Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bernard of Clairvaux - Mystic

There was a question that arose in the later part of the Middle Ages: How could a person be serious about following Christ in the mechanical and nominal state of the church of the time? One could join a monastery.  But by this point, even that could become routine. One could rebel against the whole system. But many were not willing to go that far. One person who tried to come up with another alternative was Bernard of Clairvaux. He spearheaded a new movement called mysticism, which, without changing the church structure, attempted to promote the idea of a love relationship between the individual and God.

Promoting a relationship between  the individual and God was a good thing. But changes in the church organization were also needed. The result of this was that, rather than seeing a love relationship with God as something every believer should have, it was seen as something reserved for the few and the elite, who had leisure to pursue it. While the established church organization tended to pump out nominal Christians like an assembly line, there were only the specialized few who pursued a deeper relationship. Now for Bernard and his immediate followers the main idea was the contemplation of the greatness of God's love. Martin Luther claimed that Bernard had a clearer idea of the love of God even than Augustine. But there were others in the movement who went to extremes, inventing complicated mental gymnastics, which even in some cases involved the harsh treatment of the body, to get to God. Some even held that God was the sum total of all things and that we were part of God and, by following their procedure, could be reunited with God. But that was the distortion of a needed positive emphasis.

Bernard was not perfect. He advocated the Crusades and preached that people should join the Second Crusade (which, through no fault of Bernard's, turned out to be a total disaster). He also worked against those who, for whatever reason, rebelled against the church organization. But his emphasis on the love of God was a much needed concept and paved the way for the Reformation. However, he was not willing to question the existing church structure; the Reformation was needed for that.

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