Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bernard of Clairvaux

I'm still dubious about St. Bernard, no matter how they try to gussy up his bio. He sounds like a person more admired than loved. No soft cuddly beast, he. He sounds like he would be right at home in the more rigid of our fundamentalist churches. Very big on whipping people up with emotions and loading them down with rules.

Not that he was a hypocrite; he was rough on himself, too. "The beginnings of 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." But how can any regimen that makes a person ill be considered...healthy?

I'm dubious about his use of the Virgin Mary, whom he claimed as an intercessor. I'm dubious about his denunciation of Peter Abelard, which is of course my very modern reaction against establishing only one right way of thinking. I'm dubious even about his writing "On Loving God" in which I hoped to find some comfort, but find only a guilt-trip: "Those who admit the truth of what I have said know, I am sure, why we are bound to love God. But if unbelievers will not grant it, their ingratitude is at once confounded by His innumerable benefits, lavished on our race, and plainly discerned by the senses. Who is it that gives food to all flesh, light to every eye, air to all that breathe?" Answer? God does, so we'd better love him. Not an appealing argument.

But I am particularly dubious about Bernard because he used his position to whip up interest and recruits for the second crusade. "Bernard found it expedient to dwell upon the taking of the cross as a potent means of gaining absolution for sin and attaining grace," according to Wikipedia (in a rather mediocre entry, I must say). This got a lot of recruits, but didn't lead to a "successful" recapture of Jerusalem from the Turks. Instead, we got a lot of anti-semitic violence, which Bernard, to his credit, worked to stop. I don't know if it's to his credit that he worked to dissociate himself from the second crusade, especially since he claimed it was the sins of the crusaders that caused the campaign's failure.

I find Bernard a bitter pill to swallow in the calendar of saints, but in Bernard, I reluctantly admit to finding the grace of God. Sins were absolved and grace attained even with the failure of the second crusade. Sins are absolved and grace attained not through our perfections or attempts at it, Bernard's and mine.

Padre Mickey is much kinder to Bernard, and more informed to boot!


Paul said...

Yep. Thanks for the counter view that I did not have time to put together.

qoe said...

Tomaz Mastnak's 2001 "Crusading Peace" discusses Bernard's innovation with regard to the Templars: carte blanche to kill, killing was good. "The soldier of Christ is safe when he kills, even safer when he is killed. If he is killed, it is for his own good; if he kills, he does it for Christ." Just war, eh? Saintly logic? War and killing in the name of the Prince of Peace. Gives one pause, or so it should.