Some twenty-five years ago I wrote an essay, entitled " After Sainthood", which appeared in the book, Saints and Virtues, edited by John Hawley and Mark Juegensmeyer ( University of California Press, 1987). I contrasted what I termed "archetypical" saints.the typical exemplars of the martyr, virgin, confessor, pastor,bishop who are, pretty much, so tied to their own time and culture that it is difficult for us moderns to imititate their lives. Other saints--stealing a notion from David Tracy--could be called " classics" who, akin to classics in literature and art, transcend their time, culture and place and speak to many such times, cultures and other places. Many of the classic saints appeal, beyond Catholicism or even Christianity, to a broader humanity. Saint Francis of Assisi is one such saint. But so is Bernard of Clairvaux whose feast day we celebrate today, August 20.
Bernard, of course, is a type of the reformer. Not only did he reform the Cistercian rule and establish 68 Cistercian foundations across the whole of Europe, he also called the wider church to contnuous reform. Not surprisingly, John Calvin evoked Bernard a number of times in his own reforming efforts. Bernard called for a sense of the church,semper reformanda ( always undergoing reform), as he also summoned bishops and even popes to reform of their lives and of the church. At the Council of Etampes, Bernard was set up as the judge between the rival claims of Innocent II and a counter-pope, Anacletus Ii.
Often dubbed, " the conscience of Europe", Bernard wrote his Book of Considerations for his protege, Pope Eugenius III, where Bernard insisted that any church reform must begin with a saintly pope and papal court. He wrote for Henry, the Archbishop of Sens, De Officiis Episcoporum ( the office of bishops). He openly rebuked the Archbishops of Paris and of Sens for their laxity. He called William X of Aquataine to reform. At the Second Council of the Lateran, Bernard debated Abelard. Bernard eschewed the incipient scholasticism of the middle ages for its over-emphasis on great subtlety in reasoning and its claims to be a ' scientific' theology. For Bernard, knowledge involved the ascent of the soul to God. He was convinced that the profoundest and most significant truths stem from and are validated by mystical experience, by prayer and the illumination of the soul by God. He taught that love is itself a profound kind of knowing. Not for nothing did Dante have Bernard as his ultimate guide in his travels through the empyrean ( Paradiso, cantos XXXI-XXXIII).
For all his activity and even bravado, even for what he came to see as a mistake( his preaching of the 2nd Crusade), for all his indubitable courage ( as when he denounced fiercely anti-Semitism which accompanied the 2nd Crusade), Bernard--who was smitten by poetry as a young student--can best be remembered as the mellifluous ( sweet tongued) doctor. Nowhere is that more evident than in Bernard's breath-taking 86 sermons commenting on the bible's erotic love poem, The Song of Songs.
The structure of Bernard's sentences sound like a soul sighing or singing hymns to God. Central to Bernard's mystical theology was that Love created us out of love to share love itself with us. Love, then, redeemed us after we had sinned. The early fathers of the church insisted that every soul was feminine before God. Despite some gender stereotypes which can be caricatures, they meant by this that all of us are passive, recipients of God's initiating love and grace. So, Bernard does not hesitate, following The Song of Songs, to embrace the image of Christ as the soul's ( even the male soul's) bridegroom or to accept the powerful symbol of the bridegroom's kiss to our mouth.
In Sermon I on The Song of Songs, Bernard exhorts: " those who are versed in the mystery to revel in it; let all others burn with desire rather to attain to this experience than merely learn about it. For it is a melody that resounds abroad by the very music of the heart, not a trilling on the lips but an inward pulsing of delight, a harmony not of voices but of wills; it is a tune you will not hear in the streets, these notes do not sound where crowds assemble; only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings--the lover and the beloved. It is pre-eminently a marriage song."
For Bernard,the invisible God assumed flesh because God " wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love." So, Bernard strongly suggested praying with " a sacred image of the God-man" before us. In Sermon 4, Bernard talks about our need to construct spiritual images, " to enable it to perceive, as through puzzling reflections in a mirror, what it cannot possibly gaze on yet face to face." He notes in that sermon that " When the spirit is ravished out of itself and granted a vision of God that suddenly shines into the mind with the swiftness of a lightning flash, immediately, by when I know not, images of earthly things fill the imagination, either as an aid to understanding or to temper the intensity of the divine light. So well adapted are they to the divinely illumined sense, that in their shadow the utterly pure and brilliant radiance of the truth is renderred more bearable to the mind and more capable of being communicated to others."
When the word comes to the soul--but, of course, he does not come or really go from the outside for He is not one of the things which exist outside us-- Bernard comments: " I have ascended to the highest in me and look! The word is towering above that. In my curiosity, I have descended to explore my lowest depths, yet I found him even deeper. If I look outside myself, I saw him stretching beyond the furthest I could see, and if I looked within, he was yet further within. Then, I knew the truth of what I had read: ' In him we live and move and have our being'." In Sermon 52, Bernard mentions that contemplation is a foretaste of heaven and a kind of mystical bridal sleep. This bridal sleep in love is the most important work a person can ever do because therein a person does what he or she was created for, to love and be loved.
Some modern readers may be put off by Bernard's bride and bridegroom imagery in his spiritual classic commentary on The Song of Songs. For most of us moments of ecstatic union with God may be fleeting experiences at best. But Bernard's commentary does remind us that the fruit of prayer is to rest in the love of God and allow it to reinvigorate and remake us in God's own image. After all, prayer leads us to know ( not just notionally but in our very innards) that our hearts yearn for and thirst for God and will not rest until we finally rest in God. I do strongly endorse Bernard's commentary for fruitful spiritual reading.