READINGS FROM ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX
BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX,
Parable One: The Story of the King’s Son
Once upon a time, there was a rich and powerful king, God the almighty. And he caused Man,
whom he had created, to become his son. And because he was a delicate boy, he delegated Law
and the Prophets to be his guardians, and he gave him other tutors and masters during the
predetermined time which preceded his adulthood. He issued instruction to him and cautioned him.
He established him as the master of Paradise, showing him all the treasures of his glory and
promising them to him if he remained faithful. And lest any benefit should be lacking, he endowed
Man with free will so that his choice of good should be voluntary rather than forced.
With the possibility of good and evil before him, Man became dissatisfied with the good things
which were his and he was incited with a desire to experience evil as well as good. So he left the
paradise of good conscience. Until then he had knowledge only of good things; now he sought
novelties beyond his experience. He left aside his Father’s laws and guardians, and rejecting his
Father’s prohibition, he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Unhappy now, he hid himself and fled from the face of the Lord. The silly boy began to wander
through mountains of conceit and through valleys of curiosity; through fields of indiscipline and
woods of sexual excess; through the dark groves of fleshly delight and through the rough seas of
Observing the wanton wanderings of the boy, now without guide or guard, and far from his Father’s
house, the ancient villain drew near to him. Full of wicked wiles, he handed him the little apple of
disobedience. And then, having won his consent, he turned against the poor boy. He threw him
down to earth and to the level of earthly desires. To prevent his getting up, he bound his feet (that
is, the affections of his mind) with the stout chains of worldly concupiscence, and did the same to
the activity of his hands and to the eyes of his mind. He set him in the ship of false security and
with the powerful aid of the strong wind of flattery he conveyed him to the distant Region of
When the boy arrived in this land which was not his own he was offered for sale to all who passed
by. He learned to tend pigs and to eat their husks. He unlearned all that he had previously learned
and he had to learn to do the work of slaves, of which he had no knowledge. He was crushed in
that prison of despair where the wicked walk around. In that mill where the wicked wend their
ways he was forced to work, with his only gain a bad conscience. Alas!
Meanwhile, where was the Father who was so powerful and kind and generous? Could he for- get
his own son? Never! Never! He did not forget him; he pitied him and grieved and mourned for his
son’s absence and loss. He instructed his friends and begged his slaves and roused them all to make
a search for him. Now, one of the slaves, whose name was Fear, following the fugitive’s traces
according to his Master’s instructions, found the King’s son in a deep dungeon. He was covered with the prison dirt of sin and held fast by the bonds and chains of evil habit. He was unhappy, but
unmindful, and though badly treated he was still secure and smiling.
With words and with blows Fear urged him to get out and return, but he so upset the poor boy that
he fell to the ground, lying there as one near death. On the heels of Fear came another slave whose
name was Hope. Hope, seeing that the King’s son was stunned but not saved by Fear, cast down
and not helped, gently came forward. From the dust he lifts up the lowly; from the dunghill he
raises the poor. He raises the boy’s head and wipes his eyes and his face with the cloth of
consolation: “Alas,” he says, “how many servants in your Father’s house have more bread than
they need, and here are you dying of starvation. Rise up, I beg you, and go to your Father and say
to him: ‘Father, make me one of your servants’.” At this the boy finally began to return to himself
somewhat. “Who are you? Are you Hope? How is it that Hope is able to find entry into the ugly
depths of my despair?” The other replied, “Yes, I am Hope. I was sent by your Father to be your
help, and not to leave your side until I bring you to your Father’s house and into the room of the
one who conceived you.”
And the boy said to Hope: “O pleasant lightening of labours and gentle relief for the unhappy, you
are not least among the three who attend the royal chambers. But see how very deep my dungeon
is. See the chains which remain, even though most of them were broken and unfastened at your
approach. See the vast number of my captors and how strong and swift and clever they are. But
what is this place to you?” Hope replied: “Do not be afraid. He who helps us is kind; he who fights
on our side is all-powerful. There are more for us than for them. Moreover, I have brought for you
a horse which your Father sent, a horse named Desire. Astride this horse and with my guidance
you will advance, safe from all of them.”
