Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Feastday: August 20
Bernard of Clairvaux (Latin: Bernardus
Claraevallensis), O.Cist (1090 – 20 August 1153) was a French abbot and the
primary reformer for the Cistercian order.
After the death of his mother, Bernard sought admission into the Cistercian
order. "Three years later, he was sent to found a new abbey at an isolated
clearing in a glen known as the Val d'Absinthe, about 15 kilometres (9.3 mi)
southeast of Bar-sur-Aube. According to tradition, Bernard founded the monastery
on 25 June 1115, naming it Claire Vallée, which evolved into Clairvaux. There
Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin
Mary." In the year 1128, Bernard attended the Council of Troyes, at which he
traced the outlines of the Rule of the Knights Templar, which soon became the
ideal of Christian nobility.
On the death of Pope Honorius II on 13 February 1130, a schism broke out in the
Church. King Louis VI of France convened a national council of the French
bishops at Étampes in 1130, and Bernard was chosen to judge between the rivals
for pope. After the council of Étampes, Bernard spoke with King Henry I of
England, also known as Henry Beauclerc, about Henry I's reservations regarding
Pope Innocent II. Henry I was sceptical because most of the bishops of England
supported Antipope Anacletus II; Bernard persuaded him to support Innocent.
Germany had decided to support Innocent through Norbert of Xanten, who was a
friend of Bernard's. However, Innocent insisted on Bernard's company when he met
with Lothair II, Holy Roman Emperor. Lothair III became Innocent's strongest
ally among the nobility. Despite the councils of Étampes, Wurzburg, Clermont,
and Rheims all supporting Innocent, there were still large portions of the
Christian world supporting Anacletus. At the end of 1131, the kingdoms of
France, England, Germany, Portugal, Castile, and Aragon supported Innocent;
however, most of Italy, southern France, and Sicily, with the patriarchs of
Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem, supported Anacletus. Bernard
set out to convince these other regions to rally behind Innocent. The first
person whom he went to was Gerard of Angoulême. He proceeded to write a letter
known as Letter 126, which questioned Gerard's reasons for supporting Anacletus.
Bernard would later comment that Gerard was his most formidable opponent during
the whole schism. After convincing Gerard, Bernard traveled to visit William X,
Duke of Aquitaine. He was the hardest for Bernard to convince. He did not pledge
allegiance to Innocent until 1135. After that, Bernard spent most of his time in
Italy convincing the Italians to pledge allegiance to Innocent. He traveled to
Sicily in 1137 to convince the king of Sicily to follow Innocent. The whole
conflict ended when Anacletus died on 25 January 1138. In 1139, Bernard assisted at the Second Council of the Lateran. Bernard denounced the teachings
of Peter Abelard to the pope, who called a council at Sens in 1141 to settle the
matter. Bernard soon saw one of his disciples elected as Pope Eugene III. Having
previously helped end the schism within the church, Bernard was now called upon
to combat heresy. In June 1145, Bernard traveled in southern France and his
preaching there helped strengthen support against heresy.
Following the Christian defeat at the Siege of Edessa, the pope commissioned
Bernard to preach the Second Crusade. The last years of Bernard's life were
saddened by the failure of the crusaders, the entire responsibility for which
was thrown upon him. Bernard died at age 63, after 40 years spent in the
cloister. He was the first Cistercian placed on the calendar of saints, and was
canonized by Pope Alexander III on 18 January 1174. In 1830 Pope Pius VIII
bestowed upon Bernard the title "Doctor of the Church".
