Solemnity of St. Bernard of Clairvaux at Missisippi Abbey

When St. Bernard entered the monastery he persuaded thirty relatives and friends to come with him. Two years later he was the founder and first abbot of Clairvaux. Under his leadership the community grew to over seven hundred monks and lay brothers.  By the time St. Bernard died he had founded sixty-eight new monasteries. What a great saint!  

His writings continue to guide us through the serpentine ways of sin to the kingdom of God.  One day when I was reading his Sermon 16 on the Song of Songs I was hit between the eyes with his description of hell.  This is what he writes:

“I dread the thought of hell, … Terror unnerves me at… the immense fires … I am terrified of the fangs of the monster of hell, the pit that swallows up sinners, where demons roar as they devour.  I recoil in horror from the gnawing worm … the rolling fires, the smoke and sulphurous mist …  I fear the encroaching vastness of the dark.  Who will turn my … eyes into a spring of tears to avoid that weeping and gnashing of teeth, the unyielding shackles … that burn and never consume.”   Elsewhere he writes, “Let us go down into hell alive … so that after death we may escape it” (Misc. Sermons # 12).

Some time ago I was talking with another monk about hell.  He didn’t believe anyone was in hell, everyone is saved.  I hope it’s true, that hell is empty, and we have nothing to fear.  But St. Benedict refers to hell seven times in the Holy Rule we profess. Three times he tells us to be in dread of hell, and once, in Ch. 7 On Humility, he urges us to meditate on how hell burns those who despise God.  Clearly, he doesn’t believe hell is empty. 

In St. Bernard’s Sermon on Psalm 90, he comments on the warning of Jesus to, “Fear him who … has power to cast into hell” (Lk 12:5).  St.  Bernard writes, “I warn you whom to fear … do you want to know [who] that is?  It is you, and your own iniquity.”   

St. Bernard keeps returning to his own fear of hell.  In his sermon “On the Five Stores of Spiritual Traffic,” he describes hell as, “The land of affliction, …  of living death,  with raging fires and … eternal confusion, guilty consciences, and awful devilish faces.  Again he repeats, “Let us go down alive into hell so that after death we may escape it.”

In his treatise on “Conversion” St. Bernard writes, “This very body which [the sinner] now lays aside he will take up again not to do penance, but to suffer penalty … his sin will be eternally punished yet never purged, his body will be in constant torment without ever being consumed.”  St. Bernard and St. Benedict acquired their fear of hell from Jesus.  Home is a place where you knock and they have to let you in.  But in the gospels we read about people for whom heaven is not their home.  They find the door locked. They knock and cry out, “Lord, open the door for us.”  The householder replies, “I don’t know where you come from … away from me you evil doers.” Jesus always affirmed the existence of devils and people in hell. Six times in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “There they will weep and gnash their teeth.”

Yet, St. Bernard teaches that it’s easy to avoid the pains of hell by asking forgiveness.  Why, then, does anyone die unforgiven?  He says it’s because of stubbornness in something sinful.  Commenting on psalm 90, St. Bernard describes hardening of the heart, denying sinfulness rather than confessing.  A hardened heart has no fear of God or hell.  It’s a lot easier to persist in sin if the reality of hell is denied altogether. 

Why have so many people been inspired by St. Bernard to holiness of life?  Perhaps it’s because he really believed and warned us so often about the pains of hell, but also that God will be merciful if we are not stubborn but keep confessing our sinfulness and asking forgiveness.