Spirit and Experience in Bernard of Clairvaux

By McDonnell, Kilian | Theological Studies, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Spirit and Experience in Bernard of Clairvaux


McDonnell, Kilian, Theological Studies


Of the various "turns" in theology (to the subject, linguistics, feminism, liberation, etc.) the most problematic is the turn to experience, a common denominator in all such theological styles. Gerhard Ebeling and Hans-Georg Gadamer complain that experience is one of the most obscure of philosophical categories.(1) Donald Gelpi think that experience enjoys a certain pride of place among the weasel words in the English language.(2) The condemnations of modernism at the turn of the century created a magisterial distrust of the appeal to experience in theology, experience being seen narrowly in psychological or subjectivist terms. This pushed a wedge between Catholic theology and those contemporary historical, social, scientific, and cultural expressions of experience. This meant that theology floated in an ahistorical stratosphere, handing on Scripture, tradition, and the scholastic synthesis, with the argument from authority being the absolute, isolated from its social context.(3) Protestants had their Luther, and were still living off Friedrich Schleiermacher and William James. Some complained that the focus on the Word in dialectical theology pushed experience to the side and it was almost banished.(4)

In the patristic theology of the early centuries (for example, in Pseudo-Macarius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Augustine, and Cassian) as well as in the monastic theology of the medieval West (in Peter Damian, Rupert of Deutz, William of St. Thierry, and Bernard), a continuation in its own form of patristic theology, experience still played a significant role. For instance, in the fourth century it would be difficult to separate the Cappadocian settlement on the Trinity from religious experience. Those early authors did not suffer from the later schizophrenia that separated spiritual or mystical theology from what they thought of as theology proper.(5) In this article I propose to look at how Bernard of Clairvaux uses experience, concentrating principally on the pneumatological context in his Sermons on the Song of Songs, touching on how Bernard relates experience to the symbolic order, the stages of experience, its ecclesial character, the relation of experience to faith, and what contemporary theology can learn from him.

Bernard has suffered from being seen as a mere devotional writer, not worthy of the title of theologian. Yet many of his contemporaries recognized his theological competence.(6) In the last decades, beginning with Etienne Gilson,(7) there has been a growing awareness of Bernard as a serious theologian. It is the role that Bernard the theologian gives to experience that I will investigate. In 1926 Johannes Schuck characterized Bernard's theology, as expressed in On the Song of Songs, as credo ut experiar ("I believe that I may experience") rather than credo ut intelligam ("I believe that I may understand").(8) The formulation may be overly precise, but Bernard seems to fit this description when he refers to the bridegroom-Word seeking the bride-soul/Church: "What they do not know from experience, let them believe, so that one day, by virtue of their faith, they may reap the harvest of experience. . . . We must add that the soul which knows this by experience has fuller and more blessed knowledge."(9) Nowhere does Bernard give a definition or a description of what he understands by experience. Far from being a restrictive category, Bernard's notion of experience is broad, embedded in desire, delight, love, awe, wonder, and anticipation.

For further clarity one needs to look at his environment. The culture of monastic mores with its committed relationships within a praying community gives experience a specifically monastic character. Within the brotherhood three symbiotic components defined the rhythm of that life: Scripture, patristics,(10) and liturgy.(11) In speaking of experience, Bernard presupposes the reading and praying of the Scriptures both in private and in the monastic choir and the celebration of the mysteries. …

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