Early life (1090–1113)
Bernard's parents were Tescelin de Fontaine
(de), Lord of Fontaine-lès-Dijon and Alèthe de Montbard (fr), both belonging to
the highest nobility of Burgundy. Bernard was the third of a family of seven
children, six of whom were sons. At the age of nine years, he was sent to school
at Châtillon-sur-Seine, run by the secular canons of Saint-Vorles. Bernard had a
great taste for literature and devoted himself for some time to poetry. His
success in his studies won the admiration of his teachers. He wanted to excel in
literature in order to take up the study of the Bible. He had a special devotion
to the Virgin Mary, and he would later write several works about the Queen of
Bernard would expand upon Anselm of Canterbury's role in transmuting the
sacramentally ritual Christianity of the Early Middle Ages into a new, more
personally held faith, with the life of Christ as a model and a new emphasis on
the Virgin Mary. In opposition to the rational approach to divine understanding
that the scholastics adopted, Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which
the intercessor was the Virgin Mary.
Bernard was only nineteen years of age when his mother died. During his youth,
he did not escape trying temptations and around this time he thought of retiring
from the world and living a life of solitude and prayer.
In 1098 Saint Robert of Molesme had founded Cîteaux Abbey, near Dijon, with the
purpose of restoring the Rule of St Benedict in all its rigour. Returning to
Molesme, he left the government of the new abbey to Saint Alberic of Cîteaux,
who died in the year 1109. At the age of 22, while Bernard was at prayer in a
church, he felt the calling of God to enter the Cistercian Monks of Cîteaux.
In 1113 Saint Stephen Harding had just succeeded Saint Alberic as third Abbot of
Cîteaux when Bernard and thirty other young noblemen of Burgundy sought
admission into the Cistercian order. Bernard's testimony was so irresistible
that 30 of his friends, brothers, and relatives followed him into the monastic
The little community of reformed Benedictines at Cîteaux, which would have so
profound an influence on Western monasticism, grew rapidly. Three years later,
Bernard was sent with a band of twelve monks to found a new house at Vallée
d'Absinthe, in the Diocese of Langres. This Bernard named Claire Vallée, or
Clairvaux, on 25 June 1115, and the names of Bernard and Clairvaux would soon
become inseparable. During the absence of the Bishop of Langres, Bernard was
blessed as abbot by William of Champeaux, Bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne. 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 Abbey of
St. Victor, Paris.
The beginnings of Clairvaux Abbey were trying and painful. The regime was so
austere that Bernard became ill, and only the influence of his friend William of
Champeaux and the authority of the general chapter could make him mitigate the
austerities. The monastery, however, made rapid progress. Disciples flocked to
it in great numbers and put themselves under the direction of Bernard. The
reputation of his holiness soon attracted 130 new monks, including his own
father. His father and all his brothers entered Clairvaux to pursue religious
life, leaving only Humbeline, his sister, in the secular world. She, with the
consent of her husband, soon took the veil in the Benedictine nunnery of
Jully-les-Nonnains. Gerard of Clairvaux, Bernard's older brother, became the
cellarer of Citeaux. The abbey became too small for its members and it was
necessary to send out bands to found new houses. In 1118 Trois-Fontaines
Abbey was founded in the diocese of Châlons; in 1119 Fontenay Abbey in the
Diocese of Autun; and in 1121 Foigny Abbey near Vervins, in the diocese of Laon.
In addition to these victories, Bernard also had his trials. During an absence
from Clairvaux, the Grand Prior of the Abbey of Cluny went to Clairvaux and
enticed away Bernard's cousin, Robert of Châtillon. This was the occasion of the
longest and most emotional of Bernard's letters. In the year 1119, Bernard was present at the
first general chapter of the order convoked by Stephen of Cîteaux. Though not
yet 30 years old, Bernard was listened to with the greatest attention and
respect, especially when he developed his thoughts upon the revival of the
primitive spirit of regularity and fervour in all the monastic orders. It was
this general chapter that gave definitive form to the constitutions of the order
and the regulations of the Charter of Charity which Pope Callixtus II confirmed
23 December 1119. In 1120, Bernard authored his first work, De Gradibus
Superbiae et Humilitatis, and his homilies which he entitled De Laudibus Mariae.
