The Mellifluous Doctor

   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.

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        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.

 

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Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 2 months ago
I like Bernard's call to the Church to be in continuous reform.  And much as I am seduced by his mellifluous voice, I wonder what he would make of his Cistercian successors, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating and William Menninger who teach an apophatic form of prayer which lets go of all imagery.
Crystal Watson
6 years 2 months ago
I never understand how saints like Bernard can be at once so enthusiastic about religious love, and at the same time so militant ... his support of the Templars, his support for the Crusade, his support for the burning of heretics.  I can't help thinking that a person who would write "The Christian glories in a pagan's death, because Christ is glorified" doesn't know Christ at all  (http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/chivalry/bernard.html).
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 2 months ago
Crystal - It seems that saints are prey to the prejudices of the time that they live in.  I was surprised that even Francis of Assisi was pulled into the enthusiasm of the 5th Crusade.  (from the bio "The Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi" by Donald Spoto) They really believed that they needed to "convert" the Muslims.  Francis came around only after seeing, first hand, what was going on.
lori ranner
6 years 2 months ago
What about Bernard's relentless, near-obsessive and, one might say, small-minded pillorying of Peter Abelard? This behavior as well as his crusading slay-them-all rhetoric show the worst side of Bernard, something we would hardly wish as a model for our times. The temptation is always to idealize saints, instead of accepting them as fully human (and thus, like us, deeply faulted), human beings. The thing that sets saints of all stripes apart is the effort with which they strove to overcome those faults, and the results of that effort.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 2 months ago
Crystal and Lori get it in my opinion. This is what makes Bernard of Clairvoux so dangerous. Such great poetry coupled with such small mindedness. Bernard was a big disaster with the Crusades. The pope was his student and Bernard feverishly worked on him to resume the Crusades. Because of Bernard and Augustine Christians have been extremely cruel toward those they disagree with. This is what is meant by the Church of Dogma. It follows a very poor catechesis. The result is you will find many Catholics pretty solid on Canon law but with no clue about the Sermon on the Mount. The downplaying of the Sermon on the Mount and the stress of belief over practice has been the scourge of the Western Church.
Brendan McGrath
6 years 2 months ago
Crystal - Did he support the burning of heretics?  I was recently reading the original Catholic Encyclopedia's article on the Inquisition - naturally it attempts to put the best face on it, but anyway, it traces the issue of how the Church dealt with heresy from the early ages, and it mentions the following about St. Bernard of Clairvaux:


So far was St. Bernard from agreeing with the methods of the people of Cologne, that he laid down the axiom: Fides suadenda, non imponenda (By persuasion, not by violence, are men to be won to the Faith).  And if he censures the carelessness of the princes, who were to blame because little foxes devastated the vineyard, yet he adds that the latter must not be captured by force but by arguments (capiantur non armis, sed argumentis); the obstinate were to be excommunicated, and if necessary kept in confinement for the safety of others (aut corrigendi sunt ne pereant, aut, ne perimant, coercendi).   (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08026a.htm)

Again, naturally this article can't be trusted to give a totally balanced, objective view, but on the other hand it can provide various "positive" facts that complicate matters and don't fit in to over-simplified narratives on the other side.  The impression I walk away with about the Inquisition, not only from this article but from all that I've read and learned about the Inquisition over the years (and about various other dark spots in the Church's history), is that it's just not so simple - I mean, one minute, you've got some saint or some pope allowing the torture of heretics, the next minute, that same person is going out into the streets to feed the poor and embrace lepers.  One minute they're fighting a crusade, the next minute they're railing against corruption in the Church.  In fact, from a course I took on the Catholic Reformation, the pattern seems to be that it was actually the voices of reform in the Church who were also the ones supporting the Inquisition - the laxity with regard to wealth and corruption they criticized was seen as tied to laxity on the matter of rooting out heresy.  It's so bizarre.
Crystal Watson
6 years 2 months ago
Brendan,

I had been reading <a href = "http://www.cathar.info/120517_bernard.htm">this page</a> on Bernard and it had this ...

