Bernard of Clairvaux: On the Life of the Mind/Bernard of Clairvaux: On the Spirituality of Relationship

By Renna, Thomas | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Bernard of Clairvaux: On the Life of the Mind/Bernard of Clairvaux: On the Spirituality of Relationship


Renna, Thomas, The Catholic Historical Review


Bernard of Clairvaux: On the Life of the Mind. By John R. Sommerfeldt. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Newman Press/Paulist Press. 2004. Pp. xviii, 197. $19.95 paperback.)

Bernard of Clairvaux: On the Spirituality of Relationship. By John R. Sommerfeldt. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Newman Press/Paulist Press. 2004. Pp. xvi, 178. $19.95 paperback.)

John R. Sommerfeldt, Professor of History at the University of Dallas, is a foremost authority on the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux and Aelred of Rievaulx. In the first of these books Sommerfeldt concentrates on Bernard's views on how humans come to acquire knowledge, a subject which greatly interested the abbot of Clairvaux.

Sommerfeldt considers four ways of knowing, with the initial chapter in the book being a general discussion of the role of epistemology in Bernard's thought, called the "life of the mind." The first path to truth is that of faith or the mystical way, by far the most important for Bernard. Charismatic knowledge need not be limited to monks, for it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But the normal means to truth for monks is contemplation, explored at considerable length in Bernard's sermons, especially those on the Song of Songs.

The second road to knowledge is that of the seven liberal arts or humanism, which Bernard deems more appropriate for clerics than for monks. He has, to be sure, reservations about classical studies, but he believes they are useful in the ministry, particularly for prelates. Closely related to the liberal arts is the pursuit of philosophy, the third approach to sources of wisdom. While hardly enthusiastic about the scholastic movement, the abbot acknowledges the utility of logic for clerics in learning moral principles, the nature of the human condition, and canon law. The fourth kind of knowledge is common-sense consideration and counsel, which are attainable by anyone. It is interesting that Bernard leaves open the opportunity for occasional prophets who might provide the kind of counsel only a holy person can give. Yet at the same time he emphasizes the need for those in authority to receive sound advice.

Sommerfeldt notes that Bernard was reluctant to arrange faith, understanding, and opinion-the main ways of acquiring knowledge-according to specific groups of people. His use of contemplation and meditation cannot be easily categorized in set hierarchical patterns. As might be expected of a Cistercian, Bernard's literary methods are more rhetorical, with multiple-layered meanings, than logical. He does not reject philosophical studies-at least for clerics-as long as the motive for learning is God-driven. Bernard's insistence on the pursuit of virtue finds a parallel in his life as a self-styled "chimaera," referring to his own active life of writing, travel, and negotiations. As a self-appointed prophet, he justifies his extra-monastic forays into disputes by alluding to his loving concern for the Church and for all Christians, especially for those in positions of authority.

The final chapter deals with the conflict between Bernard and Abelard. The author acknowledges that Bernard's motives were complex, and that Abelard's pride led to his theological errors, as might be expected from a monk such as Bernard, who tended to moralize. …

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