St. Bernard of Clairvaux

(1090-1153) — Abbot and Doctor of the Church. He was born in the castle of Fontaines des Dijon, in France, the son of Tescelin Sorrel and Aleth de Montbard; he was the third son in a family of seven children. Aleth’s death influenced him deeply so that about age seventeen he left the school of Châtillon-sur-Seine and in 1113 entered the monastery of Cîteaux, which had been founded in 1098 and was under the brilliant leadership of the abbot St. Stephen Harding. He persuaded his four brothers and twenty-seven other relatives and friends also to enter the Cistercian monastery.

Bernard threw himself into the rigorous austerity of the community, declaring that he was “conscious of the need of my weak nature for strong medicine.” His devotion to mortification, however, caused severe problems of health, especially as he had a weak constitution. Illness, aggravated by stern ascetic practices, would plague him for the rest if his life.

At Cîteaux, Bernard came under the instruction of the remarkable Abbot Stephen Harding, who in 1115 chose him with twelve monks to found a monastery at Langres. He chose Clairvaux, which was granted a charter by Pope Callistus II (r. 1119-1124) in 1119 and became the motherhouse of sixty-eight Cistercian abbeys. As his reputation for scholarship and holiness spread, Bernard was consulted by popes and monarchs. His influence was only heightened over the next years, as in 1128 he was secretary to the Synod of Troyes; in 1130, he assisted Pope Innocent II (r. 1130-1143) in overcoming the threat of antipope Anicletus; and he preached tirelessly against heresies and to gather support for the Second Crusade. In defending Church orthodoxy, he spoke out against the onetime monk Henry of Lausanne and, most notably, against Peter Abelard, whose condemnation he secured in 1140 at the Council of Sens. In that same year, Bernard convinced the people of Lombardy to accept Lothair III (r. 1125-1137) as emperor. In 1148, he condemned the writings of the theologian Gilbert de la Porrée.

In 1142, Bernard witnessed the coronation of one of his postulants, Bernardo Pignatelli, as Pope Eugene III (r. 1145-1153), authoring for his former student the treatise De Consideratione, on the proper attitude and duties of a pontiff and some of the difficulties he could anticipate. This pope sent Bernard to Languedoc, in southern France, to convert the local members of the Albigensian heresy. In 1146, he preached against Rhineland-area pogroms and also supported the Second Crusade and King Louis VII of France (r. 1137-1180). The crusade ended in disaster and was a deep disappointment to Bernard. In 1153, he settled another political dispute but was taken ill shortly after. He died at Clairvaux on August 20. Considered by many to be the second founder of the Cistercians, he dominated religious and political affairs in Western Europe.

His mystical writings include De Diligendo Dei, which laid the foundation for medieval mysticism. His commentary on the Song of Songs, his Treatise on the Love of God, and his De Consideratione are considered treasures of the faith. More then three hundred sermons were recorded, as well as five hundred letters, all demonstrating his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. For his brilliance and contributions to theology he was called “the Mellifluous Doctor.”

Bernard was canonized in 1174 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1830. In liturgical art, his symbol is the white dog, or he is depicted in Cistercian habit, usually with a vision of Our Lady. His relics were moved from Clairvaux in 1790 to the church of Ville-sous-la-Ferte, while his head was enshrined in the cathedral of Troyes. He is a patron of the Cistercians, Burgundy, Gibraltar, and Liguria, Italy, as well as Speyer Cathedral in Germany, bees, candles, and climbers. Bernard is invoked against children’s diseases, animal epidemics, demonic possession, storms, and approaching death.

Feast day: August 20

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