Letter xix (A. D. 1127) to Suger, Abbot of S. Denis
To Suger, Abbot of S. Denis

He praises Suger, who had unexpectedly renounced the pride and luxury of the world to give himself to the modest habits of the religious life. He blames severely the clerk who devotes himself rather to the service of princes than that of God.

1. A piece of good news has reached our district; it cannot fail to do great good to whomsoever it shall have come. For who that fear God, hearing what great things He has done for your soul, do not rejoice and wonder at the great and sudden change wrought by the Right Hand of the Most High. Everywhere your courage is praised in the Lord; the gentle hear of it and are glad, and even those who do not know you, [22] but have only heard of you, what you were and what you are now, wonder and glorify God in you. But what adds still more to their admiration and joy is that you have been able to make your brethren partake of the counsel of salvation poured upon you from above, and so to fulfil what we read, Let him that heareth say, Come (Rev. xxii.17), and that What I tell you in darkness that speak ye in light, and what ye hear in the ear that preach ye upon the house tops (S. Matt. x.27). So a soldier intrepid in war, or rather a general full of bravery and devotedness, when he sees almost all his soldiers turned to flight and falling everywhere under the hostile blades, although he may see that he would be able to escape alone, yet he prefers to die with those, without whom he would think it shame to live. He holds firm on the field of battle and combats bravely; he ranges, sword in hand, along the ranks, through the bloody blades which seek him; he terrifies his adversaries and reanimates his followers with all his powers of voice and gesture. Wherever the enemy press on more boldly and there is danger of his friends giving ground, there he is present; the enemy who strikes he opposes, the friend who sinks exhausted he succours; and he is the more prepared to die for each one, that he despairs to save them all. But while he makes heroic efforts to hinder and to stop the pursuers who press upon his followers, he raises as best he can those who are fallen and recalls those who have taken flight. Nor is it rare that his splendid valour procures a safety as welcome as unhoped for, throws into confusion the hostile ranks, forces them to fly from those whom they were pursuing, and overcomes those who bore themselves almost as victors, so that they who a little before were struggling for life are now rejoicing in victory.

2. But why do I compare an event so profoundly religious to things secular, as if examples were wanting to us from religion itself? Was not Moses quite certain of what God had promised him, that if, indeed, the people over whom he ruled should have perished, he himself should not only not perish with them, but should be besides the chief of a great nation? Nevertheless, with what affection, with what zeal, with what bowels of piety did he strive to save his people from the wrath of God? And, finally, interposing himself on behalf of the offenders, he cries: If Thou wilt forgive their sin -- ; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written (Exod. xxxii.32). What a devoted advocate! who, because he does not seek his own interests, easily obtains everything which he seeks. What a benign chief, who, binding together his people with bonds of charity as the head is united with the members, will either save them with himself or else encounter the same danger as they! Jeremiah, also bound [23] inseparably to his people, but by the bond of compassion, not by sympathy for their revolt, quitted voluntarily his native soil and his own liberty [24] to embrace in preference the common lot of exile and slavery. He was free to remain in his own country had he chosen, while others must remove, but he preferred to be carried away captive with his people, to whom he knew that he could render service even in captivity. Paul, animated beyond doubt by the same spirit, desired that he might be anathema even from Christ Himself for his brethren (Romans ix.3). He experienced in his own heart how true is that saying, Love is as strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave (Cant. viii.6). Do you see of whose great examples you have shown yourself an imitator? But I add one more whom I had almost passed over, that of the holy king David, who, perceiving and lamenting the slaughter of his people, wished to devote himself for them, and desired that the Divine vengeance should be transferred to himself and to his father's house (2 Sam. xxiv.17).