Having said this, Hope covered the horse named Desire with soft rugs of holy devotion and gave
it the shoes of good example. Then he put the King’s son upon it. So hurried was their flight that
there was no bridle. The horse left that place wildly, with Hope leading the way and Fear bringing
up the rear, urging the horse on with blows and threats. Seeing this, the chieftains of Edom were
dismayed, trembling seized the leaders of Moab, all the inhabitants of Canaan were in turmoil;
terror and dread fell upon them. Through the might of your arm they stayed still as stone, as your
son, O Lord, went past, the son whom you had made your own. Borne along in headlong flight,
they escaped; but danger remained, for they left without measure and without counsel.
Because of this, Prudence, who was one of the most important officials of the palace, ran up sent
by the Father. With her was her friend Temperance. She restrained their haste. “Slow down,” she
cried, “please slow down. As Solomon says ‘One in a hurry goes off the path.’ If you keep running
in this way you will go off the path, and if you go off the path you will fall. If you fall you will be
giving back the King’s son to his enemies although you are trying to set him free. For if he falls,
they will seize him.”
Saying this, Prudence restrained the ardour of the horse named Desire with the bridle of Discretion
and gave the reins into the control of Temperance And when Fear, from his rear position, began to
talk about the nearness and might of their enemies and the slowness of their flight, Prudence said, “Get behind, Satan, you are a source of stumbling. For it is the Lord who is our strength and our
praise he has become our saviour.
And lo, Fortitude, the Lord’s military champion appeared. He surged through the fields of
Boldness, wielding the sword that is Joy. “Do not be disturbed,” he cried, “there are more for us
than for them.” But Prudence, the seasoned counsellor of the heavenly court, replied: “Please be
careful. As my servant Solomon says, ‘If at the beginning you hasten toward your inheritance, then
at the end there will be no blessing.’ Let us, therefore advance prudently and without haste. If it
happen that our enemies are not on our path, then it likely that they will leave obstacles at the
intersections and cross-ways and at the bends in the road. Therefore, I shall go in front. If you
remain firmly on the road of Justice, then we will quickly conduct you to the camp of Wisdom, for
it is not far away. For about Wisdom it was said, ‘If you desire wisdom then learn justice’.”
In this manner they advanced. Fear added urgency. Hope attracted. Fortitude strengthened.
Temperance controlled. Prudence kept watch and gave instructions. Justice led and directed. The
King’s son drew near to Wisdom’s camp. When Wisdom heard of the new guest’s arrival, she
anticipated his coming and ran outside joyfully letting herself be seen in the streets by him who
had so much desired her.
The camp itself was surrounded by a trench of deep Humility. Above it reared the mighty
splendour of the wall of Obedience which reached to the skies and was wondrously adorned with
painted histories of good examples. The wall was constructed with bulwarks and a thousand shields
hung from it, each of them the equipment of a brave man. The door of Profession stood open to
all, but a gatekeeper stood at the threshold, inviting those who were worthy and turning back those
who were not. And there was a herald stationed above the gate and he cried out: “If anyone loves
Wisdom let him turn to me and he shall find Wisdom. And when he has found her, happy is he
who keeps his hold on her.”
To this place the King’s son was brought. Wisdom went out to meet him and conducted him back,
even carrying him in her arms. Confirmed by the homage of the ruling family, he was brought to
the stronghold in the middle of the city, where Wisdom had built herself a home and had cut seven
pillars, subduing peoples under her and, by her own might, trampling on the necks of the proud
and haughty. Here he was placed in Wisdom’s own bed, surrounded by sixty of Israel’s mightiest,
each with a sword at his side, and David was there with timbrel and dance and with strings and
pipes. With him were all the other companions of the heavenly courts rejoicing and celebrating
more for the one sinner who had repented than for the ninety-nine in no need of repentance.
