Besting the zeitgeist

"There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear..." 1 John 4.18


Through his turbo-charged influence on those around him and on the new monastic Order of Cistercians they had joined, Bernard was remarkably effective in challenging the cultural fashions of his era. The European elite were falling under the spell of Peter Abelard and his advocating of amour courtois or courtly love. Derived from classical philosophers and poets like Plato, Horace and Cicero, courtly love offered a distortion of the Christian ideal, stressing love as more of a notion to feed the individual's emotional appetite than a reality which is derived from God, generous to others and costly to those who practice it.


Bernard revealed how Christian asceticism goes to the other extreme, through a similarly mis-directed regime of self-denial. What is needed is to shift the focus from oneself to God and to the needs of others. This does involve self-knowledge but not of an obsessional kind; rather for the sake of insight and understanding. And in Bernard's own experience the fruits were personal humility and deeper love for Jesus, whom he likened to an apple tree: overlooked by grander, prettier trees in an orchard but bearing sweeter and more accessible fruit. His legacy lives on in hymns such as Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my breast...


Life today is driven by fear and alienation from God. Left to our own devices, we sink back on our instincts for self-preservation, seeing others as rivals or resources to be consumed. Bernard points us beyond our predicament to God, whose love is pure and who is, in fact, pure love. We are invited to transform our desperation into devotion...

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