This essay is an adapted extract from a work which explores spiritual formation from the point of view of the architect of the twelfth-century French Cistercian Order, Bernard of Clairvaux. The ruins of the first English abbey established in 1128 are visible across the River Wey from Waverley Abbey House. The excerpt explores the divine-human relationship encapsulated in the idea of embrace: emotions, mind, will and entire being held and encompassed by the love of God. The language of that time has been retained in the translations of the texts and not adjusted to contemporary sensibilities, e.g. ‘man’. Gendered pronouns in the original Latin are kept as befits monastic writing of the medieval period. Bernard, or other monks mentioned are ‘he’ or ‘his’ or ‘him’ or ‘himself’ as befits the view of the monk in that period. The chapter may be found in In Search of Friendship: Lessons from a Monastic Tradition, Waverley Abbey College: 2022, pp. 135–44.
For Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), the charismatic leader of the Cistercian Order, the formation of a person into the likeness of Christ begins and ends within a dynamic circle of eternal love. For a medievalist, God is round; the Father is eternity and the Trinity is completely perfect and ceaselessly moving like a wheel. Starting at any point on this circle’s circumference will always bring us back to God, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end (Hildegard Bingensis Ep. 312:12–21 van Acker and Klaes-Hachmöller, in Campbell, 2012:69). For Bernard, wherever we begin in the cycle of human love and friendship it is always in and through and by means of God who is love. All friendship, all love, is caught and captured and held prisoner to that greater love.
Christian formation in the Bernadine way comes through an abbot seasoned in the spiritual disciplines – not as a mechanical method of achieving spiritual composure, but as a whole person whose inner disposition is centred on love for Jesus above all else. Bernard’s single-minded devotion is admirably conveyed in an unusual depiction, the Amplexus which, to our contemporary sensibilities, may appear an outlandish and mythically primitive occurrence.
For medieval people quite at home with visual expressions of devotion, their favourite saints shown in murals or statuary in postures of worship, Bernard’s embrace (amplexus) by Christ would be not only perfectly appropriate but compelling and persuasive. To see Bernard with the arms of Jesus around him is exactly how his piety is perceived at the time by peasant and nobleman alike, whether the story is true or not. The first representation, and the only one truly original, is the Amplexus Bernardi, which is the pictorial equivalent of a scene from a widespread story, showing Christ bent down from the cross to embrace Bernard kneeling before his Lord. Bernard is identified in this way in popular imagination, as much as in the traditional attributes of book, cowl and crozier the signs and symbols of saint, monk and abbot respectively (France, 2011:325). And what is it about this narrative which might be off-putting for moderns? Here is Bernard in much the same way as people today speak of having seen the Lord or having had a divine encounter by way of vision or dream. The slight difference being that there is an observer, allegedly, watching the saint at prayer.
The first account is found in a collection called Liber Miraculorum (Book of Miracles) assembled by Herbert of Clairvaux toward the end of the twelfth century and included in the Exordium magnum by Conrad of Eberbach in the early thirteenth century (France, 2011:325). Menard, a former abbot of Mores tells how a monk, presumably himself, is a witness to an extraordinary event, believable because, for the narrator, Bernard is ‘beyond the human condition’ and elevated to a higher plane (cf. Paul’s vision of the third heaven, 2 Cor. 12:2).
I heard of a certain monk who had once found the blessed abbot Bernard alone in church deep in prayer prostrate before the altar, a cross with its crucified appeared placed on the floor in front of him. This the most blessed man devoutly adored and kissed. Then that Majesty removed his arms from the branches of the cross and he seemed to embrace the servant of God and draw him to himself (Exordium magnum 2.20, ed. Griesser, cited in France, 2011:325–326).
We may never know the authenticity of this record, but such was its impact that it was handed down from one century to the next as epitomising Bernardine devotion. The significant features which stand out are first, the bodily embrace, and secondly, the intimacy of the contact. These two outstanding factors mark out Bernard’s approach to worship. The body is not separate in the offering of the self to God. Quite the contrary, the body as a physical entity is joined to the soul in adoration. Thus, the entire being, the body and the soul, is at worship, stretched out, prostrated before the crucified Christ in bodily form, cruciform and in the shape of the cross: Jesus incarnate. Divine body to human body in an embrace of love, the cleaving to one another so that the two become one. The closeness of togetherness in a clasp of unity is the soul seeking union with the divine. The intimacy initiated by God coming toward the figure on the floor.