The monks of the abbey of Cluny were unhappy to see Cîteaux take the lead role
among the religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church. For this reason, the
Black Monks attempted to make it appear that the rules of the new order were
impracticable. At the solicitation of William of St. Thierry, Bernard defended
the order by publishing his Apology which was divided into two parts. In the
first part, he proved himself innocent of the charges of Cluny and in the second
he gave his reasons for his counterattacks. He protested his profound esteem for
the Benedictines of Cluny whom he declared he loved equally as well as the other
religious orders. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, answered Bernard and
assured him of his great admiration and sincere friendship. In the meantime
Cluny established a reform, and Abbot Suger, the minister of Louis VI of France,
was converted by the Apology of Bernard. He hastened to terminate his worldly
life and restore discipline in his monastery. The zeal of Bernard extended to
the bishops, the clergy, and lay people. Bernard's letter to the archbishop of
Sens was seen as a real treatise, "De Officiis Episcoporum." About the same time
he wrote his work on Grace and Free Will.
Doctor of the
In the year 1128 AD, Bernard participated in the Council of Troyes, which had
been convoked by Pope Honorius II, and was presided over by Cardinal Matthew of
Albano. The purpose of this council was to settle certain disputes of the
bishops of Paris, and regulate other matters of the Church of France. The
bishops made Bernard secretary of the council, and charged him with drawing up
the synodal statutes. After the council, the bishop of Verdun was deposed. It
was at this council that Bernard traced the outlines of the Rule of the Knights
Templar who soon became the ideal of Christian nobility. Around this time, he
praised them in his Liber ad milites templi de laude novae militiae.
Again reproaches arose against Bernard and he was denounced, even in Rome. He
was accused of being a monk who meddled with matters that did not concern him.
Cardinal Harmeric, on behalf of the pope, wrote Bernard a sharp letter of
remonstrance stating, "It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should
come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals."
Bernard answered the letter by saying that, if he had assisted at the council,
it was because he had been dragged to it by force. In his response Bernard wrote:
- Now illustrious Harmeric if you so wished, who would have been more capable of
freeing me from the necessity of assisting at the council than yourself? Forbid
those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes
. . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and
This letter made a positive impression on Harmeric, and in the Vatican.
Bernard's influence was soon felt in provincial affairs. He defended the rights
of the Church against the encroachments of kings and princes, and recalled to
their duty Henri Sanglier, archbishop of Sens and Stephen of Senlis, bishop of
Paris. On the death of Honorius II, which occurred on 14 February 1130, a schism
broke out in the Church by the election of two popes, Pope Innocent II and
Antipope Anacletus II. Innocent II, having been banished from Rome by Anacletus,
took refuge in France. Louis VI convened a national council of the French
bishops at Étampes, and Bernard, summoned there by consent of the bishops, was
chosen to judge between the rival popes. He decided in favour of Innocent II.
This caused the pope to be recognized by all the great powers. He then went with
him into Italy and reconciled Pisa with Genoa, and Milan with the pope. The same
year Bernard was again at the Council of Reims at the side of Innocent II. He
then went to Aquitaine where he succeeded for the time in detaching William X,
Duke of Aquitaine, from the cause of Anacletus.
In 1132, Bernard accompanied Innocent II into Italy, and at Cluny the pope
abolished the dues which Clairvaux used to pay to that abbey. This action gave
rise to a quarrel between the White Monks and the Black Monks which lasted 20
years. In May of that year, the pope, supported by the army of Lothair III,
entered Rome, but Lothair III, feeling himself too weak to resist the partisans
of Anacletus, retired beyond the Alps, and Innocent sought refuge in Pisa in
September 1133. Bernard had returned to France in June and was continuing the
work of peacemaking which he had commenced in 1130. Towards the end of 1134, he
made a second journey into Aquitaine, where William X had relapsed into schism.
