Whether you are interested in history, in Christianity, or Christian history, Saint Bernard of Clairveaux is a massively significant and complex person. He was born in 1090 and lived through one of the more complicated periods of medieval European history. Specifically, he lived through a Papal Schism, the height of Crusades fervor, and some pretty fantastic theological debates concerning the atonement wrought by Christ.
First of all, Bernard was a monk and an abbot. In 1115 he became the abbot of Cluny, which was the center of the Cistercian reform movement which had begun a couple decades previously, getting many monks and monasteries back on track in worshiping God regularly and reverently and taking seriously their vows of poverty in particular. It can be difficult for us to imagine how a local abbot could accomplish very much in the greater scheme of things, but it must be understood that St. Bernard was a veritable celebrity of his day.
One of his great achievements was to help settle a papal schism. Two popes were apparently elected in 1130 and their rivalry could not be resolved. Enough bishops agreed to call Bernard as a moderator to settle the dispute and select which elected Pope would remain in office. It took nine years for all the bishops and crowns of Western Europe to acquiesce, and the politics and appeals were long, drawn out, and complicated. St. Bernard was resilient.
Even more political, though not without significant religious overtones, was the call to Crusade. The first Crusade, the most successful one in the holy land, took place in 1095-1099. In 1147, a second was called in response to the fall of Edessa. Bernard was called upon, due to his reputation, to preach for a second Crusade to be gathered, and he did this with zeal. The history of the Crusades are very complicated and cannot be oversimplified (as both critics and supporters today invariably do), and neither can Bernard’s role in this be. He stirred up great zeal to aid the Christian commonwealths in the holy land, and spread the Pope’s offer of special privileges (and indulgences, much to our theological disappointment today!) to all who would answer the call. Yet he also preached and disputed against those who misdirected the crusader zeal. There were elements of violent anti-semitism that arose with Crusade preaching, and Bernard traveled throughout France and Germany to dispute with and silence those who endorsed such bigotry and evil.
With the early stages of medieval scholasticism on the rise, Bernard also found himself in the midst of some fierce theological debate. Many new ideas were being kicked around, many old ideas were being refined and explored, and a great deal of debate arose concerning how to address all the ink being spilled on various subjects. One of the most famous examples was that of Peter Abelard, who was preoccupied perhaps most remarkably with God’s love. While this may seem like a good thing at first, his application of it was clearly misguided. Abelard put forth the idea that Christ’s death on the Cross was primarily a show of love. This led to what is called today the Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement: Christ died to show us and inspire us to true love. While this is true, in itself, it is not the whole picture; Abelard did not give due consideration to the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death, and his dealing with sin, be it in terms of a ransom to the devil for our lives, a payment to God for satisfaction of his justice, or a substitution for our due penalty. (Abelard’s Moral Influence view, as it happens, tends to be echoed quite strongly in liberal Protestantism today.) Bernard served as a witness against Abelard’s teachings in a formal council, and won the day before official proceedings even began.
And yet, despite Bernard’s great contribution to the Crusades and opposition to Abelard’s teachings, one of his most enduring writings to this day is the treatise On The Love of God. Along with his 86 sermons on the book Song of Solomon, St. Bernard’s profound and, frankly, intimate love for God is made vividly evident. He writes about degrees of love through which the Christian progresses, shedding layers of selfishness and drawing closer to God for the sake of his goodness. He writes of kissing Jesus’ feet, hands, and mouth, each representing various forms of devotion to Christ’s person, life, works, and teachings.
If his support for something as uncomfortable to the modern reader as the Crusades, or his theological debates with major teachers of his day were all we had to go on, we might never guess that Bernard had such an affective, even mystical, sense of relationship with Jesus. His emphasis on the immediacy of personal faith in Christ, taking into account His humanity and Mary his human mother, almost seems more at home with the domestication and emotionalism of modern popular evangelicalism than a medieval Saint. This is one of the hallmarks of a great medieval mystic – the ability to show and describe unmatched love for Jesus alongside defending the intelligible faith of the Church without getting too bogged down in extremes.
For all his achievements for the Church in his day, and especially or the enduring qualities of his writings, Bernard of Clairvaux was eventually named a Doctor [great teacher] of the Church. For centuries he has been commemorated on the day of his death, 20th August.