Bernhard_von_Clairvaux_(Initiale-B)Every so often I come across a text that does for me what reading Cicero did for Augustine: it changes the way I pray. I’ve found one such text in Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God:

‘What shall I render to the Lord for all that he has given me?’ (Ps. 116:12) In his first work he gave me myself; in his second work he gave himself; when he gave me himself, he gave me back myself. Given, and regiven, I owe myself twice over. What can I give God in return for himself? Even if I could give him myself a thousand times, what am I to God? (On Loving God 5.15)

Bernard is writing to show why, and to what extent, God is to be loved. On Loving God is an extended explanation of the answer Bernard gives to those questions, namely, that God himself is the reason God is to be loved and that God is to be loved “without limit” (sine modo). Even those who do not know Christ, Bernard thinks, know (or are capable of knowing) that they owe boundless love to God, the Giver who has given them everything they are and have. He argues that the same holds true to an even greater extent for those who know not only God’s good gifts in creation but also the supreme gift of redemption in Christ. The passage I have quoted is part of Bernard’s description of the latter. In it, he owns the debt of love he, qua Christian, owes God.

“In his first work he gave me myself.” I exist by God’s gift. All that I am and have comes as a gift from God. I am utterly contingent, a creature raised from nothing by the Creator, a being existing only insofar as God gives me to partake of Being, which he himself is. Moreover, God gives me not merely as a thing, but as a self. I exist not like a piece of granite or a rhododendron or a woodpecker, but as an “I,” possessed of consciousness. As a self, I not only exist, but know it, and rejoice in this knowledge and existence (cf. Augustine, City of God 11.26). In giving me myself, God makes me capable of love, able to consciously return my self to my Source, able to praise my God and be glad in him.

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But somewhere I’ve misplaced myself. Somehow I got lost, separated from myself. I needed to be given back myself. If God had to give me back myself, what had I done with myself?

On Bernard’s account, I’ve squandered myself in various ways through ignorance and pride. Through ignorance: I do not fathom the dignity of being a self, a human being graced with free will, a “rational animal” set above the beasts. Forgetting what I am, I begin to act as though I was not a self, as though I was an animal with no differentia. I behave beastly. I forget myself.

Or knowing what I am, I forget that it is by God’s gift that I am what I am. I’m wise enough to know my dignity, but not enough to know that I have nothing I have not received (see 1 Cor. 4:7). I think I’m a pretty big deal. I forget God.

I misplace myself also through pride: I know what and by whom I am, but arrogantly claim what I know to be gifts as my own possessions. I claim me for myself, glorying in God’s gift as if I’d made it. I praise myself and rob God.

Either way, whether through ignorance or pride, the result is the same: I end up without myself. Which is to say, I close myself off from being the self I was made to be, namely, a self who praises and glorifies God. Consequently I can longer be that self on my own. But God is able to return me to myself.

God does so in his “second work”, the work of new creation in Christ Jesus in which “he loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

“When he gave me himself,” Bernard writes, “he gave me back myself.”

By humbling himself, by suffering, dying, and rising, God in Christ gives me new life. God gives me back myself when I am born from above, born anew by water and the Holy Spirit.

“Given, and regiven, I owe myself twice over.” No matter how many times I give myself to God in gratitude, I will never match his donation of himself. I am finite and God is infinite. I cannot give God a commensurate gift. But, now that he’s given me myself again, I can love and praise him without limit. I can tremble before him in gratitude and wonder. I can give my whole self to God.

The featured image is a figured initial with Bernard of Clairvaux from a thirteenth-century manuscript of The Golden Legend. It is in the public domain.

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