19 August 2008

Bernard of Clairvaux, Theologian and Hymnwriter

Today we commemorate St. Bernard. From our Synod's website:

A leader in Christian Europe in the first half of the 11th century A.D., Bernard is honored in his native France and around the world. Born into a noble family in Burgundy in 1090, Bernard left the affluence of his heritage and entered the monastery of Citeaux at the age of 22. After two years he was sent to start a new monastic house at Clairvaux. His work there was blessed in many ways. The monastery at Clairvaux grew in mission and service, eventually establishing some 68 daughter houses. Bernard is remembered for his charity and political abilities, but especially for his preaching and hymn composition. The hymn texts “O Jesus, King Most Wonderful” and “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” are part of the heritage of the faith left by Saint Bernard.

Blessed Martin Chemnitz cites from the Life of Bernard, chapter 12:

When he appeared to be drawing his last breath, as his mental powers failed, he seemed to be presenting himself before the tribunal of his Lord. But there was present over against him Satan, assailing him with wicked accusations. But when he had had his say, the man of God also had to speak on his part. Undaunted and unperturbed, he said: 'I confess that I am not worthy and that I cannot obtain the kingdom of heaven through my own merits. However, my Lord is obtaining it with a twofold right, namely, through the inheritance of the Father and by the merit of His suffering; with the one He is content, and the other He gives to me; because of this gift, since He vindicates this to me by right, I am not disturbed.' By this word the enemy was routed. [Examen I:511]

And he is the man who has given us these wonderful words to sing:

Be Thou my consolation,
My shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion
When my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee,
Upon Thy cross shall dwell.
My heart by faith enfold Thee;
Who dieth thus, dies well.


Dr Matt Phillips said...

Bernard did not actually write those words. Although one could argue that his devotional writings and hymns inspired them. "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" comes from a larger late medieval Cistercians devotion to the crucified Christ.

William Weedon said...

Dr. Philipps,

I trust your word on that as a medievalist. I note that LSB does carefully notate: "Attr. Bernard of Clairvaux." I took the attribution as having historical grounding, but apparently not.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Here are some words Bernard DID write, preaching the Second Crusade, which ended in total disaster. Notice: we can expiate our sins by killing Muslims. Conquer heaven by conquering the infidel.

You can not but know that we live in a period of chastisement and ruin; the enemy of mankind has caused the breath of corruption to fly over all regions; we behold nothing but unpunished wickedness. The laws of men or the laws of religion have no longer sufficient power to check depravity of manners and the triumph of the wicked. The demon of heresy has taken possession of the chair of truth, and God has sent forth His malediction upon His sanctuary.

Oh, ye who listen to me, hasten then to appease the anger of Heaven, but no longer implore His goodness by vain complaints; clothe not yourselves in sackcloth, but cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers; the din of arms, the dangers, the labors, the fatigues of war are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the infidels, and let the deliverance of holy places be the reward of your repentance.

If it were announced to you that the enemy had invaded your cities, your castles, your lands; had ravished your wives and your daughters, and profaned your temples—which among you would not fly to arms? Well, then, all these calamities, and calamities still greater, have fallen upon your brethren, upon the family of Jesus Christ, which is yours. Why do you hesitate to repair so many evils—to revenge so many outrages? Will you allow the infidels to contemplate in peace the ravages they have committed on Christian people? Remember that their triumph will be a subject for grief to all ages and an eternal opprobrium upon the generation that has endured it. Yes, the living God has charged me to announce to you that He will punish them who shall not have defended Him against His enemies.

Fly then to arms; let a holy rage animate you in the fight, and let the Christian world resound with these words of the prophet, “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood!” If the Lord calls you to the defense of His heritage think not that His hand has lost its power. Could He not send twelve legions of angels or breathe one word and all His enemies would crumble away into dust? But God has considered the sons of men, to open for them the road to His mercy. His goodness has caused to dawn for you a day of safety by calling on you to avenge His glory and His name.

Christian warriors, He who gave His life for you, to-day demands yours in return. These are combats worthy of you, combats in which it is glorious to conquer and advantageous to die. Illustrious knights, generous defenders of the Cross, remember the example of your fathers who conquered Jerusalem, and whose names are inscribed in Heaven; abandon then the things that perish, to gather unfading palms, and conquer a Kingdom which has no end.


Bernard spent the last 12 years of his life preaching this, um, stuff.

William Weedon said...

Yes, a truly tragic aspect of the medieval mindset. It rather mirrors Luther's horrendous words against the Jews, or St. John Chrysostom's. But the saints are never flawless mirrors of divine grace, rather with St. Paul they'd all confess to having the treasure in earthen vessels, and struggling against the flesh. Sometimes the flesh wins, which is why they rejoice to live under the forgiveness of the Savior, whose love alone never failed.

Christine said...

Ah, Bernard of Clairvaux ("clear" valley, or "valley of light" -- lovely, no?)

Mystic, Doctor of the Church, considered the last of the Fathers. Held a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary.

We "moderns" are very good at reading our cultural situation back into history. No, I am not defending the excesses of the Crusades.

But if Islam ever gets a majority toehold in large segments of the West, we'll see what happens when the shoe is on the other foot.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Medieval mind-set? This was a thousand years after Christ; what about a Christian mind-set? That's what a saint is expected to have, transcending his age or any age.

Bernard didn't see the Crusdade as an issur, or as a thing of the flesh to be struggled with or repented of. Neither did Rome.

