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Clairvaux, Bernard of

Category: Religious

 

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) was a French abbot and the primary builder of the reforming Cistercian order.  He is the very opposite of a spiritual person, but I have included him for reasons you will see shortly.

His life can almost be divided into two. The first half was led in not very successful spiritual pursuit and the latter half was concerned with politics.

After the death of his mother, when he was only 19, Bernard sought admission into the Cistercian order. He seems at this age to have been quite a sensitive boy.  He had a great taste for poetry, for example, and he was apparently noted for long and emotional letters. The Order he chose was reclusive and fairly austere.  They used solitude, quiet and contemplation as the principle methods of achieving spiritual experience.  It was at this time that Bernard had probably his only real glimpse of the divine and it came from communing with nature – sitting under a tree and just being relaxed.  And the rest of his life was spent trying to get this feeling back.

"Three years later, he was sent to found a new abbey at an isolated clearing in a glen known as the Val d'Absinthe, about 15 km southeast of Bar-sur-Aube. According to tradition, Bernard founded the monastery on 25 June 1115, naming it Claire Vallée, which evolved into Clairvaux. There Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary."

 

So in principle he wanted to practise love with visualisation, but he never got the opportunity to do it.  Before he got embroiled in the politics, there do seem to be signs that he had an underlying and terrible unsatisfied spiritual longing that led to desperate and unproductive measures.

“The beginnings of his time at Clairvaux Abbey were trying and painful. The regime was so austere that Bernard became ill, and only the influence of his friend William of Champeaux and the authority of the general chapter could make him mitigate the austerities.

This longing seems to have got worse.  In the year 1119, Bernard “developed his thoughts upon the revival of the primitive spirit of regularity and fervour in all the monastic orders”. This did not go down too well with the Benedictine monks of the abbey of Cluny  who said that  “ the rules of the new order were impracticable”.

And we also have “the zeal of Bernard”, so he was turning into something of a religious fanatic, as so often happens when spiritual longings remain unsatisfied and sexual longings are repressed.

 

And gradually he got more and more embroiled in politics and more and more fanatical, even dangerous – a real sign that ego has won.  He was denounced, even in Rome, and was accused of being a monk who “meddled with matters that did not concern him”. He even meddled in the politics of  provincial affairs. He defended the rights of the Church against “the encroachments of kings and princes”.

Towards the end of 1134, he made a second journey into Aquitaine, “where William X had relapsed into schism”. Bernard invited William to the Mass which he celebrated in the Church of La Couldre. At the Eucharist, he "admonished the Duke not to despise God as he did His servants".

He then got involved in the battle for who should be the next Pope and the rivalry of two men for the position  -  Pope Innocent II and Anacletus II.   The whole conflict ended when Anacletus died on January 25, 1138. 

 

Bernard  also denounced one of his fellow monks Abelard to the pope and cardinals of the Curia. Abelard sought a debate with Bernard, but Bernard declined, saying “he did not feel matters of such importance should be settled by logical analyses”.   Oh my! 

Abelard, after some very nasty battles, was forced to retire to Cluny to live under the protection of Peter the Venerable, where he died two years later a broken man.

More politics followed with  the Second Council of the Lateran. Then he was called upon to 'combat heresy'.

“His preaching, aided by his ascetic looks and simple attire, helped doom the new sects. Both the Henrician and the Petrobrusian faiths began to die out by the end of that year. Soon afterwards, Henry of Lausanne was arrested, brought before the bishop of Toulouse, and probably imprisoned for life. In a letter to the people of Toulouse, undoubtedly written at the end of 1146, Bernard calls upon them to extirpate the last remnants of the heresy. He also preached against the Cathars”.

I hope you are as horrified as I was reading all this.  This is not spirituality, and it is not Christianity as it was taught by Jesus, it is pure power politics.  Following the Christian defeat at the Siege of Edessa, the pope commissioned Bernard to “preach for the Second Crusade”. So in effect preach propaganda about war.   A large platform was erected on a hill outside the city. King and monk stood together, and with 'holy fervor' Bernard  cried,

"O ye who listen to me! Hasten to appease the anger of heaven, but no longer implore its goodness by vain complaints. Clothe yourselves in sackcloth, but also cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers. The din of arms, the danger, 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 the holy places be the reward of your repentance.  Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood."

 

 

So we now have a total political fanatic, who uses religion as his frontispiece to make war.  When we next attack religious fundamentalists in this day and age, I think we need to bear in mind that they are not a new thing.

Bernard of Clairvaux
The Christian glories in the death of the pagan [sic], 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. ...... I do not mean to say that the pagans are to be slaughtered [sic] ...... but only that it now seems better to destroy them [sic] .

As in the First Crusade, the preaching inadvertently led to attacks on Jews; a fanatical French monk named Radulphe was apparently inspiring massacres of Jews in the Rhineland, Cologne, Mainz, Worms, and Speyer, with Radulphe claiming Jews were not contributing financially to the rescue of the Holy Land.

The last years of Bernard's life were haunted by the failure of the crusades, the entire responsibility for which was thrown upon him. Bernard died at age 63, after 40 years spent as a monk, all of it wasted.

It is a lesson, I think, in what happens when a young man denies himself sex and spiritual experience and ends up devoting his energies to an 'ism'.  This could have been any 'ism' fascism, communism, socialism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Mohamedanism, all the same, all the same result.  Hundreds, thousands, millions die, all innocent,  because of them.

He was  canonized by Pope Alexander III on 18 January 1174.

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