Meet St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Have a Social with the Saints! Receive encouragement for your daily life as we meet & discuss St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Doctor of the Church who reformed religious life and founded the Cistercian order, exalted the Blessed Virgin Mary, and most of all insisted that Jesus alone is “honey in the mouth, song to the ear, jubilation in the heart.”

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Join us at Pilgrim Center of Hope for an in-person gathering, discussion & prayer. We will refrain from our traditional refreshments, and focus on spiritual refreshment. 🙂


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A Part of His Story

St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Abbot & ‘Honey-Sweet’ Doctor of the Church

Born: 1090
Died: August 20, 1153
Feast Day: August 20
Patronage: Bees / Beekeepers & Candlemakers, and the Cistercians

Each morning, Bernard would ask himself, “Why have I come here?” and then remind himself of his vocation: to lead a holy life. This, however, was not always his way.

Bernard was born to a noble family of Burgundy (near modern-day France, Italy, and Switzerland); one of seven children. His background afforded him a fine education, and he demonstrated skill in speaking and writing, especially poetry. Influenced by his school’s religious leadership, he developed a love of the Bible and the Virgin Mary.

At the same time, Bernard held a low opinion of himself. He realized how strongly he felt pulled by worldly temptations to use his skills to amass power, popularity or influence. Bernard’s mother helped him to grow in his personal awareness and humility. She died when he was in his late teens, which drove him into depression. After his sister helped him recover, Bernard felt the call to “strong medicine,” in a life of contemplative prayer and devotion.

Bernard entered the religious order at the Abbey of Citeaux, a community that had been founded as a return to rigorously follow St. Benedict’s Rule. They were called Cistercians. His brothers, other family, and about 30 young men followed him into the Abbey. In his early twenties, Bernard was clearly meant for this life. He was entrusted with founding another community—rare for a young man—at the swampy, so-called ‘valley of desolation.’

The process of establishing the Abbey was very challenging. Bernard’s brother monks became disheartened. The feelings of responsibility led to a breakdown of Bernard’s health, and he held a long vow of silence for some time, to discipline himself. The trials taught him patience and understanding. In time, the area earned the new name of Clairvaux (valley of light), and inspired more communities. Even Bernard’s father joined, and his sister was inspired to become a Benedictine nun!

One story of a pope’s visit to Clairvaux shows us how Bernard led by example. Welcomed warmly by the community, the Holy Father sat down for a meal. He was served bread and a few fish, accompanied by a cup of water with herbs. It was Bernard’s way of serving the pope what Jesus had been given; at the multiplication of the loaves & fishes, and ‘bitter herbs’ of the Passover and Crucifixion. The pope was deeply moved, and found the experience edifying.

Bernard’s gifts were constantly called upon to travel outside the monastery to settle controversies and keep peace in the Church, including at councils called by the popes. Through his influence, reforms took place which upset several bishops and leaders. One cardinal wrote to Bernard describing him as a “noisy, troublesome frog sitting in his marshes.” Bernard replied that he was obeying the pope. “Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes […] Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption,” he wrote. Through this humorous fraternal correction, people’s opinions of Bernard rose.

Amid these difficult and highly political times for the Church, a sect of cardinals selected their own anti-pope. Bernard was called upon to settle issues related to this schism, and succeeded. Miracles and wonders were even reported during Bernard’s ministry.

Called “The Last of the Church Fathers,” Bernard rooted himself in Scripture. Some of his most famous homilies are on one of the most controversial books of Scripture; the Song of Songs. In these sermons, he reflects on the love relationship God has with us.

Perhaps a reflection of his early life experience, Bernard preaches on the importance of knowing oneself as a reflection of God’s image. Self-knowledge was a dominant theme of this time among monastic writers. Bernard asked, “For what is the purpose of the ray of light or the Word [of God] but to bring man to know himself?” When he preached to monks on the seven steps of confession, he noted that the first step was expressed in the well-known precept to “know yourself.” He also advised Pope Eugenius; “You should consider four things in this order: yourself, what is below you, around you and above you.”

