis!"

Today a child is born to us, a son is given us!

These words upon the joyful Mass of Christmas day, in which we recall the birth of our Lord into the world, and into our hearts. The God who is above all stoops down in humility and love, manifesting his glory in the little child of Bethlehem. Born from the Father from all Eternity, he was born in time in Bethlehem, so that he might be born in our hearts.

Pope Benedict XVI's homily for the Midnight Mass and the Urbi and Orbi address.

Predestination and hope in St. Paul

I've recently had the occasion, in working with a student on predestination, to consider once again the role of predestination in St. Paul's letter to the Romans. It seems to some that the doctrine of predestination is at best useless, and at worst a dangerous doctrine, which tends to produce either presumption or despair. There are perhaps some grounds for that. When predestination is interpreted to mean that what one does is irrelevant to whether or not one is saved, or that God chooses out men for damnation, and makes them sin so that they will be damned. I give here an example of such an interpretation by a man named Darwin Fish. I don't give a link to the website because as a whole it's not particularly worth reading.

Although it is true that God loves both the wicked and the righteous (Matthew 5:43-45; John 3:16), it is also true that before the world was created, God chose to love only a few people and destine them to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23; Ephesians 1:4). He chose to hate the rest of mankind and destine them to hell for eternity (Matthew 7:13-14; Romans 9:6-23). This choice was not based on any action on the part of those whom God chose (Romans 9:11, 16, 18), but rather it was based on God's own good pleasure and purpose (Ephesians 1:4-5). It was not based on works (Romans 9:11, 20-23; Ephesians 1:5; Philippians 2:13; Psalm 115:3).

It is not surprising that this way of interpreting and describing predestination can lead to spiritual apathy or despair!

Predestination in St. Paul

But how does St. Paul see predestination? As the eternal plan of the loving God, the fundamental initiative in our salvation by God, who "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," Paul sees predestination as a cause for humility before the God who grants us all the good we have, even whatever good is in our own wills–"Do not become proud, but stand in awe" (Romans 11:20)–but also as a reason for confidence, gratitude, and spiritual activity.

God's gift does not remove human freedom, but calls for human cooperation

To emphasize that God's good will and grace precedes everything good we do, St. Paul says "by grace you have been saved through faith; this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8), but to show the connection between God's initiative and man's cooperation, he says: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:13) The fact that God is at work even in our very wills is no reason for apathy, but rather a reason to earnestly cooperate with him. Since God "wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4), his chief work in the human spirit is "faith working through love" (Gal 5:6); one who would refuse or neglect to "work out his salvation" would thus be closing himself to God's movement. The more God works in us, the more (not less) necessary is our own willing and working.

Predestination brings confidence and trust

St. Paul does not only see the priority of God's work over ours as an incentive to cooperate with God, he also sees it as a cause of confidence. Because God loves us far more than we love ourselves (Cf. Rom 5:6-10), and his wisdom infinitely surpasses ours (Cf. Rom 11:33-34), St. Paul's teaching that it is always God who has the initiative in salvation is intended to, and ought to inspire a great confidence in God. Having recalled the working out of God's foreknowledge and predestination in calling, justifying, and glorifying, Paul goes on to say: "If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom 8:31, 35, 37). If we had to rely upon ourselves, we would surely be in a sorry state. But we have an infinitely more sure foundation on which to rely, God himself. From God's side, his love and grace will never fail; he will never fail nor forsake us (Cf. Heb 13:5), and will never permit us to be tempted beyond our strength (1 Cor 10:13). The only thing that can separate us from Christ is our own refusal to accept and bring his love into our lives; only "if we deny him, he also will deny us" (2 Tim 2:12)

It is true, as St. Peter says, that in the writings of St. Paul "There are some things hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). But when we rightly understand the doctrine of predestination, it is a source of humility, simplicity, trust, and gratitude towards God.

Naturally this post is not intended to explain all aspects of predestination, but only to point out some of the spiritual benefits the doctrine is meant to bring.

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit according to Thomas Aquinas

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)
If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18)

What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and what do they do? This post proposes an interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on "being led by the Spirit", and of the way that the gifts of the Spirit are active in Christian life.

The Seven Gifts of the Spirit

In Isaiah 11:1-3, we read "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord."

The last part, according to the Latin tradition, reads "the spirit of knowledge and of piety [pietas], and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him."

From this text derives the tradition of the Church regarding the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say much about the gifts. The main text is in numbers 1830 & 1831.