3. But who made you aspire to this degree of perfection? I confess that though I earnestly desired to hear such things of you, I never hoped to see it come to pass. Who would have believed that you would reach, so to speak, by one sudden bound, the practice of the highest virtues, and approach the most exalted merit? Thus we learn not to measure by the narrow proportions of our faith and hope the infinite pity of God, which does what It will and works upon whom It will, lightening the burden which It imposes upon us, and hastening the work of our salvation. What then? the zeal of good people blamed your errors at least, if not those of your brethren: it was against your excesses more than theirs that they were moved with indignation; and if your brothers in religion groaned in secret, it was less against your entire community than against you; it was only against you that they brought their accusation. You corrected your faults, and their criticisms had no longer an object; your conversion at once stilled the tumult of accusation. The one and only thing with which we were scandalized was the luxury, the pride, the pomp, which followed you everywhere. [25] At length you laid down your pride, you put off your splendid dress, and the universal indignation ceased at once. Thus you had at the same time satisfied those who complained of you, and even merited our praises. For what in human doings is deserving of praise, if this is not considered most worthy of admiration and approval? It is true that a change so sudden and so complete is not the work of man, but of God. If in heaven the conversion of one sinner arouses great joy, what gladness will the conversion of an entire community cause, and of such a community as yours?

4. That spot so noble by its antiquity and the royal favour, was made to serve the convenience of worldly business, and to be a meeting-place for the royal troops. They used to render to Caesar the things which were Caesar's promptly and fully; but not with equal fidelity did they render the things of God to God. I speak what I have heard, not what I have seen: the very cloister itself of your monastery was frequently, they say, crowded with soldiers, occupied with the transaction of business, resounding with noise and quarrels, and sometimes even accessible even to women. How, in the midst of all that, could place be found for thoughts of heaven, for the service of God, for the interests of the spiritual life? But now there is leisure for God's service, for practising self-restraint and obedience, for attention to sacred reading. Consider that silence and constant quiet from all stir of secular things disposes the soul to meditation on things above. And the laborious exercise of the religious life and the rigour of abstinence are lightened by the sweetness of psalms and hymns. Penitence for the past renders lighter the austerity of the new manner of life. He who in the present gathers the fruits of a good conscience, feels in himself a desire for future good works, which shall not be frustrated, and a well-founded hope. The fear of the judgment to come gives way to the pious exercise of brotherly charity, for love casteth out fear (1 S. John iv.18). The variety of holy services drives far away weariness and sourness of temper, and I repeat these things to the praise and glory of God, who is the Author of all; yet not without praise to yourself as being His co-worker in all things. He was able, indeed, to do them without you, but He has preferred to have you for the sharer of His works, that He might have you for the sharer of His glory also. The Saviour once reproached certain persons because they made the house of prayer a den of thieves (S. Matt. xxi.13). He will doubtless then have in commendation the man who has accomplished the task of freeing His holy place from the dogs, of rescuing His pearl from the swine; by whose ardour and zeal the workshop of Vulcan is restored to holy studies, or rather the house of God is restored to Him from being a synagogue of Satan to be that which it was before.

5. If I recall the remembrance of past evils it is not in order to cast confusion or reproach on any one, but from the comparison with the old state of things to make the beauty of the new appear more sharply and strikingly; because there is nothing which makes the present good shine forth more clearly than a comparison with the evils which preceded it. As we recognize similar things from similar, so things which are unlike either please or displease more when compared with their opposites. Place that which is black beside that which is white, and the juxtaposition of the two colours makes each appear more marked. So, if beautiful things are put beside ugly, the former are rendered more beautiful, the ugliness of the latter is more apparent. That there may be no occasion of offence or confusion, I am content to repeat with the Apostle: Such, indeed, ye were, but ye are washed, ye are sanctified (1 Cor. vi 11). Now, the house of God ceases to open to people of the world, there is no access to sacred precincts for the curious; no gossip about trifling things with the idle; the chatter of boys and girls is no longer heard. The holy place is open and accessible only to the children of Christ, of whom it is said: Behold I and the children whom the Lord hath given me (Isaiah viii.18). It is reserved for the praises of God and the performance of sacred vows with due care and reverence. How gladly do the martyrs, of whom so great a number ennoble that place, listen to the loud songs of these children, to whom they in turn reply no less with a voice of charity: Praise, O ye servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord (Ps. cxiii.1), and again, Sing praises to our God, sing praises, sing praises to our King, sing praises (Ps. xlvii.6).

