Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor

St Bernard of Clairvaux (Memorial)

Bernard was born about 1090 at Fontaines, near Dijon, in France, the third son of Tescelin Sorrel, a Burgundian nobleman and was educated at Chatillon-sur-Seine. As a young man he became known for his charm, wit, learning, and eloquence. At the age of 22, with 31 companions including some of his brothers and others of noble birth, he became a monk at the reformed monastery of Citeaux, which was then in decline and materially very poor. The large influx of new recruits saved it from near-extinction, but in time, under Bernard’s influence, the Cistercian Order was radically changed.

After being evaluated for a few years, Bernard was made abbot of a new foundation at Clairvaux (Valley of Light) in Burgundy, France. In conditions of extreme poverty, he was in the early years too severe on his community. When he realised this, he gave up preaching to his monks and improved the diet, which up to then had been just barley bread and boiled beech leaves.

Overall, he strengthened the status of the monastery with the help of the local bishop. Although he suffered from constant physical debility, Bernard governed a monastery that soon housed several hundred monks and was sending forth groups regularly to begin new foundations. He personally was responsible for 65 of the 300 Cistercian monasteries founded during his thirty-eight years as abbot. From Clairvaux would come new foundations in France and elsewhere, including England (Rievaulx, North Yorkshire in 1132; Whitland, Dyfed in 1140; Boxley, Kent in 1146; Margam, West Glamorgan in 1147) and Ireland (Mellifont, Co. Louth in 1142). In spite of these new foundations, Clairvaux itself continued to grow in numbers until there were about 700 monks at the time of Bernard’s death.

From early on, Bernard, although a member of a strictly enclosed Order, became much involved in Church affairs and would soon emerge as one of the most charismatic and influential personalities in bringing about Church reform. At the Synod of Troyes he obtained recognition for the new Order of Templars, whose rule he had himself written. Its purpose was to establish a respectable and dedicated body of knights to fight in the Crusades. In addition, they were to devote themselves to the care of the sick and pilgrims to the Holy Land.

In 1130, after a disputed papal election, Bernard supported Innocent II against the anti-pope Anacletus. With support from St Norbert, founder of the Premonstratensian Order of monks, Bernard was able to get the whole Church to support Innocent. In return, the Cistercian Order, now with strong papal support, increased even more rapidly. Cistercian influence reached its peak when a former pupil of Bernard, Eugenius III, was elected pope in 1145. Both died within a few months of each other, eight years later, in 1153.

In spite of all this activity and responsibilities, Bernard still found time to compose many and varied spiritual works that are still read today. He laid out a solid foundation for the spiritual life in his works on grace and free will, humility and love.

Bernard thrived on conflict but it was provoked mainly by doctrinal ambivalence and laxity in monastic life. He criticised what he saw as the dangerous teachings of Peter Abelard, Gilbert de la Porree and Arnold of Brescia, among the best known scholars of the day. He also severely criticized, perhaps unfairly, the great monastery of Cluny and hence, indirectly, the Benedictines’ way of life. The Cistercians were a radical reform of the Benedictines who were seen to have become too rich and lax. He also intervened in the election of several bishops in Europe.

Inevitably, he made enemies as well as friends. Perhaps the greatest failure of his life was the Second Crusade, which he had vigorously supported. Many were won over by his identifying the cause of the Crusade with God’s will and large numbers rallied to his call. However, the Crusade ended in disaster and much of the blame was – perhaps not altogether fairly – laid at Bernard’s door.

Bernard’s character is best revealed in his writings. These include his Letters, his sermons on the Song of Songs, which were polished and re-polished, as well as various treatises on theological subjects.

His masterpiece, his Sermons on the Song of Songs, was begun in 1136 and was still in composition at the time of his death. Perhaps the most attractive, as well as one of the most simply written, is his treatise on the Love of God, which has become a spiritual classic. He was also prominent in fostering devotion to the human nature of Christ and to the Virgin Mary. His affective approach had a deep influence on the development of medieval spirituality and of later spiritual writing. For Pope Eugene he wrote Five Books on Consideration, which was the bedside reading of Pope John XXIII as well as many other popes down the centuries.

His influence on monasticism has also been deep and lasting. He encouraged monks to a life of mystical prayer in and through the observance of the monastic day. He developed the Cistercian Order into a movement of unprecedented expansion and reputation.

At his death the Cistercians numbered about 500 houses almost all over Europe. Despite his failings, his influence on many aspects of 12th-century Church life was enormous and his cult began unofficially already during his lifetime.
Bernard died at Clairvaux on 20 August 1153. He was canonised by Pope Alexander III on 18 January 1174. Pope Pius VII declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1830.

Bernard is remembered as one of the most commanding Church leaders in the first half of the 12th century, one of the greatest spiritual masters of all times and the most powerful influence of the Cistercian reform.

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