A Chimaera of His Age
I am a kind of chimaera of my age, neither cleric nor layman. I have long since stripped off the way of life, but not the habit, of a monk. I do not wish to write about myself what I suppose you have heard from others: what I am doing, what I am up to, the crises in the world I am involved in, indeed the precipices down which I am being cast." From a letter by Bernard
Like many a devout Christian saint from Augustine in the fifth century on throughout the entire Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux longed above all else to live a quiet life of monastic prayer and contemplation, free from the entanglement of the surrounding world. And yet, like Augustine six centuries before him, Bernard found himself drawn into most of the major events of his time.
Was there an inconsistency in this, that the outstanding representative of the Cistercian Order (noted for austerity of life and the remoteness of wilderness settlements), combined the life of contemplation with one of the most visible public careers in the 12th century? Bernard, though he was aware of the apparent paradox, would not have thought so.
In one of his famous meditations on the Song of Solomon Bernard gives us the key to his natural movement between action and contemplation: “The nature of true contemplation is such that, while kindling the heart with divine love, it sometimes fills it with great zeal to win other souls for God. The heart gladly gives up the quiet of contemplation for the work of preaching.”
The apparent tension between the active and the contemplative life was for him just another example of the many Paradoxes we find in God’s universe, comparable, for instance, to the problem of reconciling free-will and predestination. Here, as well, the proper balance must be struck.
Throughout the ages, Bernard has rightfully been remembered as one of the most admirable exemplars of the monastic life. Canonized by Catholics, commended by Protestants such as Luther and Calvin, few would deny his greatness as a Christian leader. However, the other public side of his life must also be recounted, for it embodies the characteristics of the Church Militant and raises important questions about Christian life in other generations as well.
A Violent Age
Bernard lived in a remarkable age. The 12th century was at the heart of the period traditionally identified as the High Middle Ages (roughly 1000–1300 A.D.). By the end of the tenth century, Europe had settled down after several centuries of invasion and instability, the so-called Dark Ages. Now there was expansion (often dramatic) at every level of society. Population growth, towns and trade, new geographic frontiers, intellectual and cultural revival, the “new piety”—all these give witness to the dynamism that marked the world in which Bernard lived.
Unfortunately, it was also a militant world with a penchant for violence. At the top of the social hierarchy was an aristocracy trained for warfare and all too ready to prove its skills. The Church sought to mitigate fighting within Europe itself by issuing the Peace of God and the Truce of God, each embodying moral limitations placed upon the use of force. However, violence was directed outward, against outsiders and minorities usually perceived as external enemies of the Faith.
Foremost among the victims were Muslims (infidels), heretics, and Jews. Bernard himself came from a minor French noble family (his father lost his life on a crusade) and so the metaphors of warfare came easily to his mind, even though he often exercised commendable restraint for that age. For examples, when a fellow monk named Radulf stirred up anti-Judaism in the Rhineland, Bernard exhorted Christians to use persuasion rather than force [Fides suasenda non imponenda—faith by persuasion, not by force]. He recommended a similar approach in dealing with heretics as well.
Bernard is sometimes judged harshly in our pluralistic, more tolerant (or indifferent) modern age, and although he could be ruthless in defense of the Faith, he was no bigot or vindictive persecutor. What characterized him above all was an uncompromising zeal on behalf of the cause of Christ and his Church.
A recent historian has called him “the self-appointed conscience of Europe,” but that is unfair. Over and over again he was pressed into action by contemporary leaders, secular and religious, who regarded him as little less than a “divine oracle.” What makes his achievement the more remarkable is that he had no “official” authority except within his own monastery. His was rather the authority of the prophetic voice. The most revealing comment on this was made by his old pupil, now Pope Eugenius III, who complained mildly, “ … They say that it is you who are pope and not I.”
Bernard’s public career is too extensive to cover in its entirety, given his stature among contemporaries; however, a number of representative examples can be given to illustrate the range of his involvement.
