Saints for Our Times: St. Bernard taught, preached ‘Love in action’
By Mary Lou Gibson
Before computers and before television, radio and newspapers, there was Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a Cistercian abbot in 12th century France and was one of the most charismatic and well known figures of the medieval church.
David Farmer writes in “The Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that when Bernard died in 1153, he had influenced every major figure in his century. But it was not his intent to become involved in political and theological controversies when he entered the monastery at Citeaux at age 23. It was the events of his time that propelled him into the public arena of preaching and teaching.
Bernard was the third son of seven children born into a noble Burgundian family in 1090 near Dijon, in France. He had a lifelong devotion to Mary and as a young man was attracted to a career as a writer and scholar. He prayed for direction in his life and decided to become a monk. He was joined by 32 of his friends and relatives, including his five brothers, to go to Citeaux, the first Cistercian monastery.
A short time later, in 1115, he became the abbot of a new house, the Cistercian abbey of the monastery at Clairvaux. He was fervently committed to reforming monastic life and spent the next 15 years preaching, studying and teaching.
Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Clairvaux became a major focus of the rapid expansion of the strictly reformed Cistercians; 24 other foundations were made from Clairvaux within a few years. He had a profound effect on the development of Western monasticism, especially through his emphasis on mystical prayer.
In 1130 that Bernard’s public life began. Rodney Castleden writes in “The Book of Saints” that he became entangled in the dispute over the election to the papacy. He became Innocent II’s champion over the anti-pope, Anacletus II. Bernard persuaded Louis VI of France and Henry I of England to acknowledge Innocent as pope. From then on, Bernard was the most powerful man in Europe. Popes and kings relied on his support.
He was also influential among ordinary people. Castleden writes that when he passed along a road, farm laborers and shepherds hurried from the fields to receive his blessing.
At the same time, his charm and healing of the sick attracted thousands of pilgrims to Clairvaux. He began preaching in public in 1140, and his public persona became so wide spread that it caused mothers to hide their sons and wives to hide their husbands when Bernard was in the territory because so many followed him into the cloister.
He was a prolific writer and believed that the vision of God and union with him was the end for which man was created. He is sometimes called “The Honey-Mouthed Doctor” for the spiritual sweetness of his teachings. His 86 sermons on the Canticle of Canticles are some of his best known works.
His writings show him to be a profound mystic convinced that contemplation must result in action. “Love in action” was the motto for his teaching, and he encouraged devotion to Mary, whom he saw as the dispenser of love from heaven.
He was again drawn into church politics in 1145 when one of his former monks, Eugenius III, ascended to the papacy. His greatest challenge was in promoting the Second Crusade (1145-49). He got approval for the new order of Knights Templar, whose rule he had written. The Knights were dedicated to supporting the Crusades and to the care of the sick and of pilgrims. The Second Crusade, however, was a complete failure and a huge personal disappointment to Bernard.
He suffered from ill health throughout his life and he died from exhaustion at Clairvaux on Aug. 20, 1153. His remains were buried there but were scattered during the French Revolution. He was canonized in 1174 by Pope Alexander II and declared a doctor of the church by Pope Pius VIII in 1830.