A Note from Good St. Bernard

From time to time, as my wife and I pray the Breviary in the afternoons, we come across a petition that asks the Lord to aid us “in our work of building the earthly city.”

I think I know what was in the minds of those who wrote these prayers. The Church must enter fervently into any and all efforts to relieve suffering, help the poor, feed the hungry, and, beyond that, to do what she can to support public legislation that recognizes the moral law (e.g., on questions like abortion, marriage, sexual canons, and so forth).

But — “build the earthly city”? Somehow that strikes a note that would seem alien to the scriptural picture of what godly men are to be doing on this earth. The earthly city: Is this Harvey Cox’s secular city? Is it the Cities of the Plain? Does it refer to the agenda of the European Union? Or to the platform of this or that political party? The United Nations? What?

Some years ago I came upon a hymn of St. Bernard of Cluny (c. 1145). The sentiments run thus: “The world is very evil;/The times are waxing late;/Be sober and keep vigil;/The Judge is at the gate…./O happy, holy portion… The cure for all distrest!/ Strive, man to win that glory;/Toil, man, to gain that light.”

If there were ever a hymn that would fail to make it through the porcelain filter of Political Correctness, surely this would be a candidate for that failure. Oh! we say: Pie in the sky when we die by and by — is that it? Withdrawal from the world of suffering men? The luxury of the cloister is it?

Well, in a sense, yes. But strike the word “luxury” there: The sparse rule of life in the reforms at Cluny under St. Odo would look like starvation and boot camp to us lesser men. But withdrawal, yes — on the pattern of Our Lord’s rule of life, which included withdrawal. In His case, of course, it was intermittent withdrawal. For the Cluniacs, it was a lifetime of withdrawal, not into luxury but into the harsh ascetical life of unceasing prayer for the suffering of the world and the pursuit of holiness.

St. Bernard’s hymn arises from the pious tradition called De Contemptu Mundi of the contempt of this world. It entailed an outlook almost incomprehensible to modern piety, with its strong emphasis on ministry to the world. And certainly that contempt can slide off into an almost total rejection of earthly responsibility. But rightly understood, this “contempt” was wholly biblical. The strictures in the Pentateuch and the Old Testament histories, the prophets and the psalms — not to mention the Gospels and the epistles — constituted a sharp and unremitting reminder that this world of men is both fleeting and at the same time driven by vanity, idolatry, and cupidity. Good men are hard to find in the corridors of earthly power.

The evil that St. Bernard had in mind had first showed up at the very start, in Eden, where we opted out of our true dignity and freedom into the squalid fantasy world of a factitious dignity and freedom. At Babel we built the earthly city, with melancholy results. The Chosen People seemed hell-bent (literally, Cluny would have said) on pursuing the enterprise. They (we, let’s face it) slew the Builder and Maker when He came. Kings, emperors, philosophers, scholars, and opinion-makers through the centuries have carried on the attempt. Modern secularism is a far more serene tyranny than any emperor, sultan, khan, or pharaoh dreamed of. St. Paul lays the fault, ultimately, at the feet of “principalities, powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places.”


I have a friend, an Episcopalian cleric, who wishes that there be no “us” and “them” for the Christian. He has in mind, I think, the laudable notion that Christian charity does not at first approach any man as The Enemy. Love hopeth all things. Perhaps all men will be saved in the end.

The difficulty here, surely, is that there seems to have been a “them” most energetically at work in this world. The prophets were slain. Christian believers found themselves wandering around in sheepskins and goatskins, says the writer of Hebrews. St. Paul found his evangelization met on five different occasions with 40 stripes save one, beatings with rods, imprisonment, “perils by the heathen,” and eventually martyrdom. The Word, when He came, found Himself led as a lamb to the slaughter. Christians in our own epoch have found themselves tortured and slaughtered in Rwanda, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Korea. There are defiant parades in our own cities nowadays, celebrating fiercely anti-Christian moral codes.

But St. Bernard’s “world” also sidles up to us in ways more subtle and intimate than slaughter and imprisonment. “Envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings,” not to mention vindictiveness, petulance, irascibility, vanity, venality, cravenness, pusillanimity, parsimony, sloth, and sullenness, which seem to find their way in where no tyrant, sadist, or prison guard can penetrate. St. John has a somewhat sweeping view: He identifies “all that is in the world” with “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”

There might, perhaps, be some merit in our hunting up hymns that arise from that region of brisk piety known as De Contemptu Mundi. Do they arise from a petulant, niggardly, and fastidious spirit? Or do such sentiments belong properly to those who, in their pilgrimage here, do, in fact, “look for a city whose builder and maker is God”?

Tom Howard


Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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