To begin with, he was from early on concerned about the spiritual laxness that he saw about him, especially in the Church itself. Not surprisingly, one of his first series of confrontations was with the rival Cluniac monastic system, once a spearhead of reform, but now itself, according to Bernard, worldly and lax in following the normative Rule of St. Benedict.
When one of his own cousins fled to Cluny from the harshness of Clairvaux, Bernard wrote an Apology on behalf of Cistercian simplicity and initiated a correspondence with various protagonists. Most important was that with the great Cluniac abbot, Peter the Venerable. Although defensive at first and charging the Cistercians with hypocrisy and pharisaism, Peter remained Bernard’s close friend, and in the end came around to admitting most of the charges by initiating an extensive series of reforms.
A similar encounter took place with the powerful Suger, Abbot of St. Denis and minister to the French crown. Bernard attacked him both for the ornate style he was introducing into church architecture (the shift from Romanesque to Gothic) and also for his personal lifestyle: one of the “detestable improprieties” in the Church, Bernard informs him, is “the arrogance of your way of life.” Surprisingly, they too remained friends. Suger likewise took the pointed advice to heart, both personally and on behalf of his monastery as well.
Defender of the Faith
The most dramatic involvement in public life was clearly Bernard’s activity as Defender of the Faith: first, against the threat of heresy and schism within Christendom and second, against the Muslims in the Holy Land.
Heresy, relatively insignificant in the Early Middle Ages, came to be a serious problem during Bernard’s time. It was in large measure a by-product of the tremendous expansion of European society, including the spread of ideas reflecting dissatisfaction with the existing Church.
While there was often an affinity between heretical teaching and the criticisms made by Bernard, especially in the advocacy of Apostolic poverty and simplicity, he was essentially a conservative who remained faithful to the official leadership and teaching of the Church. Those deemed heretical, on the other hand, were regarded as dangerous radicals who, if left unchecked, would destroy the established Church.
Accordingly, on numerous occasions Bernard devoted his energies to combatting ideas thought to be heretical or potentially subversive of true doctrine. In 1143, he was informed about the troublesome presence of heretics in Cologne and the Rhineland. They claimed to be the only true Church; some denied the efficacy of the priesthood and the sacraments.
Even more unsettling, they showed great faith and courage in the face of death by burning. Bernard responded by preaching a series of sermons based upon the Song of Solomon in which he discussed the phrase “the little foxes,” which he identified as “heretics.” True Christians, he tried to show, would be able to recognize the false teaching for what it is. Two years later (1145) he traveled through Languedoc in southern France, preaching against the influential heretic, Henry of Lausanne.
More controversial was Bernard’s participation in the trials of two prominent intellectuals, Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers, both part of the exciting new academic world centering on Paris and its nascent university. Again, he has been accused of anti-intellectualism in our time, but that is to judge him unfairly. By the standards of his own age, he was well educated and contemporaries looked to him for leadership in numerous theological disputes.
Bernard belonged to an older theological tradition, however, one characterized by reverential meditation upon Scripture with the aid of the Church Fathers. Above all, he objected to the excessive rationalism of Abelard and his ilk, the assumption that the mysteries of faith should be subjected to reason and logic rather than accepted as settled Truth. This sort of intellectual curiosity leads to private opinion, destroys certitude and unsettles the minds of ordinary Christians.
Abelard and Gilbert were indeed accused of holding erroneous views of the Trinity, among other charges, and Bernard played a leading role in the Councils of Sens (1140—Abelard) and Rheims (1148—Gilbert), where condemnations were meted out. In reality, these encounters did not represent a genuine engagement of the issues.
Bernard was clever rather than penetrating and it is generally thought that he misunderstood what these scholars were really attempting, although he was perceptive in recognizing the potential dangers implicit in the new method.
