A Medieval Remedy for Modernity’s Ills

Show me a Catholic not troubled by the circumstances of these days, and I will show you a Catholic asleep. Society’s woes rock his soul, but the historic perils facing Holy Church do so even more. Not only from outside her walls, but more frighteningly, from within. How are we to keep our spirits from sagging? How do we keep at bay critical spirit, one of those acids which eats away at the soul? Clearly, the obvious answer is increased prayer and mortification. Added to this, however, is a consistent return to the lives of the saints. We often hear that puerile retort: “What would Jesus do?” The question is as vain as asking the way I can fill the oceans in a thimble. Our Lord’s divine teachings can only be applied by attention to the teachings of his Holy Catholic Church: He is the Light, she the prism. Also studying closely the manner in which the saints lived divine instructions in their simple human lives, gives us clues to our own.

Fr. Gerard Manly Hopkins gives this truth poetic expression when he writes: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not His / To the Father through the features of men’s eyes.” The clever quip, “What would Jesus do?” is merely a penumbra of Protestantism’s sola fides. It assumes a direct contact with the Wisdom Incarnate, without the mediation of the Church, her doctors and saints. This is presumption run amok. A more thoroughly Catholic approach is articulated by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his Grammar of Assent:

One ordinarily arrives at the heart … by way of the imagination, through direct impressions, testimonies to facts and events, through history, through description. People influence us, voices move us, gazes strike us deeply, needs kindle us. Men will live and die for a dogma; no one will endure martyrdom for a conclusion.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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To this end, a look at the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux is instructive. He so dominated the twelfth century that church historians call that century his, for there is no corner of it that does not live beneath his shadow. Mother Church seemed hard put to find enough encomia to bestow upon him. Not only does she bestow the honorific “doctor” but Pius XII, in the encyclical written on the eighth centenary of his death, Doctor Mellifluus, does not hesitate in the first lines to repeat another title, Last of the Fathers. This appellation soars above the rest. Though Bernard is separated from the last Father of the Church by 400 years, Mother Church shows no hesitation in setting upon his head this singular title. Infrequently does the Church add to the already splendid attribution, doctor, anything further. But in the case of a rare few she does. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas boasts two, the Common Doctor, and Angelic Doctor; St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor. St. Bernard stands in this august select company when the Church crowns him with the title, Mellifluous Doctor: Literally, honey-filled. Strange sounding as it may be, it is an apt reference to the magnetic sweetness of his preaching and writing, adumbrating the style of the ancient Fathers. His preaching and writing, as theirs, was direct, affecting, summoning, enchanting and allusive in its poetic cadences.

Caution is in order here. Great care must be given to calling his writing sweet. No one should think that St. Bernard’s style mimics the nineteenth century’s soggy romanticism. Perish the thought. Thomas Merton explains it perfectly in his 1954 work, The Last of the Fathers, a commentary on the 1953 encyclical of Pius XII:

The encyclical brings out quite clearly that the ‘honey’ in the doctrine of St. Bernard is not the cloying sweetness of a soul enclosed within itself, but the clean, fresh sweetness of the fields and the forest. It is the breath of true life, of divine life, of supernatural charity, and of the Holy Spirit. It is the happy vitality of a soul made alive by self-sacrifice, and the joy of a heart that lives no longer for itself but for others, and above all for God… Sentimentality is, after all, only a fake. It is a meretricious pretense of emotion, and has nothing to do with genuine human feeling, except that it sometimes gets itself accepted as a passable imitation… The preaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux does have emotional repercussions. Let us not be so foolish as to deny the emotions, as part either of our life or our religion. But for Bernard emotion is never the end in view… The sweetness of Bernard remains clean because he seldom stops to think subjectively about sweetness. It is not at all self-conscious. It does not even spring up from any source within Bernard himself. It is an overflow from the goodness and mercy and charity of God.

By 1109, at the age of nineteen, St. Bernard possesses certainty that God is calling him to the priesthood as a Cistercian monk. He enters the monastery at Citeaux in France. It was not long that his superiors recognize the superlative qualities of sanctity and intellectual prowess and send him to establish another foundation at Claire Vallee, which finally was abbreviated to the familiar, Clairvaux.

The twelfth century was no stranger to heresy, and St. Bernard’s love of the Cistercian silence was never an obstacle to heeding the call of the Church to do battle with it. With his quicksilver intellect he engaged hard-bitten heretics like Peter Abelard and the Cathars with impressive success. The Saint of Clairvaux full well knew that right Catholic living was intimately bound to right Doctrine. Doctrine is the flesh and bones of Christ himself. Thinking it unimportant is settling for an ad hoc Christ, designed according to the whims of the self, or the passing enthusiasm of the age.

Admiration followed Bernard everywhere. Not only did popes, bishops and kings seek his counsel, but the saints’ humility prompted him to remonstrate those very notables when he observed them failing the duties of their high office. Well did the Saint make his own the words of St. Gregory the Great in his Pastoral Guide:

Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men… The Lord reproach’s them through the prophet: ‘They are dumb dogs that cannot bark’… To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right.