Bernard invited William to the Mass which he celebrated in the Church of La
Couldre. At the Eucharist, he "admonished the Duke not to despise God as he did
His servants". William yielded and the schism ended. Bernard went again to
Italy, where Roger II of Sicily was endeavouring to withdraw the Pisans from
their allegiance to Innocent. He recalled the city of Milan to obedience to the
pope as they had followed the deposed Anselm V, Archbishop of Milan. For this,
he was offered, and he refused, the archbishopric of Milan. He then returned to
Clairvaux. Believing himself at last secure in his cloister, Bernard devoted
himself with renewed vigour to the composition of the works which would win for
him the title of "Doctor of the Church". He wrote at this time his sermons on
the Song of Songs. In 1137, he was again forced to leave his solitude by
order of the pope to put an end to the quarrel between Lothair and Roger of
Sicily. At the conference held at Palermo, Bernard succeeded in convincing Roger
of the rights of Innocent II. He also silenced the final supporters who
sustained the schism. Anacletus died of "grief and disappointment" in 1138, and
with him the schism ended.
In 1139, Bernard assisted at the Second Council of the Lateran, in which the
surviving adherents of the schism were definitively condemned. About the same
time, Bernard was visited at Clairvaux by Saint Malachy, Primate of All Ireland,
and a very close friendship formed between them. Malachy wanted to become a
Cistercian, but the pope would not give his permission. Malachy would die at
Clairvaux in 1148.
Contest with Abelard
Towards the close of the 11th century, a spirit of independence flourished
within schools of philosophy and theology. This led for a time to the exaltation
of human reason and rationalism. The movement found an ardent and powerful
advocate in Peter Abelard. Abelard's treatise on the Trinity had been condemned
as heretical in 1121, and he was compelled to throw his own book into the fire.
However, Abelard continued to develop his teachings, which were controversial in
some quarters. Bernard, informed of this by William of St-Thierry, is said to
have held a meeting with Abelard intending to persuade him to amend his writings,
during which Abelard repented and promised to do so. But once out of Bernard's
presence, he reneged. Bernard then denounced Abelard to the pope and
cardinals of the Curia. Abelard sought a debate with Bernard, but Bernard
initially declined, saying he did not feel matters of such importance should be
settled by logical analyses. Bernard's letters to William of St-Thierry also
express his apprehension about confronting the preeminent logician. Abelard
continued to press for a public debate, and made his challenge widely known,
making it hard for Bernard to decline. In 1141, at the urgings of Abelard, the
archbishop of Sens called a council of bishops, where Abelard and Bernard were
to put their respective cases so Abelard would have a chance to clear his name. Bernard lobbied the prelates on the evening before the debate, swaying
many of them to his view. The next day, after Bernard made his opening
statement, Abelard decided to retire without attempting to answer. The council found in favour of Bernard and their judgment was confirmed by the pope.
Abelard submitted without resistance, and he retired to Cluny to live under the
protection of Peter the Venerable, where he died two years later.
Cistercian Order and heresy
Bernard had occupied himself in sending bands of monks from his overcrowded
monastery into Germany, Sweden, England, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland, and
Italy. Some of these, at the command of Innocent II, took possession of Tre
Fontane Abbey, from which Eugene III would be chosen in 1145. Pope Innocent II
died in the year 1143. His two successors, Pope Celestine II and Pope Lucius II,
reigned only a short time, and then Bernard saw one of his disciples, Bernard of
Pisa, and known thereafter as Eugene III, raised to the Chair of Saint Peter. Bernard sent him, at the pope's own request, various instructions
which comprise the Book of Considerations, the predominating idea of which is
that the reformation of the Church ought to commence with the sanctity of the
pope. Temporal matters are merely accessories; the principles according to
Bernard's work were that piety and meditation were to precede action.
