From the Editor: Wisdom Sweeter Than Honey

IT IS FITTING for us to wrap up our work here in Pennsylvania on Christian History by doing this issue on Bernard of Clairvaux. We have wanted to overcome the common imbalance—which many of you have pointed out to us—that would seem to suggest that worthwhile history, with a few exceptions, began with the Reformation. Bernard, a man Luther and Calvin greatly admired, defies such a notion, and he represents a long and deep tradition that has contributed a great deal to the Church. Though Bernard stands out as an exemplar of Catholic monasticism, his pronounced loving devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and to the divine authority of Scripture transcends easy categories and gets to the heart of what the Christian faith is all about.

Bernard, the man of humility, is one of the great figures in Church history. He is nevertheless a figure who represents the “contradictions” of his age, and tensions that are still highly relevant today. He was a man of contemplative quiet, peace, and seclusion, a writer of the loftiest words on loving God who also vigorously promoted a Christian “holy war,” the Second Crusade, and who worked for political goals and the legal condemnation of heretics. It has been a key motif of our intention in publishing Christian History to encourage us all to realize that our collective heritage contains much to be thankful for, and much to be sorry for. We are all the body of Christ—or as Bernard might prefer to say, the Bride of Christ—and we all share in the glories and faults of our family. An important lesson to be learned here is that although we may regret many of Bernard’s actions, we should not judge him or any person, by the standards, values, and “enlightened insights,” of any age but his own; and the medieval world is a very difficult one for us to fathom (to say the least). And before we jump to criticize him with Bible verses, we must grapple with the fact that he had a profound and intimate mastery of the Bible. Indeed, his life was a religious experience saturated with Holy Scripture.

Bernard should cause us to consider the concessions we have made as Christians to the pattern of this world. Though many of us may not have considered the monastic life of contemplation as a viable vocation, we desperately need to reconsider how much of a still, quiet place we have uncompromisingly reserved in our lives for communion with our Lord. Do we not more likely simply try to fit God into the rat-race scheme of our lives—lives devoted to personal achievement? For all our flurry of “service” and religious activities, are we a generation to which God, though he might not say “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23), could say “I hardly knew you.” Would we dare to say that our communion with God and the priority we give it is the true indicator of our love for him? When it comes to the school of spiritual devotion, Bernard’s example casts most of us as distracted kindergarten children, and it has nothing to do with “works righteousness,” but everything to do with the command to love God with all our hearts, souls, and strength.

From across the centuries, from a distant, even alien medieval world, Bernard of Clairvaux comes to us and can help us. Thank God for Bernard’s wisdom, more valuable than gold, sweeter than honey. Thinking ourselves rich and full, we are poor and starving for it.

“Go out into 
the field of your Lord and 
consider how even today it abounds 
in thorns and thistles 
in fulfillment of the ancient curse. 
Go out, I say, into the world, 
for the field is the world and it is 
entrusted to you. 
Go out into it not as a lord, 
but as a steward, to oversee and to 
manage that for which you must 
render an account. 
Go out, I should have said, with 
careful responsibility and 
responsible care.”

Bernard of Clairvaux 
From Book 2 of On Consideration

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #24 in 1989]

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One of Bernard's most famous writings examines several degrees of love toward God.

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