And lo, a whirlwind springs up from the north, and flashes of fire shake the whole house. Wisdom’s
camp is in upheaval. Pharaoh has come forth with his chariots and horsemen to pursue Israel in its
flight. They conspire with a single mind and make common alliance against him, the camps of
Edom and Ishmael, the camps of Moab and Hagar, Gebal, Ammon and Amalek, foreigners joining
with the dwellers in Tyre; Assyria, too, that great destructive devil, is their ally. How numerous
they are! The city is besieged. The devices of temptation are brought forward and the enemy
presses in on every side: a dragon in deceit and a lion when it comes to open fighting. He drives his allies forward. The walls are breached. Firebrands are thrown into the city. Battles rage and
ambushes are sprung. Repeatedly he threatens the destruction of the entire city.
Inside the city are fear and anguish. At the onset of such a violent and unforeseen attack from their
enemies, they all staggered and reeled like drunken men and all their skill was gone. Then they
cried to the Lord in their distress. There was a rush to Wisdom’s stronghold; the bad news was
broken and counsel sought. Prudence, returning to herself, asked Wisdom what was to be done.
Wisdom said that Prudence must hurry and seek the help of the Supreme King. “But who,” she
said, “will go for us?” Wisdom replied, “Send Prayer. And so that there is no delay let Prayer ride
on the horse named Faith.”
For a long time a search was made for Prayer. So great was the upheaval that he was found only
with great difficulty. Prayer mounted the horse named Faith and rode along the heavenly road not
stopping until, by Praise, he reached the gates of the Lord and entered his courts by Hymns. Like
a familiar servant, Prayer boldly approached the throne of grace and explained the precarious
When the King heard of the danger his son was in, he turned to Charity, his royal consort, and
said: “Whom shall we send and who will go for us?” She replied, “Here am I. Send me.” And the
King said: “Victorious shall be your conquest; you shall set them free.”
The whole heavenly court accompanied Charity, the Queen of Heaven, as she went out from the
face of the Lord. When they made their way down into the camp, all who were inside were
enlivened by the joy and strength of her presence. Turbulence subsided and upheaval came to rest.
Light returned to these unhappy people and boldness came back to those who were cowed. Hope,
who was on the point of running away, returned, and Fortitude, who was almost overcome, revived.
Wisdom’s whole army became firm once more.
Meanwhile the enemies who were besieging the city said: “What is happening? Why is there such
rejoicing in the camp? Yesterday and the day before there was no such rejoicing. Woe upon us!
God has come into their camp. Woe upon us! Let us flee from Israel, for the Lord is fighting on
As the enemies fled away, a torrent of divine grace gave joy to God’s city, and the Most High made
holy the place where he dwells. God is within, in cannot be shaken; God will help it at the dawning
of the day. Nations are in tumult, kingdoms are shaken. He lifts his voice, the earth shrinks away.
The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Queen Charity gathered up God’s young son and carried him to Heaven and gave him back to God
his Father. The Father came to meet him, full of mildness and gentleness. “Quickly,” he said,
“bring out the best garment and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Go
and get the fatted calf and kill it. We must have a feast and rejoice, because my son, who was dead,
has come back to life. He was lost and now is found.” 7.
There are four stages to be noted on the boy’s return to freedom. Firstly, repentance, though not
well grounded; secondly, flight, but rash and unthinking; thirdly, the battle terrible and frightening;
and fourthly, victory in all its strength and wisdom. You will find that all who flee from the world
pass through all these phases. At first they are weak and silly; then, with better times, they become
precipitate and rash; when troubles come, they begin to be fearful and lose heart; and, finally, when
they arrive at the kingdom of Charity, they are far-seeing, experienced and made perfect.
Next to reading Holy Scriptures, a Lay Cistercian is encouraged to read from Cistercian heritage that comes from monks and nuns from the time of St. Bernard to the present This past Sunday, our monthly Gathering Day for Lay Cistercians of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia (Trappist), our topic was a parable written by St. Bernard himself. I must admit, having read some of St. Bernard’s more challenging pieces, this was a shock. Come to find out, St. Bernard wrote this parable to explain the essence of the monastic experience to people like me. I have attached this parable for your spiritual reading.