Tag Archives: Bernard of Clairvaux

“Sexy devotion” – C S Lewis, Margery Kempe, and the mystics’ erotic language of intimacy with Christ


Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa"

Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

The following is from the “affective devotion” chapter draft from Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438)[1]

Margery was a middle-class laywoman (mother and business owner) who lived in the late 14th and early 15th century and provided us with the first biography of a woman written in English. This, by the way, was probably dictated to a clergyman, since she was almost certainly either illiterate or barely literate.

Margery is a great example of a layperson with a deep, even mystical piety who became an influence on the clergy and monastics of her day—although plenty of people simply wrote her off as a crazy lady because of the depth of her emotion during church services. But in that very trait, she was a reflection (if extreme) of the late medieval tradition of affective devotion: “Her spiritual life was centered, from the beginning and throughout her life, on the human Christ, the object of her prayers and her love. She identified very closely with the Virgin as woman and mother, and her participation in the Passion was enlarged and inspired by sharing Mary’s grief. Her enthusiasm, her ‘boisterous’ emotion, and her conspicuous humility were borrowed from the Franciscans and legitimated by their authority. And her method of meditation—that is, her personal involvement in the biblical story, placing herself among the holy figures—was exactly the method prescribed by writers of affective devotion.” (ATK, 155)

Margery’s book is earthy at points – even bawdy. She tells a particular story about an episode of sexual temptation in her life that is R-rated. And her language of intimacy with Christ is also direct and frank. When he sees a “comely [handsome] man” in the streets, it sets her to meditating on Jesus. And when she talks about her times of inner dialogue with her Lord, she uses a term usually reserved in her time for the kissing and cooing of young lovers: “dalliance.” We have not moved far from Bernard here! Continue reading

The roots of heart religion – Bernard of Clairvaux


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux, trapped in the first letter of his name – 13th-c. illuminated manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the fourth part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, the second part here, on Gregory the Great, and the third part here, on Anselm of Canterbury:

Bernard (1090-1153)

Probably best known today for hymns such as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” Bernard of Clairvaux was by any measure a formative figure in medieval devotion.

A reforming monk of the Cistercian order, Bernard returned to the simplicity of the Rule of Saint Benedict, preached to recruit participants in the Second Crusade in 1146, and in later life he had so much power that he was the virtual pope of the Western church. Throughout his career, Bernard’s teaching focused on love—in a positive, personal vein, but not a sentimental one. He talked about the relationship between the self and God. Borrowing a good deal from Augustine, Bernard, in his treatise On Loving God, sets forth four degrees of this love. He sees the self first of all loving only itself, then loving the neighbor and God for its own sake. Third, the soul comes to love God for God’s sake, normally the highest plane of love. But there is a fourth level, in which the soul loves itself for God’s sake. This is found only fleetingly on earth but will be the constant state of the dead after the resurrection of the body.

Bernard emphasizes the importance of the human Jesus for Christian spirituality. He refers more frequently than his immediate predecessors to the New Testament portrait of Jesus, not merely as an example of a holy life, but as the divine action of love to change the hearts of human beings. Bernard’s sermons on Advent and Christmas rise to the heights of praise for the Incarnation. In his twentieth sermon on Song of Songs, Bernard argued that the Incarnation was actually for this purpose: to attract our affections: “‘I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.’” Continue reading

Faith VS. reason: A too-convenient modern story about medieval monks vs. scholars


council at sens at which Bernard accused Abelard

Council of Sens, 1140, at which Bernard of Clairvaux had Peter Abelard’s doctrine condemned

One more snippet on theology from  my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Here’s a cardinal truth about reading history: just because you hear a story again and again doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, it may indicate that a legend has taken on the aura of truth and is no longer being examined. That’s something like what I think has happened in the common “monasticism vs scholasticism” narrative you will often see in textbooks and hear in classrooms:

