The nail that pierced has become the key to unlock the door: I.
This beautiful sentence from St. Bernard has been a source of hope for me for many years. I first encountered it during a period of intense suffering. A sympathetic friend sent me a card, bought at a monastery gift shop, on which these words were carefully hand-scribed by a monastic calligrapher. Clearly, an unknown monk or nun also treasured these words.
Where does the quotation come from, and what was St. Bernard talking about? In answering these questions, I’ve discovered that there are levels of meaning to be found here that perhaps go beyond what St. Bernard may have originally intended. But, no matter. I doubt St. Bernard would object to our ruminating over his phrase, or seeing it as plant that produces many flowers.
This phrase occurs in one of St. Bernard’s homilies on the Song of Songs. In this homily, he is talking about God’s mercy. There is a story about St. Bernard that illustrates just how important the theme of mercy is for him, and how deeply personal its resonances. The story has it that, apparently, the Lord once appeared to him and said, “Bernard, you have not yet given me everything.” Dismayed, Bernard is said to have replied, “But Lord, what more can I give you? I have given you all my possessions, and all my money. I have given up all thought of worldly honour and success. I have given up family life; I have given all my friends to you. I have renounced marriage in order to belong to you alone. I have given you everything. What more can I possibly give?” “Bernard,” replied the Lord gently, “you have not given me your sins.”
For St. Bernard, the Lord’s mercy is there ahead of us, so to speak. The Lord is not merely willing to be merciful when we are ready to come to him in penitence. He actively invites us to unburden ourselves to him, before we are ready. He does not want us to give him only the more presentable parts of ourselves – the good bits. He wants us to give the other side of ourselves to him, too – the shadows, the deceits, the conceits, the sins.
What does all this have to do with our quotation? For the moment, we are locating these words in the context of mercy – a mercy that wants to lavish its love upon us – no matter who we are or what we have done.