Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thoughts on Saint Bernard in the World

Much of our discussion on Bernard’s four Marian homilies centered around his affective understanding of the Word made flesh and its role at the moment of Incarnation.  For all its universal significance vis-à-vis the birth and resurrection of Christ, Mary’s visitation by God and God’s messenger is in the end a private moment, commensurate with theotokos’ status as a mystery to all but Mary and God Himself (p. 49).  The moment of Bernard’s life during which these homilies were composed was also, of course, an intensely personal one.  Bernard goes so far as to call upon the intercession of the Virgin for the “sin” of satisfying his personal devotional aspirations by writing them down (p. 58).  With this in mind, it is easy to forget that Bernard was clearly anything but a withdrawn and cloistered individual.  Granted, though he was formally withdrawn from the turmoil of twelfth-century bellatores and laboratores, his later career among the oratores saw the Cistercians grow from an upstart order of reformist Benedictines in Citeaux to a network of many hundreds of houses operating throughout Christendom.

As he wrote his Marian homilies in seclusion, the future saint and “doctor of the Church” likely had little foreknowledge of the illustrious career that awaited him.  Effectively banished (temporarily) from the equal company of the brothers, Bernard’s personal reflections upon the Virgin contain relatively little in the way of meditation on the Cistercian order itself.  Most of the socially critical material the sermons do contain pertains to the failings of individual monks (including and especially Bernard himself) rather than the wider role of the Cistercian order within the Church and to Christian society at large.  Nevertheless, there are several key moments within Bernard’s personal devotion to Mary that may speak to his future accomplishments, accomplishments that are perhaps not worldly in intention, but certainly carry concrete ramifications for the world of the High Middle Ages.  These overtures can be broadly characterized as a desire for regeneration and a kind of preemptive philosophical/ideological action, especially to render non-sinful certain inappropriate forms of love.

In Homily II, while discussing the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:22 (“a woman shall enclose a man”), Bernard poses the question Nicodemus asks Christ in John 3:4, that is, “can a man enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born anew?” (p. 21) This directly precedes Christ’s insistence that salvation depends upon being “born again” “of water and the Spirit” (John 3: 5-6).  All modern connotations of that phrase aside, the notion of the Incarnation as not just birth but also rebirth speaks directly to Bernard’s ambitions (he probably wouldn’t like that word!) to construct the Cistercian order as rejuvenation of the Benedictine ideal.  Bernard’s primary motivation to engage in revealed exegesis also draws heavily upon the notion of rebirth: just as the birth of Christ marked the coming of the “living Word” “clothed in flesh” (p. 57), spiritual (mystical?) contemplation of Scripture by a sensitive monk exposes the true vigor of what are to the uninitiated mere words scrawled upon a page.  Additionally, the familial allegory Bernard utilizes early in Homily II draws upon Mary as the new Eve essentially rejuvenating not only her fallen “mother”, but also restoring womankind from a general reproach leveling blame for original sin upon women as a group (p. 16-17).

The period beginning with Bernard’s life is sometimes referred to historiographically as the “twelfth-century renaissance”, owing to a general quickening of European economic forces, new methods in the arts, and the inception of scholastic thought.  While our perspective often evaluates such periods positively, Bernard’s dedication to regeneration of the clergy need not imply he would agree.  It is arguable, perhaps, that far from striding forth boldly into a new age of ecclesiastical stability, Bernard the architect of an order was fighting a holding action to rein in the sweeping changes and guide his burgeoning order along a responsible course while fending off malpractice and heresy.  To wit, certain philosophical and/or ideological themes in Bernard’s Marian homilies may presage a kind of preemptive action in which potentially threatening ideas are subsumed into orthodox theology and not only defanged, but also made useful.  While Bernard almost certainly had no clear “game plan” in this regard, especially at this early stage, it is possible that his devotional proclivities were especially suited to helping guide the church through trying times.

