St. Bernard Of Clairvaux In Dante’s Commedia

1858 words - 8 pages

Since much of Bernard’s activities and corpus reflect the Cistercian charism, it is important to understand what was distinctive about the Cistercians in the late Middle Ages and why that may have been attractive to Dante. The twelfth century has often been claimed as the century of the Cistercians. Part of the reason was due to a reforming impulse within the Church’s monastic community for greater simplicity in the religious life and more emphasis on interior contrition and virtue. Martha G. Newman argues that in the early ninth century the Benedictine rule, which was the dominant monastic rule in western Europe, often ignored the “implications about interior [spiritual] education and ...view middle of the document...

Bernard tells the audience, “Which of you brothers, desires to be satisfied and have his desire fulfilled? Let him begin to hunger after righteousness (Mt 5:6) and he cannot fail to be satisfied.” Bernard’s language in On Conversion is often graphic and somewhat militaristic and is purposely that way to attract young men who were steeped in the knightly culture of the Middle Ages. The Cistercians were promulgating a militaristic interior spirituality that would appeal to young men who would vigorously deny their bodily senses to reform their spiritual lives. Bernard himself undertook rigorous fasting and other ascetic practices as is reported by William of St. Thierry in the Vita prima. Newman makes the point that the new monks who were no longer knights “renounced the honor, loot and women that fighting provided, but they redirected their aggression into a battle against temptation and for spiritual rewards and divine love.” While there is no evidence that Dante read On Conversion, the Commedia is essentially the story of a man undergoing spiritual purgation as he moves from the depths of the Inferno to the sublimities of Paradaiso. In the Inferno, he meets those whose earthly life was devoted to self-interest and concupiscence. As he moves through Purgatorio and Paradaiso, his interactions are with other-worldly inhabitants whose earthly lives were more pure, less self-centered and more self-sacrificial. It is the Bernard character in Paradaiso who ultimately helps Dante personaggio move past his last obstacle which is his earthly love for Beatrice. Dante’s meeting with Bernard is an invitation to conversion. Bernard helps bring Dante to Mary and to spiritual union with the divine. Union and unity is a theme in the Commedia and an important motif that recurs in Bernard’s corpus as well in the Cistercian charism.
While the Cistercian monks pursued their interior life in a spirit of personal reform, they always kept in mind the importance of unity within their corporate life. The bond that held together the community was caritas as reflected in title of the Cistercian rule, Charta Caritas. Newman states that the monks “relied on the physical presence of their brothers for their individual spiritual development.” Bernard’s ire could be raised if he saw a monk behave in a way that broke Cistercian unity. Bernard’s letter To the Monk Adam is an example. In the letter, Bernard admonishes Adam who went off with his abbot Arnold to establish a Cistercian house in Jerusalem. Apparently, the idea of this mission was not something with which Bernard approved nor did the Abbott of Cîteaux who was Arnold’s senior. After Arnold died, Adam persisted in the effort and Bernard minces no words telling Adam about the rupture he caused in Cistercian unity. Bernard reminds him that the entire Cistercian rule is built on caritas and that it is “she alone who begets unity, confirms it, binds it up and preserves it . . .” Bernard admonishes Adam that...

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