Having previously helped end the schism within the Church, Bernard was now
called upon to combat heresy. Henry of Lausanne, a former Cluniac monk, had
adopted the teachings of the Petrobrusians, followers of Peter of Bruys and
spread them in a modified form after Peter's death. Henry of Lausanne's
followers became known as Henricians. In June 1145, at the invitation of
Cardinal Alberic of Ostia, Bernard traveled in southern France. His
preaching, aided by his ascetic looks and simple attire, helped doom the new
sects. Both the Henrician and the Petrobrusian faiths began to die out by the
end of that year. Soon afterwards, Henry of Lausanne was arrested, brought
before the bishop of Toulouse, and probably imprisoned for life. In a letter to
the people of Toulouse, undoubtedly written at the end of 1146, Bernard calls
upon them to extirpate the last remnants of the heresy. He also preached against
Second Crusade (1146–49)
News came at this time from the Holy Land that
alarmed Christendom. Christians had been defeated at the Siege of Edessa and
most of the county had fallen into the hands of the Seljuk Turks. The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the other Crusader states were threatened with similar
disaster. Deputations of the bishops of Armenia solicited aid from the pope, and
the King of France also sent ambassadors. In 1144 Eugene III commissioned
Bernard to preach the Second Crusade and granted the same indulgences for it
which Pope Urban II had accorded to the First Crusade.
There was at first virtually no popular
enthusiasm for the crusade as there had been in 1095. Bernard found it expedient
to dwell upon the taking of the cross as a potent means of gaining absolution
for sin and attaining grace. On 31 March, with King Louis VII of France present,
he preached to an enormous crowd in a field at Vézelay. James Meeker Ludlow
describes the scene, in The Age of the Crusades:
- A large platform was erected on a hill outside the city. King and monk stood
together, representing the combined will of earth and heaven. The enthusiasm of
the assembly of Clermont in 1095, when Peter the Hermit and Urban II launched
the first crusade, was matched by the holy fervor inspired by Bernard as he
cried, "O ye who listen to me! Hasten to appease the anger of heaven, but no
longer implore its goodness by vain complaints. Clothe yourselves in sackcloth,
but also cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers. The din of arms, the
danger, the labors, the fatigues of war, are the penances that God now imposes
upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the Infidels, and
let the deliverance of the holy places be the reward of your repentance." As in
the olden scene, the cry "Deus vult! Deus vult! " rolled over the fields, and
was echoed by the voice of the orator: "Cursed be he who does not stain his
sword with blood."
When Bernard was finished the crowd enlisted en masse; they supposedly ran out
of cloth to make crosses. Bernard is said to have given his own outer garments
to be cut up to make more. Unlike the First Crusade, the new venture
attracted royalty, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France; Thierry of
Alsace, Count of Flanders; Henry, the future Count of Champagne; Louis's brother
Robert I of Dreux; Alphonse I of Toulouse; William II of Nevers; William de
Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey; Hugh VII of Lusignan; and numerous other nobles and
bishops. But an even greater show of support came from the common people.
Bernard wrote to the pope a few days afterwards, "Cities and castles are now
empty. There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows
to still-living husbands."
Bernard then passed into Germany, and the reported miracles which multiplied
almost at his every step undoubtedly contributed to the success of his mission.
Conrad III of Germany and his nephew Frederick Barbarossa, received the cross
from the hand of Bernard. Pope Eugenius came in person to France to
encourage the enterprise. As in the First Crusade, the preaching inadvertently
led to attacks on Jews; a fanatical French monk named Radulphe was apparently
inspiring massacres of Jews in the Rhineland, Cologne, Mainz, Worms, and Speyer,
with Radulphe claiming Jews were not contributing financially to the rescue of
the Holy Land. The archbishop of Cologne and the archbishop of Mainz were
vehemently opposed to these attacks and asked Bernard to denounce them. This he
did, but when the campaign continued, Bernard traveled from Flanders to Germany
to deal with the problems in person. He then found Radulphe in Mainz and was
able to silence him, returning him to his monastery.
The last years of Bernard's life were saddened by the failure of the Second
Crusade he had preached, the entire responsibility for which was thrown upon him.
Bernard considered it his duty to send an apology to the Pope and it is inserted
in the second part of his "Book of Considerations." There he explains how the
sins of the crusaders were the cause of their misfortune and failures. When his
attempt to call a new crusade failed, he tried to disassociate himself from the
fiasco of the Second Crusade altogether.
