by JOHN BUNTING
ST. BERNARD was a contemplative monk. His ideal and the ideal of the Cistercians (of Aelred of Rievaulx, for example), was the contemplative life—a life of prayer, of silence and of manual work. Their work was mainly agricultural and pastoral.
Both Bernard and Aelred were called away from this life to participate in the affairs of the world of their day. But it was this contemplative life they had chosen to lead and to this life they always returned.
The Cistercian practice differed from the customs of the Benedictine monks of Cluny in their application of the rule of St. Benedict, as the correspondence between Bernard and Peter the Venerable explains.
The Cistercian spirit was in sharp contrast to the world of their day. They chose the most deserted places in which to live their rule. The life their monks endeavoured to lead was obedient, celibate. stable, contemplative. silent, communally shared and the emphasis they placed on the value of manual work was derived from the imitation of Christ's example.
That such a life exerted a strong appeal to men of affluent Europe in the 12th century is not perhaps surprising. In 100 years there were 1,500 Cistercian foundations in Europe.
St. Benedict's rule had exerted a similar appeal to the men of the disbanded legions of the crumbling Empire. to the citizens of the disorganised and demoralised cities.
Yorkshire was particularly favoured by the Cistercians. They founded the Yorkshire wool trade. The secret of success lay in their evident adherence to St. Renedict's rule which provides a balance between prayer at set times and manual work according to the seasons of nature to obtain simple self-sufficiency in their establishments.
The Cistercians spread to some extent at the expensz of the easier-going Benedictines (of Cluny, for example). All the same it is the Benedictines who have proved more resilient in survival in history: while the Cistercians eventually became victims of their own successful organisation.
Thomas Merton in America ('Elected silence') and Dom Alexis Bresse at Hoquen in Brittany near St. Maio have sought to renew Si. Bernard's spirit. Fr. Bruno Scott-James has retranslated his letters and written an account of Bernard's life that helps to draw attention to some of his characteristics.
It was Bernard who referred to the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, as "that old whore of Winchester." And writing of William of York, deposed in favour of Henry Murdac of Fountain's Abbey, Bernard's nominee • (Murdac died shortly afterwards suspected of being poisoned by his fellow chapter members of York). Bernard refers to William as "rotten from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head."
None the less William was later reinstated and both Wil liam and Bernard were subse• quently canonised. St. Aelred for his part seems to have been
little affected by the quarrels
and eventual martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket. If anything he was in amicable correspondence with Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of London, and Becket's adversary.
Through such glimpses, we can see the early Cistercians were far from plaster saints. Stone is the medium the Cis
tertian spirit most respected and also the physical labour of carving it.
Bernard addressed the following advice to Aelred at Rievaulx: "With that hammer of yours you may cut out of those rocks what you would not find by your native sagacity in the libraries of professors: and" (he adds, less strenuously) "not seldom in the mid-day heat you will be aware, under the shade of the trees. of something that you would never have learned in the schools."
Indeed. it is pleasing to recall that Rievaulx was the first and most important of St. Bernard's English foundations and the home of Aelred, England's greatest Abbot, a close friend of St. Bernard.
St. Bernard lived his life at an important juncture of European development. During his lifetime a new Europe was in process of construction.
The learning of which Abelard was a leading exponent fashioned for scholars new tools and techniques of thought for unlocking the mysteries of the Faith. They led to great achievements and a flowering of cultural activities that ranged from the construction of Chartres to St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica: from the example of St. Francis to works by Giotto, Giovanni Pisano, Dante and Masaccio.
They raised the Church during the century preceding the Black Death to the pinnacles of Christian endeavour. But it was a world alien to St. Bernard, a world in which he saw latent dangers that would lead to compromise and laxity: a foretaste as it were of the heavenly promise that was reserved for the next world, the
life to come. •
St. Bernard's view was positive but unquestioning. He did not recognise the existence of doubt who was filled with divine confidence. It enabled him to castigate Popes and
Bishops, to intercede with parents on behalf of their sons, to inspire followers who faltered. There was work to do; he knew how to do it, and as far as possible it. was up to him to do it for God's glory.
His approach has been described as mystical rather than rational. In this respect he belonged to the end of the Dark Ages. He possessed their Faith. Yet he lived close enough to the Gothic renaissance to suspect its possibilities and sense its dangers.
He was torn in a way that St. Francis was not between the beauty of this world and thought for the next world, between escape from this world and involvement in it. He boldly confronted the world of his day and he found, in surprising numbers, men and women willing to form themselves into saints.
In the post-conciliar Church, in affluent post Christian Europe his message Still echoes today—What need of the new when the old is good enough— if only the "old" is adhered to. is seen to be made to work?