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Some Letters Of Saint Bernard Abbot Of Clairvaux by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

LETTER XXVI. (circa A.D. 1127) To the Same

To the Same

He excuses the brevity of his letter on the ground that Lent is a time of silence; and also that on account of his profession and his ignorance he does not dare to assume the function of teaching.

1. You will, perhaps, be angry, or, to speak more gently, will wonder that in place of a longer letter which you had hoped for from me you receive this brief note. But remember what says the wise man, that there is a time for all things under the heaven; both a time to speak and a time to keep silence (Eccles. iii.1-7). But when shall silence have its time, if our chatter shall occupy even these sacred days of Lent? Correspondence is more absorbing than conversation, inasmuch as it is more laborious; since when in each other's presence we may say with little labour what we will, but when absent we require diligently to dictate in turn the words which we mutually seek, or which are sought from us. But while being absent from you I meditate, dictate or write down what you are in time to read, where, I pray you, is the silence and quiet of my retreat? But all these things, you say, you can do in silence; yet, if you think, you will not answer thus. For what a tumult there is in the mind of those who dictate, what a crowd of sentiments, variety of expressions, diversity of senses jostle; how frequently one rejects that word which presents itself and seeks another which, still escapes; what close attention one gives to the consecutiveness of the line of thought and the elegance of the expression! How it can be made most plain to the intellect, how it can be made most useful to the conscience, what, in short, shall be put before and what after for a particular reader, and many other things do those who are careful in their style, attend to most closely. And will you say that in this I shall have quiet; will you call this silence, even though the tongue be still?

2. Besides, it is not only the time, but also my profession and my insufficiency which prevent my undertaking what you desire, or being able to fulfil it. For it is not the profession of a monk, which I seem to be, or of a sinner, which I am, to teach, but to mourn for sin. An unlearned person (as I truly confess myself to be) never acts more unlearnedly than when he presumes to teach what he knows not. Therefore, to teach is the business neither of the unlearned in his rashness, nor of the monk in his boldness, nor of the penitent in his distress. It is for this reason I have fled from the world and abide in solitude, and propose to myself with the prophet, to take heed to my ways that I offend not with my tongue (Ps. xxxix.2) since, according to the same prophet, A man full of words shall not prosper upon the earth (Ps. cxl.11), and to another Scripture, Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov. xviii.21). But silence, says Isaiah, is the work of righteousness (Is. xxxii.21), and Jeremiah teaches us to wait in silence for the salvation of the Lord (Lam. iii.26). Thus to this pursuit and desire of righteousness, since righteousness is the mother, the nurse, and the guardian of all virtues, I would not seem entirely to deny what you have asked, and I invite and entreat you and all those who, like you, desire to make progress in virtue, if not by the teaching of my words, at least by the example of my silence, to learn from me to be silent, you who press me in your words to teach what I do not know.

3. But what am I doing? It will be wonderful if you do not smile, seeing with what a flood of words I condemn those who are too full of words, and while I desire to commend silence to you, I plead against silence by my loquacity. Our dear Guerric, concerning whose penitence and whose manner of life you wished to be assured, as far as I can judge from his actions, is walking worthy of the grace of God, and bringing forth works worthy of penitence. The little book which you ask of me I have not beside me just now. A certain friend of ours, with the same desire to read it as you, has kept it a long time, but not to frustrate altogether the desire of your piety, I send you another which I have just completed on the Glories of the Virgin Mother, which, as I have no other copy of it, I beg that you will return to me as soon as possible, or bring it with you if you will be coming here soon.

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