Moved by his burning words, many Christians embarked for the Holy Land, but the
crusade ended in miserable failure.
The death of his contemporaries served as a warning to Bernard of his own
approaching end. The first to die was Suger in 1152, of whom Bernard wrote to
Eugene III, "If there is any precious vase adorning the palace of the King of
Kings it is the soul of the venerable Suger". Conrad III and his son Henry died
the same year. From the beginning of the year 1153, Bernard felt his death
approaching. The passing of Pope Eugenius had struck the fatal blow by taking
from him one whom he considered his greatest friend and consoler. Bernard died
at age sixty-three on 20 August 1153, after forty years spent in the cloister.
He was buried at the Clairvaux Abbey, but after its dissolution in 1792 by the
French revolutionary government, his remains were transferred to Troyes
Main article: Doctor Mellifluus
Bernard was named a Doctor of the Church in 1830. At the 800th anniversary of
his death, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on Bernard, Doctor Mellifluus, in
which he labeled him "The Last of the Fathers." Bernard did not reject human
philosophy which is genuine philosophy, which leads to God; he differentiates
between different kinds of knowledge, the highest being theological. Three
central elements of Bernard's Mariology are how he explained the virginity of
Mary, the "Star of the Sea", how the faithful should pray on the Virgin Mary,
and how he relied on the Virgin Mary as Mediatrix.
Bernard, like Thomas Aquinas, denied the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception
of Mary. John Calvin quotes Bernard several
times in support of the doctrine of Sola Fide, which Martin Luther
described as the article upon which the church stands or falls. Calvin also
quotes him in setting forth his doctrine of a forensic alien righteousness, or
as it is commonly called imputed righteousness.
One day, to cool down his lustful temptation, Bernard threw himself into
ice-cold water. Another time, while sleeping in an inn, a prostitute was
introduced naked beside him, and he saved his chastity by running.
Many miracles were attributed to his intercession. One time he restored the
power of speech to an old man that he might confess his sins before he died.
Another time, an immense number of flies, that infested the Church of Foigny,
died instantly after the excommunication he made on them.
So great was his reputation that princes and Popes sought his advice, and even
the enemies of the Church admired the holiness of his life and the greatness of
Bernard was instrumental in re-emphasizing the importance of lectio divina and
contemplation on Scripture within the Cistercian order. Bernard had observed
that when lectio divina was neglected monasticism suffered. Bernard considered
lectio divina and contemplation guided by the Holy Spirit the keys to nourishing
Bernard "noted centuries ago: the people who are their own spiritual directors
have fools for disciples."
Bernard's theology and Mariology continue to be
of major importance, particularly within the Cistercian and Trappist orders.
Bernard led to the foundation of 163 monasteries in different parts of Europe.
At his death, they numbered 343. His influence led Alexander III to launch
reforms that would lead to the establishment of canon law. He was the first
Cistercian monk placed on the calendar of saints and was canonized by Alexander
III 18 January 1174. Pope Pius VIII bestowed on him the title "Doctor of the
Church". He is labeled the "Mellifluous Doctor" for his eloquence. Cistercians
honour him as the founder of the order because of the widespread activity which
he gave to the order.
Saint Bernard's "Prayer to the Shoulder Wound of Jesus" is often published in
Catholic prayer books.
Bernard is Dante Alighieri's last guide, in Divine Comedy, as he travels through
the Empyrean. Dante's choice appears to be based on Bernard's contemplative
mysticism, his devotion to Mary, and his reputation for eloquence.
He is also the attributed author of the poems often translated in English
hymnals as "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" and "Jesus the Very Thought of Thee".
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Saint of Wales
O God, by whose grace thy
servant Bernard of Clairvaux, enkindled with the fire of thy love,
became a burning and a shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also
may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk
before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who
with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one
God, now and for ever.
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