 Even though he reproved popes, no Catholic must think St. Bernard a disloyal son of the Church. Fidelity to Christ is fidelity to the unchanging Magisterial teachings that steel Roman Catholics against the gates of Hell. High office does not exempt from absolute fidelity. Never did Bernard place himself either above those sacred teachings or those anointed with those sacred offices. Paths to hell are paved with the souls of those who immodestly think themselves teachers of the Church. Listen to Bernard’s warning to Pope Eugenius III written in five noble letters that now form his celebrated treatise De Consideratione:

You are the bishop of bishops; the Apostles, your forbears, were instructed to lay the world at the feet of Jesus Christ. You have inherited that duty; the whole world is your legacy. Pastor of all the sheep, Pastor of all their pastors! In case of necessity, and if the fault deserves, you can bar Heaven to a bishop, depose him, cast him out to Satan. You are in very truth the Vicar of Christ. What is this your power? A burden to take up. Be not proud on Peter’s throne; it is but an observation post, a high place from which, like a sentry, you may cast your glance over the world beneath. You are not the owner of that world; you are no more than trustee. The world belongs to Christ… There is not iron or poison that I fear so much for you as I fear the pride of power.

In 1146 St. Bernard was called to preach the Second Crusade. Catholics were understandably hesitant to comply with this invitation, entailing as it did considerable sacrifices. A prospective Crusader had to weigh leaving family and friends; the risk of losing property and fortunes; being captured and sold into slavery, or, ultimately the likelihood of losing his life. So much for the centuries old bigotry of Crusading Catholics’ lustful appetite for the massacre of Muslims. Putting behind them all these fears, tens of thousands marched forward with heroic courage. Likely, these spirited words of St. Bernard inflamed them:

O ye who listen to me! Hasten to appease the anger of Heaven, but no longer implore its goodness by vain complaints. Clothe yourselves in sackcloth, but also cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers. The din of arms, the danger, the labors, the fatigues of war, are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the infidels, and let the deliverance of the Holy Places be the reward of your repentance. Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood.

No ambiguity here. Only full throated Roman Catholicism unfettered by the modern addiction to sentimentality parading as compassion. Bernard was confident in the Church’s crisply stated teaching on the use of force in war. Not only is it morally permissible, but, when in the pursuit of the common good of the nation, force becomes morally obligatory. Of late, Catholics have become squeamish about such unvarnished language. But it is the language of Christ, because it is the immutable doctrine of his Church.

Recently the world again watched with horror the gratuitous savagery of Islamic terrorism in Barcelona. Similar shock should have been experienced several days later when Barcelonans marched in the tens of thousands. Why? Weren’t they demanding justice for the death of innocents? No, their demand was—love and toleration. Don’t mistake this myopia for Christian love. Nothing smacks so little of Christian love than such exhibitions of a desiccated humanity. It is nothing less than the exhaustion of the Secularist Project on full display. Modernity is no longer capable of even the most primordial human responses: loathing, pity, revulsion and retributive justice. Forgetfulness of eternal verities is the mark of modern man’s hollow soul. Our present condition reminds us of C.S. Lewis’s chilling words in a little known essay, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought”:

The original hearers of the message of the Gospel had—in common with the Church—a belief in the supernatural, a fear of divine judgment, and an awareness that the world had once been better than it is now. The Jewish doctrine of the Fall, the Stoic conception of the Golden Age, and the common Pagan reverence for heroes, ancestors and ancient lawgivers, were in this respect more or less agreed… I sometimes wonder whether we shall not have to reconvert men to real paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity. If they were Stoics, Orthics, Mithraists, or (better still) peasants worshipping the Earth, our task might be easier.

Future Barcelonan holocausts will be thwarted only by applying the astringency of Catholic teaching, which simply states common sense. Muscular military might must be exercised in thoroughly destroying the enemy who wish to destroy us. Anything less is a strategy of sentimentality: An effete luxury upon which the Jihadist enemy thrives. Only one thing is a worse blow to the Catholic Church and society than heresy; that is sentimentality.

By the end of St. Bernard’s life Cistercian monasteries had multiplied from 161 to 343. So revered was the Mellifluous Doctor that Dante had St. Bernard take the place of Beatrice as he entered the Empyrean of Paradise leading to the unfolding White Rose of the Virgin Mother of God to whom he had such deep affection, evidenced by his composition of one of the most cherished prayers in the Church’s treasury—the Memorare.

So magnetic was the preaching of St. Bernard that it is told that when the Saint approached French villages, mothers would take their boys and cover their ears, certain were they that his words would so enchant them that they would leave everything and follow him.

God didn’t stop calling young men to be like St. Bernard in the twelfth century. He is calling young men to be like Bernard today. Are they listening? 

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “St. Bernard Preaching the Second Crusade in Vezelay” painted by Emile Signol in 1840.        


  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at www.fatherperricone.com.

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