1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

This understanding of the gifts follows the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, as he is usually understood. I would like, however, to propose a more radical interpretation of Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas on the Gifts of Holy Spirit

Selections from the text of Aquinas himself:

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 1

Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without. Higher perfections must therefore be in man, by which he is disposed to be moved by God. And these perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them, man is disposed and made more ready to be moved by the divine inspiration, as is said in Is 50:5: "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward."

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 2

Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.
Now man's reason is in two ways perfected by God: first, with a natural perfection, namely the natural light of reason; secondly, with a supernatural perfection, by the theological virtues, as was said above. And although this second perfection is greater than the first, nevertheless man possesses the first perfection in a more perfect way than he possesses the second perfection. For man possesses the first perfection as his full possession, while he possesses the second as an imperfect possession; for we imperfectly love and know God. Now it is manifest that everything which perfectly possesses a nature or form or power, can of itself act according to it—though not apart from God's action, who acts interiorly in every nature and will. But that which has a nature or form or power imperfectly, cannot act of itself, if it is not moved by another. Thus the sun, which is perfectly bright, can give light of itself, while the moon, which has the nature of light only imperfectly, cannot give light unless it is illuminated [by the sun]. Again, a doctor, who perfectly knows the medical art, can act on his own; but his student, who is not yet fully instructed, cannot act on his own, but only with the guidance of his instructor.
Thus, with regard to the things that are subject to human reason, i.e., in relationship to man's natural end, man can act by the judgment of reason. If in this action, man is nevertheless helped by God by means of a special impulse, this will pertain to God's superabundant goodness. Hence according to the Philosophers, not everyone who has the acquired moral virtues, has heroic or divine virtues. But in relationship to the last supernatural end, to which reason moves us insofar as it is in in a certain manner, and imperfectly, formed by the theological virtues, the motion of reason itself is not sufficient, unless the impulse and movement of the Holy Spirit comes from above, according to Rom 8:14, 17, "They who are led by the Spirit of God, are sons of God," and "if you are sons, then also heirs." And in Ps 142:10 it is said, "Your good Spirit will lead me into the right land," i.e., because no one can arrive at the inheritance of the land of the blessed, unless he is moved and led by the Holy Spirit. And therefore in order to attain that end, a man must have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In response to the objection that the theological virtues enable us to reach out to God, believing his word, trusting in him, and loving him, St. Thomas responds: "The theological and moral virtues do not perfect man in relationship to the last end, in such a way that he does not always need to be moved by a certain higher impulse of the Holy Spirit, for the reason just stated." [emphasis added]

Garrgiou-Lagrange interpreting the "always" says the following:

To say that the gifts of the Holy Ghost must intervene in every meritorious act, even though it be imperfect (remissus et quantumvis remissus), would be to confound ordinary actual grace with the special inspiration to which the gifts render us docile. In the text which we have just quoted, St. Thomas means that man is not perfected to such a degree by the theological virtues that he does not always need to be inspired by the interior Master (semper not pro-semper), as we say: "I always need this hat," not however from morning until night, or from night until morning. Similarly a medical student not so well instructed that he does not always need the assistance of his master for certain operations. The need we experience is not transitory but permanent; all of which goes to show that the gifts should be not transitory inspirations, like the grace of prophecy, but permanent infused dispositions. (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit", footnote n. 33)

A text that lends support to reading the "always" as referring to every moment, however, may be found in the Secunda Secundae. St. Thomas says: "The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the principles of the intellectual and moral virtues, as was said above" (II-II 19:9 ad 4). He seems to have in mind his treatment in I-II q. 68, although in that article he does not thus articulate it. But if the gifts of the Holy Spirit are principles of the infused intellectual and moral virtues, and not just perfective and supporting of them, then the movement of the Spirit through the gifts seems to be presupposed to all the acts of the virtues, to all acts of Christian life.

The role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to this reading of Thomas Aquinas

If we follow this reading, we can explain the need for and role played by the gifts of the Holy Spirit as follows: first, we need to be constantly moved and led by God; yet because we are not merely moved passively by God, like limp dolls, but are ourselves involved in our own actions, and thus can be either open or closed, ready for or resistant to God's movement, we need the gifts to make us open and ready to receive God's movement and guidance.

We need God's movement because the divine love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit is essentially a participation in God's own living love, just as grace is essentially a participation in God's own nature. Thus I cannot simply take my share of God's knowledge and God's love that I receive in the gifts of faith, hope, love, and run with them, as it were—i.e., simply make use on my own of these abilities by my empowered nature. If I were to do this, it would no longer be God's love present within me, but a mere parody of it; no longer a share in God's knowledge, but my own notions and whims.

