St. Bernard: Guide to the Uncreated Light

In The Divine Comedy, Dante (saint of the week here) proceeds from Hell to the greatest height of Heaven with three guides. Virgil takes him through Inferno and Purgatorio. At the top of Mount Purgatory, he meets Beatrice (allegorically Divine Wisdom) who is to be his guide through Paradiso.

In Canto XXXI of Paradiso, Beatrice leaves Dante to join the saints in her place in the great Rose where they sit in their thrones, beholding and praising the Trinity. In her place, and for the last three Cantos of the Comedy, Dante’s guide is St. Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here).

When I saw that St. Bernard was to be Dante’s final guide, I smiled with glee and squirmed in my seat, so pleased with the choice. St. Bernard is known in Cistercian circles as ‘the last of the Fathers’ (indeed, such is the title of a book by Thomas Merton). He gains this title not simply for his role in helping establish the Cistercian Order but because of his mystical theology, for St. Bernard is one of the great contemplative theologians of the Middle Ages (although I first learned of him as the great expounder of Crusade theology in my secularist mediaeval history classes).

He stands within the exegetical tradition/trajectory of Origen in interpreting the Song of Songs mystically and allegorically. However, where Origen sees the Beloved as the Church, St. Bernard considers the Beloved to be the soul of the individual Christian. I believe both are valid interpretations of the book, despite the modern Orthodox claim that Bernard’s version has led to a ‘feminization’ of western Christianity. He expounds upon Song of Songs in several sermons available online here.

His other major mystical writing is On Loving God, wherein Bernard distinguishes the four loves (made popular by CS Lewis’ book of that name). The highest love we are to have is love for God, who first loved us and who sacrificed himself for us. If we love God fully, we will enter into the vision of the Divine in the Heavens.

This vision of the Divine St. Bernard is said to have beheld in this life now, having reached beatitude (purity of heart, I reckon — for ‘blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God’ — fulfilling John Cassian’s call upon the monastic life).

And so, in Cantos XXXI-XXXIII, Dante is shown by Bernard the throne room of God in the Primum Mobile, that point from which the spheres of the universe hanging and which moves them — or, rather, out of love for which all things move. And then Bernard turns his gaze upwards, to that vision of God reserved for the blessed:

And so my mind, bedazzled and amazed,
Stood fixed in wonder, motionless, intent,
And still my wonder kindled as I gazed.

That light doth so transform a man’s whole bent
That never to another sight or thought
Would he surrender, with his own consent;

For everything the will has ever sought
Is gathered there, and there is every quest
Made perfect, which apart from it falls short.

That light supreme, with its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

Eternal light, that in Thyself alone
Dwelling, alone dost know Thyself, and smile
On Thy self-love, so knowing and so known! (Canto XXXIII, ll. 97-105, 115-126; trans. Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds)

Would that we could all ascend from the depths of our sin (Inferno) through cleansing of our souls (Purgatorio) through to the heights of justice, wisdom, and then contemplation of God (Paradiso), rising upwards by prayer, good works, discipline, and — above all — the grace of God (as we learn in the Syriac Liber Graduum [post here] or St. John Climacus’ Ladder [saint of the week here]).

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba

Saint of the Week: St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard (1090-1153) is an interesting character, and not only because he has a breed of dog named after him.  In 1113, he and 30 other Burgundian youths sought entrance into the Abbey of Citeaux (founded 1098), birthplace of the Cistercians.  Three years later he was sent off to found the third Cistercian Abbey in the Vallée d’Absinthe, Valley of Bitterness; he named this place, instead, Claire Vallée–Clairvaux, on June 25, 1115.

In 1118, 1119, and 1121, Clairvaux founded 3 new abbeys to make room for those taking holy orders within its walls.  The abbey was becoming a force within mediaeval Christendom.  Indeed, during Bernard’s lifetime, some 290 Cistercian monasteries were to be founded.

As Abbot of Clairvaux, St. Bernard was to be a man of influence both in ecclesiastical affairs — helping spur Peter the Venerable on in the reforms at Cluny, for example — and in temporal affairs, defending ecclesiastical rights against those of kings and princes.  He sought to encourage not only monks but bishops, priests, and the laity to live lives of simplicity and holiness rather than the excess often displayed by clergy and the upper classes in the Middle Ages.

He also wrote various works and homilies, including “On the Love of God,” a work which later was to influence the devotional life of a young Augustinian friar named Martin Luther.  Amidst his writings, he also complained about the influx of contemporary music in church.  Apparently, in a lot of churches at this time, people were playing secular instruments in the secular style in sacred space.  Bernard longed for nothing but Gregorian Chant in church.  No doubt in Clairvaux and the other 290 Cistercian monasteries founded in his lifetime, this is what he got.

Despite all of these virtues, one cannot leave behind St. Bernard without mentioning the less pleasant aspects of his life.  St. Bernard lived during the age of the Crusades.  Now, one could argue that as a political war to reclaim land on behalf of the Eastern Roman Empire and make safe the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, the First Crusade in the 1090s was as justified as any other mediaeval war.  Unfortunately, during that war, and especially in the years that followed it, the concept of the Crusade as a “holy war”, as something ordained by God, developed.  Muslims were not merely enemies of the West in political terms but were, in fact, the enemies of God and worth killing.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a man of his day, not just in terms of monastic reform and ascetic zeal.  He helped provide the theological framework for the Crusades and preached the ill-fated Second Crusade (1145-47).  Before St. Bernard, the term miles Christi had referred either to the Christian or, more frequently and specifically, to the monk.  Monks were the soldiers of Christ, fighting demons, praying continually, training through asceticism.  Now, however, Bernard turned the term from the spiritual to the physical; the miles Christi was the Crusader, fighting for Christ against the Muslims (or, as the [somewhat outdated] Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “Mohammedan tyranny”).

I do not wish to dwell on this aspect of St. Bernard.  However, while we should not seek out only the faults of the saints, we should behold them with both eyes open.  Otherwise, we will write notably naive things like this:

There were thousands of men, generally young, who left society and often a military career to take up the cloistered life.  If to this number one adds the members of some 290 other Cistercian monasteries founded during Bernard’s lifetime, one has some idea of the tremendous peace corps, with tens of thousands of members, taht Bernard helped to establish.  What architect of peace has played such a role in his century or in any other? (Jean Leclercq, quoted by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, New Monasticism)

Nevertheless, St. Bernard is worth noting and admiring.  Admirable is his zeal for reforming and founding monasteries as well as the lifestyle of the average Christian.  Admirable as well is his defence of orthodoxy.  Admirable, to be sure, are his many influential works, the orthodoxy of which withstand the centuries even if his Crusade ideology does not.  These many works and sermons have gained him the title “Doctor of the Church.”

His learning and zeal for holy living are to be emulated.  May we live as he does.