6. When your breasts are beaten with penitent hands, and your pavements worn with your knees, your altars heaped with vows and devout prayers, your cheeks furrowed with tears; when groans and sighs resound on all sides and the sacred roofs echo with spiritual songs instead of worldly pleadings, there is nothing which the citizens of heaven more love to look upon, nothing is more agreeable to the eyes of the Heavenly King. For is not this what is said: The sacrifice of praise shall honour me (Ps. l.23)? O, if any one had his eyes opened, as were those of the prophet's servant at his prayer! He would doubtless see (2 Kings vi.17) The princes go before, joined with the minstrels in the midst of the players on timbrels (Ps. lxvii.26, Vulg.). We should see, I say, with what care and ardour they assist at the chants, and at the prayers how they unite themselves with those who meditate, they watch over those who repose, they preside over those who order and care for all. The powers of heaven fully recognise their fellow-citizens; they earnestly rejoice, comfort, instruct, protect, and provide for all those who take the heritage of salvation, at all times. How happy I esteem myself while I am still in this world to hear of these things, although I am absent and do not see them! But your felicity, my brethren, to whom it is given to bear part in them, far surpasses mine, and blessed above all is he whom the Author of all good has deigned to make the chief worker of so good a work; it is you, my dear friend, whom with justice I congratulate for this, that you have brought about all which I so greatly admire.

7. You are wearied, perhaps, with my praises, but you ought not to be so; they are far different from the flatteries of those who call evil good and good evil (Isaiah v.20), and so please a person to lead him into error. Sweet but perilous is the praise when the wicked is praised in the desire of his heart, and the unjust is blessed (Ps. ix.3, Vulg.). The warmth of my praises comes from charity, and does not once pass, as I believe, the limits of truth. He is safely praised, who is praised in the Lord, that is, in the truth. I have not called evil good, but have pointed out as evil what was evil. But if I boldly raise my voice against that which is evil, ought I to be silent in presence of good, and not give my testimony to it? That would be to show myself an envious critic, not a corrector; and to prefer to mangle rather than to mend, if I am silent as to good and raise my voice only about evil. The just reproves in mercy, the wicked flatters in impiety; the one that he may cure, the other in order to hide that which needs to be cured. Do not be afraid that those among us who in the fear of the Lord praise you will pour upon your head that ointment of the sinner with which they were wont to anoint you. I praise you because you are doing right. But I do not flatter you; I only accomplish in your case, by the gift of God, those words of the Psalmist: Those who fear Thee shall see me and shall rejoice, because I have hoped in Thy word (Ps. cxix.74); and again: Many shall show forth his wisdom (Ecclus. xxxix.10). It is, then, your wisdom which more praised than blamed the former folly.

8. I would that you should take pleasure in the praises of such as fear just as much to flatter vice as to depreciate virtue. That is the true praise, which, as it is wont to extol nothing but what is good, so it knows not how to caress what is evil. All other is pretended praise, but really blame, which Scripture refers to: The sons of men are vain; they are deceitful upon the weights, so that they deceive even more than vanity (Ps. lxii.10). Such are altogether to be avoided according to the counsel of the wise man: My son, if sinners entice thee consent thou not (Prov. i.10), since their milk and their oil, though they be sweet, are poisonous and deadly. Their words, he says (that is, those of flatterers), are softer than oil, and yet are they very swords (Ps. lv.21). The righteous has oil, too, but of mercy, of sanctification, of spiritual joy. He has wine, which he pours into the wounds of the haughty soul. But for the soul of him that mourns, and for him of contrite heart, he has the oil of mercy, with which he is wont to soften its sorrow. Where he corrects, he pours in wine; when he soothes, oil; but wine without bitterness, and oil without guile. Thus, not every praise is flattery, nor every blame mixed with rancour. Blessed is he who can say: Let the righteous smite me in mercy, and reprove me: but let not the oil of the sinner break my head (Ps. cxli.5), which when you have put far from you, you have shown yourself worthy of the oil and wine of the saints.

