The Needle of Sin

“Him who thou once didst love thou now fearest, and the form of a slave has superseded that of a free-born child.”

From Sermon 81

LET THE SOUL . . . realize that by virtue of her resemblance to God, there is present within her a natural simplicity in her very substance. This simplicity consists in the fact that for the soul it is the same thing to be as to live, but it is not, however, the same to live as to live well, or to live happily. For the soul is only like God, not equal to him. This is a degree of nearness to him, but it is only a degree . . .

To make all this somewhat clearer, let us say that only for God is it the same to be as to be happy: and this is the highest and most pure simplicity. But the second is like unto this, namely that being and life should be identical. And this dignity belongs to the soul. And even though the soul belongs to this inferior degree, it can nevertheless ascend to the perfection of living well, or indeed of living in perfect happiness: not in the sense that being and happiness will ever become identical for her, even after she has completed the ascent.

Thus the rational soul may ever glory in her resemblance to the Divinity, but still there will also ever remain between them a gulf of disparity whence all her bones may cry out, “Lord, who is like unto Thee?” Still, that perfection which the soul possesses is great indeed: from it, and from it alone can the ascent to the blessed life be made.

From Sermon 82

The fact that Scripture speaks of our present unlikeness to God does not mean that Holy Writ maintains the likeness has been destroyed, but that something different has been drawn over it, concealing it. Obviously, the soul has not been cast off her original form, but has put on a new one foreign to her. The latter has been added, but the former is not lost, and although that which has been superinduced has managed to obscure the natural form, it has not been able to destroy it. “Their foolish heart was darkened,” said St. Paul, and the Prophet cried: “How is the gold become obscured and the finest color changed?” He laments that the gold has lost its brightness, and that the finest color has been obscured: but the gold is still gold, and the original base of color has not been wiped out. And so the simplicity of the soul remains truly impaired in its essence, but that is no longer able to be seen now that it is covered over by the duplicity of man’s deceit, simulation, and hypocrisy.

What a contradiction it is, this combination of simplicity and duplicity! How unworthy of the foundation is the structure we have erected upon it! This was the kind of duplicity the serpent put on when he pretended to be counsellor and a friend in order to deceive. And his victims, the two dwellers in paradise, put on the same duplicity when they tried to conceal their now shameful nakedness in the shadows and foliage with garments of fig—leaves and words of excuse. From that day forth how terrible has been the spread of that infection of hereditary hypocrisy throughout the whole race. Is it possible to find a single son of Adam who, I do not say willing, but can even endure to be known for what he really is?

Yet nevertheless in every soul there still remains the natural simplicity of man together with the duplicity that came with original sin, in order that these two contradictories might persistently confront one another within us, to our own greater confusion . . .

Add to this the fact that the desire for earthly things (all of which are destined to perish) increases the darkness of the soul, so that in the soul that lives in such desires nothing can be seen any more on any side, save the pallid face and the image, as it were, of death. Why does not this soul, since it is immortal, love the undying and eternal things which are like itself that thus she might appear as she truly is and live as she was made to live? But no, she takes her delight in knowing and seeking what is contrary to her nature and, by living in this manner that is so far beneath her, placing herself on the level of perishing things and becoming like them, she blackens the whiteness (candor) of her immortality with the pitch of this familiarity with death. For it is not to be wondered at that the desire of material things makes an immortal soul like unto mortal things, and unlike to the immortal. “He that toucheth pitch,” says the wise man, “shall be defiled with it.” The soul that seeks its fill of delight in mortal things puts on mortality like a garment, and yet the garment of immortality is not put off, but discolored by the arrival of this likeness of death.

Consider Eve, and how her immortal soul overlaid the glory of her own immortality with the shadow of death, by giving her love to perishing things. For since she was immortal why did she not despise mortal and transitory things and remain satisfied with the things on her own level, immortal and eternal. “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold.” O Woman! That sweetness, that beauty, that delight do not belong to thee! Or if they do pertain to thee, according to the portion of clay that is thine, they are not thine alone, but are common to thee and to all the animals on the earth.

That which is thine, and really thine, is not to be found here: it is something totally different from these: for it is eternal, and of eternity. Why do you force your soul to take on the impress of an alien form, or rather an alien deformity? Yea, indeed, that which she loves to possess, she fears to lose. Now fear is a kind of color. It stains our liberty and, discoloring it, conceals it, and, at the same time, makes it unlike to itself. How much more worthy of her origin would it have been if only this soul had desired nothing, feared nothing, and thereby have defended its own liberty, remaining in her native strength and beauty!

Alas, she did not do so! The finest color is dimmed. Thou fliest away, Eve, and hearing the voice of the Lord thy God, thou hidest thyself! Why so, if not that him who thou once didst love thou now fearest and the form of a slave has superseded that of a free-born child.

. . . Therefore, because man neglected to defend the nobility of his nature by leading an upright life, it has come about that by the just judgment of his Maker he has not been stripped of his liberty but has been “clothed over with his confusion as with a double cloak.” And the expression “as with a double cloak” is very apt, for now in the soul of man are found both the liberty which remains because it is essential to his will, and his servile manner of life which is proof of his servitude. The same thing is to be observed in the case of the soul’s simplicity and immortality. In fact, if you consider our present state well, you will see that there is nothing in the soul that is not in the same way reduplicated—likeness of God being covered over with unlikeness. Is it not indeed “doubled,” this cloak in which guile, which is no part of our original nature, has been sewed onto our simplicity, death stitched upon our immortality, necessity upon our liberty, and all by the needle of sin?

By Bernard of Clairvaux

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #24 in 1989]

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