Who was Bernard of Clairvaux?
St. Bernard of Clairvaux is one of the most prominent personalities of the twelfth century, of the entire Middle Ages, and of church history in general. He gave a new impulse to monastic life, influenced ecclesiastical affairs outside of monasticism in the most effective manner, and contributed not a little toward awakening an inner piety in large circles.
As Bernard knew how to inspire the masses by his powerful preaching, so also he understood how to lead individual souls by his quiet conversation, to ease the mind, and to dominate the will. It was said in his time that the Church had had no preacher like him since Gregory the Great; and that this was no exaggeration is proved by Bernard's orations, which in copiousness of thought and beauty of exposition have few equals.
Revered by his contemporaries as saint and prophet, his writings, which belong to the noblest productions of ecclesiastical literature, have secured him also a far-reaching influence upon posterity. Praised by Martin Luther and John Calvin, Bernard's name has retained a good repute among Protestants, though he represented many things which the Reformation had to oppose.
Life of Bernard of Clairvaux
Bernard was born at Fontaines (20 m. n.e. of Dijon), France, 1090; d. at Clairvaux (in the valley of the Aube, 120 m. s.e. of Paris) August 20, 1153. He was the third son of the knight Tecelin and Aleth, a very pious lady, whose influence decided his future. While yet a boy he lost his mother, and, not being qualified for military service, he was destined for a learned career. He was educated at Chatillon and for a time seemed to be influenced by the world (cf. MPL, clxxviii, 1857; Vita, I, iii, 6).
But this period can not have been of long duration; the memory of his mother and the impressions of a solitary journey called him back, and he resolved quickly and firmly to break entirely with the world. He induced some of his brothers, relatives, and friends to follow him, and, after spending half a year together at Chatillon, they entered the "new monastery" at Cisteaux.
Abbot of Clairvaux
In 1115 a daughter monastery was founded at Clairvaux and Bernard became abbot. He gave all his energies to the foundation of the monastery, and spent himself in ascetic practises, which the famous William of Champeaux, then bishop of Chalons, checked from time to time (Vita, I, vii, 31-32). Bernard soon became the spiritual adviser not only of his monks but of many who sought his advice and always left Clairvaux impressed by the spirit of solemnity and peace which seemed to be spread over the place (Vita, I, vii, 33-34). His sermons also began to exercise a powerful influence, which was increased by his reputation as prophet and worker of miracles (Vita, I, x, 46).
According to the constitution which the new order adopted, Clairvaux became the mother monastery of one of the five principal divisions into which the Cistercian community was organized, and Bernard soon became the most influential and famous personality of the entire order. As early as the pontificate of Honorius II (1124-1130) he was one of the most prominent men of the Church in France; he enjoyed the favor of the papal chancellor Haimeric (Epist., xv), communicated with papal legates (Epist., xvi-xix, xxi), and was consulted on important ecclesiastical matters.
At the Synod of Troyes (1128), to which he was called by Cardinal Matthew of Albano, he spoke in favor of the Templars, secured their recognition, and is said to have outlined the first rule of the order (M. Bouquet, Historiens des Gaules et de la France, xiv, Paris, 1806, 232). In the controversy which originated in the same year with King Louis VI, who was not antagonistic to the Church but jealously guarded his own rights, Bernard and his friars defended the bishop before the king (Epist., xiv), afterward also before the pope (Epist., xlvi, cf. xlvii), though at first unsuccessfully.
Activity for Innocent II and against Anacletus II
With the schism of 1130 Bernard enters into the first rank of the influential men of his time by espousing from the very beginning the cause of Innocent II against Anacletus II. This partizanship of Bernard and others was no doubt induced by the fear that Anacletus would allow himself to be influenced by family interests. On this account they overlooked the illegal procedure in the election of Innocent, regarding it as a mere violation of formalities, defending it with reasons of doubtful value, and emphasizing the personal worth of that pope. At the conference which the king held at �tampes with spiritual and secular grandees concerning the affair, Bernard seems to have taken the part of reporter. He also worked for the pope by personal negotiations and by writing (Epist., cxxiv, cxxv). When Innocent was unable to maintain his ground at Rome and went to France, Bernard was usually at his side.
