Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mary's Humility: A Close Reading of Homily I

In class Tuesday, our discussion of Bernard centered on his establishment of Mary as the ultimate monastic, the model Cistercian.  We decided that with Bernard the character of Mary is prioritized: she is virgin and (more importantly) she is humble.  All monks must be virgins, and the Cistercian monks are particularly humble on account of their rejection of excessive ornament and their manual labor. We also know that from Bernard’s work with the Song of Songs, as well as “Homily IV,” that he believes to understand one must experience (49).  To understand Mary, the model of monastic life, one must live like her.  Bernard seems to suggest, in his Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that he does so and his [cooperative] brothers do so.

However, in Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin, Bernard never writes the word “Cistercian,” nor does he write “Benedictine,” or even “Cluny.”  Instead, he provides us with an exegetical meditation on Luke 1:26-37, written purportedly for his own devotion (1).  In this personal work, however, Bernard concludes by telling you how to behave: humbly, like the Virgin and Christ.  In the following I will explore how he reaches this conclusion, paying particular attention to how he establishes Mary as humble and what it means to behave like her.

Bernard introduces the “humble virgin” language on page 9, in the first homily.  He asks, “Who is this virgin noble enough to be greeted by an angel and yet humble enough to be the fiancé of a workman?” It is clear that Bernard took the title of “virgin” directly from Luke 1:27, just as he did with “Gabriel,” “Nazareth,” and “Galilee” in his preceding semantic exegesis of Luke 1:26 (6-8).  The same cannot be said for “humble.”  He uses Mary’s betrothal to the “workman” Joseph (v. 27) as proof of her humility (9).  However, the identification of Joseph with carpentry or workmanship does not appear within Luke 1:27-38, nor does it appear in Luke at all.  Instead, Bernard is likely referencing Matthew 13:55, which reads, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?  Is not his mother called Mary? …” (NRSV).  Further, this relationship between Mary’s humility and her betrothal to a workman is odd when viewed in light of Bernard’s statements in “Homily II” on the reason for Mary’s betrothal.  There he ignores the relationship between Joseph and the humility of Mary, instead suggesting that Joseph’s role is similar to Thomas the Apostle’s: he serves as a witness to her modesty (24). 

After establishing Mary as humble and a virgin, Bernard takes a moralistic turn.  He prioritizes humility over virginity, stating, “If you are not able to imitate the virginity of this humble maid, then imitate the humility of this humble virgin.  Virginity is a praiseworthy virtue, but humility is far the more necessary” (9).  Drawing again from Matthew – this time from 18:3 – he explains that humility is a prerequisite for salvation (9).  For Bernard, humility is also a prerequisite for something else quite central to his notion of Mary: the incarnation.  Looking to Isaiah 66:2, and directly quoting the prophet, Bernard posits that it was because of Mary’s humility that the Holy Spirit came upon her (9-10). He also uses Mary’s “own” words as further proof, quoting the Magnificat in Luke 1:48 (10). 

This is a marked digression from many of the texts we were looking at in the previous weeks.  It was on Isaiah 7:14 that their argument rested:  it was prophesied that the sign would be the virgin birth of Immanuel.  Bernard does not look to that passage until “Homily II,” and he does so in a quite different context.  Granted, much of the previous disagreement arose from the usage of “virgin” in the LXX rather than “young woman.”  Regardless, there was an undeniable prioritization of Mary’s virginity: it is essential that she was a virgin because Isaiah said that she must be.  Bernard’s argument is similar, but with “humble” replacing “virgin:’ it is essential that Mary was humble because Isaiah (and Mary) said that she must be. 

The author’s conception of the importance of humility does not exclusively exist in a fulfillment context.  Much of Bernard’s understanding of such importance comes from Christ’s behavior after his birth.  Bernard’s young Christ is Lucan, and he is obedient to Mary and Joseph (11, Luke 2:51). This has moral ramifications; Bernard interrogates, “God stoops down in humility, and you exalt yourself? God is obedient to men, and you anxious to lord it over men, set yourself up as your own authority?” (11).  Humility is directly related to Jesus’ behavior on Earth. God humbled himself in the behavior of Christ, so humility is prioritized further as a virtue; being humble is imitating Christ, as well as Mary.

For Bernard, humility and virginity are best when they exist simultaneously (10). This is present in the person of Mary, but it is definitively absent in the so-called “haughty virgins” (10).  Further, in Mary two seemingly incompatible virtues are married: virginity and fruitfulness (12).  While outside of his duality of virginity and humility, Bernard clearly believes that fruitfulness is of profound importance.  In “Homily Three,” for example, he looks to Exodus 23:26 and calls childlessness a “curse” (39).  In Mary, the presence of these three virtues – humility, virginity, as well as fruitfulness – makes her, “thrice blessed” (12). 

            In “Homily 1,” Bernard establishes the virginity and the humility of Mary.  Suggesting in part that her betrothal to Joseph contributed to (or led to) her humility, he then utilizes an atypical scriptural fulfillment argument to suggest the necessity of Mary’s humility.  Drawing from Isaiah 66:2, rather than the more common and controversial Isaiah 7:14, he explicitly states that the incarnation would have not occurred in the absence of Mary’s humility. Bernard additionally establishes the importance of humility outside of its manifestation in Mary.  He looks to Matthew to establish it as a prerequisite for salvation before highlighting God’s humility in His obedience to Mary and Joseph.  Finally, he speaks about the importance of the simultaneous presence of virginity and humility, explaining that in the person of Mary they are unified with fruitfulness.  Such a union leads to her being “thrice blessed.”  He concludes the homily with a call to imitate Mary, in her virginity, fruitfulness, and particularly her humility (13).  In imitating Mary (and by extension her Son) we begin to achieve salvation, and (at least based on our conclusions in class), begin to behave like the Cistercian monks Bernard thinks we should be.



  1. There is a lot to chew on here! I liked very much the way you paid such close attention to the specific verses that Bernard is drawing, particularly his use of Isaiah 66:2 as a counterweight to the more usual discussion of Isaiah 7:14. I was also intrigued by what you suggest about the way in which Bernard's ultimate model of humility is not actually Mary, but Christ. Could you develop this more? To what extent for Bernard is Mary distinct as a model and to what extent is she herself modeling the modeling that Bernard is calling for? How important is Mary's maternity of Jesus for Bernard as compared with her humility as a servant of the Lord? RLFB

  2. The way Bernard subordinates virginity to humility is interesting, perhaps we might think about the broader monastic context in seeking to understand what precisely Bernard is doing. After all, he's living in a world in which there's a large class of people who have committed themselves to virginity, including those people who are his opponents both within and without the nascent Cistercian order. It might be that his emphasis on humility is an effort to distinguish between "true" virginity, grounded in humility, and the "false" virginity of the "haughty virgins" (the regular Benedictines perhaps?).

    It might also be productive to muse on what you highlight at the end, that imitating Mary essentially cashes out as acting like a Cistercian monk. But Mary certainly wasn't a Cistercian, so what does Bernard mean hear precisely? Is the rule of the Cistercians a mode of training ordinary men to act like Mary, a sort of compensation for our inability to live like her, or is there something else, a sort of spiritual affinity between the Cistercian life and Mary's life? Of course, it could be both of these as well, but digging into the question a little deeper will help illuminate more clearly the contours of Bernard's thought.