St. Bernard and Thomas Merton on Simplicity & the True Aim of Life

“…our chief, in fact our only task, is to get rid of the ‘double’ garment, the overlaying layer of duplicity that is not ourselves.”  –Thomas Merton on finding our true self.

Today is the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard was one of the most prominent figures in the high middle ages in Europe and had a profound influence on the Church.  He was a theologian, a mystic, a fantastic preacher, the founder of the Cistercian monastic order, and a Doctor of the Church.   It was through Thomas Merton that I first became acquainted with Bernard and the Cistercian and Trappist monastic traditions.  I want to share with you today, in honor of St. Bernard, one of my favorite texts of Thomas Merton regarding St. Bernard and some of Merton’s reflection on St. Bernard’s teaching on simplicity.

Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard

Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard published by Cistercian Studies.

The book is a compilation of separately published texts of Merton’s titled Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard and is published by Cistercian Studies.  It has a foreword by Br. Patrick Hart, Merton’s personal secretary when he was alive and following his death and an introduction by Dom. Jean Leclercq, who was one of the most influential and authoritative monastic scholars of the 20th century.  Two better people could not have been found to introduce both Merton and St. Bernard.  The book covers three areas of Bernard’s thought that were important to Merton, and they reflect foundational concepts for Merton’s life and thought.  The first part of the book addresses action and contemplation in St. Bernard.  Anyone who is at least nominally familiar with Merton knows that this is probably the theme that occupied Merton throughout his entire life.  Here he discusses action and contemplation as they relate to the mystery of Christ, the monastic life, apostolate work, and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The second part of the book addresses St. Bernard on Interior Simplicity.  More on this part of the book below.  The third part of the book discusses Transforming Union in St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross and was published prior to Merton’s more sustained study of St. John of the Cross in his book Assent to Truth.

Simplicity, the True Self, and Recovering the Image of God

The second part of the book on Interior Simplicity has Merton’s explicit commentaries and reflections on key texts of Bernard’s about simplicity.  These insights and reflections proved to be foundational for Merton.  It is here that Merton first begins to articulate his notions of the false self and the true self and simultaneously zeros in on the essence of Cistercian monastic life: simplicity.  These notions are derived directly from Bernard’s sermons that reflect on the creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God.  I’ll conclude by leaving you with a lengthy quote from Merton on simplicity in the spiritual life based on his reading of St. Bernard.  Italics below are Merton’s; bold text below are my emphasis added.

Even a cursory reading of these notions, which are the very cornerstone of cistercian asceticism, will show that St. Bernard has really vindicated the fundamental goodness of human nature in terms as strong as have ever been used by any philosopher or theologian.  And if the first step in the cistercian ascent to God is for the monk to know himself we may reasonably say that, in some sense, the whole life of such a one will consist in being himself, or rather trying to return to the original simplicity, immortality and freedom which constitute his real self, in the image of God.

     We will never completely succeed in being ourselves until we get to heaven.  Meanwhile on earth our chief, in fact our only task, is to get rid of the ‘double’ garment [CS-Bernard mentions in his sermon on which Merton is commenting], the overlaying layer of duplicity that is not ourselves.  Hence the Cistercian stress on simplicity.  Hence the fact that the whole of Cistercian asceticism may be summed up in that one word.

     And this is true even when the word is taken in several different senses.

     1. The first step in the monks’ ascent to God will be to recognize the truth about himself–and face the fat of his own duplicity.  That means: simplicity in the sense of sincerity, a frank awareness of one’s own shortcomings.

     2.  He will also have to overcome the temptation to excuse himself and argue that his is not, in fact, what he is (whether he argues with other men, with himself or with God, it does not matter).  Hence: simplicity in the sense of meekness–self effacement, humility.

     3.  He must strive to rid himself of everything that is useless, unnecessary to his one big end: the recovery of the divine image, and union with God.  How, simplicity takes on the sense of total and uncompromising mortification.

     (a) Of the lower appetites: hence the simplicity in food, clothing, dwellings, labor, manner of life as laid down in the Little Exordium, Consuetudines, Statutes of the General Chapters [CS-these are Trappist and Cistercian monastic organizational documents].

     (b) Of the interior senses and the intellect:  This means simplicity in devotions, studies, methods of prayer, etc., and calls for the complete simplification in liturgical matters and the decoration of churches for which the early cistercians were so famous.

     (c) Of the will:  This is the most important task of all.  In the works of St. Bernard, the amount of space devoted to other forms of mortification is practically insignificant in comparison to the scores of pages which are given up to the attach on self-will and its utter destruction.  Hence the stress on the great bernerdine means of penance, which resumes all others for the monk: obedience.  This will produce that simplicity which is synonymous with docility, the trustful obedience of a child towards his father; the supernatural, joyous obedience of the monk who seeks to prove his love for Christ by seeing him in his representative, the abbot.

I’ll just leave you with one final note for further reading on Merton and St. Bernard: The Last of the Fathers.

The Last of the Fathers by Thomas Merton

The Last of the Fathers by Thomas Merton

 It is a fantastic introduction and translation to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on St. Bernard of Clairvaux titled Doctor Mellifluus published in 1953.  The book appears to be out of print and only available via used copies or a Kindle edition.  This is a great early text of Merton reflecting on one of the great Doctor’s of the Church.


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