"Despite any sympathy he might have had [for the Cathars], he was happy enough to see those whom he saw as his enemies destroyed. Speaking of heretics, he held that "it would without doubt be better that they should be coerced by the sword than that they should be allowed to draw away many other persons into their error." (Serm. lxvi. on Canticles ii. 15).  For him all infidels were creatures of Satan. After being asked about how heretics could bear the agony of the fire not only with patience but even with joy, Bernard answered the question in a sermon where he ascribed the steadfastness of heretical "dogs" in facing death to the power of the devil. (Serm. lxvi. on Canticles ii. 15)."

It is strange how people of that time (and maybe now too) can do both good and bad things without  being schizophrenic.  Hard to believe, though, that any non-psychotic person could watch another be burned alive and still advocate such a thing.
ed gleason
6 years 2 months ago
We just watched the French movie tonight Of Gods and Men about the martyred Trappists in Algeria in 1996. These successors/descendants of Bernard may be the saints of our times as they intercede for all Christians and Muslims  as the Arab Spring continues. see it  [Comcast for 5 bucks ]
Bill Mazzella
6 years 2 months ago
Crystal and Lori get it in my opinion. This is what makes Bernard of Clairvoux so dangerous. Such great poetry coupled with such small mindedness. Bernard was a big disaster with the Crusades. The pope was his student and Bernard feverishly worked on him to resume the Crusades. Because of Bernard and Augustine Christians have been extremely cruel toward those they disagree with. This is what is meant by the Church of Dogma. It follows a very poor catechesis. The result is you will find many Catholics pretty solid on Canon law but with no clue about the Sermon on the Mount. The downplaying of the Sermon on the Mount and the stress of belief over practice has been the scourge of the Western Church.
Anne Chapman
6 years 2 months ago
Crystal, Lori and Bill - thank you all for your comments. I fully agree - and the more I have learned about so many of the ''saints,'' the more discouraging it gets. I wish I one of my sons could take back his confirmation name, actually!  We didn't didn't dig deeply enough in learning the whole picture about this  "saint" when he chose the name, unfortunately.

Yes, Bill, this is a church of dogma - after all, that's what defines heresy.  It is all about what people think and believe - very little about how they live (except when it comes to sexual matters - the celibate all-male hierarchy do love to tell everyone else how to live when it comes to that!).  Orthodoxy v. orthopraxy. When I read Jesus's words, the focus seems very much on how to live - not a whole lot of focus on what to believe.  Richard Rohr once observed that all the battles among Christian denominations are all about the head - what to think, what to believe - and he observed that the Catholic church mostly excommunicates those who don't agree to think exactly as Rome wants them to think - they don't throw out those who don't do enough to care for ''the least of these.''
6 years 2 months ago
Apart from his writings on the Mother of Jesus, I know little about the “Mellifluous Doctor” St. Bernard of Clairvoux. But in my opinion, simply and  plainly, anyone who writes so beautifully about the Blessed Virgin Mary must be very dear to Christ and if that’s the case should  also be dear to all Believers.
 I wasn’t sure exactly  what the world “mellifluous” means, so I looked it up to discover it means “smooth and sweet” and “flowing like honey.” Bernard certainly spoke that way about Mary and if it’s true as some of the posting claim that  he also said some nasty things about perceived enemies of Christ that perhaps, were better left unsaid, let’s not forget Bernard had a vocabulary “sweet as honey”  honey being  regurgitated nectar that bees expel, in other word,  “bee vomit.”  I’m trying to say, that even  saints sometimes spew what may amount to “ Faith-based prejudicial vomit” caused by the improper digestion of then understood information,  creating in a sense a “sour stomach”  in the Body of Christ the Church causing the spew. This is a longwinded way of saying that saints like the rest of humanity reflect the up or down  content of the times in which they live.
However, if what I once read elsewhere is true, St. Bernard of Clairvoux had a sense of humor! It’s related that once in the latrine Satan appeared to him, taunting the Saint for reading God’s Word in that location. Finally irritated by Satan’s continual taunts, the Saint closed the Bible and said to the Evil One, pointing to his rear, ”What I do there I do for you!” Then pointing to the Bible Bernard  said, “And what I do there I do for God!” Chagrinned, Satan vanished, showing I guess that evil confronted, is evil blunted!  
Anne Chapman
6 years 2 months ago
I can't help but wonder if those who were persecuted, and who died, partly because of the influence of people like Bernard didn't mind, because he also had a sense of humor.

