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    Sunday, November 4, 2012

    Medieval Revival

    Bernard of Clairvaux

                      When one thinks of the middle ages of Christendom, many don’t think the word “revival”, at least I know before this week I didn’t.  My main landing point for this portion of history was usually despair; I say despair because of the many atrocities Christians perpetrated against the unbelieving world in the name of God.  This portion of history included the crusades and in many ways those violent crimes have covered the gem that was Spiritual renewal.  To describe this onset of Spiritual renewal, I will quote Glenn Myers from his essay on the very topic.  Glenn says:

    Although everyone in Christendom is technically a member of the church, medieval Europe has been spiritually dry for hundreds of years.  In such a state of affairs the first sparks of revival spring up, and the spiritual climate starts to change rapidly as devout men of God—mostly monks, priests and hermits—come out of seclusion and begin to proclaim the gospel and call nominal Christians into a personal relationship with Christ” (Myers, 2008, pg. 7) [Similar thought from Myers in his book on pg. 28]

                I use such a long quote because I think there; Myers accurately and succinctly describes the time of medieval renewal.  There was a sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the church.  Nominal Christianity ruled the day for many but there was a growing hunger and a deeper desire for something different.  The people were primed and ready for a revival and the message they needed was not the point of doing more for God, but understanding that God loves them. 

                This particular message struck home with many women during this time as we will see soon.  These women felt a deep connection to Christ and literally gave their lives to being the “Bride of Christ”.  This deep movement by many women in Europe was another bright spot in the Medieval days for this strong wind of revival.

                I will dig deeper into these women and their revival a bit late into the essay, let’s start with what the movement entailed.  There was a growing sense and desire to know God.  Much of the knowing was through the sacraments and very little emphasis on relationship was to be heard, until some teachers began to come out of seclusion and speak on the deeper relationship one can have with the Almighty God.  There are many of these teachers that came out of seclusion and began to share the love of God and Personal relationship lessons of God of which the largest and my personal favorite: Bernard of Clairvaux.

                Much of this renewal surrounded around the key of a personal, loving relationship with Jesus and that a deeper connection to Him would allow us to know God better, because he is God.  Myers in his essay called this “Bridal Spirituality”.  Dionysius believed “…that all people long to know God, for God has put that longing in us” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 169).  It was this driving force of a deep, longing to know God more completely that I believe caused much of the spiritual renewal we are talking about.  From our lectures this week, I believe the tenants of “Mysticism” are also the keys to the renewal.  These were:

    “1. Personalized faith- not just belonging to Institutional Church, rather believers following Jesus. 2. Relationship with God, not just receiving sacraments but rather seeking intimate love of the Lord. 3. Direct experience of God in prayer…encountering God’s presence. 4. Emphasis on love, 5. Prayer. 6. Supernatural experiences and 7. Goal: union with God” (Spiritual Renewal Lecture #2, 2012).

                To the end of union, Sittser discusses this well in his book when he says: “Illumination leads to union with God…A relationship implies communication, trust and love. It allows for genuine intimacy between persons” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 176).

                Bernard of Clairvaux landed on love being this ultimate goal of union.  The message of having a personal relationship with a loving God was his cornerstone message.  We need the love of God Bernard surmised. Sittser, when discussing Bernard states: “Bernard’s mysticism pulsates with love—God’s love for us, our love for God.  Bernard believed that, as fallen, helpless, unworthy people, we need God’s love” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 179).  This idea of love was a chief cornerstone of the movement towards Spiritual renewal in Bernard’s day.  Before this unleashing lesson of love [“Bridal Spirituality” as Myers defines it from the life of the Beguines], these “churched” folks were taught the importance of “doing” the sacraments and this sacramental Christianity although healthy in ways quickly became unhealthy in it’s attempt to “do” in order to please God.  The aspect of love and relationship rapidly moved to working for salvation and thus changed the depth and reality of grace and salvation.

                One can note within these ideals of Bernard, the reformation language is beginning to develop; for soon there will be a rebellion against misused powers and misguided descriptions of the “things to be done in order to receive salvation”.  Bernard and other itinerant preachers spoke of relationship to the loving God rather than doing things.  The refocused on the Scriptural understanding of who God says he is, rather than man’s idea of who God is and what needs to happen in order to please this deity in the sky.