Bernard preaches to his brothers on this theme, the Latin text from which he worked better able to translate his meaning than contemporary translations: mihi autem adhēreō Deo bonum est, ‘For me it is good to cleave to God’ (Ps. 73:28), adhēreō with the meaning to cleave, to cling to, to attach (cp. ‘But for me it is good to be near God’ Ps. 73:28 nrsv). He tells them:
Good indeed, if you cleave wholly to him. Who is there who cleaves perfectly to God, unless he who, dwelling in God, is loved by God and, reciprocating that love, draws God into himself. Therefore, when God and man [cleave wholly to each other—it is when they are incorporated into each other by mutual love that they cleave wholly to each other—I would say beyond all doubt that God is in man and man is in God (SS 71.4.10, trans. Edmonds, 1980, 4:56–57).
We may compare and contrast the posture of the Bernardine lover of Christ with that of the twentieth-century graphic embodiment in sculpture of a wrestling Jacob at the River Jabbok (Gen. 32:22–32). Jacob Epstein’s monumental group – a human and a divine messenger, or God – shows the two colossal figures locked in a night-long struggle: the tight embrace, the limp surrender of the man held up by the stronger winner (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/epstein-jacob-and-the-angel-t07139).
The narrative in both may be similar in the soul’s search for meaning and love, but the way of attainment is at odds: passivity and yearning desire in the account older by 800 years, active pressing challenge in the contemporary interpretation. Perhaps a snapshot of the two contrasting eras: the medieval acceptance of the lordship of the Saviour, the post-Enlightenment titanic battle with deity.
Yet in both there is that sense of timelessness, of the divine-human relationship needing to be articulated and, in some strange sense, wordless in the embrace. Dorothy Sölle remarks that in a mystical or poetic text there is the possibility of not only naming or calling the silence, but of producing it, of being able to create an expanse between speech and speechlessness, of a silent cry against an institution governed by regularity and order (2001:45, 71, 72). We see this stance in Bernard’s writings and life: a lone solitary in reforming mode, modelling a way of life as a pattern for others to follow; fashioned himself by a masterly hand, certainly the monastic Rule but ordered by the Lover in a school of love.
The struggling self embraced
Bernard is a contemplative writing at a leisurely pace without thought of time. He is not hidebound by our age and its desire to conquer worlds and words in an instant. He is a poet and writes as a medieval, throwing out food for thought and reflection. As a thinker and observer of his own time Bernard is remarkably close to our own. The temptations, despairs, pains, and anxieties which are so much a part of our lives today are an echo of his age. In some ways he may even be viewed as a forerunner of our modern and postmodern absorption with the self, although his analysis never reached our sophisticated heights. His remedy for the self’s shortcomings was very simply: God. In his Introduction to select works in translation, Jean Leclercq pinpoints the measure of the man as commensurate with self-knowledge through experience (1987: 31). For Bernard, experience leads to reflection on one’s unique history in the light of God’s grace and his word, on one’s pitiable condition apart from God, which sends one back to God to an experience of his love and to serve the brothers according to that love. Leclercq puts it thus:
The point of departure for Bernard’s entire doctrine is an intense, personal experience of the interior struggle. All of his theology is merely a reflection on this primary fact in light of the Gospels and St Paul. He reflected on it daily, recognising that it was also the experience of every man (1987:36).
Love is the beginning and end of all Bernard’s thinking and the realisation of that love in human experience is his goal as he writes and speaks. In his recent and enlightening biography on the inner life of Bernard, Brian McGuire points out that in Augustine and other Church Fathers there is ‘an element of hesitation, a questioning of the value of bonds of friendship’, but with Bernard there are ‘no second thoughts’ (2020:126). To express affection towards those dear to us is not only human but necessary. This sentiment of a human, even physical or carnal manner of love, is the new sensibility in Bernard which McGuire finds to be a turning-point in Western culture, ‘transforming the monastic ideal of separation from the world and allowing the tenderness and intimacy of human bonds into the cloister’ (2020:125).
Bodily love for God
Union with God in a mystical sense, those sublime moments of bliss (the example of the amplexus) is given at a price and is the consequence, for Bernard, of denial of the body in ascetic practices. Love leads to God and loving God with all one’s being starts with the body which, for Bernard, is a good thing (again, the surrender of the body in the amplexus). To discipline the body, to control the appetites is to recall the body to its purpose for God.
