Appeared in Winter 1995, Vol. XXI, No. 4

Twentieth Anniversary Issue

During a brief sojourn in Paris sometime between Lent of 1139 and early 1140, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the famed Cistercian abbot, spiritual master, and ecclesiastical reformer addressed a group of scholars and student clerics on the theme of conversion. The tenor and substance of this appeal survives in revised and finished form in the Ad clericos de conversione, a “treatise in the form of a sermon” that shows Bernard’s highly-refined rhetorical skills and legendary ability to persuade at their best.1 If this extended version is anything to judge by, the Doctor Mellifluus presented his receptive (but potentially critical) scholastic audience with challenging ideas and captivating images that deeply penetrated their hearts. So effective were his words that a large group of his listeners followed him from Paris to his monastery in Clairvaux, where they became novices and professed their vows as Cistercian monks one year later.2 The enormity and suddenness of this response was probably due, at least in part, to Bernard’s great sensitivity to the situation of his audience and to the care with which he laid out for them, step by step, the inner workings of his patented psychology of conversion. Also of great importance was the insightful and highly creative correlation he made between the process of conversion itself and the eight beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (mt 5:3-10).

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