Monastics and the modern mind
An engraving depicting St. Bernard of Clairvaux from the book "History of the Church," circa 1880.
By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
On Aug. 20, we celebrate the life of the 12th century monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux. What an amazing man!
Those of us interested in monasticism, both new and old, owe a debt to St. Bernard. He was responsible not only for founding his own monastery but for sending monks out to establish monasteries or to rescue already-formed monasteries from heretical directions. We give him credit for the founding of hundreds of monastic communities.
Bernard of Clairvaux was also responsible for helping the church avoid schism at several key points. In these days when every major denomination seems headed toward fragmentation, it’s good to remember that schism can be avoided.
He also defended the church against various members of the nobility who wanted to seize church property and wealth for themselves. In doing this, he kept the church strong.
We could give Bernard of Clairvaux credit for moving the church toward a more personal faith, although I imagine he would be horrified at the manifestations of those ideas of a personal relationship with Jesus that many of us have. He also played a part in elevating the status of Mary within the church.
I confess, as a Lutheran, the veneration of Mary always mystified me. Then I visited Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist order of monks. I found the references to Mary soothing and inspiring. The last service of the day, the Compline service, focused primarily on Mary. We prayed as we faced a stone statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus, very abstract in style, surrounded by candles. And then I went back to my monastic cell to sink into a deep sleep.
As I research these monastics of older centuries, it's intriguing to me to see how ideas that we associate with later centuries were present even in medieval times. We see medieval thinkers like Bernard of Clairvaux wrestling with an emotional/mystical approach to faith while other philosophers, such as Peter Abelard, tried to use an intellectual/rational approach to faith. Throughout Christianity, we still struggle with the best way to integrate these two approaches.
Even my non-religious friends wrestle with these concepts. We continuously explore the issue of how to live an authentic life, one where all our values are in sync. In an earlier age, we might have found sanctuary in an abbey. Monastic communities are some of the most successful incarnations of intentional communities – how could we follow their models if we want to live an integrated life?
The feast day of Bernard of Clairvaux is a good day for some introspection. Are we living an integrated life in the best way that we can? How are we helping our communites? Is the way that we’re living our lives making the future church stronger or weaker?
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college professor and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.