Bernard is well-known for his heated conflicts with, and distaste for, Peter Abelard, the man who invented the term ‘theology.’ Bernard not only ridiculed Abelard, but also petitioned the pope to condemn his teachings. A master theologian himself, Pope Benedict XVI has commented that these two men illustrate two different approaches to theology; Bernard emphasizing

faith itself, while Abelard emphasized reason. Benedict XVI noted that both contributed greatly to theology, although Abelard’s contributions were not well accepted by the Church during his lifetime. Abelard died in good standing with the Church. Most importantly, Benedict XVI said that the men’s conflict ended in reconciliation, thanks to mediation by another Abbot; “They both upheld the most important value in a theological controversy: to preserve the Church’s faith and to make the truth in charity triumph.”

In 1144, the Holy Land city of Edessa was threatened by attacks from Muslim states. A Second Crusade was called for, and Bernard was chosen to raise support for the effort. He obeyed. The Second Crusade not only failed, but fanatics began calling for massacres of Jews in modern-day Germany, where Bernard had preached. He traveled there again, and silenced the anti-Semitism on behalf of the pope and the entire Church.

Because people widely blamed Bernard for the Second Crusade’s failure, he wrote to the pope, naming the reasons it had failed; the sins and disorders of the Crusade’s leadership. He also cited God’s mysterious will; “How is it that the rashness of mortals dares reprove what they cannot understand?”

All the pressures of his life finally came to a head in 1153. He said, “The saints were moved to pray for death out of a desire of seeing Christ; but I am forced hence by scandals and evil. I confess myself overcome by the violence of the storm for want of courage.”

One of the ironies of Bernard’s very active life, is his identity as a contemplative; a person whose life was marked by a deep communion with God through mental prayer and active awareness of God’s presence. Contemplative prayer is likened to how spouses can grow in love simply by being in the presence of each other.

Pope Francis quoted Bernard in his apostolic exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad, by including Bernard’s reflection; “Are there moments when you place yourself quietly in the Lord’s presence, when you calmly spend time with him, when you bask in his gaze? Do you let his fire inflame your heart? Unless you let him warm you more and more with his love and tenderness, you will not catch fire. […] If, gazing on the face of Christ, you feel unable to let yourself be healed and transformed, then enter into the Lord’s heart, into his wounds, for that is the abode of divine mercy.”

He also nurtured a deep love for Jesus’ mother. He emphasized Mary’s role as Mediatrix, the human being through whom God blesses the world with grace. Bernard also spoke of her as Star of the Sea; “She, I say, is that

shining and brilliant star, so much needed, set in place above life’s great and spacious sea, glittering with merits, all aglow with examples for our imitation. Oh, whoever you are that perceives yourself during this mortal existence to be rather drifting in treacherous waters, at the mercy of the winds and the waves, than walking on firm ground; turn not away your eyes from the splendor of this guiding star, unless you wish to be submerged by the storm! When the storms to temptation burst upon you, when you see yourself driven upon the rocks of tribulation, look at the star, call upon Mary. When buffeted by the billows of pride, or ambition, or hatred, or jealousy, look at the star, call upon Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look at the star, call upon Mary. If troubled on account of the heinousness of your sins, distressed at the filthy state of your conscience, and terrified at the thought of the awful judgment to come, you are beginning to sink into the bottomless gulf of sadness and to be swallowed in the abyss of despair, then think of Mary. In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name leave your lips, never suffer it to leave your heart. And that you may more surely obtain the assistance of her prayer, see that you walk in her footsteps. With her for guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you shall not be deceived; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection, you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.”

By the time of his death in his early 60’s, more than 160 communities had been founded thanks to the inspiring example of the Abbot Bernard. Christians of all faith traditions acknowledge and uphold the outstanding example and teachings of Bernard. The Catholic Church has recognized his contributions by naming him a Doctor of the Church. Because his preaching was well-received by listeners, Bernard is called the Mellifluous Doctor, or commonly the ‘Honey-Sweet’ Doctor of the Church.

Bernard would probably defer this praise to Jesus… in fact, he did!
“Jesus is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, a cry of joy in the heart.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, pray for us.

Compiled by Pilgrim Center of Hope. All Rights Reserved. For permission to reprint, please contact us.

Sources: Dr. Matthew Bunson, Prof. Willemien Otten, Dr. Greg Peters,
Lives of the Saints (Alban Butler)

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