The “warfare thesis” projected backward

Now there is a modern scholarly narrative about scholasticism that you may have run across – it still seems quite popular. That narrative takes the politicized struggle between two strong personalities—Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard—and derives from it a thesis about the relationship between monastic and scholastic thinking: that the world of medieval theology was divided into obscurantist, fideist monastics who were afraid of using reason and dialectic and wanted to protect mystery, and intelligent, rational scholastics who didn’t care which sacred cows they slaughtered en route to a more “systematic” theology. In this story, Bernard of Clairvaux leads the charge against logic as the arch-monastic, and Abelard stands as the champion of logic and systematization. Continue reading

We must not abdicate the theological task – a word from C S Lewis and the medievals


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux united love of God and attention to theology: he was NOT the opponent of philosophical theology that many portray him as.

Another draft clip from the “passion for theology” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis:

So, Lewis sought wisdom through philosophy, and that wisdom led him on a path to Christianity. But he never stopped being a philosopher—even in writing his famous children’s books. One remembers Professor Digory’s exclamation in The Last Battle: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

For us, on the other hand, the temptation is perhaps the opposite—having found Christianity, we see no use for a reasoned exploration of Truth. What Lewis and the medievals can help us know is that we evangelicals cannot content ourselves with seeking after the charismatic experience of the “beauty of God’s holiness,” or even with the practical pursuit of that holiness in our own hearts and actions. As the classical philosophers taught all subsequent generations, Beauty and Goodness are but two of our proper ends. The third is Truth. For ultimately a beautiful and good life can only remain so if we live it in the light of Truth. And since Christians would agree with all theists that God is the source of Truth, we must turn to God as the first and most proper subject for reasoned inquiry. Which is to say, none of us—even the simplest and most untutored—can abdicate our responsibility (and privilege) as theologians.

For most of us, this will never mean grasping the intricacies of philosophical theology; that is the job of academic theologians, as it is of the pastors they train to grasp at least the bones and sinews of theology (seminaries certainly have as their primary task the training of theologically intelligent pastors). But all Christians are theologians in other ways. First and most simply, as the Orthodox tradition has always insisted, to pray is to do theology.[1] Second, to do theology is also to listen carefully to our pastors and teachers and to read Scripture in the light of the Tradition they pass on to us—for most of us, this is the most important way we do theology.

If we don’t seek and have Truth in our “inmost parts,” then we have confusion, self-contradiction. We have a weak basis for life. And again, in the Western tradition in which most of my readers have been formed, philosophy has always been a way of life. So my argument to modern Christians in this chapter is: blow the dust off the theological tomes. Steal theological pursuits back from the academics, because those pursuits are about life. They are not about making a career or speaking only to others in a technical discipline. As Anselm of Canterbury was, we too must be about “faith seeking understanding.” And we could find much worse guides in that pursuit than such medieval theologians as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas . . . and pointing back to these, C.S. Lewis as the self-styled “dinosaur”—the “native speaker” who  translates their medieval ideas for us.[2]


[1] The early “desert theologian” Evagrius Pontus is said to have put it like this: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”

[2] By the way, by distinguishing Truth from Beauty and Goodness, I do not mean to divide what neither medieval thinkers nor Lewis divided. For instance, Lewis begins his famous essay on natural law and virtue ethics, The Abolition of Man, with a challenge against two textbook authors who claim that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. He insists that on the contrary, beauty is actually present in objects, independent of our perception of them. There is thus, for example, a truth-telling quality of Beauty, so to speak, in a waterfall. And from that truth-telling quality, we can derive (and Lewis does derive, in that essay) the broader principle that there is also moral truth embedded in the nature of things. So here we have Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, all together. To paraphrase Robert Louis Wilken (from his wonderful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought), the great engine driving the search for theological truth, and even perhaps to a degree scientific truth, the early and medieval church history, is not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity, but rather is the desire to know how to live in the light of our Creator God’s love for his creation—the pursuit not only of the true, but also of the good, and indeed the beautiful.

