Nothing new under the sun: St. Bernard’s advice to a pope

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From a natural perspective, the difference that God makes is evident in whether human existence is cyclical or linear. Some eminent classical philosophers made sense of human experience only as repetitious, and that view migrated from Plato up to moderns like Spengler and Santayana. The cyclical theory subjects human will to fate; but, as the Scriptures begin in an earthly garden and end in a heavenly city, life is not repetitive but progressive. That’s why providence conquers fatalism.

The cyclical view is different from the sort of ennui expressed even in Scripture. “There is nothing new under the sun,” we’re told in Ecclesiastes. There’s a hint of world-weary resignation, too, in Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man,” chronicling how that human nature never changes. That canticle to the ageing process in As You Like It is by the same author who wrote: “What is past is prologue.” Generations pass, but human nature perdures, and the spiritual DNA in Adam is endemic to every child of man: a nature fallen, but originally upright, and raised up again by the Resurrection of Christ.

Sometimes, the mind experiences what the vernacular philosopher Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.” It seems we’ve been there before.

Some neurologists call this “split perception” or “cryptomnesia.” Seemingly-forgotten information (which has, in fact, been stored deeper in the brain) is recovered in a dual neurological processing. At least, that’s one physical explanation for why things unfamiliar suddenly seem familiar.

 

Morally, experience plainly brings to mind the fact that “history repeats itself”—not like a broken record, but in a progressive way, in which personality types and circumstances are “typical” regardless of changes in centuries and customs. This is why we can speak of “personality types,” and why so many of the Church Fathers relished typology in their exegesis of the Scriptures—possibly, on occasion, even to the point of guileless excess.

If there is “nothing new under the sun” in terms of human nature, new people are nevertheless responsible for their actions. “New occasions teach new duties,” as the hymn says, but it is possible to learn from how other people once handled similar situations.

One can take as an example the 12th century, which is often looked upon as the dawn of a Golden Age of civilization.  Yet its challenges prevent any assumption that our problems today are unprecedented. In the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), there are striking similarities between the centuries numbered 12 and 21.

The accomplishments of St. Bernard—his travels, writings, and influence on culture in general—are exhausting just to read. The intensified Rule he instituted inspired the foundation of 163 monasteries of the Cistercian reform, from France to Germany, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, England and Ireland. The fact that he accomplished all this in just 63 years, before modern travel and medicine, burdened with migraine, gastritis, hypertension, and anemia, testifies to the power of what he called the three fundamental virtues: humility, humility, and humility. He never yearned for early retirement, nor would he have been a golfer.

As human nature never changes, the best and worst of Bernard’ times foreshadow the same types now. The rising of great Gothic churches and the spread of universities were contemporary with schisms and corruption. Because of humility, humility, humility, Bernard dispensed with the kind of calculated diffidence that is humility’s caricature, and he did not shy from exposing corruption. This annoyed Cardinal Harmeric, who thought Bernard was disrespectful to Pope Honorius II. “It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals,” he sneered in a letter to the holy abbot. But even that complainer came around to admit the truth of what Bernard was writing from the Vallée d’Absinthe (Valley of Bitterness), which he happily renamed the Bright Valley, Claire Vallé—Clairvaux.

When one of his former monks, Bernardo Pignatelli, became Pope Eugenius III, Bernard undertook a series of writings, De Consideratione, on how to get it right. These were occasional pieces and not one fixed volume, as Cardinal Baronius mistakenly thought later on. They treat religious and secular authority, finances, and law (Gratian’s Decretals had finally put canon law into some sort of order), and scholarship when pedants were going off track by engaging useless dialecticism, giving Scholasticism a bad name. “God is found more easily in prayer rather than in discussion,” he noted.

Above all, the mystical quality of the Church must take precedence over (while not contradicting) its juridical aspect. Law is a friend of justice, but legalism becomes its enemy. Perstrepunt in prelatio leges, sed Justiniani, non Domini, Bernard complained to Eugenius: “Daily the laws resound in the palace, but they are the laws of Justinian, not of the Lord.” With poignant honesty, Bernard also analyzes the miserable failure of the Second Crusade, which he had preached.

In Bernard’s  thirteenth letter to Pope Innocent II—the third legitimate pope before Eugenius, and whose cause he had championed against the claims of antipopes Anicletus and Victor—he sets the tone for how he will advise  Eugenius: “To his most loving father and lord, Innocent, by the grace of God supreme pontiff, the devotion, for what it is worth, of Bernard called Abbot of Clairvaux. ‘Scandals are necessary, necessary (Matt. 18:7) but unpleasant!” Later, he writes to his protegé:

 True, you sit on Peter’s seat. What of that? Though you walk on the wings of the wind, you will never outstrip my affection. Love knows no lord… It is not so with some, not so: but they are moved with fear or avarice. These are they who seem to bless, but there is evil in their hearts; they flatter to one’s face, but in the time of need they desert us. But charity never fails.

