Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Imitating Humility

Time and again Bernard of Clairvaux returns, in his homilies, to the concept of humility. Humility is held above and before all other virtues as the single most laudable facet of Mary’s example. Virginity is one thing and being the mother of God is another, but humility, in Bernard’s mind, is the truly fantastic thing about Mary. But this obsession with humility is not an arbitrary nor accidental preoccupation – Bernard is expounding a very particular rationale for what Mary’s role in worship is, and why Mary should be such a central figure of Cistercian devotion. His ideas circle constantly around Mary’s person as an example for the worshipper; she is a model of perfection, because of her humility.

Bernard begins the first homily by breaking down, word for word, an excerpt from Luke 1:26-27. The first four paragraphs focus on the first clause of the sentence, with the fifth paragraph coming to the subject of Mary. Immediately he seizes on the subject: “Who is this virgin noble enough to be greeted by an angel and yet humble enough to be the fiancĂ© of a workman? How gracious is this union of virginity and humility!” (9) In many of the texts we have read, Mary’s virginity is nearly always the first and foremost virtue that she is lauded for. But Bernard nuances this assumption, and opines that in fact it is Mary’s humility that is the base of her greatness, and the foremost of her qualities. He points out, per Luke 1:48 that “God ‘regarded the humility of his handmaiden’ rather than her virginity. And even if it was because of her virginity that she found favor, she conceived nevertheless on account of her humility.” (10) First he points to the text (or perhaps what of the text he had in his memory) to show that Luke presents her humility as vital to her being chosen to bear the Son. But then he makes a curious move: he uses his own reason to posit that Mary’s humility was literally the cause of her conception.

Looking at my own copy of the King James, this passage from Luke 1:48 (with Mary being the one speaking) reads: “For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” It’s interesting that, to me (in my modern and mostly-Protestant conception of scripture, Mary, etc.), this reads like a thankful prayer to God made by Mary, thanking him for choosing someone as lowly in position as her, to bear His son. I certainly would not have interpreted it as meaning that God chose Mary just because of her humility; after all, it is not even God nor Luke-as-narrator speaking – its Mary herself. How could she know whether God chose her because of her humility, her virginity, her lineage, or simply because he wanted to? But of course, scripture is interpretable in a multitude of ways, and Bernard and I are no doubt using very different translations in very different languages. Moreover, it seems that it is not Bernard’s project to make an ever-accurate interpretation of scripture – he is trying to inspire a particular kind of behavior.

“If you are not able to imitate the humility of this humble maid, then imitate the humility of this virgin maid. Virginity is a praiseworthy virtue, but humility is by far the more necessary. The one is only counseled; the other is demanded. To the first you have been invited; to the second you are obliged.” (9) The devotee who takes their position seriously must realize that humility is a non-negotiable virtue, one can’t chose to have or to not have it, but simply must have it. But how does one gain it? By imitating Mary. With Bernard's writings Mary becomes a figure of devotion, of worship, of reverence – but also (and perhaps most importantly) a human example of good behavior and a virtuous mindset. The Virgin herself is an accessible precedent of the behavior which everyone - all Cistercian monks, certainly - should attempt to emulate. 

Bernard deplores those men in the Church who get too full of themselves or their positions, and forget how to have, what he calls, ‘honored humility.’ “If, miserable little man that I am, the Church should be deceived by my appearances and should honor me in any way, however slight, would I not immediately forget who I am and believe myself to be what men, who do not see my heart, think I am?” He admits that once you are honored, it is very difficult to not think of yourself as inherently having that honor which others accord to you. Even those people who are honored for their humility have a difficult time remembering that the humility came first, and is the reason for, the honoring. 

An important aspect of humility is the fact that it does not vaunt itself. About Mary, Bernard writes, “What is this humility so sublime that it resists honor and refuses to vaunt itself in glory?” (54). Mary’s humility is desirable not just because of its presence, but because it is so meted and measured. Bernard seems to have a problem with those who “having scorned the pomp of this world, learn greater pride in the school of humility.” (55) So one must not simply understand that humility is a virtue and practice it, but one must make sure that they do not get too full of themselves because of this humility. An excess of humility (or perhaps it is the improper understanding of humility) causes one to, paradoxically, take pride in the very absence of pride.

Again, Mary provides the answer to this. He writes, throwing in a quote from Luke 1:38, “Let us listen to the answer she gave, she who was chosen to be the mother of God, yet did not forget humility. ‘Behold,’ she said, ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ ” Mary’s entreaty is simple: ‘you are God and I am mortal, let your will be done to me.’ To Bernard, this seems to be an empirical example of honored humility good enough to prove all of his points – but is it really? The scripture itself is so bare of actual examples of Mary’s ‘honored humility’ that it seems a bit of a stretch to quote this piece of verse in favor of his argument.

