August 20 – Bernard of Clairvaux

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Bernard of Clairvaux, person of prayer

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) was a complex and many-sided character. He was a Cistercian abbot and monastic reformer, a spiritual writer of exceptional depth and beauty, an ecclesiastical statesman who advised kings, cardinals and popes, a preacher of crusades and a dogged opponent of heresy.

He was undoubtedly the most commanding Church leader in the first half of the twelfth century and one of the great spiritual masters of all times. He left his mark on schools of spirituality, monasticism, theology, worship, church music, church administration, art and architecture. Almost everything that he did had a tremendous effect in shaping the course of history.

Born to minor nobility at Fontaines-les-Dijon, Bernard entered the recently founded ‘New Monastery’ of Citeaux in Burgundy, France, in 1112, bringing with him some thirty friends and relatives whom he had persuaded to join him. Three years later, Bernard, then only twenty-four or twenty-five, was sent to found a new monastery at Clairvaux (‘Valley of Light’) in Champagne, which became the most successful Cistercian house in Europe. From this time Bernard’s fame spread and reluctantly he began to enter public affairs. Popes, bishops, abbesses (including Hildegard of Bingen), almost anyone in difficulty, sought his advice and support.

Bernard led a remarkable public life. He intervened (not always appropriately) in ecclesiastical elections to ensure the appointment of reform-minded candidates. He arbitrated disputes and resolved papal schism. He supported bright young men such as Peter Lombard, Robert Pullen (one of the early Masters at Oxford), and John of Salisbury (who became bishop of Chartres). Although a monk he spent more than a third of his time traversing Europe resolving disputes, upbraiding popes and emperor, dislodging archbishops, defending orthodoxy, pursuing heretics, writing prolifically, and leading the broadest reform movement in monastic history. Aware of the incongruity of his busy life, Bernard wrote that, ‘I am like a little bird that has not yet grown feathers, nearly all the time outside its dear nest, at the mercy of wind and storm’. It would be easy to censure Bernard for being drawn so heavily into politics, especially when he preached a very different set of priorities, but his manner of living—struggling to be in the world but not of it—inspired and challenged other spiritual and political leaders of the time to be more devoted to Christ in their daily life.

Primarily, Bernard is remembered as a master of the spiritual life rather than as a statesman or ecclesiastical diplomat. And although his writings were mostly addressed to those living the monastic life, his prayerful, pastoral approach to theology was and still is attractive to many outside monastic cloisters. In Bernard’s theology there is a comprehensive and cohesive ‘theology of experience’. Experience is the distinguishing mark of his thought. His spirituality embraced notions of desire, delight, love, awe, wonder and anticipation. He treated religious experience as the gateway to God, beginning with introspection and self-knowledge and ending with the contemplation of and direct knowledge of God. Bernard effectively took Anselm’s classic dictum, ‘I believe so that I might understand’, so characteristic of the scholastic approach to theology, and supplanted it with one of his own, ‘I believe so that I might experience’.

Bernard speaks of the spiritual life as a kind of interior pilgrimage whereby one passes from lower to higher forms of love. This is clearly illustrated in his little classic On the Love of God where he traces the spiritual journey in terms of four degrees of love: human or carnal love, self-interested love of God; filial love of God; and a selfless love of God. For Bernard the body is important; the spiritual life begins with human nature and utilises human feelings such as desire, friendship, love, affection, and deep and unexplainable attachments to discover one’s capacity and longing for God. Similarly, in Bernard’s great masterpiece, Sermons on the Song of Songs, he discusses various themes on the love of God and the movement towards union with God.

Bernard was one of the few medieval theologians that the Protestant reformers spoke of with praise. Both Luther and Calvin valued him as an ally and quoted him extensively. Luther ranked Bernard alongside the Latin ‘Fathers’ of the Western Church: Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory the Great. Luther appreciated Bernard’s devotion to the humanity of Christ and regarded him as an outstanding preacher and witness to the gospel. In recent times Bernard has been described as a ‘forerunner of the Reformation’ and an ‘evangelical Catholic’.

Bernard is a key literary source of hope and encouragement in the Christian life. His influence is still felt in the joyfulness of Francis of Assisi, the devotion in Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, and in the oratorios of J. S. Bach. His theology has much that is worthy of the modern church’s attention. It captures the best elements of both Catholicism and Protestantism. He emphasized teachings precious to Protestants such as confidence in God’s grace, conversion and salvation through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ; he also honoured Catholic teachings on the sacraments, the saints and of the necessity of the Church.

Contributed by William Emilsen