Jaroslav Pelikan: Glimpses into medieval theology


These are brief excerpts and quotations I marked while reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300), Vol. 3. in his series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978).

As with the David Bell “glimpses” posted yesterday, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. “D” means a definition of a term. “Use” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching:

Q, 3: “The Middle Ages may be seen as the period when the primary focus of Christian thought about Christ shifted from what he was to what he did, from the person of Christ to the work of Christ.” Continue reading

Peering into the cloister: Where shaving was accompanied by psalm-singing and bloodletting was more frequent than bathing


Learning about medieval monasticism is a joy, not a chore, with the beautiful and engaging book I reviewed last summer for the Christianity Today history blog:

Peering into the Cloister

Where shaving was accompanied by psalm-singing and bloodletting was more frequent than bathing.

by Chris Armstrong

Essen_Kreuzgang_7.jpg

Last week was a good one: we spent it at our friends’ Wisconsin cabin, enjoying swimming, boating, fishing, tubing, and even a close encounter with a bald eagle.

What made the week even better was the book I took with me to relax with on the dock as our kids swam. This was Christopher Brooke’s The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist/HiddenSpring, 2003).* A few samples:

The razors for shaving were kept by one of the monks under the chamberlain’s jurisdiction, locked in a box in the cloister near the door to the dormitory. At the appointed time he organized a group of monks in two rows in the cloister, one row to shave, the other to be shaven, and the task was performed to the accompaniment of a psalm. (79) Continue reading

Gory glory: where devotion to Christ’s passion came from and why it’s still a worthy spiritual discipline


I posted yesterday a reflection sparked by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. You might wonder: Why did Christians ever begin to focus on the gory details of Jesus’ last hours? Glad you asked! I explored that very question in a Christianity Today article:

The Fountain Fill’d wth Blood
Mel Gibson is drawing on a long tradition of Cross-centered devotion.
Chris Armstrong

Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, acted on the repeated urgings of his Augustinian confessor, Staupitz, to “Look to the wounds of Jesus.” And soon after posting his 95 theses, he announced that the only man who deserved to be called a theologian was he “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.” All through his life, his sermons and hymns contained striking images of that event.

The German pietists and the Moravians who followed in Luther’s steps in the centuries after his death also practiced the Reformer’s near-mystical devotion to the cross. They wrote hymns filled with the most heart-rending depictions of the wounds and the sufferings of Christ. And British evangelicals like the Wesleys and William Cowper followed with hymns in a similar, if more refined, mold (think of Cowper’s “There is a fountain fill’d with blood, / Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins”).

This comes as a surprise to many, because Protestants have usually followed the image-averse John Calvin. He, though equally focused on the Cross, worried that any imagining of the Crucifixion might become an idol, distracting the believer from God himself.

Thus the “gorier” pietist and Moravian hymns have now, with the almost solitary exception of Paul Gerhardt’s (d. 1676) “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” been pushed from most current hymnals (even Moravian ones). And when we run across the sort of vivid portrayal of Christ’s passion that Mel Gibson presents in his movie, something in us recoils: Is this not excessive and morbid? Why dwell on the horrific details? Surely Jesus would want us to turn quickly from Good Friday to Easter, placing our focus on his glorious resurrection!

We find it difficult to enter the world of another time—to understand its art, its jokes, its characteristic devotions and valued emotions. Never is this more true than with the vivid, bloody, even repellant portrayals of Christ’s suffering embodied in the paintings, sculptures, preaching, poetry, and drama of the late medieval period. But this is where the whole subsequent history of Cross-centered devotion has its roots. And it is a tradition, for all its flaws, that has something to teach us still.

