Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bernard on Mary- humility as a virtue, and the Old Testament

Bernard of Clairvaux's homilies on the Virgin Mary discussed, as have our previous redings, her various virtues. Some of these central virtues were her wisdom, chastity and gentleness; on the other hand, other themes developed in homilies and psalms include her connection to the house of David and the fulfillment of various Biblical prophesies, as well as frequent comparisons as a mother to Eve. Bernard, however, belabors her humility above her other virtues. Bernard asserts that humility was Mary's most defining trait, and that as Christians her humility was the most important aspect of her character to emulate.

According to Bernard, Mary's humility was so critically important because her other virtues stemmed from it, and it in turn complemented the rest. This includes even her all-important and notable virginity, and Bernard makes it very clear that one supersedes the other. He devotes a fair amount of time establishing this:
"If you are not able to imitate the virginity of this humble maid, then imitate the humility of the virgin maid. Virginity is a praiseworthy virtue, but humility is by far the more necessary... You can be saved without virginity; without humility you cannot be. Humility which deplores the loss of virginity can still find favor."[1]
He goes even further on to state explicitly: "Yet I dare say that without humility not even Mary's virginity would have been acceptable." As her humility was what drew the Holy Spirit to her in the first place, it was her humility that led to the miraculous immaculate conception—it was this humbleness that made her worthy to give birth to Jesus.

Bernard writes that this childbirth and her role as a mother made her virginity all the more remarkable. He stresses, however, what in particular made this remarkable—he points out that not only was she a virgin mother, but she was the mother of Jesus. At the time, Jesus may have been a child, but Bernard writes that he was still God and very much wise, a man already: "The Lord has created a new thing on earth: a woman shall enclose a man... he was always equally filled with the Holy Spirit. There was never any moment whatever of his age when that fullness which he assumed at the instant of his conception in the womb was in any way diminished or augmented."[2] God was subordinate to an ordinary human woman; she exercised a large degree of influence over him. Bernard's point was that this was due to her humility: without it, she would not have been chosen to be the mother of God. These three features of Mary's character—virginity, motherhood and humility—form a triangle relationship, dominated by the last trait: "...what unique virginity. Motherhood did not stain but honored it. What extraordinary humility. Fruitful virginity did not tarnish but exalted it. And matchless fruitfulness went hand in hand with both virginity and humility."[3]

One of the other important themes frequently developed by other writers is Mary's ancestry, tracing back to the line of David and other figures of the Old Testament. Bernard discusses David, Solomon, Moses, Aaron and Eve. David was king of the earthly Jerusalem; Mary's son was given "the throne of his father David, not the symbolic, temporal, earthly throne, but the real eternal, heavenly one."[4] Bernard writes about how the Old Testament stories of Solomon and Moses both foreshadowed Mary, just as others did. Solomon looked for "a valiant woman;" the burning bush that Moses encountered invited a comparison with Mary's supposedly painless childbirth. Aaron produced water for the wandering Israelites from a rock that should have by all rights been barren and dry.[5] Bernard's comparison of Mary to Eve, however, was fairly similar to the other works that we've read; Eve caused man's fall and it was only through Mary that he could be redeemed of his original sin.
"Now let both of you, I say, take consolation in your daughter, and in so great a daughter, especially you, woman, from whom evil had its beginning, you whose reproach has been handed down to all womankind. The time has now come for this reproach to be taken away."[6]
Man's salvation literally hinged on Mary.

Historically, Bernard was instrumental to the creation of the Cistercian order. What distinguished the Cistercians as a medieval religious order was their attempted return to a more literal observance of the rules laid down by Saint Benedict. In particular, Cistercian monks valued austerity; in the earlier parts of the order's history, they were notable for returning to manual labor and field work as means of sustaining themselves. They wore white as a symbol of this austerity and the humility that went hand in hand with that. It makes sense, therefore, that Bernard would have preached and emphasized Mary's humility over her other virtues: as he worked to spread the order's influence, he would have used her as an example to motivate other monks to continue to strive for austerity. His tirade against those who make a big deal out of their virtues—"Yet you, heedless of humility, preen yourself on your virginity?"—can be interpreted as a direct attack on contemporary clergymen, who lived wealthier lifestyles and abused their positions of religious authority, using their spiritual clout instead of remaining properly humble. His treatment of Biblical prophesy is less obviously meaningful, however; it's possible that my understanding of the Old Testament in relation to the New is simply limited, but all the references and inferences Bernard made to the Patriarchs seemed fairly orthodox and uncontroversial.


[1] p 9
[2] p 21-22
[3] p 12
[4] p 46
[5] p 19
[6] p 17


  1. Very nice summary of the major themes in Bernard's depiction of Mary, particularly the "triangle relationship" of her virginity, maternity, and humility, as well as her role as Eve, with some good thoughts about how Bernard used Mary as a model for the Cistercians themselves. Could you say more about how well you think these images work? What tensions they might create? How does it change Mary's image as we have seen it thus far to focus so much on her humility rather than her role in making God present to the world? Given that both Bernard and Amadeus were Cistercians, how does Bernard's "Cistercian Mary" compare with the image that we get of her in Amadeus's sermons? RLFB

  2. Musing on Bernard's emphasis on Mary's humility, we might also consider his situation when writing. In forced exile from his community due to, it seems, his own bullheadedness, the necessity of humility was likely very much on his mind at the time.

    It's also worth thinking about if the triangle of Mary's attributes that you highlight, virginity, motherhood and humility might be intended by Bernard to reveal some aspect of the Trinity. We've long established that Mary reveals Christ, does she also reveal the trinity more broadly (as in the statues we saw pictures of at the end of class)?

  3. It’s interesting that in some ways Bernard seems to be exhorting mankind to take a sort of pride in Mary in the quote you cite near the end of your post. If Mary is “so great a daughter,” wouldn’t that imply some sort of pride or honor that she is somehow due? Is there a weird way in which we should be proud of Mary’s exceptionality—her three chief virtues of virginity, motherhood, and humility—because she is “our daughter” and responsible for the removal of the “reproach” set upon us by Eve? While I think this is a very interesting quote, I think that maybe you could have spent some more time really exploring what Bernard is saying with it rather than just the completely valid point that you make in saying that he is arguing that man’s salvation is completely contingent on Mary. I think that you make a good point in describing how Bernard seems to think that our salvation is also completely contingent on Mary’s humility, that this is a key qualifier to Mary’s ability to serve in the role that she does. I think it is also important to remember that the points he is making about virginity and humility—especially as they relate to each other—are heavily influenced by the trajectory of his own life.