Regardless of the aptitude of Bernard’s examples from scripture, he does propound a logical conception of what Mary should be – an example for the worshipper. Mary here is a human and accessible exemplar of the humble personage. The obligation to humility that Bernard perceives in the scriptures is practiced through the understanding of Mary's behavior, and then the imitation of her. The pitfalls that then await the humble - the absence of honored humility, and the risk of taking pride in humility - are also overcome through the emulation of the virgin. Thus Mary is the one-all end-all for that devotee who desires humility, a living illustration of its practice. 



  1. The notion of Mary as a paragon of humility, in addition to virginity, certainly pervades Bernard of Clairvaux's work—though I think there is some added significance to his manner of praising Mary. She is represented here as important in terms of her exemplary humility, whereas authors of earlier and near-contemporary works (like the homilies of Amadeus of Lausanne), emphasize her virtues primarily as they relate to her selection as Mother of God, and consider her important in that capacity. This shift from the discussion of Mary in terms of her canonical function to Bernard's careful description and praise of her unique character makes of her, as you say, a very human subject. Bernard's homilies eschew the Mary-as-temple imagery found so often in other works, further evidencing that he views Mary as a person in her own right, not solely as the place where the Creator was created, and the person through whom God can be better understood. This instance of changing the focus of Marian veneration to virtuous aspects of her character with the intention of imitating her—perhaps to set an example for the behaviour of Cistercian monks—presents a facet of the early cult of Mary different from those which we have previously seen in class.


  2. This post reveals an interesting paradox about Mary in Scripture and Marian devotion that sets Mary up as “an example for the worshipper”, as the author says. The author rightly points out that Bernard draws his homilies primarily out of a few lines of text of St. Luke. And Luke wasn’t just being selective about what text to meditate on, there simply isn’t that much in the New Testament that describes the actual person of Mary and shows scenes with her. So, it is easy to assume that without many actual examples of Mary living her life and putting her humility into practice it would be difficult to take her as a model and exemplar.
    However, the three things that show Mary’s humility are really all that is needed as an example for a worshipper to put into practice in their own life. Mary is humble because she lets God’s will be done in her and as the author, I think, rightly claims she is grateful for His actions. Then, Mary is humble because she does not boast or get proud about the great things that God’s will had in store for her. Finally, and perhaps most pleasing to Bernard, is that Mary is not hypocritical and does not become proud of being humble. These three things do not give a Christian guidelines for specific situations, but rather abstract criterion about more important things that can be applied across a broad spectrum.


  3. Very nice meditation on the central place Bernard gives humility in his imagining of Mary and reading of Scripture. I wonder if you could take this analysis a bit further, both comparatively (how does Bernard's focus compare with the image of Mary we have seen in our previous readings? how does focusing on Mary's humility change who Mary is?) and contextually (who is this humble Mary whom Bernard is taking as his model? why humility of all virtues?). You point to the way in which Bernard seems here to be criticizing men of the Church--which suggests that the ones he is calling to imitate the humility of the virgin maid are themselves not maids! How does realizing that Bernard is taking Mary as a model for (ideally) celibate men affect how we see how Bernard sees Mary? RLFB

  4. Seeing Mary as chosen because of her humility is also in keeping with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which is also becoming a topic of interest during the time Bernard is writing. Mary is able to be born without sin because of the merits of her son, an interesting inversion of our notions of cause and effect which we can also see in, for example, the sacramental theology of another contemporary, Hugh of St. Victor. It's worthwhile to consider just how important time, and God's presence outside of it, becomes for medieval thinkers, I think there's a lot of unexplored territory here.

    I also want to add a caution regarding what Bernard is doing with Scripture. You write: "Moreover, it seems that it is not Bernard’s project to make an ever-accurate interpretation of scripture – he is trying to inspire a particular kind of behavior" But I think this relies on a dichotomy which Bernard wouldn't recognize, between drawing lessons for moral action from Scripture and interpreting to more accurately. For Bernard, and his contemporaries, finding guides to proper moral action is precisely one of the ways in which we achieve a more accurate understanding of Scripture, while reading it simply according to the words on the page, as is common now, would be considered an extremely limited and ultimately (I'd argue) incorrect mode of interpretation. The words of Scripture are of vital importance, but not in themselves. Instead, the key is the inner truth that the words point to, i.e. God, this is why they're able to justify such an infinite proliferation of meaning from Scripture and why they can apply a wide range of seemingly disparate images to a whole host of figures, events, and doctrinal truths from the Bible.