Though pride and avarice in the cloister are immensely important examples, I’d like to focus on Bernard’s frequent sensualization of the Incarnation moment.  While he is obviously opposed to carnality as such, the lushness of his language and metaphor indicates that Bernard is clearly a sensually attuned man.  As we discussed in class, he often resorts to language lifted from the Song of Songs to describe the interactions between God and Mary, posing their relationship alongside that of lovers.  In light of his extensive collection of sermons addressing the Song of Songs in detail, Bernard seems to be establishing some kind of parity between Mary, the human soul (his interpretation of the beloved), and the beloved herself (p. 16).  In this sense, Bernard makes the very orthodox move of positioning Mary squarely within the human realm, with the role of God (lover) in opposition.  However, directly after this move, Bernard emphasizes the distance between God and Mary: “from God to a virgin, from the highest to the humble, from the Master to the handmaiden,” (p. 16).  Bernard appears specifically attentive to a kind of social inclusiveness: while careful to maintain orthodox claims, his overtures to Mary at once redeem women, accentuate God’s ability to act throughout the social hierarchy, and even legitimate some abstracted element of sexuality within the celibate life.

This last claim, perhaps the most provocative, deserves further examination.  While I lack the necessary fluency with Cistercian liturgical symbolism to trace Bernard’s sensual references reliably to monastic ritual (a linkage we discussed in class), the fact that many of them originate there does not annul their potential to color the future role of Cistercians within a larger worldly context.  Along with the spread of Bernard’s monastic order, the twelfth century also saw – correct me if my timeline is off – a general rise in the concept of “courtly love”, a form of romance distancing love as such from the necessity of sexual relations.  While this concept flourished for the most part in southern France, land of the troubadours, it also appeared in Burgundy.  Bernard’s family was Burgundian nobility; it seems likely he might have picked up on chivalric themes prior to exiting the laity.  The moment of Mary’s choice appeared especially fraught with chivalric themes to me: though only the Lord has the power to “save the world”, it is upon the word of the Lady that this entire effort rests (p. 53).  Moreover, the mystery of incarnation is secret, truly knowable only by omniscient God and the Virgin via her experience (p. 49).  Secret trysts were of course part and parcel of courtly love.

From a moral perspective, courtly love with its focus on extramarital affairs does not mesh well with Christian values (despite the Vulgate Cycle’s insistence to the contrary!).  Sexual matters appear prominently elsewhere in twelfth-century ecclesiastical history: Peter Abelard was a contemporary and theological rival of Bernard, and the First Lateran Council (1123) adopted several canons addressing lapses in clerical celibacy, indicating that routine violations still occurred.  Bernard may have been cognizant of this set of threats and gravitated toward Mary as a means to sublimate them and strip them of sin.  The persistent efforts Bernard makes to combat the Albigensian heresy late in his life seem to indicate he was indeed attuned to this constellation of problems.  While his Marian homilies predate the full irruption of the Cathar crisis, they may represent the beginnings of a methodology that might subtly combat what Innocent III would later end by brutal crusade.  Of course, much of the above is mere conjecture.  I just wanted to situate Bernard’s Marian homilies alongside wider contemporary trends, given his immense influence as arch-father of the Cistercian brotherhood.  



  1. PWR: Wow. This is a very good post.

    I find this keen passage useful: “[c]ertain philosophical and/or ideological themes in Bernard’s Marian homilies may presage a kind of preemptive action in which potentially threatening ideas are subsumed into orthodox theology and not only defanged, but also made useful.”

    With this statement, and with your assessment of Bernard’s probable lack of a “game plan,” you address the historical ways that orthodoxy, doctrine, dogma are made. And you then move on to make historically contextualizing suggestions of possible broader influences on Bernard’s writings. Thus, through Bernard’s writings you look “forward” and “backward” in historical time. I lack the expertise to address the historical and cultural specifics of your argument, but I very much appreciate your approach .

  2. Very nicely observed on the way in which we can read Bernard's devotional concerns in his homilies on Mary as situated in the social and institutional context of his day! Yes, Bernard is definitely taking up the language of reform as regeneration. He also is imagining Mary through the language of the Song as a model for the individual soul's encounter with God. Courtly love is a stickier issue: there has been much debate in recent scholarship on how much courtly love or, more accurately, chivalric love "distanced love from the necessity of sexual relations" (if by this you mean, distanced love from marriage and/or physical consummation). But it is certainly the case that these images were, as it were, in the air, in Burgundy as well as in the south of France. I like very much the reading of Mary's experience as a lovers' secret, and of the necessity of her consent as privileging a lady's choice.