This way of looking at the gifts of the Spirit would explain why St. Thomas calls them principles of the moral virtues. To have theological virtues and moral virtues without gifts would mean that I have no problem putting into practice the way I determine and choose to shape my life in accord with Christ. But I would still be living according to precisely my choice. Without an openness to "Christ who lives in me", without an openness to being guided by God in living out divine life, my determination and readiness to carry out what seems to me to be fitting to Christian love would not be truly virtue simply speaking, but only in a limited respect. Thus the gifts are principles of the moral virtues insofar as they are virtues.

This interpretation of the gifts, which would hold the gifts to be active all the time, in making us open to the constant leading of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily exclude an understanding of the gifts as making us ready to receive special inspirations of the Spirit, given only in times of special need or difficulty. We could understand the gifts as opening us up to all movement of the Spirit, whether (1) the movement of the Spirit involved in all activity of the children of God; (2) the special help of the Spirit when we especially need it; (3) and even in a certain way charismatic graces (though the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not necessary in order to receive charismatic graces, which can be had without charity).

Every saint is unique

Virgin Mary and saints
St. Catherine of Sienna in her Treatise of Divine Providence keeps to the teaching that the virtues are connected, i.e., that whoever has one virtue, must have all of them. Nevertheless she teaches that God gives to each person one particular virtue as principal: to one he gives principally love, to another justice, to another humility, to another faith, to another prudence, to another patience, etc. It is then especially by the exercise of this virtue that the person grows in all the virtues, due to their being connected in love. (In another words, it is chiefly in the one principal virtue God gives the person that the divine love is expressed and actualized, and yet because it is truly divine love that shines forth and is exercised in this virtue, this love is deepened and increases, and thus gives greater strength and vitality to all the virtues, of which it is the heart.)

The love of God and neighbor, while it elevates and ennobles all human faculties, and while it does require a struggle against the baser inclinations of nature, does not destroy or level out different characters or personalities, but perfects them. Every saint thus has his own unique character, by which he grows in and lives out the holy love of God and neighbor. We will only fully appreciate this in heaven, where we will see the full beauty and harmony of how all the different saints show forth in their own special ways the glory of God's love.

Levels of love of neighbor

This is a summary of Aquinas's division of love of neighbor in his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life. His aim here is explaining the perfection of the religious state and the episcopal state.

Necessary love of neighbor
The basic commandments is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." From these follows three points regarding the love of our neighbor we must have:

First, it must be true love, that is, we must love him or her not in the sense that we may love chocolate or wine. When we love these we refer them to ourselves, whom we properly love. We must love our neighbors so as to will them good for their own sake, and not only inasmuch as they are pleasant or helpful to use.

Secondly, we must love our neighbor with an ordered love. Everyone loves his spiritual nature more than his bodily nature. This is evident from the fact that no one would prefer being an idiot to being blind. So also we must love the spiritual good of our neighbor more than his bodily good, and again, we must love his bodily good more than his external goods.

Thirdly, we must love our neighbors with a holy love, inasmuch as we must love both ourselves and them as made in the likeness of God, as ordered to God, and as called to communion with him. Since what is ordered to God is called holy, loving our neighbor for God's sake is a holy love.

Fourthly, we must love our neighbor with an efficacious love, that is, a love that proves itself by deeds, as St. John says, "let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth."

Perfect love of neighbor that is counseled
Love of neighbor can be perfect in three ways which are not obligatory

1. Love can be perfect with respect to its extensiveness, when we show love to all men, even when we are not strictly required to do so. Aquinas distinguishes three degrees of love with respect to extension: (1) the lowest degree is when we love only those who are close to us; (2) the second degree is when we love not only those who are relatives or are close to us in some other way, but men and women everywhere; (3) the third degree is when we show love even to our enemies, to those who hurt us–even when we wouldn't be obliged to show a particular love for them. E.g., when we could with justice wait for them to make amends, to go out of our way to seek reconciliation.

2. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its intensity. This perfection is shown by what a person is ready to give up for the sake of his neighbor. Thomas distinguishes three levels here, corresponding to the three evangelical counsels: (1) some give up possessions for the sake of their fellow men and women; (2) some expose their body labor and fatigue, or to persecution for the sake of others; (3) some lay down their life for others; the closest thing to this dying for others is giving up one's own will for the sake of others. For since to be alive means to act on one's own, to give up one's will is like a kind of death.

3. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its works. (1) Some procure the bodily good of others, by feeding them, clothing them, or healing them; (2) some procure the spiritual good of others, as by teaching, but such spiritual good as is on man's own level; (3) some procure the spiritual good of others that is on a divine level–giving them the divine teaching, bestowing the sacraments, etc. This belongs above all to bishops.