Holy Warriors and Crusade
Nowhere is Bernard more representative of the Church Militant than in his energetic participation in the great crusading movement of his age. Early in his career he helped in the establishment of the Knights Templar, a military order founded by a cousin of his to assist in the Holy War against the Muslims. Bernard wrote a handbook, In Praise of the New Knighthood, defining the new vocation of those who were both monks and knights at the same time.
Then in 1146 he was called upon by the pope to preach a crusade in order to recover Edessa, the first part of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem to be taken by the Muslims. He began at Eastertide with a dramatic sermon delivered to a massive throng including the French king, Louis VII, and his court, who gathered at Vezelay—then one of medieval Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites. He then moved on through others parts of France, Germany and Switzerland, as well as sending a persuasive letter to the English.
Among the thousands who responded, his greatest success was in enlisting the participation of the German Emperor, Conrad III. This Second Crusade, as it turned out, was a colossal disaster. Since he was certain that God had called him to the task, Bernard blamed its failure on the sinfulness of the crusaders. Those who put the blame on him, he argued, were really attacking God Himself.
Defender of the Papacy
One final aspect of Bernard’s public career needs to be considered: his staunch defense of the papacy. Although he respected the papal office, he was concerned that it had become secularized and needed to recover its spiritual essence. His great opportunity came when a fellow Cistercian became pope Eugenius III in 1145. Bernard wrote an important treatise, On Consideration, in order to admonish his former pupil about the need for balance in his life as pope. The pressures of routine (and often trivial) business should not crowd out regular prayer and meditation. Above all, the pope should lead by moral example rather than by the exercise of temporal power.
A decade or so earlier, Bernard had played a decisive role in a papal schism that lasted from 1130 to 1138. Divisions within the College of Cardinals based upon age and family alliance led to the election of two claimants: Anacletus II and Innocent II. Although Anacletus had the majority vote, Bernard believed Innocent to be morally superior and therefore, given the ambiguities of the election process, the legitimate pope. Gradually most of Europe aligned with Bernard’s choice. and when Anacletus died in 1138 the schism was officially over. Here again, it is quite evident that the saintly monk had exercised the prophetic role for which he was to become so widely known: his assertion of Innocent’s moral superiority decided the issue.
An Open Book
In assessing Bernard’s public career, we need to remember that he was probably the most visible person in 12th century society, and as such his life was an open book. Interestingly, for all his ruthless single-mindedness in attacking perceived enemies of the Faith, it is remarkable that he more often than not retained the close friendship of those who had felt the sting of his criticisms. Indeed, at least one contemporary described him as a moderate, one who habitually took the "middle way’ between opposing parties.
We also must admire him for counseling against the use of force in dealing with Jews and heretics, again in an age prone to violence. He even wrote contemptuously of secular knights who (unlike the Templars) lived undisciplined lives of violence directed mostly against one another.
The biggest question, no doubt, concerns Bernard’s association with the notorious Crusades. Here, his metaphorical understanding of spiritual warfare (after all, a prominent New Testament theme) gave way to an embrace of the dangerous contemporary concept of the holy war, with its justification of the use of force against the infidel enemies of God. In this he was, of course, a man of his times, and it is unfair to judge him outside of his historical context. (However, there were contemporaries of Bernard, such as Abbot Suger, who resisted the “holy war” interpretation.)
In this Bernard stands as a reminder that even the greatest of saints can sanction actions, often in the name of God, that do harm to the cause of Christ, creating what one historian has recently called the “unacceptable face of the Church.”
Bernard was indeed a great man, and great men often have flaws to match their statures. There are lesser figures in Church history, even in our time, who represent the Church at its worst. Bernard still stands above his flaws and mistakes as a great man. In his finer moments, the Abbot of Clairvaux would have agreed with all his heart with St. Paul: “The weapons of our warfare are not those of the flesh.”
Russell K. Bishop is a professor in the department of history at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.
Support Our Work
Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month