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Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, O.Cist (1090 - August 21, 1153) was a French abbot and the primary builder of the reforming Cistercian monastic order. "The voice of conscience, the dominating figure in the Catholic Church from 1125 to 1153"[1], his authority helped to end the schism of 1130. Bernard was the main voice of conservatism during the intellectual revival of Western Europe called the Renaissance of the 12th century and the main opponent of rising scholastic theology. Devoted to promoting the veneration of the Virgin Mary, he was also the most influential advocate of the Second Crusade. He was canonized as a saint in 1174 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1830.

Early life[]

St. Bernard was born in Fontaines, near Dijon, in France, into the noble class: his father Tescelin was a knight of the lower nobility; and his mother, Aleth, was a daughter of the noble house of Montbard[2]. She was a woman distinguished for her piety, and died while Bernard was a boy.

Constitutionally unfit for a military career, his own disposition, as well as his mother's early influence, directed him to the church. His desire to enter a monastery was opposed by his relations, who sent him to study at Châtillon-sur-Seine in order to qualify him for high ecclesiastical preferment. Bernard's resolution to become a monk was not, however, shaken, and when he at last definitely decided to join the community that Robert of Molesme had founded at Citeaux in 1098, he took with him his brothers and many of his relations and friends. Gerard of Clairvaux, his older brother, joined him at a subsequent date and became the cellarer of Citeaux.

Abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux[]

General history of Clairvaux: Clairvaux Abbey

The little community of reformed Benedictines at Cîteaux, which would have so profound an influence on Western monasticism, grew so rapidly that it was soon able to send out offshoots. One of these monasteries, Clairvaux, was founded in 1115, in a wild valley of a tributary of the Aube, on land given by Hugh, count of Champagne and Troyes. There Bernard, a recent initiate, was appointed abbot.

By the new constitution of the Cistercians, Clairvaux became the chief monastery of the five branches into which the order was divided under the supreme direction of the abbot of Cîteaux. Though nominally subject to Cîteaux, Clairvaux soon became the most important Cistercian house, owing to the fame and influence of Bernard.

Wider influence[]

Before long the abbot, who had intended to devote his life to the work of his monastery, was drawn into the affairs of the outside world. When in 1124 Pope Honorius II was elected, Bernard was already reckoned among the greatest of French churchmen; he now shared in the most important ecclesiastical discussions, and papal legates sought his counsel.

Thus in 1129 he was invited by Cardinal Matthew of Albano to the synod of Troyes, where he was instrumental in obtaining the recognition of the new order of Knights Templar, the rules of which he is said to have drawn up; and in the following year, at the synod of Châlons-sur-Marne, he ended the crisis arising out of certain charges brought against Henry, Bishop of Verdun, by persuading the bishop to resign.

The schism of 1130–1138[]


The European importance of Bernard, however, began with the death of Pope Honorius (1130) and the disputed election that followed. In the conclave, Anacletus II was elected by a narrow margin, but many influential cardinals favored the contender, Pope Innocent II, a disciple of Bernard and the Cistercian reforms. In the synod convoked by Louis the Fat at Etampes in April 1130, Bernard successfully asserted the claims of Innocent II against those of Anacletus, and from this moment became Innocent's most influential supporter. He threw himself into the contest with characteristic ardour. While Rome was held by the faction that supported Anacletus, France, England, Spain and Germany declared for Innocent, who, though banished from Rome, was—in Bernard's phrase—"accepted by the world." The pope traveled from place to place, with the powerful abbot of Clairvaux at his side; he stayed at Clairvaux itself, humble still, so far as its buildings were concerned; and he went with Bernard to parley with Lothair II, Holy Roman Emperor, at Liège.

