Bernard of Clairvaux: Theologian of Love

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This spiritual giant of the Middle Ages is worth considering on this anniversary of his death.

Today, the 20th of August marks 868 years since Bernard of Clairvaux left this earthly weigh-station for the much weightier world of glory. His position as not just a doctor of the church, but a doctor mellifluous, grants him a place of priority among Roman Catholics, but for those of us reading at 1517, what are we to think of this twelfth-century monk?

Bernard of Clairvaux’s influence on the European church was extensive in both geographic space –– he founded upwards of 70 monastic houses throughout Europe –– and in time, he left a legacy of devotional piety that resonates with many Western Christians to this day. This spiritual giant of the Middle Ages is worth considering on this anniversary of his death.

Born to a virtuous, affluent family in 1090, Bernard’s life began near Dijon, France, on the eve of the first crusading period. Too young to undertake the military journey to Jerusalem, Bernard opted for a spiritual crusade when he joined a Benedictine monastery in Citeaux in 1112.

While a Benedictine, Bernard joined up with a group of intense Benedictines known as Cistercians. Believing that other Benedictine orders, specifically the Cluniacs, had embraced lives of luxury with their ornate artworks and dyed woolen cowls, the Cistercians opted for the austere.

The Cistercian pursuit of personal piety marked a departure from the norm of the period insofar as it did not inflict such rigor on unwilling participants. Unlike many monastic orders, Cistercians required those entering their houses to be adults making conscious decisions to take on these spiritual burdens. It was a widespread practice at this time for children of poor families to join religious houses, often under financial duress and unaware of the obligations of the spiritual life. Not so for the Cistercians; personal buy-in was required.

Bernardine scholar Jean Leclercq posited that this new policy of restricting entry to adults ushered in a new psychological and spiritual dynamic in the monastery –– one that would also shape the theological works of Bernard of Clairvaux.

The most famous of his theological works is an eighty-six sermon-long series on the Song of Songs that would amaze even the biggest proponent of expository preaching. For decades of work, Bernard only managed to get to the book’s third chapter.

Religion scholar David Kling describes the series less as exegetical commentary and more as diary entries, meditations on what it meant for the mind to ascend to God and God to descend into the soul. One might assume that this would lead to haphazard theological interpretations. But for Bernard, his experience existing within the confines of God’s word, the church, and the cloister united his religious thinking.

This emphasis on experience set Bernard apart from other medieval thinkers, particularly the scholastics of the thirteenth century, who would eschew the devotional tradition of the mystics for theological speculation. Thus, the push-and-pull between the love-struck bride and bridegroom of the Song of Songs provided Bernard with ample room to dwell on the individual soul’s experience along the complicated route toward union with God. Indeed, writes theologian

Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen, “Bernard explicates faith’s operations in life by way of a deeply poetic language with a profoundly physical and sensual imagery to complement life’s many dimensions with the spiritual.”

Summarizing the entirety of Bernard’s Sermons requires far more room than available here, so I turn briefly to the “bridal motif” so clearly available in Sermons as well as Bernard’s On Loving God and On Grace and Free Choice. At times the bride is the church, but it seems that just as often, if not more so, the bride is the individual believer. The bride begins at the bottom of the ladder, where humility and self-acknowledgment of one’s sin are required for any upward movement. This carnal contemplation moves to the intellectual, as the mind shedding its self-interest, becomes enraptured in the desire to know the word –– the Word made flesh –– the incarnate Christ.

Throughout this process, the soul’s motives merge with God’s, spurred on by a “desire that is intense, a thirst ever burning, an application that never flags.” Of course, Bernard had enough spiritual experience, especially as an abbot, to realize man’s inability to manifest such desire within himself. This ascension of the soul would never realize its zenith in this lifetime; man’s desires could only be subsumed entirely in the Divine in the life to come –– leaving little mystery as to Dante’s choice of Bernard as the final guide toward heaven in his Paradiso. Moreover, this marriage is a gift to an often-unwilling (though notably, not always unwilling) bride, who must not only be drawn into the relationship but dragged onward, for, after all, “what nature cannot do, grace can.”

The “bridal motif” of the Christian’s relationship to God is not exclusive to Bernard. Indeed it finds its way back to the Apostle Paul, and it famously appears in Martin Luther’s understanding of justification. In this respect, one can see some influence from Bernard on Luther, who considered the mystic monk the greatest preacher of the church, and “one of the few people who kept the flame of faith burning in dark times.”

Lutheran theologian Jack Kilcrease points out that Luther’s bridal motif of the Christian life, on full display in The Freedom of the Christian, differs significantly from Bernard’s use insofar as Luther grounds the marriage in trust rather than desire. The bride trusts her bridegroom with her dowry of sin in exchange for justification. This distinction is critical because it not only allows for the believer to turn her focus away from the Beloved; in fact, this trust encourages her to do so for the sake of her neighbor based on that trust, or rather, the one in whom she puts her trust. In short, the trust between believer and God, this “marriage,” is not weakened when the believer turns her focus toward earthly concerns.

In this reflection on marriage as an analogy of the Christian life, the trust to which Luther points us is invaluable for our assurance. But I find myself also grateful for the desire within Bernard’s theology of love that enriches the Christian life, the passion Christ had for me in giving himself to death for my sake, and the desire to belong to Christ that I feel dimly now and will one day live in forever.