Later, probably in the beginning of 1132, he was in Aquitaine, endeavoring to counteract the influence of Gerhard of Angoulme upon Count William of Poitou, who sided with Anacletus (Vita, II, vi, 36). His success here was only temporary (Epist., cxxvii, cxxviii), and not until 1135 did Bernard succeed, by resorting to stratagem, in changing the mind of the count (Vita, II, vi, 37-38). When in 1133 Lothair undertook his first campaign against Rome, Bernard accompanied the pope from his temporary residence in Pisa to Rome, and prevented the reopening of the proceedings concerning the rights of the opposing popes (Epist., cxxvi, 8 sqq.). He had previously visited Genoa, animated the people by his addresses, and inclined them to an agreement with the Pisans, as the pope needed the support of both cities (cf. Epist., cxxix, cxxx). It was also Bernard who in the spring of 1135 induced Frederick of Staufen to submit to the emperor (Vita, IV, iii, 14; Otto of Freising, Chron., vii, 19).
He then went to Italy, where in the beginning of June the Council of Pisa was held; according to the Vita (II, ii, 8), everybody surrounded him here, so that it looked as if he were not in parte sollicitudinis, but in plenitudine potestatis. Nevertheless, resolutions were passed at that time regarding appeals to the papal see, which could hardly have been to the liking of Bernard. After the council he succeeded in inducing Milan and other cities of Upper Italy to submit to the pope and emperor (Epist., cxxix-cxxxiii, cxxxvii, cxl). In Milan they, attempted to elevate him almost with force to the see of St. Ambrose (Vita, II, ii-v). During the last campaign of Lothair against Rome, Bernard went to Italy for the third time, in 1137; he worked there successfully against Anacletus, and after the Pentecost of 1138 he finally brought about the submission of his successor to Innocent and thus ended the schism (Epist., cccxvii). After this he left Rome. How great Bernard's influence in Rome was at this time may be seen from his successful opposition to Abelard.
The ecclesiastico-political affairs of France soon made a new claim upon Bernard's attention. The young king, Louis VII, by making reckless use of his royal prerogatives, caused friction, as when he refused to invest Peter of Lach�tre, whom the chapter of Bourges had elected archbishop. The pope consecrated him, nevertheless, and thus provoked a conflict which was enhanced by the partizanship of Count Theobald of Champagne. After a while Bernard was asked to mediate; he faithfully performed this difficult task and enjoyed the confidence of the king to the end of his life (cf. Epist., ccciv), whereas his relations to the pope appear to have been troubled toward the end (Epist., ccxviii; ccxxxi, 3).
The Second Crusade
A very unexpected event was the election of Bernard, abbot of Aquæ Silviæ near Rome, formerly a monk in Clairvaux, as Pope Eugenius III (1145-53). Bernard writes a little later (Epist., ccxxxix) that all who had a cause now came to him; they said that he, not Eugenius, was pope. And it is true that he exercised a remarkable influence in Rome especially at first, but Eugenius did not always follow his counsels and views; he had to consider the cardinals who were envious of Bernard. About this time Bernard, at the request of Cardinal Alberic of Ostia, undertook a journey to Languedoc, where heresy had advanced greatly and Henry of Lausanne had a large following. Bernard's presence there, especially at Toulouse, was not without effect, but to win permanent success continual preaching was required.
A more important commission was given to him in the following year by the pope himself, to preach the crusade. At Vezelay, where the king and queen of France took the cross, March 21, 1146, Bernard's address was most effective. He then traversed the north of France and Flanders, and the officious doings of the monk Radulf induced him to go into the regions of the Rhine; he succeeded in checking the persecutions of the Jews at Mainz, which Radulf had occasioned. His journey along the Rhine was accompanied by numerous cures, of which the Vita (vi) contains notices in the form of a diary. But he regarded it as the wonder of wonders that he succeeded on Christmas Day, 1146, in influencing King Conrad in favor of the crusade, in the face of all political considerations.