In 1133, the year of the emperor's first expedition to Rome, Bernard was in Italy persuading the Genoese to make peace with Pisa, since Innocent had need of both. He accompanied Innocent to Rome, successfully resisting the proposal to reopen negotiations with Anacletus, who held the Castel Sant'Angelo and, with the support of Roger II of Sicily, was too strong to be subdued by force. Lothair, though crowned by Innocent in St. Peter's, could do nothing to establish him in the Holy See so long as his own power was sapped by his quarrel with the house of Hohenstaufen. Again Bernard came to the rescue; in the spring of 1135 he was at Bamberg successfully persuading Frederick Hohenstaufen to submit to the emperor.

In June, he was back in Italy, taking a leading part in the council of Pisa, by which Anacletus was excommunicated. In northern Italy, the effect of his personality and of his preaching was immense; Milan itself, of all the Lombard cities most jealous of the imperial claims, surrendered to his eloquence, submitted to Lothar and to Innocent and tried to force Bernard against his will into the vacant see of Milan.

In 1137, the year of Lothar's last journey to Rome, Bernard was back in Italy again; at Monte Cassino, setting the affairs of the monastery in order, at Salerno, trying in vain to induce Roger of Sicily to declare against Anacletus, and in Rome itself, agitating with success against the antipope.

When Anacletus died on January 25 1138 and the cardinal Gregory was elected his successor, assuming the name of Victor IV, Bernard's crowning triumph in the long contest was the abdication of the new antipope Victor, the result of his personal influence. The schism of the church was healed and the abbot of Clairvaux was free to return to the peace of his monastery.

The contest with Abelard[]

Clairvaux itself had meanwhile (1135–1136) been transformed outwardly—in spite of the reluctance of Bernard, who preferred the rough simplicity of the original buildings—into a more suitable seat for an influence that overshadowed that of Rome itself. How great this influence was is shown by the outcome of Bernard's contest with Peter Abelard. Bernard was the prosecutor in Abelard's trial for heresy. A total of fourteen charges were made over scriptural heresies concerning the nature of the Trinity and God's mercy. Bernard had been hostile to the scholars at the University of Paris, the center of the new learning based on Aristotle, suspecting those who learned "merely in order that they might know" for the vanity of a learned reputation. For Bernard, the liberal arts served a narrow purpose: to prepare for the priesthood. For Bernard, with his fervent and unhesitating faith, rational inquiry like Abelard's was sheer revolt. Bernard was roused by Abelard's steadfastness to put forth all his strength. A council met at Sens (1141), before which Abelard, formally arraigned upon a number of charges of heresy, was prepared to plead his cause. When, however, Bernard had opened the case, suddenly Abelard appealed to Rome. Bernard, who had power, notwithstanding, to get a condemnation passed at the council, did not rest a moment till a second condemnation was procured at Rome in the following year. Meanwhile, on his way there to urge his plea in person, Abelard collapsed at the abbey of Cluny, and there he lingered only a few months before the approach of death. Removed by friends to the priory of St. Marcel, near Chalon-sur-Saone, he died. Additionally, Bernard's and William of St. Thierry's first hand knowledge of Abelard's writings has been debated.

Bernard and the Cistercian Order[]

Main article: Cistercian Order

One result of Bernard's fame was the growth of the Cistercian order. Between 1130 and 1145, no less than 93 monasteries in connection with Clairvaux were either founded or affiliated from other rules, three being established in England and one in Ireland. In 1145, a Cistercian monk, once a member of the community of Clairvaux—another Bernard, abbot of Aquae Silviae near Rome, was elected pope as Pope Eugene III. This was a triumph for the order; to the world it was a triumph for Bernard, who complained that all who had suits to press at Rome applied to him, as though he himself had become Pope.

Bernard and heresy[]

Having previously healed the schism within the church, Bernard was now called upon to combat heresy. Languedoc especially had become a hotbed of heresy and at this time the preaching of Henry of Lausanne was drawing thousands from the orthodox faith. In June 1145, at the invitation of Cardinal Alberic of Ostia, Bernard traveled in the south. There his preaching, aided by his emaciated ascetic's looks and simple attire, did something to stem the flood of heresy for a while, missionary work and humility having been positive characteristics of Cathars and Waldensians.