                I will pause here before I continue on and note how in our own day we’ve succumbed to a lost understanding of the father’s love for us and in this losing, we’ve begun to go the way of the medieval church and fall into a spirituality of doing, rituals and moralism.  Kendra Dean in her book Almost Christian sheds light onto a sad reality of young people’s ideals of spirituality.  She (and many others) label this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). When one breaks this down she says we see that young people (16-30) today think if they are morally good they are spiritually good.  Also, God is not as personal to them so much on a daily basis, but he is there to simply make them feel good about themselves, their actions and their decisions.  God likes them to act good and when they act good God makes them feel good.

                This epidemic of MTD has so struck the hearts and minds of our people today that the teachers (the older generation) of this spirituality don’t even recognize a problem.  They have “good kids” so they assume their kids “get it” while in reality they don’t at all.  I bring this simple current cultural issue into light because I truthfully believe that we are simply repeating “sacramental Christianity” all over again but with different criteria.  Bernard of Clairvaux would be shouting just as loud to this generation about God’s love as he did then, yet we as a majority of believers fail to see that anything is broken.  Julian of Norwhich would be preaching his lesson on prayer all over again as well.  Julian saw in his day that the people were not a praying people.  They relied on the clergy to do the act of “spirituality” while they showed up, took the sacraments, fulfilled certain “criteria” and walked back home feeling good about themselves and inoculated to a true, deep spirituality or relationship with Jesus.  Does that not sound familiar? Look at churches today, filled with the same type of mentality.  The church in Europe never foresaw the soon demise and decline of the church in their area because they lacked the discernment to see it! America is so close to the same type of folly.  We have to wake up.  Sittser says of Julian: “Through the discipline of prayer.  God himself, Julian argued, prompts us to pray.  Prayer is simply the human response to the prior call of God, which we hear in Jesus Christ” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 182).

                In medieval Europe one brave group of women started seeing this turn away from their bride and they reacted strongly. These women were the Beguines. 

    The Beguines were part of a massive evangelical awakening in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that spawned a series of revivals across Europe and led to the establishment of a variety of new orders, not least of which was that of St. Francis” (Myers, 2011, pg. 27).  These women were in love with their groom: Jesus and desired to set their lives apart of live for him.  They communed together, served the poor and worked together all while delving into the Scriptures together to grow as loving brides of Jesus.  Some sold all they had and gave it to the poor as they moved into the commune, others kept enough to live comfortably but all of them began with an inner repentance and a renunciation of worldly ways, especially wealth (Myers, 2011, pg. 30). 

                The faith of these women was utterly awe inspiring and their radical faith caused many to seek a richer, deeper relationship with God.

                Another radical person of faith who was sold out to the idea of giving all for Christ was a young man named Francis of Assisi.  He distributed his fathers wealth to the poor, lived and dressed like a hermit, all for the sake of Christ.  Shelley says of him: “…he wandered the countryside with a few followers, begging from the rich, giving to the poor, and preaching the joys of ‘apostolic poverty’” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 212).  Francis was a dynamic figure in the spiritual renewal of Europe during his time period.  Sittser says of him: “His impact was sensational.  People could not get enough of him” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 197).  He taught something deep, rich and worthy of giving everything up for when he spoke of the cause of Christ.  He began to gather a few more men here and there and soon became an order of the cloth known as the Franciscans.  Dominic, another fellow on the scene of revival had a similar view, yet not as radical as the vision Francis put forth.  Dominic too started a gathering now known as the Dominicans.

                Other big names were peering into the limelight for the revolution.  People like Thomas Aquinas who was himself of the order of Dominic, he was a Dominican monk; his work: “Summa Theologica” was a work to make distinctions between philosophy and theology, reason and revelation and showing that there is no contradiction between the two.  These ideas helped frame a deeper understanding of culture and church.

                Many more people came during this time preaching love, relationship and a deeper understanding of the Christian faith than had previously been touted, sadly there simply isn’t enough room to digress further.  Let me conclude by stating that I pray for a renewal similar to the one we just studied.  I feel it deeply necessary to recapture the love of the Father and fade out the dependence upon moralism and a God who “makes us feel good and happy” all the time.


    Shelley, Bruce L. (2008). Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Edition. Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, TN.

    Sittser, Gerald L. (2007). Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

    Myers, Glenn E. (2011). Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith.  InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

    The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.