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A letter from Bernard of Clairvaux


Translated letter: 

Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, to the virgin Sophia that she may never sully her virginity, but attain its reward. 

Vain are the winning ways, beauty is a snare; it is the woman who fears the Lord that will achieve renown.' I rejoice with you, my daughter, in the glory of your virtue whereby, you tell me, you have cast away the false glory of the world. It is well to be rid of it, and you deserve praise for not having been deceived in a matter concerning which many people, wise enough in other respects, are exceedingly foolish. What is the glory of the world but the flower of grass, a mere vapour that passes away ! Whatever its degree, there is more anxiety in it than joy. When you are advancing claims, protecting yourself, envying others, suspecting all, ever wanting what you have not got, never satisfied with what you have but always wanting more, what rest can there be in your glory? If there should be any, the pleasure of it soon goes, never to return, and only anxiety is left. Moreover you can see how many for all their efforts never attain it and how few ever learn to despise it, because what is a necessity for many is a virtue for few. I say for few, and this is especially so of the nobility: ' Not many noble, but the base things of the world hath God chosen '. Hence you are indeed blessed amongst others of your rank, because while they are contending for worldly glory you, by your very contempt for it, are exalted much more gloriously and by a far truer glory. You are far more distinguished and honourable for being one of so few than for being one of a great family. For what you have been able to do by the grace of God is yours, but what you have by your birth is the gift of your ancestors. And what is yours is all the more precious for being so rare. Moral vigour amongst men is ' a rare bird on earth [Horace, Satire, 2.26] but it is even more so among refined and noble women. ' Who will find a vigorous woman? ' the Scriptures ask, but it is much harder to find one who is also of high birth. God is not at all a respecter of persons and yet, I don't know why it is, virtue is far more pleasing in the nobility. Perhaps because it is more evident. It is not easy to know whether the baser sort lack the glory of the world by their own choice or by force of circumstances. I certainly praise anyone who is virtuous through necessity, but I praise far more her who is virtuous by the free choice of her will.

  1. Let other women who know no better contend amongst them­selves for the tawdry and fleeting glory of short-lived and deceitful things, but do you strive to set your heart upon what can never fail. Do you, I say, strive for that ' eternal weight of glory which our present momentary and light tribulation worketh for us above measure exceedingly '. And if those daughters of Belial who ' put on airs, walk with heads high, and with mincing steps' got up and adorned like a temple, abuse you, answer them: ' My kingdom is not of this world '; answer them: ' My time has not yet come, but your time is always ready'; answer them: ' My life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is my life, then I also shall appear with him in glory ’. Although, if one must glory, you too can do so quite simply and quite safely, but only in the Lord. I will not mention the crown which the Lord has prepared for you in eternity. I will say nothing of the promises he has given you, that as a happy bride you will be admitted to contemplate face to face the glory of the Bridegroom, that ' he will bring you into his presence glorious, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing', that he will receive you into his eternal embraces, that his ' left hand will pillow your head, and his right hand embrace you ‘. I will pass over in silence the special place reserved for virgins amongst the sons and daughters of the kingdom. I will not mention the new song which you will sing as a virgin amongst virgins, but with special and most sweet tones all your own, rejoicing in it yourself and giving joy to the whole city of God, whilst you sing and dance and follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. ' The eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man to conceive ' what the Lord has prepared for you and for what you must prepare yourself.

    3. So I will pass over what is promised to you in the future and concern myself solely with the present, with what you have already, with the ' firstfruits of the spirit’, the gifts of the Bridegroom, the pledges of betrothal, the ' abundant blessings with which he has met you on the way ‘, he whom you await to follow you and complete what is lacking. May he come out into the open to be seen by his bride in all his beauty and admired by the angels in all his glory. If the daughters of Babylon have anything like this, let them bring it forth, ' whose only glory is their shame ‘. They are clothed in purple and fine linen, but their souls are in rags. Their bodies glitter with jewels, but their lives are foul with vanity. You, on the contrary, whilst your body is clothed in rags, shine gloriously within, but in the sight of heaven, not of the world. What is within delights because he is within you who is delighted, for you cannot have any doubt that ' Christ dwells in your heart': ' All the splendour of the king's daughter is within'. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, O daughter of Sion, shout for joy, O daughter of Jerusalem, for the King has greatly desired thy beauty ' if confession and beauty are thy clothing and light is a garment thou dost wrap about thee' since ' confession and beauty wait on his presence'.1 On whose presence? On his who is ' beautiful above the sons of men ' and ' on whom the angels desire to look’.