The Second Crusade[]

Main article: Second Crusade

Far more important was his activity in the following year, when, according to Odo of Deuil, Bernard was asked by Louis VII, as if he were a divine oracle, whether it would be right to raise a crusade (Odo of Deuil, De Profectione, trans V.Berry 1948). Odo writes that Bernard reserved judgment until Pope Eugene III commanded him to preach the Second Crusade. The effect of his eloquence was extraordinary. At the great meeting at Vézelay, on March 21, after Bernard's sermon, King Louis VII of France and his queen, Eleanor, took the cross, together with a host of all classes, so numerous that the stock of crosses was soon exhausted.

Although Bernard had indeed preached at Vézelay, Louis had already made his plans to embark on the Second crusade at his Christmas court at Bourges of 1145, where Otto of Freising records that Louis wished to make a crusade to fulfill his brother Philip's obligation, after his death had prevented him from making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Bernard continued through northern France, and also preached in Flanders and the Rhine provinces. One reason for his extended preaching tour into Germany was the rabble-rousing of an itinerant monk, Radulf, who had stirred the German populace to anti-Semitic attacks, as recorded by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn. Radulf preached and was, according to Otto of Freising, living in the Rhineland "in greatest favour of the people" (Gesta Friderici, trans. C. Mierow 1994), and it took Bernard's eloquent preaching to persuade the populace that the Jews were not to be killed "but scattered".[3] At Speyer on Christmas Day he succeeded in persuading Conrad, king of the Romans, to join the crusade.

The disastrous outcome of the crusade was a blow to Bernard, who found it difficult to understand why God would move in this way but ascribed it to the sins of the crusaders (Epistle 288; de Consideratione. ii.I). The news of the defeats of the crusading host first reached Bernard at Clairvaux, where Pope Eugene III, driven from Rome by the revolution of Arnold of Brescia, was his guest. Bernard had in March and April 1148 accompanied the pope to the council of Reims, where he led the attack on certain propositions of the scholastic theologian Gilbert de la Porrée. From whatever cause—possibly the growing jealousy of the cardinals, or the loss of prestige owing to rumours about the crusade, the success of which he had so confidently predicted—Bernard's influence, previously a danger to those suspected of heterodoxy, on this occasion had little effect.

On the news of the disaster that had overtaken the crusaders, an effort was made to retrieve it by organizing another expedition. At the invitation of Suger, abbot of St Denis, now the virtual ruler of France, Bernard attended the meeting at Chartres in 1150 convened for this purpose, where he himself was elected to conduct the new crusade. An important religious figure of the time, Peter the Venerable, had been invited to this meeting but had declined to attend, and the meeting was perceived by some as a bad idea in light of Bernard's age and frailty, and the theological issues raised by having an abbot lead a fighting army. Eugene III held back from fully endorsing this project which eventually came to nothing, and Bernard himself wrote to Eugene making clear his unsuitability for the task and that he never intended to lead such a crusade. Bernard was aging, broken by his austerities and by ceaseless work, and saddened by the loss of several of his early friends. His intellectual energy remained undimmed. He continued to take an active interest in ecclesiastical affairs, and his last work, the De Consideratione, written to Eugene III and describing the nature of papal power, shows no sign of failing power.

Bernard and the veneration of the Virgin Mary[]

Bernard expanded 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 preached an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary—"the Virgin that is the royal way, by which the Saviour comes to us." "Bernard played the leading role in the development of the Virgin cult, which is one of the most important manifestations of the popular piety of the twelfth century. In early medieval thought, the Virgin Mary had played a minor role and it was only with the rise of emotional Christianity in the eleventh century that she became the prime intercessor for humanity with the deity." [4]

Bernard's character[]