It's interesting - Christians/Catholics who died for their faith are called saints. Those who died for their faiths due to Catholic hatred and persecution are simply brushed aside as unimportant - sweet words about Mary notwithstanding, it's just possible that he may not be as "dear" to Christ as some imagine.
Anne Chapman
6 years 2 months ago
Bruce, you can choose your own saints (those whom you admire and would wish to emulate), and I'll choose mine. We are all individuals and different ideas "speak" to us as individuals.  I tend to prefer the more peace-loving saints, like Francis of Assisi (who had a conversion of heart that most in that era of Catholic history did not experience, unfortunately), and modern saints, like Ghandi.
6 years 2 months ago
Dear Anne C, I’m reluctant  to get into an “you say” “I say” on and on  exchange, so maybe this may  end it unless you want to continue? -  I’m glad you like Francis of Assisi - so do I! I like him so much that for more than three decades I’ve been trying to emulate his spirit as a Professed Secular Franciscan. I agree with you that we should picked saints we like, yet that gives me a problem because, what am I supposed to do as I like ALL the saints? They all have something good to say, even when the “language” they use is hard to understand.  That’s when  I guess, the “Gift of Tongues” from the Holy Spirit may come into play, allowing us to grasp a little better what‘s being said. But if I have to make a choice I prefer saints that look like “Swiss Cheese” I mean people full of “holes” (flaws) because such a saint encourages me to let the message of the Good News enter my soul which it does through the many “opening” “holes” “flaws” that shout “That’s ME!”  Could it be that Bernard is one of those “Swiss Cheese Saints?” Maybe evn Francis as he surely was a wild one in his youth.  God bless you!
Anne Chapman
6 years 2 months ago
Bruce, I am glad that you embrace ALL saints on the Catholic calendar (quite a few, right?).  I cannot do the same, but that's just me.

On the other hand, I am blessed to known/have known several saints (some have passed away in recent years) - it's highly unlikely that any will ever be canonized by the church (especially since some of them aren't Catholic), but they have inspired me, humbled me, taught me, and I am very blessed to have known them.  They are what I call "everyday" saints, and they are truly God's hands and heart in the world. 
6 years 1 month ago
Dear Anne C., If I have it right, a major focus in your postings has to do with needed adulation for  un-canonized saints, especially non-catholic saints particularly lay people saints. I think martyrs don’t particularly interest you . In reality however, all the faithful are “martyrs” of fidelity, a few to the point of physically shedding blood.
  In synthesis the suggested pages pull together in what JPII says in “Tertio Millennio Adveniente.” At the end of the second millennium, the Church has once again become a Church of martyrs. The persecutions of believers - priests, religious, and laity - has caused a great sowing of martyrdom invarious parts of the world. The witness to Christ bone even to the shedding of blood has become a common heritage of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants …”.  “Testimony Of Hope” was published by PAULINE Books & Media in Boston.  Keep looking, you’ll find it - a very good read.
Brendan McGrath
6 years 2 months ago
Didn't Fr. Coleman say that Bernard came to see his preaching of the crusade as a mistake?  But beyond that, I wonder if it's possible to reconcile some of the different views being expressed here.  Isn't it possible to say that he was an extremely holy man, but with faults and sins, and that to some extent his historical conditioning may mitigate his culpability?  But even though he fell prey to intolerance, it also seems as if he overcame it - as Fr. Coleman said, he preached against anti-Semitism.