       4. You hear to whom it is you are pleasing? Love what enables you to please him, love confession if you would desire beauty. Beauty is the handmaid of confession. ‘ Confession and beauty are thy clothing ' and ' Confession and beauty wait on his presence'. In truth where there is confession, there too is beauty. If there are sins, they are washed away in confession; if there are good works, they are commended by confession. The confession of what you have done amiss is ' a sacrifice to God of a contrite heart'; the confession of God's mercies to you is ' a sacrifice of praise '. What an excellent ornament of the soul is confession! It cleans the sinner of his sin and renders the righteous man more unsullied. Without confession the righteous man is insensible, the sinner dead: ' Confession perisheth from the dead ‘. Confession therefore is the life of a sinner and the glory of a righteous man. It is necessary for the sinner and becoming to the righteous: 'Praise becometh the upright'. Silk, purple, and paint have their beauty, but they do not impart it. They show their own beauty when applied to the body, but they do not make the body beautiful. When the body is taken away, they take their beauty with them. The comeliness which goes on with clothes, comes off with clothes, it belongs to the clothes and not the clothed.

5. Therefore do not emulate evil-doers and those who borrow their beauty elsewhere when they have lost their own. They prove them­selves destitute of any proper or natural beauty who go to such pains and such expense to make up after the fashion of the world that passes away so as to be admired by the foolish people who see them. Con­sider it wholly beneath you to borrow your appearance from the furs of animals and the work of worms, let what you have be sufficient for you. The true and proper beauty of anything needs no help from other sources. The ornaments of a queen have no beauty like to the blushes of natural modesty which colour the cheeks of a virgin. Nor is the mark of self-discipline a whit less becoming. Self-discipline composes the whole bearing of a maid's body and the temper of her mind. It bows her head, smoothes her brow, composes her face, binds her eyes, controls her laughter, bridles her tongue, calms her anger, and governs her steps. Such are the pearls which adorn the vesture of a virgin. What glory can be preferred to virginity thus adorned? The glory of angels? An angel has virginity, but he has no body. Without doubt he is more happy if less strong in this respect.2 Excellent and most desirable is the adornment which even angels might envy!

6.There remains another thing concerning the same subject. Without any doubt the more your adornment is your own the safer it is. You see women burdened rather than adorned with ornaments of gold, silver and precious stones, and all the raiment of a court. You see them dragging long trains of most precious material behind them, stirring up clouds of dust as they go. Do not let this trouble you. They leave it all behind them when they die, but you will take your holiness with you. What they carry about does not belong to them. When they die they will not be able to take a thing with them, none of all their worldly glory will go down with them to the grave. These things of theirs belong to the world and the world will send the wearers naked away and keep all their vanities to seduce others equally vain. But your adornments are not like this. They remain securely yours, secure because yours. You cannot be deprived of them by violence nor lose them to guile. Against them the cunning of the thief and the cruelty of the madman are of no avail. They are not corrupted by moth and they do not wear out with age, nor are they spent with use. They survive death, for they belong to the soul and not the body. They do not die with the body, but leave the body in company with the soul. Even those who kill the body are powerless against the soul.3


Original letter: 

Bernardus, abbas de Claravalle, Sophiae virgini: virginitatis servare titulum, apprehendere fructum.

1. Fallax gloria et vana est pulchritudo; mulier timens deum,  ipsa laudabitur. Condelector, filia, gloriae virtutis tuae, qua fallacem mundi gloriam respuisse narraris. Ipsa quippe digne respuitur; sed quia multi aliter sapientes in eius aestimatione desipiunt, tu iure laudaris, quia non falleris. Flos feni est, vapor est ad modicum parens. Ipse eius qualiscumque status, nonne plus anxietatis quam iucunditatis habet? Dum vindicas, dum defendis, dum invides, dum suspicaris, dum semper ambis quae non habes, et, nonnullis adeptis, acquirendi non tepescit ardor, quae requies in gloria tua? Si qua tamen est, praeterit iucunditas non reditura et manet anxietas non relictura. Ceterum videas eam quamplurimos non apprehendere, contemnere perpaucos. Cur hoc? Profecto quia necessitas multorum est, virtus paucorum. Paucorum, inquam, paucorum, praesertim nobilium. Denique non multos nobiles, sed ignobilia mundi elegit Deus. Proinde benedicta tu in nobilibus, quae, pro gloria certantibus ceteris, de contemptu gloriae gloriosius sublimaris et sublimius gloriaris. Insignior plane atque illustrior, quod de paucis facta es quam quod orta de magnis. Illud namque Dei munere tuum est, hoc tuorum. Porro quod tuum est, tanto carius est quanto rarius. Nam si in viris virtus, rara est avis in terris, quanto magis in femina fragili et nobili? Denique mui.ierem fortem quis inveniet? Multo magis quis fortem et nobilem? Minime quidem Deus est acceptor personarum; nescio tamen quo pacto virtus in nobili plus placet. An forte quia plus claret? Siquidem ignobilis, cum caret gloria, non facile liquet utrum quia nolit, an quia non possit habere. Laudo factam de necessitate virtutem, sed plus illam quam eligit libertas, non indicit necessitas.

