Remembering St. Bernard: Theologian of love

Remembering St. Bernard: Theologian of love August 21, 2020

One of my grandmother‘s favorite medieval Catholics was, as it happens, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He wasn’t the only Catholic she admired, but he was perhaps the only medieval or post-medieval canonized saint who meant a lot to her spiritually. And for good reason. The emphasis on a “personal relationship with Jesus” that means so much to modern evangelicals was, to a great extent, a product of Bernard’s theology and the Cistercian movement to which he belonged.

The warrior Christ

In early medieval piety–and to some extent even in patristic piety–the emphasis tended to fall on the divine Jesus. Yes, of course orthodox Christianity affirmed that Jesus was fully human and divine. But in practice, many theologians seem from our perspective to have paid only lip service to Jesus’ humanity. I was recently reading R. P. C. Hanson’s account of St. Hilary of Poitiers’ Christology, for instance. (Hilary is often called the “Athanasius of the West” and was the leading Western champion of the orthodox position during the Arian controversy. According to Hanson, Hilary says that Jesus did not really experience pain and suffering. Like many of the Fathers, he had a lot of trouble with the passages seeming to say that Jesus didn’t know things. He wasn’t by any means unusual in his basic concerns, but according to Hanson he was particularly docetic precisely because he tried really hard to give a coherent account of the Incarnation.

Early medieval Western Christianity tended to emphasize Jesus’ victory over death. Anglo-Saxon spirituality, in particular, saw the Cross as an act of heroic warfare against Satan. There’s much that is very appealing about this, and in the wake of centuries of gory meditations on Jesus as a helpless victim many of us want to recover the emphasis on “Christus Victor.” But I’ve come to realize (especially after hearing an excellent lecture by the scholar of Anglo-Saxon history Christopher Fee about ten years ago) that this “warrior Christ” also served to bolster the values of a literal warrior culture. The Christ of the early medieval West was a being of power and majesty, who gave his authority to Christian kings and nobles.

Striking out a new path

The Cistercians struck out a new path–literally. They were the second major reform movement in the Benedictine order, following the Cluniac movement of the 10th and 11th centuries. The reform movement spreading from the Abbey of Cluny had emphasized beautiful liturgy and architecture and had exalted the power and independence of the Church over against the civil authorities. The Cistercians, in contrast, built simple churches and practiced the liturgy simply. They went out into the wilderness and built new monasteries in areas where no one lived. They recovered one of the key pillars of the original Benedictine way of life–manual labor. And as a result they became, paradoxically, pioneers in the economic revival of the High Middle Ages. They developed agricultural technology and built more efficient watermills. Their monasteries became the nuclei of new settlements. They literally helped build the flourishing civilization of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in their desire to live a life of simplicity in imitation of Christ.

A theology of love

Their theology, as represented by Bernard, Aelred of Rievaulx, and others, focused to an unprecedented degree on love. Their foundational document was called the “Charter of Charity.” In contrast to the majestic warrior Christ of earlier Western spirituality, they presented a Christ best known in the manger and at the Cross, a Christ who was truly human as well as divine and who could be known and loved in a warm, human way. They also developed Marian piety (something my grandmother did not talk about). The devotion to the infant Jesus was naturally accompanied by a fervent devotion to His Mother. Bernard in particular was perhaps the greatest Marian theologian of the Middle Ages, though some of the pious statements ascribed to him by later authors such as St. Alphonsus de Liguori aren’t authentic.

In one episode that seems really bizarre to a lot of modern people, Bernard had a vision of the Virgin Mary in which he challenged her, “Show yourself to be a mother,” and she squirted some of her breast milk into his mouth (or, in some versions, into his eyes). You don’t get more “personal” than that.

The Cistercians transformed Western Christianity from a stern, Roman religion focused on an imperial warrior Christ in which sin was dealt with in a primarily legal way to a religion focused on the practice of love of God and neighbor in imitation of Christ. That’s overstating things a bit, of course. It’s not that prior Christianity didn’t teach that God loves us or that we are to love God. But the Cistercians emphasized and applied this idea in dramatic, sometimes even bizarre ways that caught the imagination of medieval Europeans and gave rise to a cascade of new spiritual movements throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Bernard’s three most famous spiritual writings are “On Loving God” (unsurprisingly), “The Twelve Steps of Humility and Pride,” and his homilies on the Song of Songs. Of course, he understands the Song as a poem about God’s love for humanity and about our love for God, and he goes further than anyone had before in applying the Song’s bold erotic language about sexual intimacy to the spiritual life. In commenting on the verse “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” for instance, Bernard describes the spiritual life in terms of three “kisses” of increasing intimacy that the soul gives to Christ, on the feet (purgation), the hand (illumination), and the mouth (union).