The extremities to which Bernard took denial of the flesh is a dense topic which could prove a distraction from our purpose of discovering what constitutes good spiritual formation. As a young poet, visionary and genius, he may be forgiven the punishing diet, the bouts of illnesses and the severity of his personal spiritual regime. As an older abbot, the ministrations of the brothers rescued him, correcting the imbalances. Through bodily weakness an identification with the suffering Jesus is made. Through ascetic denial of the flesh an intense connection with brotherly community is established. The wonder is in his achievement, his travel and his lasting impact despite his failing physique.
Leclercq points out that Bernard’s belief that the libido can be sublimated resonates with modern ideas, as does his value given to human desire (1987:41–42). However, despite this psychological slant, and almost because of it, we cannot get away from the fact that Bernard’s anthropology is, essentially, monastic. We cannot dress him up in fashionable psychosomatic garb when it come to the body. His relationship with the body is slightly more complex than this. Sommerfeldt admirably draws out the distinctions: Bernard is at one and the same time hostile to the body in its carnality, affirming of the body in that God used the body to draw his creatures to himself in the incarnation, and yet ambivalent to the body as being of the earth and to be transcended by things spiritual (1991:3–4).
An extract from a sermon for the Ascension has the preacher speaking with two voices. The first is for the body as a vehicle for the Lord’s presence on earth. By means of beautiful imagery, Bernard conjures up the incarnation of the Son of God, an adjustment to the physical body of humankind so as to show the brightness of the glory of God:
The Lord of the apostles presented himself to the apostles in such a way that they would no longer perceive the invisible things of God as understood by the things that are made, but that the very Maker of all things would himself be seen face to face. Because the disciples were beings of flesh and God is spirit, and spirit and flesh are not easily brought together, he adapted himself to them with the shadow of his body, that by the intervention of his life-giving flesh they might behold the Word in flesh, the sun in a cloud, light in an earthen jug, the candle in the lantern (SSS 3.3, trans. Kienzle, 1991:38).
The second voice is against the body as that which is inferior to the spirit, but the Lord uses the body, in which resides the spirit, and from whom comes the miraculous and the life of God to incline the affections of human beings to himself:
For this purpose [the Lord] set his flesh before them, to turn their every thought away from human matters and attach it to his flesh, which was saying wondrous things and performing wondrous deeds. Thus he would turn [their] attention from flesh to spirit, because ‘God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth’ (SSS 3.3, 1991:39).
But ultimately Bernard sits lightly to the physical, believing that the body transcendent is so much a part of the perfection of human nature that it must rejoin the soul and be freed of all mortal constraints in the final resurrection. The body will be raised to glory in its ultimate glorification, that described in the Letter to the Philippians: ‘He will transfigure our humble bodies, and give them a form like that of his own glorious body’ (3:20, cf. LG 5.14:185).
Bodily love in community
The monk’s philosophy of the body is pragmatic. We are ‘bodily creatures’, carnal and sold under sin. We must be reorientated to God. The process of conversion to God, therefore, begins with the flesh in cooperation with the will: ‘it is unavoidable that our desire and love should begin with the body and if it is rightly directed, it will then proceed by grace through certain stages, until the spirit it fulfilled’ (LG 15.39:204). The drives of human nature will result in ‘bodily love, by which man [sic] loves himself for his own sake’ (LG 8.23:192). The body must be ordered toward its proper end, love for God and neighbour and for this reason at times is to be denied what it desires and restrained to turn away from pleasures and be content with the right amounts of food and clothing:
Then will your love be sober and just, when you do not deny your brother what he needs from the pleasures you have denied yourself. It is in this way that bodily love is shared, when it is extended to the community (LG 8.23:192).
The outworking of the principle of shared ‘bodily love’ at Clairvaux is shown by Geoffrey of Auxerre in an encomium preached on the tenth anniversary of Bernard’s death (Sermo in anniversario obitus S. Bernardi 10–11, trans. Casey, 2011:79–81). He highlights his Abbot’s gift of bringing healing to the wounded soul, of coming alongside others to weep or rejoice with them, of his care for the sick, of his personal interest in his monks, cautioning the strong against sloth, the fervent to take rest (10: 79). Bernard had an intimate knowledge of his community and its needs.
It was easy for him to perceive what was troubling anyone because he was very familiar with what went on inside each monk. He made provision for each with great kindness in case one should be weighed down with too much work or another corrupted by too much quiet. It was as though he took a personal interest in how much sleep they all got (11:80).
