Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux
Bernard of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was born in 1090 in Fontaine (now a suburb of Dijon in Burgundy, France) of noble parents: Tescelin, a relative of the lord of Châtillon, and Aleth, daughter of the lord of Montbard. His five brothers trained for military careers, but Bernard had fragile health and enrolled in the religious institute of Saint-Vorles (at Châtillon) for instruction leading to an ecclesiastical profession.

He studied there for 10 years. Hesitating about his future, he finally decided to embrace the monastic life. Even before he entered the monastery, he convinced many relatives and friends to join him in the preparation for religious calling.

He entered the abbey of Cîteaux (close to Dijon) in 1113. The so-called New Monastery had been founded 15 years before by former Benedictine monks from Molesme, eager to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict more authentically. Cîteaux is the cradle of the Cistercian Order.

Two years later the abbot sent Bernard to be the founding superior of a new monastery, Clairvaux, in the region of Champagne. It rapidly became economically and spiritually prosperous. Bernard’s zeal attracted many young people, and Clairvaux counted more than 60 foundations or affiliated religious communities at his death.

This success disturbed some more conservative monks and involved Bernard in a controversy with the Benedictine abbey of Cluny. Advised by his close Benedictine friend and first biographer William of Saint-Thierry, he wrote the Apology to defend the Cistercian reform.

Renowned as a reformer, he was often invited by councils bishops to help carry out policies of ecclesial change within the church. Civil authorities even consulted Bernard to find solutions that would bring peace and justice. In 1130, as the church faced a major crisis with the election of two popes, he was consulted about a way to reunite the church.

Innocent II, the pope confirmed instead of Anacletus II, then asked Bernard to accompany him throughout Europe and to consolidate the church by his skillful preaching. For eight years he served in this way. Meanwhile, he remained abbot of Clairvaux and kept on writing major spiritual works, especially his 86 Sermons on the Song of Songs.

In the last period of his life he was involved in various ecclesial forays. He formally criticized the writings of the theologians Peter Abelard and Arnold of Brescia at the Council of Sens (1140), leading to their judicially questionable censure. He also participated in Gilbert de la Porée’s condemnation in 1141.

He defended the church against heretics. He preached on the eve of the Second Crusade at Vézelay in 1146. In spite of his powerful spiritual message and appeal to inner conversion, the crusade was a total failure and left Bernard embittered.

He died on August 20, 1153, and was recognized as a saint 21 years later. In 1830 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. Apart from his many treatises and sermons overflowing with biblical references, more than 300 of his letters are extant. His spiritual influence has been constant and extensive, even touching the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546). His message inspires many scholars and religious teachers to this day.