Knowledge through suffering

The “Benedictine Daily Prayer” breviary that I’ve been using for the past year or so assigns for today a reading from Bernard’s “Steps of Humility and Pride,” which is a commentary on part of the Benedictine Rule. (The regular “Liturgy of the Hours” uses a different reading, on love, which appears to be from the homilies on the Song of Songs.) In this passage, Bernard distinguishes three degrees of knowledge of the truth: knowing truth in ourselves, in our neighbor, and in “its own essential nature.” Like a good Augustinian (and like his later admirer, the great Protestant Augustinian John Calvin), Bernard sees self-knowledge as consisting primarily in knowledge of our own sinfulness. Once we know our own weakness and come face to face with our own suffering, we can empathize with the sufferings of others. The knowledge of truth isn’t an abstract thing. It means knowing our own condition and then knowing, empathetically, that of the neighbor: “we cannot sympathize with the wretchedness of others until we first recognize our own.”

In a sharp contrast with earlier treatments such as Hilary’s, Bernard argues that this is one of the reasons Jesus became incarnate: “Such was the example shown by our Savior, who desired to suffer himself in order that he might learn to feel compassion, and to be afflicted in order that he might learn how to show mercy.” Bernard is quick to affirm Jesus’ omniscience–it isn’t that he didn’t know about suffering. But according to Bernard, his love for us was so great that he wanted actually to experience it. Elsewhere in the treatise he says:  “I do not say that this experience added to His knowledge, but that it brought Him closer to us, so that the weak sons of Adam whom He has not disdained to make His own and to call His brethren, need not hesitate to bring their infirmities to Him, who, recognizing what He has Himself endured, as God is able and as their neighbour is desirous to provide the remedy.”

God as our neighbor. At least within the Western tradition, a case can be made that only with Bernard do the full implications of the Incarnation begin to emerge.

Corruptio optimi pessima

By the same ironic process that made the ascetic Cistercians pioneers of technological and economic development, their greatest representative, the teacher of love and humility, became one of the most powerful men in Europe. Several Popes of the twelfth century had been Cistercian monks and continued to look to him as a spiritual father. (He wrote a stern treatise to one of them basically telling him it was nearly impossible to live the Christian life surrounded by the Curia. My grandmother, naturally, loved this work.) He traveled around Europe fighting heresy.

And, notoriously, he became an advocate for the Crusades. He was a primary organizer and recruiter for the disastrous Second Crusade, whose failure almost shattered his reputation. And he promoted the early Templar order, one of whose founders (Hughes of St. Payens) was a friend. He wrote for them his “Treatise on the New Knighthood” which infamously proclaimed that killing unbelievers in the service of Christ was a noble act. While secular knights were murderers if they killed and damned to hell if they died in battle, the “knight of Christ” was guiltless in killing infidels and assured of heaven if he died.

How does someone whose theology is based on love justify religious violence? For Bernard, as for many other advocates of the Crusades, war against Muslims was an act of love for Christ and one’s fellow Christians. And he includes in “On the New Knighthood” a disclaimer saying that of course unbelievers should only be killed when it is necessary to keep them from dominating Christians.

When Crusaders began slaughtering Jews (as they tended to do), Bernard rushed to the scene and denounced the massacres. It was right, he said, to kill the “Ishmaelites” because they were themselves violent aggressors. But killing Jews was “touching the apple of God’s eye.”

People like Bernard pose more difficulties, I think, than the “bad Popes” we hear so much about. It’s disturbing that there have been evil and corrupt Church leaders, but we can explain that as resulting from human sinfulness.

But Bernard demonstrates the potential for the best elements in Christian tradition to unleash evil. Medieval Christians liked to say “corruptio optimi pessima”: the corruption of the best is the worst. The maverick 20th-century priest Ivan Illich saw this phrase as a key to understanding the history of the Church. And Illich focused on the twelfth century, with its massive explosion of Christian culture, as the root of many of the continuing problems in Western society. Twelfth-century Christians, Illich argued, sought to organize goodness. They built hospitals and universities and bureaucracies. In Tolkien’s terms, they put on the Ring. And thus a society based on the love of God and neighbor became, at the same time, what R. I. Moore famously called a “persecuting society.”

As Bernard reminds us in The Steps of Humility and Pride, we are all broken, suffering beings. Yes, that can be used to justify abuse. But Bernard, clearly, was someone who genuinely sought to love God and neighbor, to defend the poor and vulnerable, and to speak out against injustice. In doing so, he made mistakes. But as he tells us, we know the weaknesses of others by meditating on our own.

Holding the shivering God

To be a Christian at all is, as Bernard has taught more clearly than any other theologian, to believe that God Himself entered into our weakness. God has made eternal truth subject to the ironies of history. We must learn from our mistakes, but we must also learn from our fathers and mothers in the faith even as we recognize their mistakes.

Christianity today would, I think, be unimaginably different without Bernard. He taught us that our feelings and our bodily experiences are not irrelevant, not distractions from the spiritual life, but central to our faith in the Incarnate God.

We eat the flesh and drink the blood of God Himself.

And while probably none of us is going to have a vision of Mary squirting milk into our mouth, and that’s probably just as well, we are all nourished, as Bernard taught us, by her maternal love.  In the words of Denise Levertov, we “hold in our icy hearts a shivering God.”

And as another of Bernard’s Protestant successors would put it, sometimes those hearts are strangely warmed.

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