St. John Chrysostom's very strong words were aimed at Judaizers in the Church (as were St. Paul's) and at the perveristy of Hiw own people having rejecting Christ; they were not words of hate or war or killing.

Yes, as the Muslims gain power in the West through increased population, a process already alarmingly advanced, we will need to consider prayerfully how we are going to deal with the inevitable troubles (to put it mildly) they will cause. They and the shocking lack of foresight on the part of all the Western governments. The Church may be adorned with many new martyrs. But hopefully nobody will tell us killing is the way to expiate our sins.

Christine said...

we will need to consider prayerfully how we are going to deal with the inevitable troubles (to put it mildly)

Indeed. St. Francis of Assisi Francis understood that the Fifth Crusade was part of an ongoing just war in response to Muslim invasions of Christian lands, which included many attacks against Italian city-states all along the peninsula over the course of centuries. For example, in the year 846, Rome itself was sacked by 11,000 Muslims, who desecrated the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul.

St. Francis preached to armed Muslims who a few days before had won a major skirmish at Damietta, killing about five thousand Christians. The Sultan, al-Malik al-Kamil was also the general of the Muslim army, and ruler of Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Francis first obtained permission from the Papal Legate to cross over the lines during a period of temporary truce. When he reached Muslim territory he and Brother Illuminato were taken prisoner, beaten and put in chains by the sentries.

St. Francis bravely preached to armed Muslims who a few days before had won a major skirmish at Damietta, killing about five thousand Christians. The Sultan, al-Malik al-Kamil was also the general of the Muslim army, and ruler of Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Francis first obtained permission from the Papal Legate to cross over the lines during a period of temporary truce. When he reached Muslim territory he and Brother Illuminato were taken prisoner, beaten and put in chains by the sentries. He was fully prepared for martyrdom. Upon meeting the saint, al-Malik asked him if he was a messenger from the crusaders. Francis replied that he was indeed a messenger, but a messenger from God. He then proceeded to give witness to his love for Jesus, and said that he wished to save the souls of the Sultan and his men.

Initially the Sultan was taken aback by Francis' boldness. After all, the Muslims had just defeated the Christians in a pitched battle, and now one of them dares to state that the Muslims must convert to Christianity. However, the love flowing from Francis began to move the Sultan, and according to one contemporary writer, "that cruel beast became sweetness himself." However, the advisers to al-Malik, the imams, were not so impressed, and demanded that Francis and Illuminato should be beheaded in accordance with Islamic law.

Francis and his companion remained in the Muslim camp for many days, and parted on excellent terms with the Sultan.

Dr Matt Phillips said...

Bernard also preached this: "Jesus Christ cannot be known, however, except as he was hanging on the cross" Sentences, III. 74

And this: "I do not ask where he [Jesus] rests at noon for I see him on the cross as my Savior." Sermon 43 on Song of Songs.

And this: "Your Passion is the ultimate refuge, a remedy that is unique. When our wisdom lets us down, when our righteousness falls short, when the merits of our holiness founder, your Passion becomes our support. Who would presume that his own wisdom, or righteousness or holiness suffices for salvation?" Sermon 22 on Song of Songs.

This actually most of the kind of stuff Bernard preached for the last 12 years of his life. He certainly did preach the Crusade ardently and supported the creation of the Templars, but it was NOT his main focus.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Do you wonder how Bernard found such things compatible with his preaching Crusade, writing the rule for the Knights Templar, and the appalling treatise on that order?

Here's an excerpt from it:

The knight of Christ, I say, may strike with confidence and die yet more confidently, for he serves Christ when he strikes, and serves himself when he falls. Neither does he bear the sword in vain, for he is God's minister, for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good. If he kills an evildoer, he is not a mankiller, but, if I may so put it, a killer of evil. He is evidently the avenger of Christ towards evildoers and he is rightly considered a defender of Christians. Should he be killed himself, we know that he has not perished, but has come safely into port. When he inflicts death it is to Christ's profit, and when he suffers death, it is for his own gain. The Christian glories in the death of the pagan, because Christ is glorified; while the death of the Christian gives occasion for the King to show his liberality in the rewarding of his knight. In the one case the just shall rejoice when he sees justice done, and in the other man shall say, truly there is a reward for the just; truly it is God who judges the earth.

I do not mean to say that the pagans are to be slaughtered when there is any other way to prevent them from harassing and persecuting the faithful, but only that it now seems better to destroy them than that the rod of sinners be lifted over the lot of the just, and the righteous perhaps put forth their hands unto iniquity.

Mustn't Bernard have a very strange understanding of Christ to make such wordsd (and much of his behavior) possible, in spite of the words that sometimes, at first blush, sound so good?

Dr Matt Phillips said...


Since I did my doctoral work in medieval religion and the Crusades it doesn't surprise me at all. I realize that he was a man of his times and had faulty theology in many ways.

The Orthodox Byzantine Emperors certainly did not mind the Christian armies helping them against the Saracens. Unfortunately they often fought among themselves too often.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

That Bernard's theology was very faulty is not surprising, surely. Nor am I in any position to be surprised if anyone's behavior is also faulty. What's so surprising to me is not anything about Bernard, but something about the rest of us, namely, that people should consider him a saint.

Bernard was a man of his times, yes (although, in his case, he also helped shape his times) but that's the point. A saint, because of the degree of his unity with Christ, transcends his times.