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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Merton’

Today, it’s Bernard of Clairvaux, via Benedict XVI, Pius XII, and Thomas Merton.

And no, “Doctor Mellifluus” is not the title of a film starring Vincent Price.  It means, “the honey-sweet doctor.”

Starting most recently and moving backwards – from a 2009 General Audience, part of the lengthy series Benedict offered as a catechesis to the whole world on great men and women of the Church.

Today I would like to talk about St Bernard of Clairvaux, called “the last of the Fathers” of the Church because once again in the 12th century he renewed and brought to the fore the important theology of the Fathers. We do not know in any detail about the years of his childhood; however, we know that he was born in 1090 in Fontaines, France, into a large and fairly well-to-do family. As a very young man he devoted himself to the study of the so-called liberal arts especially grammar, rhetoric and dialectics at the school of the canons of the Church of Saint-Vorles at Châtillon-sur-Seine; and the decision to enter religious life slowly matured within him. At the age of about 20, he entered Cîteaux, a new monastic foundation that was more flexible in comparison with the ancient and venerable monasteries of the period while at the same time stricter in the practice of the evangelical counsels. A few years later, in 1115, Bernard was sent by Stephen Harding, the third Abbot of Cîteaux, to found the monastery of Clairvaux. Here the young Abbot he was only 25 years old was able to define his conception of monastic life and set about putting it into practice. In looking at the discipline of other monasteries, Bernard firmly recalled the need for a sober and measured life, at table as in clothing and monastic buildings, and recommended the support and care of the poor. In the meantime the community of Clairvaux became ever more numerous and its foundations multiplied.

In those same years before 1130 Bernard started a prolific correspondence with many people of both important and modest social status. To the many Epistolae of this period must be added numerous Sermones, as well as Sententiae and Tractatus. Bernard’s great friendship with William, Abbot of Saint-Thierry, and with William of Champeaux, among the most important figures of the 12th century, also date to this period. As from 1130, Bernard began to concern himself with many serious matters of the Holy See and of the Church. For this reason he was obliged to leave his monastery ever more frequently and he sometimes also travelled outside France. He founded several women’s monasteries and was the protagonist of a lively correspondence with Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, of whom I spoke last Wednesday. In his polemical writings he targeted in particular Abelard, a great thinker who had conceived of a new approach to theology, introducing above all the dialectic and philosophical method in the constructi0n of theological thought. On another front Bernard combated the heresy of the Cathars, who despised matter and the human body and consequently despised the Creator. On the other hand, he felt it was his duty to defend the Jews, and condemned the ever more widespread outbursts of anti-Semitism. With regard to this aspect of his apostolic action, several decades later Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn addressed a vibrant tribute to Bernard. In the same period the holy Abbot wrote his most famous works such as the celebrated Sermons on the Song of Songs [In Canticum Sermones]. In the last years of his life he died in 1153 Bernard was obliged to curtail his journeys but did not entirely stop travelling. He made the most of this "bernard of clairvaux"time to review definitively the whole collection of his Letters, Sermons and Treatises. Worthy of mention is a quite unusual book that he completed in this same period, in 1145, when Bernardo Pignatelli, a pupil of his, was elected Pope with the name of Eugene III. On this occasion, Bernard as his spiritual father, dedicated to his spiritual son the text De Consideratione [Five Books on Consideration] which contains teachings on how to be a good Pope. In this book, which is still appropriate reading for the Popes of all times, Bernard did not only suggest how to be a good Pope, but also expressed a profound vision of the Mystery of the Church and of the Mystery of Christ which is ultimately resolved in contemplation of the mystery of the Triune God. “The search for this God who is not yet sufficiently sought must be continued”, the holy Abbot wrote, “yet it may be easier to search for him and find him in prayer rather than in discussion. So let us end the book here, but not the search” (XIV, 32: PL 182, 808) and in journeying on towards God.

I would now like to reflect on only two of the main aspects of Bernard’s rich doctrine: they concern Jesus Christ and Mary Most Holy, his Mother. His concern for the Christian’s intimate and vital participation in God’s love in Jesus Christ brings no new guidelines to the scientific status of theology. However, in a more decisive manner than ever, the Abbot of Clairvaux embodies the theologian, the contemplative and the mystic. Jesus alone Bernard insists in the face of the complex dialectical reasoning of his time Jesus alone is “honey in the mouth, song to the ear, jubilation in the heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde iubilum)”. The title Doctor Mellifluus, attributed to Bernard by tradition, stems precisely from this; indeed, his praise of Jesus Christ “flowed like honey”. In the extenuating battles between Nominalists and Realists two philosophical currents of the time the Abbot of Clairvaux never tired of repeating that only one name counts, that of Jesus of Nazareth. “All food of the soul is dry”, he professed, “unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus in it” (In Canticum Sermones XV, 6: PL 183, 847). For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And, dear brothers and sisters, this is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!

