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St Bernard of Clairvaux – promoter of the Cistercians

Features

Msgr John Broadbent
8 August 2011

1090–1153 – Feastday August 20

altI remember as a fourth former receiving as a class prize The Family that overtook Christ by Fr M Raymond OCSO.  The family was that of St Bernard, a young, handsome and brilliant nobleman who, on deciding at 22 to be a monk, chose to join the newly founded strict Order of Cistercians, a reform of the Benedictines and, in his ardour, persuaded his family to join with him.

Accordingly, at Easter time in 1112, he led a company of 31 men including his four brothers, uncles and cousins to the monastery. Several years later his widowed father and remaining, youngest brother also joined.

From the start
This remarkable man and eloquent speaker showed leadership qualities early. After studying in a college of secular canons, he decided to pursue further studies and a vocation in the world. One day he visited the newly founded Monastery of Cîteaux where a group of Benedictines were founding a strict reform of the Rule of St Benedict. He toyed with the idea of joining them but found it difficult to leave the easy life of a young noble and scholar. One day, in great anxiety, he went into a church by the road and prayed that God would direct him to follow his will. He rose now firmly fixed on the Cistercian life.

A life of contemplation
Bernard and his followers wanted to live a contemplative, monastic life occupied only with God. After three years, the abbot was so impressed with Bernard that he sent him and 12 others to found a new monastery in the valley of Wormwoods in the diocese of Langres in Champagne.

The land was poor and their bread was coarse barley with beech leaves often substituted for vegetables.  At first Bernard was severe with the monks, coming down on their smallest faults. But, seeing their discouragement, he realised he needed to be more compassionate. He gave them more food although still of the coarsest quality.

The reputation of the house and the holiness of its abbot soon became so great that the number of monks swelled to 130; the valley’s name was changed to Clairvaux (shining in the eye of the sun).

The first four daughter houses of Clairvaux spawned many others, among them the monasteries of Rievaulx and Fountains in Yorkshire whose ruins are great centres of devotion and tourism even today.

St Bernard was becoming so well-known that many from popes and kings to peasants and paupers called on him. In 1137 he wrote his life was ‘over-run in all quarters with anxieties, suspicions, cares and there is scarcely an hour that is left free from the crowd of discordant applicants, from the trouble and care of business. I have no power to stop their coming and cannot refuse to see them, and they do not leave me even the time to pray.’

He supported Pope Innocent II who was facing an anti-pope and preached his cause throughout France, Germany and Italy. On his return to Clairvaux, he brought Canon Peter Paganelli from Pisa who was sent to stoke the fire in the kitchen and dining room. Paganelli later became Pope as Blessed Eugenius III (1145-1153).

Bernard’s writings and recorded sermons have been so outstanding that they have earned him the title ‘Last of the Fathers’ – the fathers being the long list of Christian writers after the gospels – Irencius, Clement of Rome, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, John Damascene, Boethius – many of whom, like Bernard, are Doctors of the Church.

Marian devotion
Bernard’s devotion to Jesus and Mary imbues all his works. One of his masterpieces was ‘Consideration’ which he wrote for his former pupil Blessed Eugenius III about how to be a Christian leader. Bernard, however, wrote to the cardinals who elected Eugenius III, ‘May God forgive you for what you have done – you have put back among the living a man who was dead and buried.’

He reminds the Pope in ‘Consideration’ that he is in danger of falling, by the multiplicity of affairs, into a forgetfulness of God and hardness of heart – he must always reserve time for self-examination and daily contemplation applying himself to this still more than to business.

He wrote brilliantly ‘On the Love of God’ and, for his monks, ‘On the Song of Songs’. He awakened in a church producing great thinkers like Abelard with whom he fought that, however important were philosophy and theology proven to a degree by reason, the heart was the uppermost searching for God in prayer.

The Second Crusade
While preaching against the heretical Albigensianism in the South of France, Bernard worked several miracles and brought many back to the church. But he was called away to preach the Second Crusade throughout Western Europe.

Bernard’s health was failing but Emperor Conrad III took the cross and gathered an army to rescue the holy places now reverting to the Seljuk Turks. They were unsuccessful and many crusaders took part in plundering and vile acts.  Many blamed St Bernard for the Second Crusade’s lack of success and the sins of the army for its misfortunes.

Early in 1153, St Bernard entered his last illness dragging himself from his bed to make peace by means of a treaty between the Duke of Lorraine and the citizens of Metz. On his return to Clairvaux he took to his bed surrounded by his grieving monks.

Among the greatest orders
Bernard died at 63 on August 20, 1153. He had been an abbot for 38 years and Clairvaux had spawned 68 monasteries. While not the founder of the Cistercians, he made them one of the great Orders of the Church. He was canonised in 1174.
St Bernard’s advice to Blessed Eugenius III could well be taken to heart by each of us – never let our earthly tasks, however important, take second place to our life of prayer and self examination.

St Bernard in Wellington
Let us remember St Bernard’s connections with the archdiocese in St Bernard’s College, Lower Hutt, founded by the Marist Brothers in 1946 and St Bernard’s parish, Brooklyn, which recently celebrated its first 50 years.