Home History of Hymns: "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee"

History of Hymns: "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee"

"Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee"
Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, trans. by Edward Caswall
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 175

Bernard of Clairvaux

“Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.”

Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the most interesting and influential people of his time. Born in what is now considered France at Fontaines near Dijon in 1090 or 1091, his father, Tecelin or Tesselin, was a knight who died in the First Crusade, as well as a friend and vassal of the Duke of Burgundy.

Bernard was educated at Châtillon by the canons of St. Vorles. After his education, he entered the monastery of Citeaux, the first Cistercian foundation, in 1113. Two years later Bernard was sent to found another monastery at Clairvaux in the Wormwood Valley of France. At that monastery, he was originally the abbot over 12 monks.

In 1130, the College of Cardinals was divided on the election of a pope. Some cardinals chose Innocent II; others chose Anacletus II. Because of this division, Bernard’s judgment was sought.

He chose Innocent II, and King Henry I of England and German Emperor Lothar supported his decision. It was not until the death of Anacletus in 1138 and the resignation of his successor that Innocent II was acknowledged as Pope.

Bernard also had great influence in filling other positions in the church. One of his monks at the abbey in Clairvaux later became Pope Eugene III.

Bernard was a true mystic; his love of Jesus and the devotion to Jesus’ Passion were based on a direct experience of Christ’s love. His convictions led to a conflict with his contemporary Peter Abelard. While Bernard was a mystic, Peter Abelard was a rationalist.

Bernard was the prosecutor at the council held at Sens, where Abelard was condemned. He appealed to Rome, but died in 1142 before Rome replied.

In 1146, Bernard traveled throughout France and Germany to gather support for the second crusade. In both countries he drew massive support, including that of King Louis VII of France and King Conrad III of Germany.

The crusade of 1147 was a complete failure, however, as only one-tenth of the people reached the Holy Land. Most of them died in Asia Minor, and those that eventually arrived in Palestine found their efforts sabotaged by local lords who feared that they might take over.

Sole blame for the failure of the second crusade was placed upon Bernard, who wrote an apology for his actions.

“Jesus, the very thought of thee,” comes from a Latin text “Dulcis Jesus memoria.” Generally ascribed to Bernard, the earliest manuscript containing the poem dates from the turn of the 12th century, when Bernard was a child. The earliest manuscripts are from England. Joseph Connelly and Matthew Britt also believe that the poem originated in England and later moved to France and finally to Italy and Germany. Originally the poem was 42 stanzas long; during the 15th century it was extended to 51 stanzas.

Most of the early manuscripts do not indicate a use for the poem, but a 13th-century Augustinian missal places it among prayers for the preparations of communion. Other manuscripts use the poem as devotion on the name of Jesus. Eventually it was associated with the Feast of the Name of Jesus, first observed around 1500.

There are many variations of this text appearing in manuscripts, and many show the first two words reversed (“Jesu dulcis”). The English translation of this poem by Edward Caswall is called “Jesu dulcis memoria.” It first appeared in Lyra Catholica in 1849, and the stanzas have been slightly altered.

After the second crusade, Bernard returned to Clairvaux, where he died in 1153. He was the author of many spiritual writings; over 500 of his letters and sermons have been preserved to this day. These writings offer great understanding of the period’s history as well as insight into his character.

Bernard was canonized as a saint in 1174 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1830.

Mr. St. Romain is a student of Dr. Michael Hawn and a candidate for the master of sacred music degree at Perkins School of Theology.

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