Bernard, fiery defender of the Church in the twelfth century, was known for the ardor with which he preached love for God “without measure”. He was absorbed, even to the neglect of his own health, in support of the purity, doctrine, and prerogatives of the Church. He fulfilled his own definition of a holy man: “seen to be good and charitable, holding back nothing for himself, but using his every gift for the common good.”
Born in 1090 near Dijon, Bernard was the son of a Burgundian knight and landowner. He was educated at Châtillon-sur-Seine by secular canons and became known as a youth for his charm, wit, learning, and eloquence. At the age of 22, with thirty-one companions including some of his brothers and other noblemen, he became a monk at the languishing, poverty-stricken, reformed monastery of Cîteaux. This influx of new monks saved the monastery from extinction, and under Bernard’s influence the Cistercian Order was transformed.
After a few years probation, Bernard was made abbot of Clairvaux, a new foundation. In conditions of acute poverty he was at first too severe on his community. On realizing this, he gave up preaching, improved the food, and generally improved the condition of the abbey with the assistance of the local bishop. With the abbey on a firm footing, Bernard devoted himself to writing letters and sermons, often denying himself sleep to do so. He preached so persuasively that in time sixty new Cisterican abbeys were founded in France and elsewhere, including five abbeys in the British Isles, all of them affiliated with Clairvaux. At the same time, Clairvaux itself grew steadily, until it numbered seven hundred monks at Bernard’s death.
By 1140, Bernard’s writings had made him one of the most influential figures in the Western Church. He participated actively in every controversy that threatened the Church. He was an ardent critic of Peter Abelard’s attempt to reconcile inconsistencies of doctrine by reason, because he thought that such an approach denigrated the mysteries of the faith.
When a former monk of Clairvaux was elected Pope as Eugenius the Third, Bernard became his spokesman and counselor. He preached the crusade against the Albigensians and the Second Crusade to liberate Jerusalem, winning much support for this crusade from France and Germany. When that Crusade ended in disaster, Bernard was roundly attacked for having supported it. He died soon after in 1153 and was canonized in 1174.
If Bernard in controversy was fierce and not always fair, it was partly because he was a man of intense feeling and dedication, quick to respond to any real or supposed threat to what he held sacred. It is his devotional writings, not his polemical ones, that are still read today. Among the hymns attributed to him are the Latin originals of “O Sacred Head, sore wounded,” “Jesus, the very thought of Thee,” “O Jesus, joy of loving hearts,” “Wide open are Thy hands (to pay with more than gold the awful debt of guilt and sin, forever and of old–see the Lutheran Book of Worship et alibi),” and “O Jesus, King most wonderful.” Among Bernard’s writings are treatises on papal duty, on love, on the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and perhaps his most renowned work, a commentary on the Song of Songs (the Song of Solomon) which was treated as an allegory of the love of Christ.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O God, by whose grace your servant Bernard of Clairvaux, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, are published on the Lectionary Page website.