9. Let the children of Babylon seek for themselves pleasant mothers, but pitiless, who will feed them with poisoned milk, and soothe them with caresses which will make them fit for everlasting flames; but those of the Church, fed at the breasts of her wisdom, having tasted the sweetness of a better milk, already begin to grow up in it unto salvation, and being fully satiated with it they cry: Thy fulness is better than wine, Thy fragrance than the sweetest ointments (Cant. i.1, 2). This to their mother. But, then, having tasted and known how sweet the Lord is, how truly the best of fathers, they say to Him: How great is Thy goodness, O Lord, which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee (Ps. xxxi.19). Now my whole desire is accomplished. Formerly when I saw with regret with what avidity you sucked in [26] from the lips of flatterers their mortal poison, the seed of sin, I used, with grief, to desire better things for you, saying: Who shall give thee to me, my brother, who sucked the breasts of my mother (Cant. viii.1)? Far from thee henceforth be those men with caresses and dishonest praises, who bless you before your face and expose you at the same time to the reproach and derision of all men, whose applause in your presence is the world's by-word, or rather makes you a by-word to the world. If they murmur even now, say to them: If I yet pleased you, I should not be the servant of Christ (Gal. i.10). Those whom we please in evil things we cannot please in good things, unless they are themselves changed, and begin to hate what we were, and so at length to love what we are.

10. In our time two new and detestable abuses have arisen in the Church, of which one (permit me to say it) was no stranger to you when you lived in forgetfulness of the duties of your profession; but this, thanks to God, has been amended to His glory, to your everlasting gain, to our joy and an example to all. God is able to bring about that we may soon be consoled for the second of these evils, the odious novelty of which I do not dare to speak of in public, and yet am afraid to pass over in silence. My grief urges my tongue to speak, but fear restrains the words; fear only lest I may offend some one if I speak openly of what troubles me, since truth sometimes makes enemies. But for enmity of this kind thus incurred I hear the truth consoling me. It is needful, he says, that offences should come. And I do not think that those words which follow, Woe to that man by whom the offence cometh (S. Matt. xviii.7) concern me. For when vices are attacked and a scandal results thence, it is not he who makes the accusation who is to answer for the scandal, but he who renders it necessary. In short, I am neither more cautious in word nor circumspect in action than he who says, "It is better that a scandal should arise than that the truth be compromised" (S. Greg. Magn. Hom.7 in Ezech. near the beginning, and S. Aug. de Lib. Arbitr. et de Prædest. sanctor.). Although I know not what advantage it would be were I to hold my tongue about that which all the world proclaims with a loud voice, nor can I alone pretend to overlook the pest whose ill odour is in all nostrils, and not dare to guard my own nose from its ill effect.

11. For whose heart is not indignant, and whose tongue does not murmur either openly or secretly to see a deacon equally serving God and Mammon, [27] against the precept of the Gospel heaping up ecclesiastical dignities, so that he seems not to be inferior to Bishops, yet so mixed up in military offices that he is preferred even to Dukes. What monster is this, that being a clerk, and wishing at the same time to appear a soldier, is neither? It is equally an abuse that a deacon should serve at the table of the King, and that the server of the King should minister at the altar during the holy mysteries. Is it not a wonder, or rather a scandal, to see the same person clothed in armour march at the head of armed soldiery, and vested in alb and stole read the Gospel in the midst of the Church; at one time give the signal for battle with the trumpet, and at another convey the orders of the Bishop to the people? Unless, perhaps, that man (which would be scandalous) is ashamed of the Gospel of which S. Paul, that Vessel of election, was so proud? Perhaps he is ashamed to appear a cleric, and thinks it more honourable to be supposed a soldier, preferring the Court to the Church, the table of the King to the Altar of Christ, and the cup of demons to the chalice of Christ. This seems the more probable, because he is prouder (they say) to be called by the name of that one post which he has obtained at the palace than by any of those titles of ecclesiastical dignities which, in defiance of the canons, he has heaped upon himself, and instead of delighting to be called Archdeacon, Dean, or Provost to his various Churches, he prefers to be styled Dapifer to H.M. the King. O, unheard of and hateful perversity! thus to prefer the title of servant of a man to that of the servant of God, and to consider the position of an official of an earthly king one of higher dignity than that of an heavenly! He who prefers military warfare to the work of the ministry places the world before the Church, is convicted of preferring human things to Divine, earthly to heavenly. Is it then more honourable to be called the King's Dapifer than Dean or Archdeacon? It may be to a layman, not to a cleric; to a soldier, not to a deacon.