Life-sized Passion

In the period of persecution before Constantine, such leaders as Ignatius of Antioch (who eventually went eagerly to martyrdom) counseled believers to imitate Christ in his passion, resigning themselves to the sufferings of persecution, as he had done. After Constantine, however, the church focused on a triumphant, resurrected Christ. The earliest depictions of Jesus’ humanity, from the fourth century on, show him as a royal or imperial figure, and his cross, if shown at all, as jeweled or golden. The “Christus Victor” atonement theology of the day emphasized Christ’s triumph over Satan.

Christianity became fashionable under later Christian emperors, and the church began to look too much like the world. So men and women began retreating from society into solitary cells and small communities. These earliest monastics sought the road to true discipleship. And they saw their master and model, Christ, as the sacrificial lamb, mocked and slaughtered to redeem sinful man. Earnest disciples, in the East and later in the West, immersed themselves in the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion, which they read over and over again in a daily cycle whose very “hours” represented key moments in Christ’s passion.

At the opening of the Middle Ages, however, church leaders such as Gregory the Great (590-604) still tended to highlight Christ’s divine dignity. It was again the monks, especially the early Irish and British monks, who sustained a special devotion to the cross of Christ and tried to imitate Christ’s sufferings with penitential disciplines, such as standing for long periods with arms outstretched.

By the 11th century, however, this special devotional attachment to the Passion began to spread beyond the cloister, as a new emphasis on affective (emotional) spirituality spread in the church. John of Fécamp (d. 1078), for example, begged Jesus to grant his desire that, because of the blood he shed, John’s eyes would flood with tears, his heart being made contrite. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) asked Christ to forgive him “for not having kissed the place of the wounds where the nails pierced, for not having sprinkled with tears of joy the scars.”

Soon a new atonement theology came on the scene, one fit for the new emotional piety. Its author was Peter Abelard (d. 1142/43), who stressed that the Crucifixion provides not satisfaction for wrongs committed (as had Anselm) but rather the supreme example of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Abelard wanted to foster in the unbeliever emotions of horror and godly sorrow when confronted by this death.

The 12th century’s focus on affective devotion found its most important promoter in Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153). But the most vivid example of Passion-centered piety was still to come. This was Francis of Assisi, whose all-consuming imitation of Christ seemed rewarded on September 17, 1224, in the hermitage on Mt. Alverno, when he is said to have received the gift of Christ’s wounds in his own flesh—the stigmata.

Francis’s disciples in the next two hundred years brought the humanity and sufferings of Christ into the mainstream of devotion. From portable outdoor pulpits and within chapels whose walls were often covered with life-sized Passion scenes, the preaching friars stressed as never before the emotions of Jesus during his ordeal—and the answering emotions of the worshiper.

They also championed an ascetic approach that sought to follow Paul, who said, “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church” (Col. 1:24). In the late-medieval heyday of Passion piety that followed, many monks, nuns, and layfolk tried in various ways to imitate Jesus’ passion or to experience something of the same extreme suffering as had their Lord.

At the same time, the laity picked up another spiritual practice that had once been the preserve of the monastics: the regular discipline of private prayer. The wealthy commissioned beautiful Books of Hours and other aids to help them meditate on the Crucifixion.

Gratitude and terror

According to medievalist Richard Kieckhefer, 14th-century Passion literature was supposed to evoke four primary reactions: gratitude, penance, compassion, and imitation. But these did not appear simply or discretely. Rather, terror, awe, sorrow, and joy might mix in one experience. At the center of all this emotion was the single goal that every believer sought; in the words of Kieckhefer, “a sense of profound contact with the deity that was joined with [Christ’s] humanity.”

Christians throughout the period from Bernard through Loyola wrote and read increasingly elaborate accounts of the Passion events. The man whose exegetical work opened the floodgates to these newly detailed narratives was Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129). A Belgian who died an abbot in Germany, Rupert mined not only the gospel accounts and a number of apocryphal accounts—all of which had been used before his time to tell the story of the Passion—but also a host of obscure passages in the Old Testament.