He had faults; he had blindnesses; he had sins.  That's what Purgatory is for, isn't it?
6 years 2 months ago
Dear Anne C, - Lighten-up!  Obviously  Bernard made mistakes in pursuit of righteousness as he understood righteousness in  his time to be, the Church too, we all too, in this way, or that way even now. Unless one is soaked in evil as in service to Satan, no one does evil for the sake of evil, but we do  wrong  in pursuit of something we perceive as good, evil nonetheless, with varying degrees of culpability No one gets off unscathed! But this should not negate the body of goodness in Bernard’s life, in the life of the Church, in our own lives.
Let’s also understand that those who die unjustly at the hands of people in pursuit of goodness improperly understood,  are no less holy than are those recognized as saints . This because in pursuit of truth no matter how serpentine , no matter how unjustly bloodstained the way, truth is the goal. And as many know, truth is not “something”- truth is a “person” and his name is Jesus Christ! And Jesus Christ as “the Truth” no matter how pursued is Lord and Savior who successfully leads to the Father even if we screw-up the “why” and the “how” ever striving of course,  to get it “right” And that’s what counts! After all is said and done, “a saint is a sinner who never stops trying!” So remembering this lets bust our chops in pursuit of goodness no matter the screw-ups along the way! At least that’s how I see it.
So how about letting God sift out the mistakes of all leaving behind one thing only - the “strainer” of love attached to the “handle” of forgiveness! 
Crystal Watson
6 years 2 months ago
I'm actually beginning to feel kind of guilty for ever having brought up Bernard and the crudsade - it's easy to look back and condemn, and I tend to want saints to be so perfect, which is unfair.  Having said that, you can read about the Second Crusade at Wikipedia ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Crusade .... It was against not just the Moselms but also the Slavs, and was, for the most part, a failure.  Here's a bit on Bernard from Wikipedia ....

<Back in Europe, Bernard of Clairvaux was humiliated by the defeat. Bernard considered it his duty to send an apology to the Pope and it is inserted in the second part of his Book of Consideration. There he explains how the sins of the crusaders were the cause of their misfortune and failures. When his attempt to call a new crusade failed, he tried to disassociate himself from the fiasco of the Second Crusade altogether.> 40

40 - Runciman, Steven (1952; repr. Folio Society, 1994). A History of the Crusades, vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100–1187. Cambridge University Press, pp. 227–228

6 years 2 months ago
Dear Anne C.,  Check out pgs 109-113 in “Testimony Of Hope” by the late Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan,  I think you’ll like it. A very inspiring testimony and book by a modern-day “White Martyr” and  Confessor of the Faith. Bye!
Anne Chapman
6 years 1 month ago
Bruce, I do not have a copy of that book nor does our public library - perhaps you could provide a summary of those pages? I googled the late Cardinal and learned the outline of his story and also found a list of his 10 ''top'' principles.

 Most of the everyday saints I know are not martyrs in the sense of ''dying'' for their faith - but the Cardinal did not die in prison either, so I guess he's not a martyr under that definition. Unfortunately, because of some close family and friends of Viet Namese background, I have heard many stories of those who survived the re-education camps. But, beyond that, the everyday saints I know are not witnesses to their faith because of keeping it while imprisoned, but simply humbly act in the world - the world of little people, not the world of Rome. They do not serve on pontifical commissions and do not have grand titles.  They simply quietly love - they help those whom Jesus called ''the least'' of his brothers and sisters - they feed them, they house them, they visit those in prison (like this priest's mother did through her messages), they clothe them, they comfort them. They are unheralded and unknown to Rome because they are not clergy or religious sisters.  Many others do this in the home - they care for a disabled child for their entire lives, or maybe other helpless family members, for example - they meet their every need - feeding, comforting, changing adult diapers!, while also caring for the rest of their families, working to pay the bills, keeping the home clean and inviting, supporting the wider communities of their church and neighborhood. These people inspire me and humble me in ways that no distant saint ever can. They are living the life I live, but doing it so much better, they are so much more holy than I am (and so much more holy than most clergy!). The church has enough clergy and religious on the official calendar of saints - they need to recognize a few of the countless unheralded saints among those whose primary vocation is family.  There was a discussion about this not too long ago in America, so I will not continue.  

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