12. It is a strange but blind ambition to delight more in the lowest things than in the highest, and that the man whose lines had fallen to him in pleasant places should recreate himself upon a dunghill with eager desire, and count his precious lands as nothing worth. This man mingles the two orders and cunningly abuses each. Military pomps delight him, but not the risks and labours of warfare; the revenues of religion, but not its duties. Who does not see how great is the disgrace, as much to the State as to the Church? for just as it is no part of clerical duty to bear arms at the pay of the King, so it is no part of the royal duties to administer lay affairs by means of clerics. [28] What king has ever put at the head of his army an unwarlike clerk instead of some brave soldier? What clerk, again, has ever thought it otherwise than unworthy of him to be bound to obey any lay person whatsoever? The very sign which he bears upon his head [29] is rather the mark of royalty than of servitude; on the other hand, the throne finds a better support in the force of arms than in chanting of Psalms. Still, if the abasement of the one contributes to the greatness of the other, as is sometimes the case; if, for example, the humiliation of the King raised higher the dignity of the priest, or the abasement of the clerk added something to the royal honour; as it happens, for instance, if a woman of noble rank marries a man of the people, she indeed loses in grade by him, but he gains by her; if, then, I say, either the King had advantage from the clerk, or the clerk from the King, it would be an evil only in part, and perhaps ought to be borne with; but, on the contrary, since there is no gain to either from the humiliation of the other, but there is loss to each; since neither does it become a cleric, as has been said, to be or to be called the server of the King; nor is it for the King's advantage to put the reins of government into any but strong and brave hands. Truly then it is strange that either power endures such a man as this; that the Church does not repulse the deacon-soldier, or the State the prince-ecclesiastic.

13. I had wished to inculcate these principles by still stronger and more detailed arguments, and perhaps ought to do so, did not the necessary limits of a letter oblige me to defer this for the present; and because, most of all, I fear to offend you, I have spared a man for whom, it is said, you had formerly a great regard. I would not that you should have a friend at the expense of the truth. But you have still a friendship for him; show yourself a true friend, and exert yourself to make him, too, a friend of the Truth. Then at length there will be a true friendship between you, if it is bound together by a common love of truth. And if he will not yield to you in this, hold fast what you have; join the tail to the head of the sacrifice. You have received by the grace of God a robe of many colours; take pains to make it reach even to the feet, for what will it profit you to have put your hand to the work if (which, God forbid) you do not attain finally to presevere? I end my letter by warning you to make a good ending of your good work.


[22] Otherwise viderunt , have seen.

[23] Vinctus , otherwise junctus .

[24] Otherwise voluntatem .

[25] It is, perhaps, of this man that Bernard speaks in his Apology c. 10: "I have seen, I do not exaggerate, an abbot going forth escorted by 60 horses and more. . . etc."

[26] Sugere. Bernard is playing upon the name of his correspondent Suger.

[27] This deacon was Stephen de Garlande, seneschal or officer of the table to the King of France.

[28] Bernard here blames equally clerics who bear arms for the King's pay and kings who impose military service upon clerks. Each is wrong: the one because he loses sight of the dignity of his status, the others because they confide without choice or discrimination functions of the Court or of the Army upon clerks instead of giving them to laymen, as they ought.

[29] The tonsure, or clerical crown.

letter xviii to the same
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