By an allegorical method of exegesis, Rupert found in the pages of Job, Psalms, Isaiah, and other books new and little-known details of the “Secret Passion” of Christ—the exact number of times he fell down en route to the cross, the drunken condition of Jesus’ tormentors in Caiaphas’s court (Rupert was no friend to the Jews), and so forth. The detail of the executioner’s ropes pulling Jesus’ body taut, for example, came from Psalm 22:17. After Rupert, historian Gerard S. Sloyan says, “A legion of visionaries took their lead from his writings,” elaborating an expanding cast of characters and litany of details of Christ’s suffering.

Late 13th- and 14th-century authors went one step further with entire comprehensive biographies of Christ that contained details from outside of the Gospels—most famously, the Vita Christi of Ludolph of Saxony (d. 1378). It was this book that eventually reached a swashbuckling young Inigo (later Ignatius) Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, in his convalescence from a war wound, and turned his heart toward Christ. Ignatius wrote in his widely used Spiritual Exercises a set of directions on how to place oneself imaginatively in the scene of Christ’s crucifixion.

Loyola was working in the same tradition as the anonymous 13th-century author who wrote under the name of the historian Bede, who urged readers to place themselves on the scene of Christ’s trial—to plead with his tormentors, offer their own bodies to be beaten in his stead, and wait with him as he sat in chains, offering their shoulders for him to rest upon.

This same tradition founded such longstanding devotional practices as the Passion Play and the Stations of the Cross. And it was in this period that disturbingly graphic crucifixion paintings (by Hiëronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Matthias Grünewald, for example) became much more common.

Fusing wisdom to the heart

The typical critique of such devotion is that it unduly separated the human and divine natures of Jesus, concentrating exclusively on the former. But for medieval believers, with their sacramental understanding of God’s presence in the material world, depictions of Christ’s wounded body only drove home the truth that in this man the divine became human.

A second critique is that such practices fostered an inward-turned, individualistic piety that was, as the saying goes, “no earthly good.” But medieval scholar Ellen M. Ross argues that, on the contrary, “the believers’ alliance of compassion with Jesus enabled them to perceive Jesus in other humans,” and to act compassionately for their benefit. The resulting works of mercy and practices of confessing one’s social sins, Ross concludes, helped build a strong, humane center holding together medieval society.

Underlying this very tangible, imaginative piety, Ross argues, was the belief that the best way to gain understanding is through experience. Both intuitive emotion and practical imitation infused wisdom into one’s very heart and body, in a way that speculative theology could never do. Spiritual leaders like the 14th-century English mystic Walter Hilton continued to teach—as Francis of Assisi had—that the Christian life must be lived out, practically, by imitating Christ’s example of charity.

Spiritual time travel

The desire for a tangible experience of God’s love has not dissipated with the discovery of the atom or the invention of the automobile. Modern Protestantism has given relatively little attention to our imaginative and emotional lives, yet the century just passed saw a dramatic upsurge of charismatic spirituality.

With its devotion to the person of Jesus, its impassioned worship, and its physical experiences of God’s intimate presence (tongues and “slaying in the Spirit”), this movement first sprung at the turn of the 20th century in a poor, multiethnic Los Angeles neighborhood, from a root in Wesleyanism’s “religion of the heart.” Then at mid-century it reemerged in mainstream Christianity—springing first from the Anglican and Roman Catholic confessions, with their sacramental and historical traditions.

But you don’t have to be a charismatic to awaken your imagination and your senses in devotion to Christ. Those who feel a lack in this area could do worse than to take Mel Gibson’s cue, and begin a time-traveling “spiritual research trip” to the roots of Cross-centered piety.

Not everything you find there will be helpful. Few of us will wish to emulate certain Irish monks by standing for long periods in a bucket of ice water, arms outstretched in a cruciform position. But it couldn’t hurt, with Martin Luther, to “look to the wounds of Jesus” to “comprehend the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.”

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History, a CT sister publication.

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