Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Lesser Festival

20 Aug

St. Bernard

In 1125, Hugh, the Count of Champagne,return to Jerusalem first his third and final time. He had reputed is unfaithful wife, disinherited the son whom he believed was not his and made over his county to his nephew. Hugh now renounced all his worldly wealth and without poverty, chastity and obedience as a Templar.

This is not the most significant Count Hugh’s penitential deeds. Some 10 years before,he given attractive wild, and forested land about 40 miles east of Troyes to a group of monks led by young Burgundian nobleman, Bernard of Bernard of Fontaines-les-Dijon. This foundation at Clairvaux was an offshoot from the Abbey of Citeaux from which a new order of monks, the Cistercians, took their name. Here, the new Abbott Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary, and use as a base for the rest of his ministry.


It is difficult, in the 21st century, when a monk is seen as an oddity on the margins of society, to understand how so many belong to their countries elite should have chosen a life of self-abnegation. Without necessarily doubting the sincerity of each one’s conviction that he was responding to a call from God, it should be borne in mind that the choice for a scion of a noble house, or even the minor gentry, was then, and must remain for some time, between fighting and praying, warfare and ministry, the scarlet and the black.

Thus a young man with a sensitive or studio’s nature, or simply inadvertent of violence and bloodshed, might well be directed by pious and loving mother towards a religious vocation:this would seem to have been the case with Bernard and his mother, Aleth of Montbard. Those entering an easier going monastery could envisage a career as an ecclesiastical administrator or statesman, ending up, like Odo of Lagery, as Pope. Or they would be free to pursue scholarship and learning.


Bernard’s decision to choose the narrow escape in the steepest path to the Kingdom of Heaven demonstrates the purity of his vocation. It also betrays a measure of self-knowledge: by his own account, his passionate, even violent nature could only be tamed by the austere life followed by the Cistercians. Evidence that nature is found in his crawl over a young monk with Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny. in his letter to Peter, Bernard scornfully contrast the pleasant, easy, luxurious life at Cluny with the spare diet and harsh regime at Clairvaux. Carried away by his own rhetoric, Bernard castigates the moral degeneracy of Peter’s community. He is ardent, provocative, uncompromising, revolutionary.

Yet in the summarizing of Bernard’s life by Dom David Knowles, a Benedictine historian of our own time, is:

one of the small class of supremely great men whose gifts and opportunities have been equally matched. As a leader, as a writer, as a preacher and as a saint his personal magnetism and the spiritual power of far reaching an irresistible. Men came from the ends of Europe to Clairvaux, and were sent out all over the continent… For 40 years, Clairvauxit was the spiritual centre of Europe, and a one-time Bernard had amongst his ex-monks the Pope, the Archbishop of York and cardinals and bishops and plenty.

For Bernard in his lifetime was regarded and marked by the same sanctity wisdom held by Anselm. A important foundational force in the establishment of the Order of the Knights of the Temple (aka the Templars), controversial perhaps in today’s highs for his writings in defense of a military monastic force and the Crusades. Yet within the historical context of this time this is not an issue as demonstrated by Bernard’s unique position as the mental of popes and kings. Yet Bernard’s power did not stem simply from the influential connections: in a world where so many preached but so few practice the Christian virtues, his piety and asceticism qualified him to act as the conscience of Christendom, constantly chastising the rich and powerful and champing the poor and the weak. To some modern historians, living in a period when most are indifferent to what awaits them after death, Bernard comes across as a self-righteous celibate, someone who saw the world with the eyes of a fanatic and had a disquieting tendency to take it for granted that his contemporaries were evildoers who needed to repent. However, to Bernard, surrounded by secular brutality in clerical corruption, and utterly convinced of the reality of hell, it was impossible to do too much to save an imperiled soul.

The glamour of evil, in his perception, lay not just in the obvious the of wealth and worldly power, but in the subtler and ultimately more pernicious attraction of false ideas. Besides his party, Bernard was renowned for his outstanding intellect which he demonstrated in his sermons on Grace, free will and the book of the old Testament, the Song of songs. He was quick to recognise heretical ideas and implacable in his pursuit of those who taught them.


In his life Bernard was involved in establishing the Templar’s, helping to end the schism within the Catholic Church, combating heresy and preaching the Second Crusade. Yet the last years of Bernard’s life was saddened by the failure of the second Crusade, which the entire responsibility was thrown upon him. He died aged 63, 40 years spent in the cloister.


The Collect for the Day:

Merciful redeemer,
who, by the life and preaching of your servant Bernard,
rekindled the radiant light of your Church:
grant us, in our generation,
to be inflamed with the same spirit of discipline and love
and ever to walk before you as children of light;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.



One Response to “Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Lesser Festival”


  1. Mgr Michael’s Notebook | Mellifluous Doctor, pray for us. - 20 August 2013

    […] Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Lesser Festival ( […]

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