A Lesson from Bernard of Clairvaux

While I was teaching history to my second and fourth grade boys last year, I ran into the story of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 AD). Bernard was a Cistercian monk who lived in France, and his life is a mix of complicated and interesting history and theology. Perhaps the best effort of his life was the work to establish the importance of contemplating on Scripture with the focus of developing deep communion with God.

Bernard is believed to be the author of some beautiful hymns: the well-known Jesus the Very Thought of Thee and O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

But this is where the story gets really strange. He also was the main person in charge of preaching the Second Crusade. The Second Crusade led to widespread massacres of innocent civilians.

Yes, you read that correctly. Bernard was a militant man, and wrote this:

Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.

O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but his loved ones know.

Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.

-Bernard of Clairvaux

Historically, the church has been surprisingly willing to listen to the wisdom of highly imperfect people, which is why we have Bernard of Clairvaux in our church hymnal.

The story stuck in my head, because I often hear or read tirades against popular speakers or writers or even church groups. Their lives are dissected by well-meaning religious people, and if something is deemed inordinate, they are chucked onto the compost pile.

No doubt, I do need to be discerning, but I see a difference between being discerning and being reactionary and unwilling to learn from anyone who is different from me.

For me, looking at exactly what I don’t like (instead of making a sweeping and vague judgment) helps clarify the issues. The point of disagreement might not be a core doctrine, but a difference of interpretation or a personal preference.

For instance, I can think of a popular author that I don’t care for simply because her writing is too wordy for my taste. But if I can winnow the chaff out of her heap of words, I find much that is nourishing there.

Sometimes I do have a legitimate doctrinal disagreement, but still can find much to learn from a speaker/writer’s work. I am repulsed by Bernard’s involvement with the Crusades, but find his hymns deeply touching.

Is it possible to keep Jesus foremost in my heart, to depend on the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures to guide me, while still learning from others who aren’t perfect? Can I trust God and the believers gathered around me to give insight, or must fear be my master?

If I can learn from broken people, how imperfect should someone be before I reject the message? Or perhaps the passing of time heals over imperfections, and the church is better able to accept wisdom after its givers are long gone?

What do you think?

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6 thoughts on “A Lesson from Bernard of Clairvaux

  1. Mountain Merle

    Well, if we are going to listen to only perfect people…I guess you might as well throw in the towel on blogging! Seriously, there are people out there who seem to feel called to point out the inconsistencies of everybody else and basically call them a child of the devil, and I find that very wearisome. I think truth can be gained from a fairly wide range of thought, realizing that all of us can be right on some things but out in left field on some others. But then on the other hand, I think we do need to be very careful about who we lift up as teachers and role models for our families and our churches. It bothers me when a minister quotes a popular evangelical preacher on a point where we happen to agree when I know we have some fundamental doctrinal differences which we haven’t discussed.

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    1. I get frustrated with both extremes–people rejecting anything slightly different, and people swallowing everything whole. You have one side growing in nothing except pride and self-righteousness, and the other side preaching the Gospel According to John Piper (or any other popular speaker). Where is the skill of discernment in the church? Why is it lacking, and how can the spiritually mature train those who are less mature?

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  2. Rachel yohe

    I was going back and deleting old emails and just came across this! I was literally just thinking some of these same thoughts earlier today! Thanks for sharing! Blessings rosina!

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  3. Margretta

    I like the idea that we should look at exactly what it is that we are disagreeing on – a core doctrine or something that could be personal preference.

    Like

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