Letter Li to the virgin Sophia
To the Virgin Sophia

He praises her for having despised the glory of the world: and, setting forth the praises, privileges, and rewards of Religious Virgins, exhorts her to persevere.

Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, to the Virgin Sophia, that she may keep the title of virginity and attain its reward.

I. Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised (Prov. xxxi.31). I rejoice with you, my daughter, in the glory of your virtue, whereby, as I hear, you have been enabled to reject the deceitful glory of the world. That, indeed, deserves rejection and disdain. But whereas many who in other respects are wise, are in their estimation of worldly glory become foolish, you deserve to be praised for not being deceived. It is as the flower of the grass -- (James i.10) -- a vapour that appeareth for a little time (S. James iv.14). And every degree of that glory is without doubt more full of care than joy. At one time you have claims to advance, at another, yourself to defend; you envy others, or are suspicious of them; you are continually aiming to acquire what you do not possess, and the passion for acquiring is not satisfied even by success; and as long as this is the case, what rest is there in your glory? But if any there be, its enjoyment quickly passes, never to return; while care remains, never to leave. Besides, see how many fail to attain that enjoyment, and yet how few despise it. Why so? Just because though many of necessity endure it [i.e., the deprivation of pleasure], yet but few make of doing so a virtue. Few, I say, very few, and particularly of the nobly-born. Indeed, not many noble are called; but God hath chosen the base things of the world (1 Cor. i.26-28). You are, then, blessed and privileged among women of your rank in that, while others strive in rivalry for worldly glory, you by your contempt of this glory are raised to a greater height of glory, and are elevated by glory of a higher kind. Certainly you are the more renowned and illustrious for having made yourself voluntarily humble than for your birth in a high rank. For the one is your own achievement by the grace of God, the other is the doing of your ancestors. And that which is your own is the more precious, as it is the most rare. For if among men virtue is rare -- a "rare bird on the earth" -- how much rarer is it in the case of a weak woman of high birth? Who can find a virtuous woman? (Prov. xxxi.10). Much more "a virtuous woman" of high birth as well. Although God is not by any means an accepter of persons, yet, I know not how, virtue is more pleasing in those of noble birth. Perhaps that may be because it is more conspicuous. For if a man is of mean birth and is devoid of glory, it is not easily clear whether he lacks virtue because he does not wish for it or because he cannot attain it. I honour virtue won under stress of necessity. But I honour more the virtue which a free choice adopts than that which necessity imposes.

2. Let other women, then, who have not any other hope, contend for the cheap, fleeting, and paltry glory of things that vanish and deceive. Do you cling to the hope that confounds not. Do you keep yourself, I say, for that far more exceeding weight of glory, which our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh (2 Cor. iv.17) for you on high. And if the daughters of Belial reproach you, those who walk with stretched forth necks mincing as they go (Isaiah iii.16), decked out and adorned like the Temple, answer them: My kingdom is not of this world (S. John xviii.36); answer them: My time is not yet come, but your time is always ready (S. John vii.6); answer them: My glory is hid with Christ in God (Col. iii.3); When Christ, who is my life, shall appear, then shall I also appear with Him in glory (Col. iii, 4). And yet if one needs must glory, you also may glory freely and fearlessly, only in the Lord. I omit the crown which the Lord hath prepared for you for ever. I say nothing of the promises which await you hereafter, that as a happy bride you are to be admitted to behold with open face the glory of your Bridegroom; that He will present you to Himself a glorious bride, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph. v.27); that He will receive you in an everlasting embrace, will place His left hand under your head and His right hand shall embrace you (Cant. ii.6). I pass over the appointed place, which being set apart by the prerogative of virginity, you shall without doubt gain among sons and daughters in the kingdom. I say nothing of that new song which you, a virgin among virgins, shall likewise sing in tones of unrivalled sweetness, rejoicing therein and making glad the city of God, singing and running and following the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. In fact, eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which He path prepared (1 Cor. ii.9) for you, and for which it behoves you to be prepared.