       2. Certent ergo ceterae, quae spem non habent, pro rerum fugacium atque fallacium vili brevique gloriola; tu spei, quae non confundit, innitere. Tu te, inquam, ei quod breve hoc ac momentaneum tribulationis tuae supra modum in sublime operatur, ponderi gloriae reservato. Quod si tibi exprobraverint filiae Be­lial, illae quae, extento collo, fractis incedunt gressibus, compositae et circumornatae ut similitudo templi, responde: Regnum meum non est de hoc mundo; responde: Tempus meum nondum advenit, tempus autem vestrum semper est paratum; responde: Gloria mea abscondita est cum Christo in Deo; cum autem Christus apparuerit vita mea, tunc et ego apparebo cum ipso in gloria. Quamquam et si gloriari oportet, potes tu quoque ingenue, potes se­cure, tantum in Domino. Omitto sane coronam quam tibi Dominus praeparavit in aeternum. Sileo repromissiones quae te in posterum manent, quod felix sponsa admittenda es revelata facie speculari gloriam Sponsi tui, quod te exhibiturus est gloriosam, non habentem maculam aut rugam aut aliquid huiusmodi, quod, aeternis excepturus amplexibus, ponet laevam sub capite tuo et dextera illius amplexabitur te. Praetereo locum nominatum, quem virginitatis praerogativa singularem a filiis et filiabus in regno es procul dubio sortitura. Sileo et canticum illud novum, quod virgo cum virginibus, singulari nihilominus dulcique modulamine canitura, laetaberis in ipso et laetificabis civitatem Dei, cantans et cursitans, et sequens Agnum quocumque ierit. Illud siquidem nec oculus vidit, nec auris audivit, nec in cor hominis ascendit, quod tibi praeparatum est et cui te praeparari oportet.

  1. Haec ergo praetermitto, quae in futuro reposita sunt tibi; praesentia tantum loquor, ea loquor quae de primitiis spiritus iam tenes, sponsi xenia, arrhas sponsalitias, benedictiones dulcedinis, in quibus te praevenit, quem et subsecuturum, atque quod deest completurum exspectas. Ille, ille in medium veniat summo decore spectabilis, ipsis quoque angelis admirandus ornatus, et proferant si quid simile habent filiae Babylonis, quarum vere gloria in confusione. Induuntur purpura et bysso, et subinde conscientia pannosa iacet; fulgent monilibus, moribus sordent. Econtra tu foris pannosa, intus speciosa resplendes, sed divinis aspectibus, non humanis. Intus est quod delectat, quia intus est quem delectat, nisi forte tu dubitas habitare Christum per fidem in corde tuo. Denique omnis gloria eius filiae regis ab intus. Iucundare, filia Sion, et exsulta satis, filia Ierusalem, quia concupivit Rex decorem tuum, si tamen confessionem et decorem induis, amicta lumine sicut vestimento. Nempe confessio et pulchritudo in conspectu eius. Cuius? Speciosi forma prae filiis hominum, ipsius in quem desiderant angeli prospicere.
    1. Audis cui places; ama unde places, ama confessionem, ob quam amaris; ama confessionem, si affectas decorem. Confessioni iungitur decor, iungitur pulchritudo.     Habes utrumque: Confessionem et decorem induisti, et: Confessio et pulchritudo in conspectu eius. Revera ubi confessio, ibi pulchritudo, ibi decor. Si peccata sunt, in confessione lavantur; si bona opera, confessione commendantur. Cum mala tuo confiteris, sacrificium est Deo spiritus contribulatus ; cum Dei beneficia, immolas Deo sacrificium laudis. Bonum animae ornamentum confes­sio, quae et peccatorem purgat, et iustum reddit purgatiorem. Absque confessione iustus iudicatur ingratus et peccator mortuus reputatur. A mortuo quippe, tamquam qui non sit, perit confessio. Confessio igitur peccatoris est vita, iusti gloria, et necessaria est peccatori, et iustum nihilominus decet. Denique rectos decet LAUDATIO. Serica, et purpura, et tincturarum fucus decorem habent, sed non praebent. Quidquid tale applices corpori, exponit speciem suam, non deponit. Secum denique tollit, cum tollitur ipsum. Porro decor qui cum veste induitur et cum veste deponitur, vestis procul dubio est, non vestiti.

