Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) was a French abbot who addressed worldliness and disunity within the Church. A peacemaker, he settled a dispute over papal accession in favor of Innocent II and also mediated various political and theological reconciliations in northern Italy, Sicily, and Aquitaine. A vigorous and exacting scholar, he wrote over 80 sermons on the first two chapters of Song of Songs and led in the Church’s condemnation of Peter Abelard for humanistic heresy. When Bernard was in his fifties, the Pope called upon him to preach a Second Crusade to deliver the Holy Land from the hands of Muslims. The crusade proved to be a disaster, a failure which severely wounded Bernard’s spirit in his final years. In this excerpt from a letter to the English on behalf of the crusade, his words bear a chilling similarity to those of today’s Islamicists, who demand that the “infidel” be driven from their sacred, even sacramental, precincts and who assure participants that their heavenly prospects are sure. Unlike the Islamicists, he insists that Jews be spared.
Nevertheless, his misguided sermon is a clear warning to preachers of every age that their words can lead people woefully astray as well as to godliness.
Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of abundant salvation. The earth is shaken because the Lord of heaven is losing his land, the land in which he appeared to men, in which he lived amongst men for more than thirty years; the land made glorious by his miracles, holy by his blood; the land in which the flowers of his resurrection first blossomed. And now, for our sins, the enemy of the Cross has begun to lift his sacrilegious head there, and to devastate with the sword that blessed land, the land of promise. Alas, if there should be none to withstand him, he will soon invade the city of the living God, overturn the arsenal of our redemption, and defile the holy places which have been adorned by the blood of the immaculate lamb. They have cast their greedy eyes especially on the holy sanctuaries of our Christian Religion, and they long particularly to violate that couch on which, for our sakes, the Lord of our life fell asleep in death.
What are you doing, you mighty men of valour? What are you doing, you servants of the Cross? Will you thus cast holy things to dogs, pearls before swine? How great a number of sinners have here confessed with tears and obtained pardon for their sins since the time when these holy precincts were cleansed of pagan filth by the swords of our fathers! The evil one sees this and is enraged, he gnashes his teeth and withers away in fury. He stirs up his vessels of wrath so that if they do but once lay hands upon these holy places there shall be no sign or trace of piety left. Such a catastrophe would be a source of appalling grief for all time, but it would also be a source of confusion and endless shame for our generation. . .
He [the Lord] puts himself in your debt so that, in return for your taking up arms in his cause, he can reward you with pardon for your sins and everlasting glory. I call blessed the generation that can seize an opportunity of such rich indulgence as this, blessed to be alive in this year of jubilee, this year of God’s choice. The blessing is spread throughout the whole world, and all the world is flocking to receive this badge of immortality. . .
Gird yourselves therefore like men and take up arms with joy and with zeal for your Christian name, in order to “take vengeance on the heathen, and curb the nations.”. . .
Take up the sign of the Cross and you will find indulgence for all the sins which you humbly confess. The cost is small, the reward is great. Venture with devotion and the gain will be God’s kingdom. . .
I have heard with great joy of the zeal for God’s glory which burns in your midst, but your zeal needs the timely restraint of knowledge. The Jews are not to be persecuted, killed or even put to flight. Ask anyone who knows the Sacred Scriptures what he finds foretold of the Jews in the psalm. “Not for their destruction do I pray,” it says. The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered.1
1 Bernard of Clairvaux, “Letter 391,” in The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. and ed. B. S. James (Burns Oates: 1953). Reprinted in War and Christian Ethics, ed. Arthur F. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 88-90.