A Saint for the Times

The Church celebrated the Feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux on Friday. I’ve been thinking about him recently because he appears in the Divine Comedy as Dante’s last and greatest guide on his pilgrimage to the Beatific Vision. (If you don’t know that poem or want manageable and accessible guidance to reading it, I’ll be offering an online course on Dante’s Paradiso starting September 8, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Mother. (Click here for more information.) Dante had other great guides along the way – the Roman poet Virgil and Beatrice. He benefitted from special help by St. Lucy; met distinguished souls such as Aquinas, Bonaventure, Saints Dominic and Francis of Assisi, Kings David and Solomon; and was examined on faith, hope, and charity, by Peter, James, and John. So the question arises: why amid such intellectual firepower, historic leadership, and sheer holiness did the greatest Christian poet choose St. Bernard as his final companion, a figure not well-known today, even to most Catholics?

This is just one of the many ways that we’ve lost contact with our own highest and best tradition. St. Bernard (1090-1153) lived slightly earlier than Dominic (1170-1221) and Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), but along with them helped produce the period of reform and recovery we now call the High Middle Ages. In his own time, he was a dominant figure. He helped restore monasticism and attracted so many to religious life that, by some estimates, he founded or helped to found over 160 monasteries.

In addition, he was an able and honest administrator, scourge of corruption, effective participant in political, military, and social matters, adviser to popes and secular rulers, and – supremely – a theologian who spoke and wrote with great grace and power about what is sometimes these days called “nuptial mysticism,” i.e., the love that unites us with the Godhead. He also had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, to whom he prays so that Dante will be granted the final graces he needs. No wonder that Dante, given the scope of his own interests and after thousands of lines of some of the greatest poetry ever written, realized that Bernard was the companion he needed in the end to “see God.”

The Scholastic philosophers and theologians were fierce intellectuals, largely in the Aristotelean vein. Bernard possessed a probing mind, but more along the line of the “personal encounter” with Jesus, as we say today – the more Platonic/Augustinian side of the tradition. And that’s all to the good because, as Dante intuited and presented in his Comedy, all our intellectual and social efforts are ultimately in service to that larger, eternal goal. Still, Bernard’s intellect was so sharp that once, when he and the wayward Peter Abelard met to debate, Abelard chose to withdraw after hearing Bernard speak.

Many Catholics are troubled today by divisions within the Church, particularly at how Pope Francis has contradicted teachings of his two great predecessors St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI (even while the latter is, of course, still alive). Bernard had to deal with a schism that broke out in 1130 in which there were actually two rival popes – Innocent II and the anti-pope Anacletus II. Bernard supported Innocent and worked tirelessly – visiting Church and secular leaders – to make the case, which God resolved when the anti-pope died.


He was also a strong advocate for the Second Crusade – a part of Western history deeply misunderstood by most people, even most Catholics. The Crusades are usually portrayed in modern histories as a kind of Christian aggression against peaceful Muslims occupying the Holy Land. In fact, they were a response to the Muslim invasions that began in the Middle East, sweeping across North Africa, and deep into Spain and France, with periodic attacks resulting in the occupation of Sicily and even raids into Rome itself. The Second Crusade ultimately failed, but was a noble effort to reverse the conquest of the Crusader Kingdom of Edessa by a Muslim jihadi army – and to defend Christendom.

The Crusades are also often attacked for the violence unruly armies unleashed on Jews and sometimes even Christians. Bernard opposed violence against Jews, wherever it arose. It’s been argued that the reason Bernard is a relatively common name among Jews is a historical result of his interventions. In any event, as T.S. Eliot wrote of the Crusades:

in spite of all the dishonour,
The broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.
Only the faith could have done what was good of it;
Whole faith of a few,
Part faith of many.
Not avarice, lechery, treachery,
Envy, sloth, gluttony, jealousy, pride:
It was not these that made the Crusades,
But these that unmade them.

(“Choruses from the Rock”)

But over and above all Bernard’s ecclesial and secular accomplishments – which Church leaders would do well to replicate today – St. Bernard remains for us the Doctor Mellifluus – as he was named when he became a Doctor of the Church – in part because of the sweetness of his expositions of “nuptial mysticism,” the impulse towards union with what Dante called “The love that moves the sun and other stars.” It’s worth spending time with his Commentary on the Song of Songs (here), a stunning introduction to a great Christian brother:

a special divine impulse. . .inspired these songs. . .that now celebrate the praises of Christ and his Church, the gift of holy love, the sacrament of endless union with God. Here too are expressed the mounting desires of the soul, its marriage song, an exultation of spirit poured forth in figurative language pregnant with delight. . . .I consider this nuptial song to be well deserving of the title that so remarkably designates it, the Song of Songs, just as he in whose honor it is sung is uniquely proclaimed King of kings and Lord of lords.


*Image: Saint Bernard by an unknown artist, c. before 1135 [Bodleian Library, University of Oxford]. This is the earliest known representation of Saint Bernard and the only one that survives from his lifetime. The image is in a manuscript of his first treatise, The Steps of Humility, a pastoral work in which Bernard addresses his fellow monks on the monastic virtues.

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Father Robert Imbelli’s Savoring B&B During Advent

Robert Royal’s The Mind the Matters

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.