St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – August 21 1153), abbot of Clairvaux, was a highly influential French churchman, theologian and mystic. He was one of the founders of the Cistercian, or Bernardine, monastic order. He was considered one of the most commanding Church leaders in the first half of the twelfth century, as well as one of the greatest Catholic spiritual masters of all times and the most powerful propagator of the Cistercian reform.
He was born in Fontaines-les-Dijon in 1090 and entered the Abbey of Citeaux in 1112, bringing thirty of his relatives with him, including five of his brothers — his youngest brother and his widowed father followed later. After receiving a monastic formation from St. Stephen Harding, he was sent in 1115 to begin a new monastery near Aube: Clairvaux, the Valley of Light. As a young abbot he published a series of sermons on the Annunciation. These marked him not only as a most gifted spiritual writer but also as the “cithara of Mary,” especially noted for his development of Mary’s mediatorial role.
Bernard’s spiritual writing as well as his extraordinary personal magnetism began to attract many to Clairvaux and the other Cistercian monasteries, leading to many new foundations. He was drawn into the controversy developing between the new monastic movement which he preeminently represented and the established Cluniac order, a branch of the Benedictines. This led to one of his most controversial and most popular works, his Apologia. Bernard’s dynamism soon reached far beyond monastic circles. He was sought as an advisor and mediator by the ruling powers of his age. More than any other he helped to bring about the healing of the papal schism which arose in 1130 with the election of the antipope Anacletus II. It cost Bernard eight years of laborious travel and skillful mediation. At the same time he labored for peace and reconciliation between England and France and among many lesser nobles. His influence mounted when his spiritual son was elected pope in 1145. At Eugene III’s command he preached the Second Crusade and sent vast armies on the road toward Jerusalem. In his last years he rose from his sickbed and went into the Rhineland to defend the Jews against a savage persecution.
Although he suffered from constant physical debility and had to govern a monastery that soon housed several hundred monks and was sending forth groups regularly to begin new monasteries (he personally saw to the establishment of sixty-five of the three hundred Cistercian monasteries founded during his thirty-eight years as abbot), he yet found time to compose many and varied spiritual works that still speak to us today. He laid out a solid foundation for the spiritual life in his works on grace and free will, humility and love. His gifts as a theologian were called upon to respond to the dangerous teachings of the scintillating Peter Abelard, of Gilbert de la Porree and of Arnold of Brescia.
His masterpiece, his Sermons on the Song of Songs, was begun in 1136 and was still in composition at the time of his death. With great simplicity and poetic grace Bernard writes of the deepest experiences of the mystical life in ways that became normative for all succeeding writers. For Pope Eugene he wrote Five Books on Consideration, the bedside reading of Pope John XXIII and many other pontiffs through the centuries. ernard died at Clairvaux on 20 August 1153. He was canonized by Pope Alexander III on 18 January 1174. Pope Pius VII declared him 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. Interestingly, Bernard, like Thomas Aquinas, denied the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Calvin quotes Bernard several times in support of the doctrine of Sola Fide, which 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.
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 Pope 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 Pope Alexander III 18 January 1174. He is fondly remembered as the “Mellifluous Doctor” (the Honey-Sweet-voiced Doctor) for his eloquence. The Cistercians honour him as only the founders of orders are honoured, 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. Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” places him as the last guide for Dante, as he travels through the Empyrean (Paradiso, cantos XXXI–XXXIII). Dante’s choice appears to be based on Bernard’s contemplative mysticism, his devotion to Mary, and his reputation for eloquence.
Excerpts from his writings:
“Humility is so beautiful, even arrogance puts it on, fearing to reveal its own ugliness.”
“We find rest in those we love, and we provide a resting place for those who love us.”
“It is no great thing to be humble when you are brought low; but to be humble when you are praised is a great and rare attainment.”
“What I know of the divine sciences and the Holy Scriptures, I have learned in woods and fields. I have no other masters than the beeches and the oaks.”
“You wish to see; listen. Hearing is a step toward Vision.”
“There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity.
There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity.
There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“Neither fear nor self-interest can convert the soul. They may change the appearance, perhaps even the conduct, but never the object of supreme desire… Fear is the motive which constrains the slave; greed binds the selfish man, by which he is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed (James 1:14). But neither fear nor self-interest is undefiled, nor can they convert the soul. Only charity can convert the soul, freeing it from unworthy motives.”
“What we love we shall grow to resemble.”
“The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself … Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare … You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”
“There is no greater misery than false joys.”
“Vines and trees will teach you that which you will never learn from masters.”
“So far from being able to answer for my sins, I cannot even answer for my righteousness!”
“Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a sceptre but a hoe.”
“Blessed,” he says, “are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Mt 5:9). Consider carefully that it is not the people who call for peace but those who make peace who are commended. For there are those who talk but do nothing (Mt 23:3). For just as it is not the hearers of the law but the doers who are righteous (Rom 2:13), so it is not those who preach peace but the authors of peace who are blessed.”
“I have ascended to the highest in me, and look, the Word is towering above that. I have descended to explore my lowest depths, and I found Him deeper still.”
“The more I contemplate God, the more God looks on me. The more I pray to him, the more he thinks of me too.”
“The reason for loving God is God Himself. As to how He is to be loved, there is only one measure: It is immeasurable!”
‘Among us on the earth there is His memory; but in the Kingdom of heaven His very Presence. That Presence is the joy of those who have already attained to beatitude; the memory is the comfort of us who are still wayfarers, journeying towards the Fatherland.”
“What of the souls already released from their bodies? We believe that they are overwhelmed in that vast sea of eternal light and of luminous eternity.”
“I have freed my soul.”
“I would count him blessed and holy to whom such rapture has been vouchsafed in this mortal life, for even an instant to lose thyself, as if thou wert emptied and lost and swallowed up in God, is no human love; it is celestial. But if sometimes a poor mortal feels that heavenly joy for a rapturous moment, then this wretched life envies his happiness, the malice of daily trifles disturbs him, this body of death weighs him down, the needs of the flesh are imperative, the weakness of corruption fails him, and above all brotherly love calls him back to duty.”
“In Him should all our affections center, so that in all things we should seek only to do His will, not to please ourselves. And real happiness will come, not in gratifying our desires or in gaining transient pleasures, but in accomplishing God’s will for us: even as we pray every day: ‘Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6.10). O chaste and holy love! O sweet and gracious affection! O pure and cleansed purpose, thoroughly washed and purged from any admixture of selfishness, and sweetened by contact with the divine will! To reach this state is to become deified. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red-hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun-beams, seems not so much to be illuminated as to be light itself; so in the saints all human affections melt away by some unspeakable transmutation into the will of God. For how could God be all in all, if anything merely human remained in man? The substance will endure, but in another beauty, a higher power, a greater glory.”
“He that will teach himself in school, becomes a scholar to a fool.”
“Who loves me, loves my dog.”