Monday, 20 August 2012

Mellifluous gifts

Today is the feast-day of St Bernard of Clairvaux, the "Mellifluous Doctor". Ignatius, in his Notes on Scruples [Spiritual Exercises #351] alludes to a story about Bernard which illustrates how the tempter seeks to undermine our use of God's gifts. Bernard, as his "Mellifluous" title suggests, was a preacher of great skill and beauty. Once, as he was in the middle of preaching with his usual eloquence and fervour, the evil spirit whispered to Bernard that he was doing it for all the wrong reasons: out of pride in his talents, a desire to impress and win hearts, the joy of hearing his own voice. Bernard's instant response was to round on the enemy with the words "I did not undertake this because of you, and I'm not going to give it up because of you!" Ignatius advises us to treat the tempter in the same way, when what we want to do is "in keeping with God's service, or at least not opposed to it."

Something to remember when (surprise, surprise!) I realise I've entered into something with mixed motives, and that there's pride caught up with my desire to use my gifts in God's service. Where do my gifts come from? The prodigal God of joy and love. So is it wrong to find joy in using them? Where does my vainglory come from? That same good and holy joy twisted by the enemy (and I'm so often my own worst enemy!) so that I end up looking at the more unsavoury aspects of myself rather than at God. So, given their respective provenance, to which should I pay more attention and in which should I invest more energy - the gifts or my vainglory? (once I've recognised it, of course - it has much more destructive power if it remains unconscious. That's all part of the subtlety of discernment, which Bernard called rara avis -  a "rare bird".)

I'm reminded of C S Lewis, in the person of Screwtape, writing of the true kind of humility God desires for us: God wants the human to be

"so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and
gratefully as in his neighbour's talents - or in a sunrise, an elephant or a waterfall.  He wants each [human], in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (including himself) as glorious and excellent things."

The long run - and so it will have to be. But wouldn't it be wonderful to have such a vision?

Oh, and in case you didn't know - it was Bernard of Clairvaux who coined the phrase "love me, love my dog": Qui me amat, amet et canem meum.

And I've still illustrated this post with a mediaeval manuscript rather than a picture of a big, shaggy dog with a barrel of brandy round its neck!

St Bernard in a 13th century manuscript, Wikipedia


  1. I was thinking of the exact passage from Screwtape as read along.

    A testament to his gifts.

    1. Thank you for visiting and commenting, e.f.! Yes, Lewis has something to say for most occasions.


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