by Brian Patrick McGuire
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
In this intimate portrait of one of the Middle Ages’ most consequential men, Brian Patrick McGuire delves into the life of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux to offer a refreshing interpretation that finds within this grand historical figure a deeply spiritual human being who longed for the reflective quietude of the monastery even as he helped shape the destiny of a church and a continent. Heresy and crusade, politics and papacies, theology and disputation shaped this astonishing man’s life, and McGuire presents it all in a deeply informed and clear-eyed biography. Following Bernard from his birth in 1090 to his death in 1158 at the abbey he had founded four decades earlier, Bernard of Clairvaux reveals a life teeming with momentous events and spiritual
contemplation, from Bernard’s central roles in the first great medieval reformation of the Church and the Second Crusade, which he came to regret, to the crafting of his books, sermons, and letters. We see what brought Bernard to monastic life and how he founded Clairvaux Abbey, established a network of Cistercian monasteries across Europe, and helped his brethren monks and abbots in heresy trials, affairs of state and the papal schism of the 1130’s. By reevaluation of Bernard’s life and legacy through his own worlds and those of the people closest to him, McGuire reveals how this often-challenging saint saw himself and conveyed his convictions to others. Above all, this fascinating biography depicts Saint Bernard of Clairvaux as a man guided by Christian revelation and open to the achievement of the human spirit.
Closer in time to now is a narrative of how a brother at Clairvaux who came upon Bernard praying before the crucifix was overwhelmed by a vision of the figure of Jesus bending down to embrace the abbot. Herbert, monk of Clairvaux, recorded this story known as the Amplexus, in a collection of miracle stories from the late 1170s, almost twenty years after Bernard’s death. The vision aptly summarized Bernard’s devotion to Jesus as a human being. Cistercian spirituality as found in Bernard’s writings seeks union of body and spirit in moving toward an incarnate God. The body is not denied but rather is joined to the soul in a wholeness that cries out thru the totality of union with the divine. Bernard in one of his Sermons on the Song of Songs (71.10)quoted the psalm verse “For me it is good to cleave to God” (Ps 72:28) and described how “when God and man cleave wholly to each other, it is when they are incorporated into each other by mutual love(…so) God is in man and man in God.”
The word that appears repeatedly in Bernard’s writings is affectus, a word that has no exact modern equivalent but indicates a deep seated attachment. Cistercian affectus unites intellect and feeling in a spiritual life that for Bernard was deeply monastic but at the same time broadly Christian. It is this kind of attachment that enabled an abbot and twelve monks to leave their familiar surroundings and establish a religious community in a new place, with all the demands involved in clearing an Affectus cultivation of the land, constructing buildings, and clarifying the monks’ right to be in that place. Involves hard work but also bonds of attachment among the monks to each other in living a disciplined life that required waking in the darkness and stumbling down the night stairs to the church for vigils. This devotion was only possible because the brothers had learned to trust and depend on each other, whenever in the forest, the fields, or the monastery.
The author of this text has drawn a verbal portrayal of a well-rounded self-aware an often lionized and not unfrequently loathed during and after his own lifetime. Bernard of Clairvaux was a man who dropped out of society to listen to the still small voice of God but let himself be repeatedly drawn back into society in support of causes- monastic and theological ecclesiastical and secure- he championed. By examining all the written works by Bernard and by those who knew him or knew of him, McGuire posits answers to questions not asked in Bernard’s own day or in previous studies of his words and actions, helping readers be attentive to and reconcile the ‘many voices with which Bernard spoke.’”