The greatness of Bernard is generally regarded as being his character. The age saw him as the embodiment of its ideal: that of medieval monasticism at its highest development. The world had no meaning for him save as a place of banishment and trial, in which men are but "strangers and pilgrims" (Serm. i., Epiph. n. I; Serm. vii., Lent. n. I); the way of grace, back to the lost inheritance, had been marked out, and the function of theology was merely to maintain the landmarks inherited from the past. He had no sympathy with the dialectics of many teachers. Bernard's vision was clear. With merciless logic, he followed the principles of the Christian faith as he conceived it. For all his overmastering zeal, he was by nature neither a bigot nor a persecutor. Even when preaching the crusade, he interfered at Mainz to stop the persecution of the Jews, stirred up by the monk Radulf.[2] As for heretics, "the little foxes that spoil the vines should be taken, not by force of arms, but by force of argument." However, if any heretic refused to be thus taken, he considered "that he should be driven away, or even a restraint put upon his liberty, rather than that he should be allowed to spoil the vines" (Serm. lxiv). He was troubled by the mob violence that made the heretics "martyrs to their unbelief." He approved the zeal of the people, but believed that "faith is to be produced by persuasion, not imposed by force;" adding that "it would without doubt be better that they should be coerced by the sword than that they should be allowed to draw away many other persons into their error." Finally, he ascribes the steadfastness of these "dogs" in facing death to the power of the devil (Serm. lxvi on Canticles ii.15).

Bernard at his best displays a nobility of nature, a wise charity and tenderness in his dealings with others, and a genuine humility, which make him one of the most complete exponents of the Christian life. His broad Christian character is witnessed to by the enduring quality of his influence. The author of the Imitation drew inspiration from his writings; the reformers saw him as a medieval champion of their favourite doctrine of the supremacy of the divine grace. His works have been reprinted in countless editions. This is perhaps due to the fact that the chief fountain of his own inspiration was the Bible itself. He was saturated in its language and in its spirit; he read it, as might be expected, uncritically, and interpreted it allegorically, as was typical among 12th-century monastic exegetes. He accepted the teaching of the church with regard to the reverence due to saints, and most especially to Mary, devotion to whom he promoted (see above), but in his letters and sermons their names are at other times seldom invoked. They were overshadowed by his idea of the grace of God and the moral splendour of Christ; "from Him do the Saints derive the odour of sanctity; from Him also do they shine as lights" (Ep. 464).

Bernard's popularity as a preacher cannot be judged by the sermons that survive. These were all delivered in Latin, to congregations more or less on his own intellectual level. Like his letters, they are full of quotations from and reference to the Bible and they have all the qualities likely to appeal to men of culture at all times.

In The Divine Comedy, Bernard is the last of Dante's spiritual guides and offers his prayer to the Virgin Mary to grant Dante the vision of the true nature of God, which is the climax of the story.

"Bernard," wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in his Art of Preaching, "is an eloquent preacher, much more by nature than by art; he is full of charm and vivacity and knows how to reach and move the affections." The same is true of the letters and to an even more striking degree. They are written on a variety of subjects, great and small, to people of the most diverse stations and types; and they help us to understand the adaptable nature of the man, which enabled him to appeal as successfully to the uneducated as to the learned.

Modern relevance of Bernard's writings[]

In August 2006, speaking during a Sunday address at the summer papal palace in Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside town in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI quoted from one of the writings of Bernard, his Five Books on Consideration: Advice to a Pope (De Consideratione), Bernard's last work, written about 1148 at the pope's request for the edification and guidance of Eugenius III. Eugenius was one of Bernard's own monks, who had been raised to the papal throne. Bernard served as the new pope's political and spiritual counselor.

Benedict quoted Bernard as advising pontiffs to "watch out for the dangers of an excessive activity, whatever ... the job that you hold, because many jobs often lead to the 'hardening of the heart,' as well as 'suffering of the spirit, loss of intelligence."' "We have to guard ourselves, the saint observed, from the dangers of excessive activity, regardless of the office one holds, because too many concerns can often lead to hardness of heart," the Pope said.