              5. Tu ergo noli aemulari in malignantibus et mendicantibus pulchritudi- nem alienam, ubi perdiderint suam. Nativo quippe et interno se produnt decore nudas, quae tanto studio et pretio de diversis et variis speciebus eius, quae praeterit, figurae mundi, foris sibi conficere satagunt, unde oculis insipientium appareant speciosae. Indignum tibi iudica formam a pellibus murium et operibus vermium mutuari; tua tibi sufficiat. Ille est verus propriusque cuiusque rei decor qui nulla interiacente materia, per se inest. O quam decenti rubore genas suffundit virgineas ingeniti gemma pudoris! Quae inaures reginarum huic comparabuntur? Nec inferioris insigne decoris disciplina praefert. O quam compositum reddit omnem puellaris corporis statum, nedum et mentis habitum, disciplina? Cervicem submittit, ponit supercilia, componit vultum, ligat oculos, cachinnos cohibet, moderatur linguam, gulam frenat, iram sedat, format incessum. Talibus decet pudicitiae vestem distingui margaritis. Istiusmodi circumdata varietate virginitas, cui gloriae merito non praefertur? Angelicae? Angelus habet virginitatem, sed non carnem, sane felicior quam fortior in hac parte. Optimus et optabilis valde ornatus iste, qui et angelis possit esse invidiosus.

6. Sed adverte et aliud de eodem. Profecto tanto manet tibi tutus, quanto et proprius. Vides nempe auro, argento, lapidibus pretiosis et omni denique cultu regio non tam ornatas quam oneratas. Vides longas post se trahentes fimbrias, ipsasque pretiosissimas, et densas pulveris nubes excitantes in aera. Non te moveant haec. Illae illa vel in morte deponent; te tua sanctitas non relinquet. Non sunt sua quae portant. Cum interierint, non sument omnia, neque descendet cum eis gloria haec. Mundus, cuius sunt, nudis illis exeuntibus retinebit, eisdem vanis vanas simi­liter alias seducturus. At vero ille tuus ornatus non sic. Firmissime tibi, ut dixi, manet, propterea tutus, quia tuus. Nullius facile aut cedit iniuriis, aut patet insidiis. Adversus huiusmodi nil furis calliditas, nil furentis crudelitas potest. Nec a tineis roditur, nec vetustate corrumpitur, nec consumitur usu. In morte vivit. Nimirum animae res est, non corporis, et ob hoc simul cum anima de corpore. abit, non obit cum corpore. Porro animae non habent quid faciant, etiam qui corpus occidunt.

Historical context: 

Bernard writes to encourage Sophia to persevere in her vow of virginity, praising her for giving up the privileges that come with her high birth and exalting the rewards of a life dedicated to God. 

Scholarly notes: 

[1] Confessio et decorem induis, Confessio et pulchritudo in conspectu ejus. In the above contexts Mgr. Knox translates quite legitimately ' confessio' as ' glory ' and ' honour' respectively. The Douai has ‘praise’  in both cases. But St. Bernard takes the word literally and then proceeds in the following paragraphs to play upon the double meaning of it, to confess sins in our current use of the word, and to confcss the praises of God or to give thanks to God in the sense which St. Augustine uses it in his Confessions.

2 Angelus habet virginitatem sed non carnem; sane felicior quam fortior in hac parte. Eales translates: '. . . in that respect his happiness exceeds his virtue.

3. Translation by Bruno Scott James, The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, #116, pp.174-77.  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.113. 



Printed source: 

 Original from Sancti Bernardi Opera, ed. J. LeClercq and H. Rochais (Rome: Eds. Cisterciennes, 1979), ep.113.  Translation by Bruno Scott James, The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, #116, pp.174-77.  Copyright 1998 by Cistercian publications.  Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher.