Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 16, 2003
Even our saints are only human
A recent Globe and Mail website poll turned up 47 per cent of more than 20,000 respondents who identified religion as "the primary source of the world's ills." Religion resoundingly beat out ideology, money and "other" as the main source of the woes of the world.
One could, of course, question how representative this survey is of public opinion. Nevertheless, the results have to be sobering to those of us who believe the exact opposite - that religion is the primary source of good in the world and that our secular age is suffering due to a lack of religion, not an excess of it.
It would be folly to claim that the story of religion is one-sided - to ignore, for example, the Inquisition, Crusades and suppression of Galileo and not to see them as rooted in the religious spirit of their ages.
Still it's hard not to see the poll results as the result of a widespread secularism that believes only in the 1960s did Western society begin to be liberated from previous forms of repression rooted in religion. It's also legitimate to see them as one result of the fact that Christians do not know our own story - Christianity's numerous contributions to civilized living as well as its failings, supposed or real.
To take but one example, how many know of the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most important historical figures of the 12th century as well as one of the most important Church reformers of all time? As illustrious as Bernard's life was, he is known more for lending his name to a breed of dog than for anything he achieved.
Bernard began his adult life at a time of corruption and laxity among the Benedictine monasteries. He became aware of a noble, but failing, venture at living the Benedictine rule in all its purity in Citeaux, France, and with 30 of his relatives and friends, he joined this monastery. Within three years, Citeaux had become so vibrant that more monasteries were established, including one at Clairvaux with Bernard as its abbot.
Over the remaining 40 years of his life, he personally established 70 Cistercian monasteries across Europe. Bernard lobbied hard for a life of austerity and humility to be nurtured in those monasteries and he was highly critical of the life of ease he saw being lived among the rival Benedictines.
Bernard was a great spiritual writer, reflecting profoundly on God's love for humanity. He was also a sharp critic of heretics and the first Christian scholars who saw reason as more important than faith.
More than a writer, Bernard was also an activist who successfully lobbied to have the heretics and rationalists condemned.
In 1130, a Church schism developed over two rival claimants to the papacy. Bernard sided with Innocent II because he believed him to be more spiritually mature than his rival and Bernard's influence is seen as a crucial element in reuniting the Church.
But Bernard was not without his shadows. In later life, he realized that he had been too austere, both with his monks and himself. He also took up the papal request to unite Europe to fight the second Crusade, which ended up bringing murder and mayhem to Eastern Europe as well as military disaster. He was a monk who preached humility and seclusion and yet he was a very public figure, never far from the levers of papal power.
Bernard was an influential point of light in Church and European history. The world would have been spiritually poorer without him. Yet he was a man not wholly above his violent times.
In that paradox is the history of our Church, indeed, the history of religion. The world would be much more nasty and brutish without the influence of the great religions. Yet, the sons and daughters of those religions have also inflicted much suffering and injustice.
One can only hope and pray that God will judge us with more mercy than have the readers of the Globe and Mail's website.
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