Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbott, Doctor of the Church

August 20

Today is the feast day of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  Ora pro nobis.

Bernard was born at the castle of Fontaines, in Burgundy near Dijon, in 1090. His parents were Tescelin, lord of Fontaines, and Aleth of Montbard, both belonging to the highest nobility of Burgundy.  Bernard, the third of a family of seven children, six of whom were sons, was educated with particular care, because, while yet unborn, a devout man had foretold his great destiny. At the age of nine years, Bernard was sent to a much renowned school at Chatillon-sur-Seine, kept by the secular canons of Saint-Vorles. He had a great taste for literature and devoted himself for some time to poetry.

His success in his studies won the admiration of his masters, and his growth in virtue was no less marked. Bernard’s great desire was to excel in literature in order to take up the study of Sacred Scripture, which later on became, as it were, his own tongue. He had a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and there is no one who speaks more sublimely of the Queen of Heaven. Bernard was scarcely nineteen years of age when his mother died. During his youth, he did not escape trying temptations, but his virtue triumphed over them, in many instances in a heroic manner.  From this time he thought of retiring from the world and living a life of solitude and prayer.

St. Robert, Abbot of Molesmes, had founded, in 1098, the monastery of Cîteaux, about four leagues from Dijon, with the purpose of restoring the Rule of St. Benedict in all its rigour. Returning to Molesmes, he left the government of the new abbey to St. Alberic, who died in the year 1109.

Bernard  joined the monks of Citeaux, a few miles distant. Four of his brothers and a group of friends, thirty young Christians in all, went with him to Citeaux, leaving the youngest brother, Nivard, to be the mainstay of his father in his old age.

You will now be heir to everything, they said to Nivard as they departed. Yes, said the boy; you leave me the earth, and keep heaven for yourselves; do you consider that fair? And he too left the world. At length their aged father came also, exchanging wealth and honor for the poverty of a monk in the monastery of Clairvaux (see below).

St. Stephen of Citeaux sent the young Bernard, at the head of a band of monks, the third to leave Cîteaux, to found a new house at Vallée d’Absinthe, or Valley of Bitterness, in the Diocese of Langres. Bernard named Claire Vallée, of Clairvaux, on the 25th of June, 1115, and the names of Bernard and Clairvaux thence became inseparable. During the absence of the Bishop of Langres, Bernard was blessed as abbot by William of Champeaux, Bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne, who saw in him the predestined man, servum Dei. From that moment a strong friendship sprang up between the abbot and the bishop, who was professor of theology at Notre Dame of Paris, and the founder of the cloister of St. Victor.

In the year 1119, Bernard was present at the first general chapter of the order convoked by Stephen of Cîteaux. It was this general chapter that approved the constitutions of the order (The Charter of Charity), which Pope Callixtus II then confirmed.

The first year at Clairvaux was one of great hardship. The monks, an austere order, had no stores and lived chiefly on roots and barley bread. Bernard imposed such severe discipline that many of his brothers became discouraged. Sensing their discouragement, after much prayer, he realized his error and became more lenient. The reputation of the monastery spread across Europe. Many new monks joined it, and over time many influential people would write letters or come in person to seek spiritual advice. Every morning Bernard would ask himself, “Why have I come here?”, and then remind himself of his main duty – to lead a holy life.

Made abbot at Clairvaux, Bernard began publishing theological and spiritual works—and earned a reputation as a gifted writer. His early sermons and writings focused on the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her role as mediator and co-redemptrix—topics which had not previously received much scholarly attention. Saint Bernard wrote, “God has wanted that we obtain nothing if not through the hands of Mary.”

In the year 1128, Bernard became involved in Church affairs at the Council of Troyes. It was at this council that Bernard outlined the Rule of the Knights Templar, a body of knights who devoted themselves to the care of the sick and pilgrims to the Holy Land and later went there themselves on the Crusades.

In 1130 Bernard mediated in a disputed papal election and supported Pope Innocent II against a rival antipope Anacletus. He accompanied Innocent to Italy and later mediated in other Church and State conflicts. It wasn’t long before a former pupil of Bernard’s, himself a Cistercian, was elected pope, Eugenius III, in 1145.

A spirit of rationalism was flourishing in the schools of philosophy and theology. To counteract this, Bernard was recruited to confront Peter Abelard, whose treatise on the Trinity had been condemned as heretical. Abelard continued to develop his controversial teachings. Bernard took a more traditional stance and after he spoke at a council at Sens (1141), Abelard submitted without resistance, and retired to Cluny to live under the protection of Peter the Venerable, where he died two years later.

The Cistercian order was expanding. Bernard was probably the most influential Church person in Europe. He sent monks from his overcrowded monastery into Germany, Sweden, England, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland, and Italy. In all sixty-eight monasteries were established from Clairvaux.

In 1146 when news came that the Christians in the Holy Land were defeated by the Seljuk Turks, Pope Eugenius III commissioned Bernard to preach the Second Crusade. Although a great gathering of kings and princes went on the Crusade, it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Probably Bernard was not left without criticism.

From the beginning of the year 1153, Bernard felt a great loss at the passing of his friend Pope Eugenius. He grew gradually weaker and died at age sixty-three on August 20, 1153. He was forty years a monk.

Bernard was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1174. Pope Pius VII declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1830.

The works of St. Bernard are as follows:

  • “De Gradibus Superbiae”, his first treatise;
  • “Homilies on the Gospel ‘Missus est'” (1120);
  • “Apology to William of St. Thierry” against the claims of the monks of Cluny;
  • “On the Conversion of Clerics“, a book addressed to the young ecclesiastics of Paris (1122);
  • “De Laudibus Novae Militiae“, addressed to Hughes de Payns, first Grand Master and Prior of Jerusalem (1129). This is a eulogy of the military order instituted in 1118, and an exhortation to the knights to conduct themselves with courage in their several stations.
  • “De amore Dei” wherein St. Bernard shows that the manner of loving God is to love Him without measure and gives the different degree of this love;
  • “Book of Precepts and Dispensations” (1131), which contains answers to questions upon certain points of the Rule of St. Benedict from which the abbot can, or cannot, dispense;
  • “De Gratiâ et Libero Arbitrio” in which the Catholic dogma of grace and free will is proved according to the principles of St. Augustine;
  • “Book of Considerations”, addressed to Pope Eugenius III;
  • “De Officiis Episcoporum”, addressed to Henry, Archbishop of Sens.

His sermons are also numerous:

  • “On Psalm 90, ‘Qui habitat'” (about 1125);
  • “On the Canticle of Canticles”. St. Bernard explained in eighty-six sermons only the first two chapters of the Canticle of Canticles and the first verse of the third chapter.
  • There are also eighty-six “Sermons for the Whole Year”; his “Letters” number 530.

Image: Crop of Christ Embracing St Bernard. Artist: Francesc Ribalta, circa 1625. (6)

Research by REGINA Staff




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