SERMON: Of The Struggle Of The Flesh And The Devil Against The Human Spirit, And The Efficacy Of Prayer by Bernard of Clairvaux
1. My loving concern for you, brothers, is why I speak to you. It is so more often if I were not prevented by much business. You should not wonder if I am concerned for you, since I find in myself much matter and cause for concern. As often as I think of my own miserable condition and perils of every kind, my soul is troubled within me. I must have no less concern for each of you if I love you as myself. The one who searches hearts knows how often concern for you outweighs concern for myself in my heart. You should not wonder that I have so much concern for you and that great anxiety disturbs me over every one of you when I see you in so miserable a condition and in such great danger. It is clear that we make our own snare, carry our own enemy around everywhere. I am speaking of this flesh, born in sin, nourished in sin, corrupt from its very beginning, but made much worse by its bad habits. This is why it lusts so sharply against the spirit, constantly murmurs, is impatient of discipline, suggests what is forbidden, and is neither subject to reason nor inhibited by any fear.
2. This the cunning serpent approaches, this he assists, and this he uses to attack us. He has no other desire, no aim or occupation except to shed the blood of our souls. He it is who continually contrives evil, who stirs up the desires of the flesh, who blows on the natural fire of lust with poisonous suggestions, inflames lawless impulses, prepares occasions of sin, and does not cease to tempt the hearts of humans with a thousand harmful tricks. He it is who binds our hands with our own belt and, so it is said, beats us with our own stick, so that the flesh, which was given to help us, becomes for us a ruin and a snare.
3. But what good does it do to point out the dangers without pointing out also some consolation, some remedy that can be applied? The peril indeed is great, and grave is the struggle against an enemy of our own household, particularly as we are strangers and he is a citizen; he dwells in his own land, and we are exiles and pilgrims. Great, too, are the stakes, for we have frequent – no, continuous – fights against the tricks of the devil, the deceiver, whom we cannot see; the subtlety of his nature, combined with his long practice of malice, has made him very clever. It rests with us, however, to refuse to be overcome in this conflict; none of us is overthrown in it against his will. Your desire, O man, is under you, and you must master it. (Genesis 4:7) The enemy can arouse the impulse of temptation, but it rests with you, if you choose, to give or to refuse consent. You have the capacity, if you choose, to make your enemy your servant so that all things may work together for good. See, the enemy stirs up the desire for food, he puts into the mind vain or impatient thoughts, and he arouses the impulse of lust; you alone can refuse your consent, and as many times as you resist so many times will you be crowned.
4. Yet I cannot deny, brothers, that these things are troublesome and dangerous – but if we offer strong resistance in this struggle, we shall have holy tranquility, resulting from a clear conscience. I think, too, that if we refuse to allow those thoughts we frequently find in ourselves to linger but stand up against them with a mighty spirit, the enemy will depart in confusion and not return to that place so readily. But who are we, and what is our strength, that we should be able to resist so many temptations? This surely was what God was looking for, this was what he was working to lead us to, that, seeing our weakness and that we have no other help, we would run toward his mercy with perfect humility. Therefore I ask you, brothers, to have this safe refuge of prayer always at hand. I remember that I spoke of it a short time ago at the end of my sermon.
5. But whenever I speak of prayer, I seem to hear expressed in your hearts some human thoughts that I have also heard frequently from others and sometimes experienced in my own heart. Why is it, seeing that we never cease from prayer, that scarcely ever does any one of us seem to experience the fruit of his prayer? As we come to prayer, so we return; no one responds to us, no one gives us anything, but we seem to have labored in vain. But what says the Lord in the Gospel? Do not judge by the appearance, he says, but judge with right judgment. (John 7:24) What is right judgment but the judgment of faith? The one made righteous by faith lives. (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11) Follow the judgment of faith, then, and not your own experience, since faith is true but experience is false. What is the truth of faith if not what the Son of God promises: Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and it will come to you? (Mark 11:24) None of you should think his prayer of small account, brothers. I tell you that he to whom we pray does not think it of small account. Before it has left your mouth he has ordered it written in his book. Unquestionably we can hope for one of two things, that he will grant either what we ask, or what he knows is better for us. We do not know what to pray for as we ought, (Romans 8:26), but he has pity on our ignorance. He accepts our prayer in his goodness, but does not give us what is not expedient for us or what we should not be given so quickly. Therefore, our prayer will not be fruitless.
6. It shall not be as long as we do as we are instructed in the psalm – that is, if we delight in the Lord. Holy David says, Delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s request. (Psalm 36:4) But why, O Prophet, do you bid us so absolutely to delight in the Lord, as if we had this delight at our command? We are familiar with delight in food, sleep, tranquility, and other things of the Earth; but what reason have we for delighting in God? My brethren, lay people can say this, but not you. Which of you has not often experienced the delight of a good conscience? Who has not savored chastity, humility, and love? This is not the delight of good food or drink or anything of that kind – yet it is delight, and greater than all these others. This delight is divine and not of the flesh; when we delight in these things, plainly we delight in the Lord.
7. But many of you perhaps dispute this, because they rarely experience this emotion that is delightful and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. For the time being they are disturbed by temptations; they strive more energetically to obtain the virtues, and not for the delight which they experience but for the sake of the virtues themselves, and to please God alone, with all their concentration if not with all their feeling. No doubt a person of this kind fulfills completely the prophet’s admonition to delight in the Lord, since he is not speaking of a feeling but of a practice. The feeling is of happiness, but the practice is of virtue.
Delight in the Lord, he says – strive for this, attempt this – to delight in the Lord – and he will give you your heart’s requests. Take note that he speaks of a heart’s requests that the rational judgment approves. You have no reason to complain, but rather you have reason to occupy yourselves with thanksgiving with all your feelings, since your God has such concern for you that whenever you seek in ignorance what is not to your advantage he does not heed you but changes it for a more advantageous gift. So, too, a father according to the flesh willingly gives his child bread when he asks for it; he does not give him a knife when he asks for it, thinking it unnecessary, but prefers to break the bread he has given him, or order it broken by a servant, so that the child will have no danger or difficulty.
8. Moreover, I think that the heart’s requests consist of three things; I don’t see anything else that the elect ought to request for themselves. Two of these are transitory – that is, things good for the body and things good for the soul; the third is the happiness of eternal life. Do not be surprised that I said we should seek physical well-being from God, since all physical things are his – just as spiritual well-being is. We must ask him, therefore, and hope for what will sustain us in his service. We must also pray for the things necessary for our souls with greater frequency and fervor – to obtain, that is, grace from God and spiritual virtues. So, too, we must pray with all our piety and desire for eternal life, in which is full and perfect happiness of body and soul.
9. Therefore, so that we may have our heart’s requests in these three matters, we must take heed of three things. In the first, superfluity can creep in; in the second, impurity; and in the third, pride. Sometimes we can seek transitory things from motives of pleasure, virtues from motives of vain show, and some even seek eternal life through confidence in their own merits rather than in humility. I do not mean that grace accepted does not give confidence in prayer, but that no one should base his confidence in making requests on it. These first gifts confer only this: that from the mercy which they bring even greater mercies may be hoped for. So let the prayer for transitory things be restricted to bare necessities; let the prayer for spiritual virtues be free from all impurity and intent only on pleasing God; and let that for eternal life be made in all humility, presuming, as is fitting, only on divine mercy.
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