Aquinas on Degrees of Love for God

Three levels of love of God
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life distinguishes three essential levels of love of God: (1) God's love for himself; (2) The love of the blessed saints and angels for God; (3) The love of those in grace and charity on earth.

(1) God is infinitely good and infinitely lovable, but no creature can love infinitely, and therefore only God himself can love himself as he deserves: the Father's infinite love, which he shows to and bestows upon the Son and Spirit, is supreme love.

(2) Creatures love God perfectly in heaven, inasmuch as all of their power and activity is turned to God: their attention is upon him, they see him as he is, their hearts embrace him, and they do all things for his sake.

(3) We here on earth can love God perfectly in the sense that we give ourselves to God, and thereby, since all our actions belong to us, we implicitly give all of them to God and do them for him, even if we don't and can't think of God at every single moment. Again, we love God perfectly inasmuch as we submit our minds entirely to him, believing his Word which he speaks to us, and give our hearts to him, loving things for the sake of God, and acting out of that love.

A basic form of this third level of love is required of all of us; it is wrong to disbelieve even a single word of God, to refuse to follow even a single one of God's precepts, to love anything other than God as though it were our ultimate happiness.

Yet within this third level there are various degrees. We may approach more or less closely to the second level of love, inasmuch as we strive to have our hearts and minds always turned actually towards God. St. Thomas explains that this is the purpose of the evangelical counsels: to take away everything that could distract us from giving this actual attention to God.

The more man's affection is withdrawn from temporal things, the more perfection will his mind be drawn towards the love of God. Therefore all the counsels, by which we are invited to perfection, aim at turning away man's affection from temporal things, so that his mind might more freely tend towards God, contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

In summary:
1. God's love for himself is absolutely perfect and infinite.
2. The most perfect love possible to creatures is the love of created persons for God in heaven; the whole strength of their nature is directed towards God.
3a. Perfect love possible on earth (generically): we refer everything to God, but not necessarily consciously at every moment.
3b. Most perfect love possible on earth: to strive to imitate the perfection of love in heaven; to seek to act at every moment out of love.

Mercy of God

While sin itself is always bad, for the sinner who sincerely repents, and turns to God who forgives the sin, it can be the occasion of joy over the mercy and love of God that are revealed in his forgiveness of it.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux apparently went so far as to say that the lovers of God "take delight" in their indeliberate faults, inasmuch as they show God's mercy.

"The rest of us don't belong among those saints who cry over our sins: we take delight in them because they serve to glorify the mercy of God." (Words of St. Thérèse recollected by Sr. Marie of the Trinity.)

And her sorrow for the sin itself, she offers to God as a sign of her love for him.

"When I have committed a fault that makes me sad, I know well that this sadness is the consequence of my infidelity. But do you think I stop there? Oh no, I'm not so silly! I hurry to say to God: My God, I know that I have merited this feeling of sadness, but let me offer you all of it as a test that you send me out of love. I regret my sin, but I am content to have this suffering to offer to you. (Words of St. Thérèse recollected by Sr. Agnes of Jesus.)

Sayings of St. Therese on love

Proof of God's Love

Today is the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, where the glory of God's love appears. Sometimes one is inclined to see only the dishonor and pain of the cross, and glory first in the Resurrection. But indeed, precisely while raised on the Cross, Christ reveals his glory, the glory of his love and the love of his Father, who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (Joh 3:16), so that we might live forever with him. Christ tells us that there is no greater love "than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Joh 15:13). The power of love is revealed above all in embracing suffering for the sake of love.

This is true not only of Christ's love, but of our love as well. Love is both revealed, and grows through suffering for love–not only when we accept great sufferings out of love, but also when we put up with minor irritations from family, friends, co-workers, for their sake and for God's.

Does this mean we should go out and seek the greatest sufferings possible? No, because there is an even more important principle involved: as Christ did not seek "his own will, but the will of him who sent" him, so above all we need to conform our wills to God's. And it is God's will that we primarily accept with patience or even joy the sufferings in which he plays them, and only secondarily that we sometimes take on other sufferings on our own initiative.

My Vocation is Love!

"O Jesus, my Love, finally I have found my vocation: my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!"

Has St. Thérèse just found the vocation common to all men and women–the vocation to love–or has she found her own unique vocation? Or both? I propose that it is both: her special vocation is to devote herself entirely to that which is the common vocation of us all–to live love. I've posted her words in context, with further reflection on the common and special vocation to love.