Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Cistercians – The Homilies of Bernard Clairvaux in Particular

For our latest class discussion, we focused on the writing of two very important Cistercian monks of the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Amadeus of Lausanne. As Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvaux and Amadeus of Lausanne represented the reforming offshoot of the Benedictine order known for their plain white habits and plain architecture, the practice of manual labor, the location of abbeys outside of cities, and the creation of the chapter system. In particular interest to our class, the Cistercians are famous for their devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Bernard of Clairvaux was responsible for the spread of the Cistercian order throughout his lifetime, however his Homilies in Praise Blessed Virgin Mary were written at an earlier stage in his life before this larger proliferation of the order. The homilies of Bernard are familiar for the class in that many of the biblical references we find in Bernard’s writings we have encountered before in the course, but they also both expand in new directions, and place less emphasis on certain traditions. There is very little temple imagery for example. The Eve-Mary, and Adam-Christ comparisons are present in the Homilies like there were in writings we read of the Byzantine concept of the Theotokos. Bernard presents Mary as the necessary redeemer for both men and women: “For if man fell on account of woman, surely he will rise only through another woman”.[1] Although this fallen and redeemer dynamic is present in our past readings of the Theotokos, the discussion of Mary as a redeemer is more focused on Mary’s qualities of humility and virginity than debate between Mary as the mother of God (Theotokos), or as the mother of Christ (Christotokos). This lack of concern between Mary’s nature as the mother of God or Christ likely demonstrates the degree to which the ideology of the Theotokos had become dogma in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the twelfth century.

In the Homilies, Bernard’s most noticeable argument is his discussion of Mary’s two great virtues: her virginity and her humility. Bernard sees the path to salvation as following Mary’s example. A perfect individual, such as Mary would remain a virgin (pure), as well as humble to obtain salvation. Yet, if one cannot be perfect by following Mary’s virginity and humility, it is in fact more important to follow Mary’s humility than her virginity: “You can be saved without virginity; without humility you cannot be”.[2] This may seem rather strange advice, as Mary’s most memorable attribute is her virginity. She is the Virgin Mary, not the “Humble” Mary. However, the problem that Bernard sees in following in the footsteps of Mary by being a virgin is the sin of pride. While being pure of body by being a virgin would be admirable, being prideful of this accomplishment would make one unworthy of being saved.

The style of Bernard’s writing falls into two extremes throughout the homilies. On the one hand Bernard appears to have an intense interest in basing his commentary on the texts, often speaking in biblical phrases. However, on the other hand Bernard indulges in a great deal of original speculation on the experiences and feelings of Mary, and the angel Gabriel! It is Bernard’s belief that Evangelists were quite specific in their writings, and that the words of the text, particularly those of names, and places are not to be taken for granted.[3] The meaning of the Angel Gabriel’s name “fortitude of God” is important to Bernard as it announced the coming of the power of the Lord.[4] The importance of the meaning of Nazareth as “flower” being that in flowers there is the expectation of fruit, Jesus of course in this case.[5] Galilee’s meaning of “passing over” suggested “When Truth appeared in flesh and blood, the figure (Jesus) passed away”, foreshadowing his death.[6] These close readings of the text indicate the deep knowledge of which Bernard had of the texts, no doubt drilled into him through his recitations of the Hours of the Virgin. This intimate knowledge of texts may also explain Bernard’s writings that speculate on the feelings of Mary and Gabriel. The repeated experience of reciting the text and contemplating on them would have given Bernard ample time and opportunity to speculate on what being in the presence of God, and angels might be like. Bernard’s imagination of Mary and Gabriel’s interactions, and feelings comes from a practice of faith in which I presume Bernard tried to experience the scriptures as much as possible.

Bernard’s imagination of Mary the person, and his ideal of following her virtues of virginity and humility are related to his life’s devotion as a monk. Mary’s actions in prayer in Bernard’s imagination are like a monk’s. This is probably because of Bernard’s own personal experience of prayer, and because Bernard saw Mary as the ideal example for a monk to follow.[7] Through the vow of celibacy, monks could imitate the Virgin Mary, but Bernard saw it as more valuable to combine this practice of virginity with humility. Practically, this might have been important for monks who had not joined the priesthood as virgins, or for those who broke their vow, but I doubt Bernard was considering this, or even if he was that it was his main concern. Likely I believe that Bernard’s insistence on humility stemmed from his experience of prideful monks, or possibly himself, and the belief that it was more important to have a pure soul than body.


[1] Bernard of Clairvaux , Homilies in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993, 17.
[2] Bernard of Clairvaux, 9.
[3] Bernard of Clairvaux, 5.
[4] Bernard of Clairvaux, 7.
[5] Bernard of Clairvaux, 8.
[6] Bernard of Clairvaux, 8.
[7] Bernard of Clairvaux,33. See this section for Mary’s monk like activity.


  1. You do a nice job here drawing on the themes that we talked about in class, and in particular placing Bernard's homilies in the context of what we said about the Cistercians as an order. Was there anything in the homilies that you saw that we did not talk about that you think deserves further attention? Are you persuaded that it is Mary's humility that matters most to Bernard? What do we do with the fact that Bernard seems to be (as you note) talking most about the pride of monks in invoking Mary as a model for his readers? Does this emphasis then downplay her maternity? Or is he also expecting his monastic audience to imitate her in bearing Christ? What do we make of the use of this kind of crossgendered imagery? Was gender even a category for Bernard? How does Bernard's image of Mary compare with the kind of imagery he would have found in the earlier tradition? Does he seem to know it? And so forth. RLFB

    1. Addressing the “was gender even a category for Bernard” question, yes and no. He is clear to say that, ““For if man fell on account of woman, surely he will rise only through another woman” (17). I think this shows that he believes in the theological importance of Mary being a woman. However, that does not mean he believes God is using Mary to mandate biologically determined gender roles. I find the word “surely” to be important, because it suggests Bernard thinks Mary is a woman because this would be “most fitting”, since it would strengthen the fall from Eden/ rise of Christ parallelism. A biological definition of women is thus not important for him. So her physical birthing of and maternity over Christ becomes less important to Bernard, compared to perhaps her spiritual role as Mother of God. If one is not obsessed with biological definitions, then crossing genders is not even a concept that makes sense. While I do not know much about the gender system of feudal Europe, I’m guessing gender was probably conceptualized very differently than the specific take on biological determinism that prevails in the modern capitalist West. Since Bernard never even brings up that priests are men and Mary is a woman, it would seem possible that this gender crossing did not even occur to him.


  2. You mention that Bernard's reconstructions of Mary and Gabriel's emotions, the "feel" of their interactions, likely sprung from meditating and reciting over and over on the specific Biblical passages of the Annunciation, and I think you're right. It's interesting to consider what status these sorts of feelings and extra-Biblical interpretations may have had for Bernard, given that he weaves them with the actual words of Scripture. Are they something more than his own meditations? Do they have an authoritative status beyond "I'm a fairly intelligent guy who has been prayerfully thinking about these subjects a lot"? If so, what is it and from whence does it derive? Does Mary somehow play a role in this meditation beyond their subject?