"This warning is valid for every type of job, even those concerned with the government of the church," Benedict said. He said one should always make room for "prayer and contemplation."


Bernard's works fall into three categories:

  • (1) Letters, of which over five hundred have been preserved, of great interest and value for the history of the period and as an insight into his character.
  • (2) Treatises:
    • (a) dogmatic and polemical, De gratia et libero arbitrio, written about 1127, and following closely the lines laid down by St Augustine of Hippo; De baptismo aliisque quaestionibus ad mag. Ilugonem de S. Victore; Contra quaedam capitala errorum Abaelardi ad Innocentem II (in justification of the action of the synod of Sens);
    • (b) ascetic and mystical, De gradibus humilitatis ci superbiae, his first work, written perhaps about 1121; De diligendo Deo (about 1126); De conversione ad clericos, an address to candidates for the priesthood; De Consideratione, Bernard's last work, written about 1148 at the pope's request for the edification and guidance of Eugene III;
    • (c) about monasticism, Apologia ad Guilelmum, written about 1127 to William, abbot of St Thierry; De laude novae militiae ad milites templi (c. 1132--1136); De precepto et dispensatione, an answer to various questions on monastic conduct and discipline addressed to him by the monks of St Peter at Chartres (some time before 1143);
    • (d) on ecclesiastical government, De moribus et officio episcoporum, written about 1126 for Henry, bishop of Sens; the De Consideratione mentioned above;
    • (e) a biography, De vita et rebus gestis S. Maiachiae, Hiberniae episcopi, written at the request of the Irish abbot Congan and with the aid of materials supplied by him; it is of importance for the ecclesiastical history of Ireland in the 12th century;
    • (f) sermons--divided into Sermones de tempore; de sanctis; de diversis; and eighty-six sermons, in Cantica Canticorum, an allegorical and mystical exposition of the Song of Solomon;
    • (g) hymns. Many hymns ascribed to Bernard survive, e.g. Jesu dulcis memoria, Jesus rex admirabilis, Jesu decus angelicum, Salve Caput cruentatum.
  • (3) Books:
    • (a) Book of Praise of the New Chivalry- in which he endorses a "militant Christianity" (Great Leaders of the Christian Faith)
    • (b) On Loving God- which deals with the Christian life and prayer in detail

Of these the three first are included in the Roman breviary. Many have been translated and are used in Protestant churches.


The first time Bernard's works were published in anything like a complete edition was in 1508 at Paris, under the title Seraphica melliflui devotique doctoris S. Bernardi scripta, edited by André Bocard. The first really critical and complete edition is that of Dom J. Mabillon, Sancti Bernardi opp. etc. (Paris, 1667, improved and enlarged in 1690, then again by René Massuet and Texier in 1719), reprinted by JP Migne, Patrolog. lat. (Paris, 1859).

The modern critical edition is edited by Leclerq, Talbot and Rochais (8 vols., Rome, 1958-1975). There is an English translation of Mabillon's edition, which includes, however, only the letters and the sermons on the Song of Songs, with the biographical and other prefaces, by Samuel J. Eales (4 vols., London, 1889--1895). More recent (1970s-1990s) English translations of many of Bernard's works can be found in the Cistercian Fathers series, published by Cistercian Publications.[5]

Prayer To The Shoulder Wound Of Christ[]

It is related in the annals of Clairvaux, that St. Bernard asked Our Lord which was His greatest unrecorded suffering and Our Lord answered,

"I had on My Shoulder, while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound which was more painful than the others and which is not recorded by men. Honor this Wound with thy devotion and I will grant thee whatsoever thou dost ask through its virtue and merit and in regard to all those who shall venerate this Wound, I will remit to them all their venial sins and will no longer remember their mortal sins."

Notes and references[]

See also[]

  • Clairvaux Abbey
  • Christian mystics
  • Catholic beliefs on the power of prayer

External links[]