Bernard of Clairvaux and Mysticism

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One has to appreciate a medieval figure whom Martin Luther and John Calvin looked on with favor and, to a certain degree, approval. The figure in question is Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk, abbot, mild mystic, and formidable theologian. It’s an understatement to call him an abbot. His monastery eventually founded a daughter institution, then another, then another. By the time of his death, seventy monasteries had been directly planted or started by him, with those institutions responsible for establishing hundreds more.

So revered was Bernard that Dante left his faithful Beatrice behind as his guide and had Bernard of Clairvaux lead him into the final sphere of heaven (Paradiso, Canto XXXI). Dante was not only drawing on Bernard’s recognition, but also on one of his most significant writings, On Loving God.

Before Bernard wrote On Loving God, he enjoyed a life typical of medieval nobility in the Burgundy region of France. At twenty-two, he entered the abbey at Citeaux, France. Showing his leadership potential, Bernard brought thirty others with him when he joined. The monastery at Citeaux was purposefully committed to recovering the ideals of the Benedictine monasteries, many of which had drifted from their moorings. Bernard would go even further when he assumed leadership.

Bernard’s desire to reform his church extended far beyond the monasteries. He made a career of advising and rebuking popes, playing a significant role in the eventual settling of the papal schism in the 1130s. He entered the theological ring, confronting the heretical tendencies of Abelard. Bernard also advocated for the Second Crusade and preached rather stirring sermons promoting it. Cambridge University historian G. R. Evans makes the point well: “Bernard never did things by halves.”

One exception to Evans’ otherwise insightful claim might be Bernard’s mysticism. From the twelfth century on, two streams of thought dominated medieval theology and church life, namely, scholasticism and mysticism. Anselm and, later, Thomas Aquinas stood as representatives of the scholastic tradition. The mystical tradition would eventually encompass a wide range of figures. Mysticism may be best seen as a continuum. On one side are extreme examples, full of writings of fanciful and ethereal visions. On the other are much milder examples. Bernard belongs to this milder camp. Scholars tend to identify Bernard as a “monastic theologian,” implying that for him reality and meaning are found in the spiritual, that contemplation trumps intellectual dispute, and that experience trumps understanding. Two Latin sayings show the difference between scholasticism and mysticism. The scholastics declared Credo ut intelligam, “I believe in order to understand.” Bernard favored Credo ut experiar, “I believe that I may experience.”

The distinctions, however, should not be overdrawn. Anselm certainly had his share of contemplation, often breaking into a prayer in his philosophical writings, and Bernard appreciated the value of reason and logic. But, to be sure, there were different emphases.

Like the scholastics, Bernard appreciated the limits of experience. Appreciating the limits of experience would not be so prominent in the later, more extreme mystics, who believed the Bible paled in comparison to the direct revelations they said they received from God.

Bernard’s commitment to Scripture kept his feet firmly grounded. In Sermons on Conversion, he sounds a delightful note in the first few sentences: “Blessed are they who hear the Word of God.” Similarly, he opens On Loving God by reminding us that we love God only because “he first loved us.” Bernard continues, “God deserves to be loved very much, yea, boundlessly, because He loved us first, He infinite and we nothing, loved us, miserable sinners, with a love so great and so free.”

As the pages of On Loving God unfold, Bernard fully endorses reflecting on and contemplating the love of God. But he’s careful to lodge that reflection in the concrete revelation of God— first and foremost in His Word, then in the world, and then in experience.

This commitment to Scripture would lead Luther and Calvin to express debt to Bernard. Luther especially appreciated his writing on the incarnation and humanity of Christ, as evidenced in the hymn attributed to Bernard, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

Bernard represents a refreshing spring in the arid environs of medieval theology. It would be a few centuries yet until the Reformers would come along and be used by God to help the church find its way. But we can, like those Reformers, be appreciative of this medieval monk and his writings.

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