3. All this I omit, that is laid up for you hereafter. I speak only of the present, of those things which you already have, of the first fruits of the Spirit (Rom. viii.23), the gifts of the Bridegroom, the earnest money of the espousals, the blessings of goodness (Ps. xxi.3), wherewith he hath prevented you, whom you may expect to follow after you, and complete what still is lacking. Let Him, yea let Him, come forth to be beheld in His great beauty, so adorned as to be admired of the very angels, and if the daughters of Babylon, whose glory is in their shame (Phil. iii.19), have aught like Him, let them bring it forth, Though they be clothed in purple and fine linen (S. Luke xvi.19). Yet their souls are in rags; they have sparkling necklaces, but tarnished minds. You, on the other hand, though ragged without, are all glorious within (Ps. xlv.14), though to Divine and not human gaze. Within you have that which delights you, for He is within whom it delights; for certainly you do not doubt that you have Christ dwelling in your heart by faith (Eph. iii.17). In truth, The King's daughter is all glorious within (Ps. xlv.4). Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion: shout, O daughter of Jerusalem, because the King hath desired thy beauty; if thou art clothed with confession and honour (Ps. civ. i, Vulg.), and deckest thyself with light as it were with a garment-For confession and worship are before Him (Ps. xcvi.6, Vulg.). Before whom? Him who is fairer than the sons of men (Ps. xlv.3), even Him whom the angels desire to look upon.

4. You hear, then, to whom you are pleasing. Love that which enables you to please, love "confession," if you desire "honour." "Confession" is the handmaid of "honour," the handmaid of "worship." Both are for you. "Thou art clothed with confession and honour," and "Confession and worship are before Him." In truth, where confession is, there is worship, and there is honour. If there are sins, they are washed away in confession; if there are good works, they are commended by confession. When you confess your faults, it is a sacrifice to God of a troubled spirit; when you confess the benefits of God, you offer to God the sacrifice of praise. Confession is a fair ornament of the soul, which both cleanses a sinner and makes the righteous more thoroughly cleansed. Without confession the righteous is deemed ungrateful, and the sinner accounted dead. Confession perisheth from the dead as from one that is not (Ecclus. xvii.28). Confession, therefore, is the life of the sinner, the glory of the righteous. It is necessary to the sinner, it is equally proper to the righteous. For it becometh well the just to be thankful (Ps. xxxiii.1). Silk and purple and rouge and paint have beauty, but impart it not. Every such thing that you apply to the body exhibits its own loveliness, but leaves it not behind. It takes the beauty with it, when the thing itself is taken away. For the beauty that is put on with a garment and is put off with the garment, belongs without doubt to the garment, and not to the wearer of it.

5. Do not you, therefore, emulate those evil disposed persons who, as mendicants, seek an extraneous beauty when they have lost their own. They only betray how destitute they are of any proper and native beauty, when at such great labour and cost they study to furnish themselves outside with the many and various graces of the fashion of the world which passeth away, just that they may appear graceful in the eyes of fools. Deem it a thing unworthy of you to borrow your attractiveness from the furs of animals and the toils of worms; let your own suffice you. For that is the true and proper beauty of anything, which it has in itself without the aid of any substance besides. Oh! how lovely the flush with which the jewel of inborn modesty colours a virgin's cheeks! Can the earrings of queens be compared to this? And self-discipline confers a mark of equal beauty. How self-discipline calms the whole aspect of a maiden's bearing, her whole temper of mind. It bows the neck, smooths the proud brows, composes the countenance, restrains the eyes, represses laughter, checks, the tongue, tempers the appetite, assuages wrath, and guides the deportment. With such pearls of modesty should your robe be, decked. When virginity is girt with divers colours such as these, is there any glory to which it is not rightly preferred? The Angelic? An angel has virginity, indeed, but not flesh; and in that respect his happiness exceeds his virtue. Surely that adornment is best and most desirable which even an angel might envy.

6. There remains still one more remark to be made about the adornment of the Christian virgin. The more peculiarly your own it is, the more secure it remains to you. You see women of the world burdened, rather than adorned, with gold, silver, precious stones; in short, with all the raiment of a palace. You see how they draw long trains behind them, and those of the most costly materials, and raise thick clouds of dust into the air. Let not such things disturb you. They must lay them aside when they come to die; but the holiness which is your possession will not forsake you. The things which they wear are really not their own. When they die they can take nothing with them, nor will this their glory go down with them. The world, whose such things are, will keep them and dismiss the wearers naked; and will beguile with them others equally vain. But that adornment of yours is not of such sort. As I said, you may be quite sure that it will not leave you, because it is your own. You cannot be deprived of it by the violence, nor defrauded of it by the deceit of any man. Against such possessions the cunning of the thief and the cruelty of the tyrant avail nothing. It is not eaten of moths, nor corrupted by age, nor spent by use. It lives on even in death. Indeed, it belongs to the soul and not to the body; and for this reason it leaves the body together with the soul, and does not perish with the body. And even those who kill the body have absolutely nothing that they can do to the soul.

letter l to geoffrey of
Top of Page
Top of Page