1090 – 1153
Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
A reformer par excellence, he saved the Benedictine order and rejuvenated monasticism
Today’s saint was like a medieval rock star who never stopped touring Europe. He traveled with an entourage, drew enormous crowds, was wildly popular, and called the cream of society his friends. The details of Saint Bernard’s life, though he lived even before Saint Francis of Assisi, the Magna Carta, and Dante, are abundantly documented. He was nearly as prolific a writer as Saint Augustine, but primarily via letters, not thick books. And these letters paint a sharp profile of his character. He was intelligent, emotion laden, erudite, forceful, and contemplative. He spoke and wrote poetically, beautifully, clearly, and deeply. Pope Pius XII called him “the last of the Fathers” of the Church.
Bernard was born in a castle to a high born family and was sent away by his parents during his youth to receive a classical education. After the death of his mother left him in a depression, he pondered more seriously what God wanted of him. When Bernard was a child, in his native region of southeastern France, a local monk decided to try something new. He founded a new monastery at a place called Cîteaux in the hope of living the Benedictine Rule with exactitude and rigor. At the age of twenty-two, still mourning his mother, Bernard decided to dedicate his life to God and to enter this new, experimental monastery. But Bernard being Bernard, with all of the force of his mind and personality, when he knocked on the door of the abbey, he was not alone. Behind him at the door stood a long train of thirty of his brothers, cousins, and friends, all noblemen. Bernard was the leader. They were the followers. They wanted to become monks because he wanted to become a monk. When he asked, they answered, and they answered yes. This natural gift to command and lead was a sign of things to come.
Cîteaux inspired, and gave its name to, the Cistercian movement of monastic reform. Because of Bernard’s dynamic presence, Cîteaux soon overflowed with monks, and Bernard was sent, as Abbot, to found a new monastery at Clairvaux, or Clear Valley. This was his base for the rest of his itinerant life. As the first Abbot of Clairvaux, Bernard stamped the Cistercian movement with its distinctive character: sobriety in architecture and art, solemn liturgy, strict observance of the Benedictine rule, silence, austerity of life, and hard work. Cîteaux gave birth to Clairvaux, and Clairvaux spawned a vast Cistercian family that considers Bernard its founder. By the time of Bernard’s death, there were 343 Cistercian monasteries the length and breadth of Europe.
For an austere contemplative monk, Bernard, ironically, spent much of his life on the road. His gifts were such that he was consulted by princes, kings, and popes on every imaginable issue. He participated in Church councils, mediated civil conflicts, inaugurated Crusades, and wrote commentaries on prayer, theology, and Scripture. He had to employ secretaries, as if he were a minister of state, to whom he dictated the prodigious correspondence that flowed constantly from his mouth. He became famous as a miraculous healer. Crowds of people lined his route to receive his blessing or to feel his hands press against their skulls. In one incident, after wading into a large, clamoring crowd desiring his miraculous touch, he had to fight to return to his lodging as the people tore at his habit. A wit wrote that the real miracle was not his healing, but that Bernard escaped alive.
Bernard’s authentic and tender devotion to the Virgin Mary was expressed sublimely in his writings. For his Marian devotion, eloquence, and contemplative spirit, Bernard substitutes for Beatrice as Dante takes the final steps of his mythical voyage toward God in the Divine Comedy. In the blazing fire of pure love that is the Beatific Vision, Bernard is at Dante’s side as their eyes drink in the vision of a splendid, holographic, white rose emanating like a vision from the Godhead’s bright light. The Queen of this mystical white rose is the Virgin, and “faithful Bernard” gazes in silent admiration at the woman he loves so dearly. Saint Bernard was canonized in 1174 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1830.
Saint Bernard, may we see in your devotion to Mary, endless travels, strict life, and keen eye for beauty, the model of an educated and devoted monk. Intercede for all religious, and for all those with a contemplative heart who are in the world, to love God half as well as you did.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
BERNARD was born at the castle of Fontaines, in Burgundy. The grace of his person and the vigor of his intellect filled his parents with the highest hopes, and the world lay bright and smiling before him when he renounced it forever and joined the monks at Citeaux. All his brothers followed Bernard to Citeaux except Nivard, the youngest, who was left to be the stay of his father in his old age. “You will now be heir of everything,” said they to him, as they departed. “Yes,” said the boy; “you leave me earth, and keep heaven for yourselves; do you call that fair?” And he too left the world. At length their aged father came to exchange wealth and honor for the poverty of a monk of Clairvaux. One only sister remained behind; she was married, and loved the world and its pleasures. Magnificently dressed, she visited Bernard; he refused to see her, and only at last consented to do so, not as her brother, but as the minister of Christ. The words he then spoke moved her so much that, two years later, she retired to a convent with her husband’s consent, and died in the reputation of sanctity. Bernard’s holy example attracted so many novices that other monasteries were erected, and our Saint was appointed abbot of that of Clairvaux. Unsparing with himself, he at first expected too much of his brethren, who were disheartened at his severity; but soon perceiving his error, he led them forward, by the sweetness of his correction and the mildness of his rule, to wonderful perfection. In spite of his desire to lie hid, the fame of his sanctity spread far and wide, and many churches asked for him as their Bishop. Through the help of Pope Eugenius III., his former subject, he escaped this dignity; yet his retirement was continually invaded: the poor and the weak sought his protection; bishops, kings, and popes applied to him for advice; and at length Eugenius himself charged him to preach the crusade. By his fervor, eloquence, and miracles Bernard kindled the enthusiasm of Christendom, and two splendid armies were despatched against the infidel. Their defeat was only due, said the Saint, to their own sins. Bernard died in 1153. His most precious writings have earned for him the titles of the last of the Fathers and a Doctor of Holy Church.
Reflection.—St. Bernard used to say to those who applied for admission to the monastery, “If you desire to enter here, leave at the threshold the body you have brought with you from the world; here there is room only for your soul.” Let us constantly ask ourselves St. Bernard’s daily question, “To what end didst thou come hither?”
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.