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A letter from Bernard of Clairvaux


Translated letter: 

I have been told you are thinking of leaving your convent under the pretext of seeking a harder way of life, and that although you will not listen to your Reverend Mother and sisters trying every argument to dissuade you and every means to prevent you from doing this, you are yet prepared to take my advice in the belief that whatever I suggest would be for the best. You had done better to have chosen someone more experienced to counsel you on this matter, but as you have preferred myself I will not hide from you what I think best. I have been turning this plan of yours over in my mind ever since I heard of it and I am still puzzled as to your motives. It might be that you are inspired by zeal for God, in which case your plan would be excusable. But all the same I do not see how it can be wise for you to follow it. Do you ask why?  Is it not wise', you say,' to fly riches, crowded towns, and delicate meats? Would not my modesty be safer in a desert where I could live in peace with a few others or even quite alone, so as to please him alone to whom I have pledged myself? ' By no means. For anyone wishing to lead a bad life the desert supplies ample opportunity. The woods afford cover, and solitude assures silence. No one can censure the evil no one sees. Where there is no fear of blame the tempter approaches more boldly, and evil is com­mitted with greater freedom. In a convent, if you would do good there is no one to stop you; if you would do evil, you are not able. Soon everyone would know about it, it would soon be blamed and corrected, just as on the other hand all would admire, respect, and imitate the good they saw. Therefore you see, my daughter, that in a convent greater glory awards your deserts, and a more prompt correction your faults, for amongst others you set an example by a good life and give offence by a bad one.

2. But I will take away from you all excuse for error by the distinc­tion made in the Gospel. Either you are one of the foolish virgins (if indeed you are a virgin) or you are one of the wise. If you are one of the foolish, the convent is necessary for you; if you are one of the wise, you are necessary for the convent. If you are one of the wise and well tried virgins, the reform which has been lately introduced into your convent and praised on all sides would be much discredited and weakened were you to leave, which is what I fear. It would be said that had the convent been good you would never have left. But if you are known to be one of the foolish virgins and depart, we will say that you left because being evil you could not live up to the high standards of the convent and had gone off to seek somewhere where you could live as you pleased. And there would be some reason for this inasmuch as before the reform of your house you never, so I am told, mentioned this plan of yours, but only when Religion began to flourish there did you suddenly become holy and, fired by an unexpected fervour, begin to think of the desert. I recognize, my daughter, I recognize in this, and only wish you could do so too, the poison of the serpent, the guile of the deceiver, the imposture of the trickster.[1] The wolf lurks in the wood. If you, a little sheep, penetrate the shadows of the wood alone, you are offering yourself as a prey to the wolf. But listen to me, daughter, listen to a faithful counsel. Whether you are a saint or a sinner do not cut yourself off from the flock or you will fall a prey to the wolf and there will be none to rescue you. If you are a saint, try to edify your sisters by your example. If you are a sinner, do not pile one sin on the top of another but do penance where you are, for if you leave your convent you will incur great danger, as I have tried to show, give scandal to your sisters, and set the tongues of many wagging against you.

Original letter: 

RELATUM est mihi te quasi asperioris vitae desiderio tuum monasterium velle deserere. Quam rem dissuadentibus tibi atque omnimodis prohibentibus spirituali matri tuae sive sororibus, cum acquiescere nolles, placuisse tandem nostrum super hoc consilium eligere, ut quidquid ego laudaverim, id tibi credas expedire. Debueras quidem doctiorem ad hoc consilium eligere; quia tamen sic tibi visum est, quod hinc mihi rectius videtur non celo. Hoc itaque tuum desiderium ex quo cognitum habui, cogitans atque recogitans quo quidem spiritu conceperis, facile iudicare non audeo. Potes namque in hac re zelum Dei habere, ut excusabilis sit tua intentio; sed quomodo secundum scientiam tua talis voluntas impleatur omnino non video. Cur, inquis? Non est sapere, ut opulentiam, ut urbis frequentiam, ut pinguia fugiam et delicias? Annon mea mihi pudicitia tutior erit in eremo, ubi in pace cum paucis aut sola conversans, soli placeam cui me probavi? Nequaquam. Nam volenti perperam agere, et desertum abundantiam habet, et nemus umbram, et silentium solitudo. Malum quippe quod nemo videt, nemo arguit. Ubi autem non timetur reprehensor, securius accedit tentator, licentius perpetratur iniquitas. In conventu vero bona si qua facis, nemo prohibet; malum autem facere si vis, non licet. Mox etenim a pluribus comperitur, arguitur, emendatur, sicut, e contrario, bonum cum vident, omnes mirantur, venerantur, imitantur. Vides ergo, filia, quod et tua merita immanior in conventu gloria sequitur, et citior culpas correctio, quando ibi sunt, et quibus de bonis exemplum praebeas, et quas de malis offendas.

2. Denique, ut ex ilia evangelica partitione omnem tibi auferam tui excusatio- nem erroris, aut de fatuis virginibus una es, si tamen virgo es, aut de prudentibus. Si de fatuis, congregatio tibi necessaria est; se de prudentibus, tu congregationi. Nam si sapiens et probata es, religio certe quae illo in loco noviter innovata nunc ubique laudatur, multum tua discessione infamabitur et infirmabitur, ut timemus. Dicetur quippe quod, bona cum sis, bonum ordinem nequaquam desereres. Quod si fatua cognita es et recedis, dicemus quod, quia cum bonis male vivere non licet, bonas mala non ferens, quaeris ubi vivere liceat ut libet. Et merito. Nam ante ordinis emendationem numquam, ut aiunt, inde locuta es; at ubi religio crevit, sanctior subito facta, fervore repentino cogitare coepisti de eremo. Agnosco, filia, agnosco, utinam et tu mecum agnoscas, serpentinum virus, fraudulenti dolum, versipellis astutiam. In nemore lupus habitat. Si sola ovicula umbras nemoris penetras, praeda vis esse lupo. Sed audi me, filia, fidele audi consilium. Sive peccatrix, sive sancta sis, noli te separare a grege, nequando rapiat et non sit qui eripiat. Sancta es? Stude tuo exemplo tuae socias acquirere sanctitatis. Peccatrix es? Noli addere peccata peccatis, sed age paenitentiam ubi es, ne discedens cum tui quidem periculo, ut ostensum est, et sororibus scandalum relinquas, et multorum in te provoces detrahentium linguas.

Historical context: 

Bernard writes to dissuade a nun in the convent of St. Mary of Troyes who wants to become a hermit, saying there are greater dangers in the solitary life than in the cloister, and that her leaving her convent now that it has been reformed will suggest either that there is something wrong with the house or with her.

Scholarly notes: 

[1] versipellis astutiam. When an adjective, as we assume it is here, versipellis means' that changes its form or shape ', as the devil is apt to pose as an angel of light. On the other hand, the word may be used as a substantive in which case it can mean  ‘were-wolf' or one that can change himself into a wolf.

Printed source: 

Translation by Bruno Scott James, The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, #118, pp.179-80.  Copyright 1998 by Cistercian publications.  Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher.  Original from Sancti Bernardi Opera, ed. J. LeClercq and H. Rochais (Rome: Eds. Cisterciennes, 1979), ep.115. 


mid twelfth century