A couple of generations after Bernard, the French cardinal Jacques de Vitry indulged a bit of stereotyping to describe students in the University of Paris. The English (he said) were drunkards, the French effeminate, the Germans obscene, the Burgundians vulgar and stupid, the Sicilians tyrannical and cruel, and the Romans “seditious, turbulent, and slanderous.”

Bernard also surveyed types through a Gallican eye, but with a Galilean heart consumed by zeal for his Father’s House. “Show me a man in  the whole city of Rome,” he wrote to Eugenius,

who welcomed you as Pope without having his price, or hoping to get it. Even when they profess to be your very humble servants, they aim at being your masters. They pledge their fidelity only that they may more conveniently injure the confiding. Hence it is that there can be no deliberation from which they think they ought to be excluded; there will be no secret into which they do not worm their way. If the doorkeeper keeps one of them waiting a minute or two, I should not like to be in his shoes. Now for a few illustrations, so that you may know whether I understand this people’s ways, and how far. First of all, they are wise to do evil, but they know not how to do good. Hateful to heaven and earth, they have laid hands on both; they are impious towards God, heedless in holy things;  turbulent among themselves, jealous of their neighbors, barbarous to foreigners, they love no man and are loved of none; and when they aim at being feared by all, all must fear.  These are they who cannot bear to be beneath, though they are not qualified to be at the head, faithless to superiors, insufferable to inferiors. They have no modesty in asking, and no shame in refusing. They worry you to get what they want; they cannot rest till they get it; they have no gratitude once they have got it. They have taught their tongue to speak great things, when there is but little doing. They are lavish promisors, niggardly performers; the smoothest of flatterers, and the worst of backbiters; artless dissemblers, and malignant traitors.

His practical counsel to Eugenius in Book II of the Consideration includes a reminder that his lips are for sacred speech and should not engage “idle talk” and “buffoonery.”  What the Pontiff says should be measured, infrequent, and solemn. In Book III, he moves on to the serious problem of avarice: “a vice from which your character is safe enough,” but which tempts others. There were the problematic Germans with “moneybags” and others who used base bribes to gain favor and secure bishoprics. Here again the local curial culture was not impervious to mercenary allurements: “Was Rome ever known to refuse gold?”

In Chapter IV, Book II, Bernard glides to new heights of suffused indignation, and he enjoins discipline while not being naïve about changing behavior. “Is there anything in history more notorious than the wantonness and pride of the Romans?” he asks;

A race unaccustomed to peace, familiar with tumult; a race to this very day fierce and intractable; who will never submit except when they have no power to resist. Here is the mischief; this is the care that lies heavy upon you, and you must not disguise the fact. You perhaps smile as you read this, for you are convinced that they will never be cured. Do not despair: what is required of you is the care, not the cure.

The Pope must be aware of, and not ignore, the dissolution around him, as it manifests itself in felinity and effeteness. He is directly responsible for his household, and laxity will only engender worse abuse. “Impunity is the mother of audacity, audacity brings forth excess,” he warns. Thus in Book V:

In the look, dress, gait of the priests about your person you should allow no trace of immodesty or indecency. Let your fellow bishops learn from you not to have about them boys with their hair curled, or effeminate youths. It is surely unbecoming for a bishop to go hither and thither surrounded by fops who wear the turban and use the curling iron. And remember the admonition of the wise man, They are thy daughters: make not thy face cheerful toward them.

This was not an uncommon problem in medieval courts, as the chronicles of St. Peter Damian attest. Bernard, who kept close correspondence with various countries, may have been aware that St. Anselm of Canterbury, while in Hastings with the royal court at the start of Lent, had refused to give ashes to epicene young noblemen who wore long curled hair.

In sum: times change, but human nature does not. The anapodoton plus ça change remains. And, if some are enticed by the chimera of nostalgia to think that things were better in more tranquil ages than now, when profligacy is confederate with heresy, or who ask how was it possible for such good times to have collapsed so quickly, recall the 1953 encyclical of Pope Pius XII on St. Bernard: “The Catholic faith, supreme solace of mankind, often languishes in souls, and in many regions and countries is even subjected to the bitterest public attacks. With the Christian religion either neglected or cruelly destroyed, morals, both public and private, clearly stray from the straight way, and, following the tortuous path of error, end miserably in vice… Therefore, as the Doctor of Clairvaux sought and obtained from the Virgin Mother Mary help for the troubles of his times, let us all through the same great devotion and prayer so strive to move our divine Mother, that she will obtain from God timely relief from these grave evils which are either already upon us or may yet befall, and that she who is at once kind and most powerful, will, by the help of God, grant that the true, lasting, and fruitful peace of the Church may at last dawn on all nations and peoples.”

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).

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