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Then Pius XII, who wrote an encyclical on St. Bernard on Pentecost, 1953:

6. From these words it is clear that in his study and his contemplation, under the influence of love rather than through the subtlety of human reasoning, Bernard’s sole aim was to focus on the supreme Truth all the ways of truth which he had gathered from many different sources. From them he drew light for the mind, the fire of charity for the soul, and right standards of conduct. This is indeed true wisdom, which rides over all things human, and brings everything back to its source, that is, to God, in order to lead men to Him. The “Doctor Mellifluus” makes his way with care deliberately through the uncertain and unsafe winding paths of reasoning, not trusting in the keenness of his own mind nor depending upon the tedious and artful syllogisms which many of the dialecticians of his time often abused. No! Like an eagle, longing to fix his eyes on the sun, he presses on in swift flight to the summit of truth.

7. The charity which moves him, knows no barriers and, so to speak, gives wings to the mind. For him, learning is not the final goal, but rather a path leading to God; it is not something cold upon which the mind dwells aimlessly, as though amusing itself under the spell of shifting, brilliant light. Rather, it is moved, impelled, and governed by love. Wherefore, carried upwards by this wisdom and in meditation, contemplation, and love, Bernard climbs the peak of the mystical life and is joined to God Himself, so that at times he enjoyed almost infinite happiness even in this mortal life.

After this encyclical was released, Thomas Merton was enjoined by his superiors to write a brief book introducing the saint and the encyclical to American readers. It’s called, The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter Doctor Mellifluus. 

I read it on Scribd last night (and in order to read it you must have an account) and cannot cut and paste excerpts.  But just know that it’s a good, brief introduction to Bernard’s life and writings, and Merton’s treatment of the preaching of the Second Crusade is particularly helpful.  I’ll be non-lazy and actually type out an excerpt, which is Merton’s summary of Pius’ summary of one aspect of Bernard’s approach.  First, the encyclical:

In the following words, he describes most appropriately the doctrine, or rather the wisdom, which he follows and "amy welborn"ardently loves: “It is the spirit of wisdom and understanding which, like a bee bearing both wax and honey, is able to kindle the light of knowledge and to pour in the savor of grace. Hence, let nobody think he has received a kiss, neither he who understands the truth but does not love it, nor he who loves the truth but does not understand it.”[7] “What would be the good of learning without love? It would puff up. And love without learning? It would go astray.'[8] “Merely to shine is futile; merely to burn is not enough; to burn and to shine is perfect.”[9] Then he explains the source of true and genuine doctrine, and how it must be united with charity: “God is Wisdom, and wants to be loved not only affectionately, but also wisely. . . Otherwise, if you neglect knowledge, the spirit of error will most easily lay snares for your zeal; nor has the wily enemy a more efficacious means of driving love from the heart, than if he can make a man walk carelessly and imprudently in the path of love.”[10]

And then, as Merton puts it:

The Holy Father then proceeds to distinguish the wisdom of Saint Bernard from true and false philosophy, reminding us that the only philosophy Saint Bernard despised was the false ‘curiosity’ which could not lead to the true knowledge of God because it blinded us to our need for His merciful love.

Opposed to this curiosity, the science that ‘puffeth up’ because it is without charity, is the true theology which Bernard loved with the most ardent devotion. This theology, as the Holy Father points out in three succinct quotations from Saint Bernard is a wisdom rather than a science. It is not only a perception of the divine truth by understanding but an embrace of that truth by love. Both these elements of knowledge and love are absolutely essential for true wisdom, for ‘What would be the good of learning without love? It would puff us up And love without learning? It would go astray.’ This is one of those many instances in which Saint Bernard’s Latin loses all its character in translation. The original must be seen to be fully appreciated: ‘Quid faceret eruditio absque dilectione? Inflaret. Quid absque eruditione dilectio? Erraret.’

Saint Bernard, the Doctor of Mystical Love, must necessarily be a defender of truth and of learning. God Himself is wisdom. Therefore He can only be loved fittingly if He is loved wisely. Neglect of knowledge leads love into error, and the enemy of souls has no more efficacious way of drawing God’s love out of our hearts, Saint Bernard says, than by inducing us to seek Him without the light of intelligence. 

Also – many today still turn to St. Bernard’s words on humility and pride. Msgr. Charles wrote about this a few years ago in a way that’s very helpful and relatable to the present moment. 

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