Geoffrey tells how an unfair burden was never put upon the brothers and how each was helped in their carrying the yoke of Christ more easily. Bernard would say:
This one is cold. This one has a lot on his mind. This one is working too hard. The food is not right for this one. Here is one who has been hurt by another. One has to bear a heavy burden; not less a burden is borne by another who feels that he has been hurt. It is of great importance to bring grace to those who are offended (11:80).
Geoffrey’s praise is for one who was himself not always in the best of health and yet cared and cured his brothers.
What is surprising is that one man could simultaneously accomplish all these functions, especially one who was himself subject to a variety of ailments. Though unequal in strength, he showed himself equal to the robust and the recently arrived in fasting and vigils. Though he was sick he visited the sick (11: 80).
The challenge of the Amplexus
To inhabit a body which practices ascetic acts of piety and performs good works almost as an automaton is never the intention of Bernard of Clairvaux. For genuine spiritual formation to take effect, the impetus for charity should flow from an overflow of the soul which knows its need of God and is held in the grip of grace. Pride and self-importance must fall to humility. Therefore, hand in glove with an acknowledgment of one’s carnality (the sinful body), the first step back to God is in humility, finding out the truth about oneself, ‘facing up to one’s real self without flinching and turning aside’, taking stock of oneself in the ‘clear light of truth’, discovering that one ‘lives in a region where likeness to God has been forfeited’, and ‘groaning from the depths of a misery to which [he] can no longer remain blind’ (Bernard, SS 36.4.5, trans. Walsh, 1976, 2:177–178).
Today the Christian does not normally devote herself to a life of removal from the world – the trend of active involvement being the opposite of seclusion: an open door to the world rather than a convent wall. However, there is something we may learn from a principle of starting somewhere, of an initial turning to Christ in a purposeful act of dedication. We remind ourselves of the circle which represents the love of God. We may begin at any point on that eternal round – surrender to a deeper affection for Jesus, reaching out in friendship, forming community – and we shall be led through a cycle to a greater embrace by the divine love of the Lord.
Abbreviations of Bernard’s works
SS On the Song of Songs
LG On Loving God
SSS Sermons for the Summer Season
Bernard of Clairvaux (1980) On the Song of Songs 4. Translated by I. Edmonds. Introduction by J. Leclercq. (Cistercian Fathers series, 40). Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications.
—— (1987) Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works. Translated and foreword by G. Evans. Preface by E. Cousins. Introduction by J. Leclercq. (The Classics of Western Spirituality). New York: Paulist Press.
—— (1991) Sermons for the Summer Season: Liturgical Sermons from Rogationtide and Pentecost. Translated, with an Introduction by B. Kienzle and J. Jarzembowski. (Cistercian Fathers series, 53). Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications.
—— (1987) On Loving God. Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works. Translated and foreword by G. Evans. Preface by E. Cousins. Introduction by J. Leclercq. (The Classics of Western Spirituality). New York: Paulist Press, pp. 173–205.
Campbell, J. (2012) Light on Prophecy: Retrieving Word and Spirit in Today’s Church. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.
Casey, M. (2011) Reading Saint Bernard: The Man, the Medium, the Message. In: B. McGuire (ed.) A Companion to Bernard of Clairvaux. (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 25). Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, pp. 62–107.
France, J. (2011) The Heritage of Saint Bernard in Medieval Art. In: McGuire, B. (ed.) A Companion to Bernard of Clairvaux (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 25). Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, pp. 304–346.
McGuire, B. (2020) Bernard of Clairvaux: An Inner Life. New York: Cornell University Press.
—— (ed.) (2011) A Companion to Bernard of Clairvaux. (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 25) Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.
Sölle, D. (2001) The Silent Cry, Mysticism and Resistance. Translated by B. and M. Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Sommerfeldt, J. (1991) The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux: An Intellectual History of the Early Cistercian Order. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications.
About the author
Jennifer Campbell, MPhil, BD, BA, HDE, DipTh.
Jennifer is a theologian, speaker, writer, and spiritual director, who has worked in South Africa and the UK in churches and theological colleges for thirty years, teaching and in leadership roles. Currently Jenny is deputy programme lead for Spiritual Formation at Waverley Abbey College teaching a core module. She leads Eaglesinflight, a pioneering networked ministry devoted to equipping the Church in the gift of visionary, strategic prophecy in the UK and Europe, by means of retreats, seminars and conferences.
Copyright 2022 Jennifer Campbell