Sunday, April 18, 2010
Foundations of the New Monasticism Laid by Bernard of Clairvaux
Laying a foundation for the New Monasticism of the High Middle Ages, Bernard of Clairvaux proclaimed a message of personal relationship with Jesus. Bernard was a fiery preacher and important leader, but above all he was a lover of God. His preaching and his writing led tens of thousands to Christ and spearheaded a spiritual renewal in the medieval church.
At the age of twenty-two and on fire for the Lord, Bernard joined the newly-formed Cistercian Order in the year 1112. The Cistercians were gung ho for God—they were the Christian “Green Berets” of the twelfth century. They lived extremely simple lives and committed themselves to hard physical work, prayer, learning Scripture and growing in Christ-like character.
Deeply in love with Jesus, Bernard wanted to see others enter the same intimate relationship with the Lord that he had. Bernard made it clear that such a relationship with Christ must begin with repentance from our old life. We need to abandon sin, our worldly focus, and our way of living that always centers on self. We need genuine conversion—in fact, one of the booklets Bernard wrote is entitled “On Conversion.”
Christian History Magazine has a great introduction to this key figure. See image above. A great one-volume introduction to Bernard that includes “On Conversion” is Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, translated by G. R. Evans, Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
Moreover, he welcomed them into a genuine relationship with Jesus. At this point in the Middle Ages, many people in Europe were nominal Christians. Although they went through the motions, they had not approached Christ personally. Indeed, most were afraid of Christ, who was painted only as the angry Judge, coming in vengeance to condemn sinners to hell.
Without compromising God’s call to holiness, Bernard portrayed Jesus as the Good Shepherd and loving Savior. This is the one and only Son, whom, out of love, God sent into the world to save sinners. Bernard’s positive presentation of the gospel and his powerful preaching won thousands to Christ.
More than that, Bernard showed Jesus as the heavenly Bridegroom and ourselves as the bride of Christ. For Bernard, the bride of Christ referred to the church as a whole (Eph 5:25-33) as well as to each soul who receives him. He wanted the truth of Scripture to be personalized by each believer. Above all he wanted others to experience and know and feel Christ’s overwhelming love for them.
Not only was Bernard the most influential believer of his century, he stands as one of the most significant teachers in the history of the church. Bernard’s writings pulsate with spiritual life. He always highlighted grace, asserting that we cannot earn salvation in any way—it is all a gift from God.
His greatest contribution to believers in his day—and to the many movements that followed—was his invitation to experience Christ personally. By emphasizing each believer’s special relationship with Christ, Bernard laid the foundation for the New Monasticism of the Middle Ages.
2010 © Glenn E. Myers