Monday, August 20, 2007

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Against Monastic Luxury

Today is the feast day of the 'Doctor Mellifluous', Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1170). Here are the collected works of Saint Bernard, in Latin: Opera omnia Sancti Bernardi Claraevallensis.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

From the "Apology to the Abbot William of St. Thierry" (Apologia ad Guillelmum Sancti Theodorici abbatem )

There is no conversation concerning the Scriptures, none concerning the salvation of souls; but small-talk, laughter, and idle words fill the air. At dinner the palate and ears are equally tickled—the one with dainties, the other with gossip and news, which together quite prevent all moderation in feeding. In the mean time dish after dish is set on the table; and to make up for the small privation of meat, a double supply is provided of well-grown fish. When you have eaten enough of the first, if you taste the second course, you will seem to yourself hardly to have touched the former: such is the art of the cooks, that after four or five dishes have been devoured, the first does not seem to be in the way of the last, nor does satiety invade the appetite.... Who could say, to speak of nothing else, in how many forms eggs are cooked and worked up? With what care they are turned in and out, made hard or soft, or chopped fine; now fried, now roasted, now stuffed; now they are served mixed with other things, now by themselves. Even the external appearance of the dishes is such that the eye, as well as the taste, is charmed....

Not only have we lost the spirit of the old monasteries, but even its outward appearance. For this habit of ours, which of old was the sign of humility, by the monks of our day is turned into a source of pride. We can hardly find in a whole province wherewithal we condescend to be clothed. The monk and the knight cut their garments, the one his cowl, the other his cloak, from the same piece. No secular person, however great, whether king or emperor, would be disgusted at our vestments if they were only cut and fitted to his requirements. But, say you, religion is in the heart, not in the garments? True; but you, when you are about to buy a cowl, rush over the towns, visit the markets, examine the fairs, dive into the houses of the merchants, turn over all their goods, undo their bundles of cloth, feel it with your fingers, hold it to your eyes or to the rays of the sun, and if anything coarse or faded appears, you reject it. But if you are pleased with any object of unusual beauty or brightness, you at once buy it, whatever the price. I ask you, Does this come from the heart, or your simplicity?

I wonder that our abbots allow these things, unless it arises from the fact that no one is apt to blame any error with confidence if he cannot trust in his own freedom from the same; and it is a right human quality to forgive without much anger those self-indulgences in others for which we ourselves have the strongest inclination. How is the light of the world overshadowed! Those whose lives should have been the way of life to us, by the example they give of pride, become blind leaders of the blind. What a specimen of humility is that, to march with such pomp and retinue, to be surrounded with such an escort of hairy men, so that one abbot has about him people enough for two bishops. I lie not when I say, I have seen an abbot with sixty horses after him, and even more. Would you not think, as you see them pass, that they were not fathers of monasteries, but lords of castles—not shepherds of souls, but princes of provinces? Then there is the baggage, containing table-cloths, and cups and basins, and candlesticks, and well-filled wallets—not with the coverlets, but the ornaments of the beds. My lord abbot can never go more than four leagues from his home without taking all his furniture with him, as if he were going to the wars, or about to cross a desert where necessaries cannot be had. Is it quite impossible to wash one's hands in, and drink from, the same vessel? Will not your candle burn anywhere but in that gold or silver candlestick of yours, which you carry with you? Is sleep impossible except upon a variegated mattress, or under a foreign coverlet? Could not one servant harness the mule, wait at dinner, and make the bed? If such a multitude of men and horses is indispensable, why not at least carry with us our necessaries, and thus avoid the severe burden we are to our hosts?...

Monastic Luxury.
Photogravure from a Painting by Edward Grützner.

By the sight of wonderful and costly vanities men are prompted to give, rather than to pray. Some beautiful picture of a saint is exhibited—and the brighter the colors the greater the holiness attributed to it: men run, eager to kiss; they are invited to give, and the beautiful is more admired than the sacred is revered. In the churches are suspended, not coronae, but wheels studded with gems and surrounded by lights, which are scarcely brighter than the precious stones which are near them. Instead of candlesticks, we behold great trees of brass fashioned with wonderful skill, and glittering as much through their jewels as their lights. What do you suppose is the object of all this? The repentance of the contrite, or the admiration of the gazers? O vanity of vanities! But not more vain than foolish. The church's walls are resplendent, but the poor are not there.... The curious find wherewith to amuse themselves; the wretched find no stay for them in their misery. Why at least do we not reverence the images of the saints, with which the very pavement we walk on is covered? Often an angel's mouth is spit into, and the face of some saint trodden on by passers-by.... But if we cannot do without the images, why can we not spare the brilliant colors? What has all this to do with monks, with professors of poverty, with men of spiritual minds?

Again, in the cloisters, what is the meaning of those ridiculous monsters, of that deformed beauty, that beautiful deformity, before the very eyes of the brethren when reading? What are disgusting monkeys there for, or satyrs, or ferocious lions, or monstrous centaurs, or spotted tigers, or fighting soldiers, or huntsmen sounding the bugle? You may see there one head with many bodies, or one body with numerous heads. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's tail; there is a fish with a beast's head; there a creature, in front a horse, behind a goat; another has horns at one end, and a horse's tail at the other. In fact, such an endless variety of forms appears everywhere, that it is more pleasant to read in the stonework than in books, and to spend the day in admiring these oddities than in meditating on the law of God. Good God! If we are not ashamed of these absurdities, why do we not grieve at the cost of them?

In this passage, Bernard is not, I think, an iconoclast, but rather is warning against the vice opposite to iconoclasm, which is artistic excess. Virtue is the mean between these two vices.

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