During the crusade Eugenius sought a refuge in France. Bernard accompanied him, and was present at the great council in Reims, 1148; in the debates against Gilbert of Poitiers following the council, Bernard appeared as his main opponent; but the jealousy of the cardinals brought it about that Gilbert escaped unhurt (Vita, III, v, 15; Otto of Freising, De gestis Frid., i, 55-57; Hist. pont., viii, MGH, Scrip., xx, 522 sqq.). About this time the first unfavorable news of the crusade became known, and tidings of its complete failure followed. No one felt the blow more keenly than Bernard, who with prophetical authority to speak had predicted a favorable issue (De consid., ii, 1).
In the last years of his life he had to experience many things which caused him sadness. Men with whom he had had a lifelong connection died; his relations with Eugenius III were sometimes troubled (Epist., cccvi); the frailty and the pains of his body increased. But his mental vitality remained active; his last work, De consideratione, betrays freshness and unimpaired force of mind.Ecclesiastical and Theological Significance
Bernard's entire life was dominated by the resolution he made while a youth. To work out the salvation of his soul, and - which meant the same thing to him - to dedicate himself to the service of God, was thenceforth the sum of his life. To serve God demanded above all a struggle against nature, and in this struggle Bernard was in earnest. Sensual temptations he seems to have overcome early and completely (Vita, I, iii, 6) and an almost virginal purity distinguished him. To suppress sensuality in the wider sense of the word, he underwent the hardest castigations, but their excess, which undermined his health, he afterward checked in others (cf. Vita, I, xii, 60). He always remained devoted to a very strict asceticism (Epist., cccxlv; Cant., xxx, 10-12; Vita, I, xii, 60), but castigation was to him only a means of godliness not godliness itself, which demands of man still other things. The new life comes only from the grace of God, but it requires the most serious work of one's own nature. How much importance Bernard attached to this work, whose preliminary condition is a quiet collection of the mind, may be learned from the admonitions which he gives on that point to Eugenius.
That he prefers the contemplative life to the active is nothing peculiar in him; and he doubtless had the desire to devote himself entirely to it. He may have believed that only duty and love impelled him to act. And yet, as he was eminently fitted for action, such work was probably also is harmony with his inclinations. From his own experience he received the strength to work, the thorough education of the personality, by which he exercised an almost fascinating power over others; on the other hand, his practical activity excited in him a stronger desire for contemplation and made it the more fruitful for him (De diversis, sermo iii, 3-5).Study of the Bible
Of Bernard's quiet hours, in spite of the many pressing claims on him, one part was devoted to study, and his favorite study was the Holy Scripture. His knowledge of the Bible was remarkable; not only does he often quote Bible-passages, but all his orations are impregnated with Biblical references, allusions, and phrases, to pay regard to which is often essential for the correct understanding. It is true that his exegesis did not go beyond the average of his time, yet he allows the great fundamental thoughts and vital forms of the Holy Scripture to influence him the more. As he was nourished by them he also knew in a masterly manner how to bring them near to others. All qualities of the great preacher were united in him; besides being vitally seized by the grace of God, he had a hearty desire to serve his hearers, an impressive knowledge of the human heart, and a wealth of thoughts and fascinating exposition, which was indeed not free from mannerism. What is missing in his sermons is reference to the variety of the relations of life, and this is intelligible, because he had monks as his hearers.Grace and Works
Religious geniality is the most distinguishing quality in the whole disposition of Bernard; his other rich gifts serve it, to it is due the impression which he made upon his time, and the importance which he obtained in the history of the Church. At the same time, Bernard is also a child of his time; above all, of the Church of his time, in which his religious life could develop without conflict. In this respect Bernard is related not to Luther, but to Augustine, and between Augustine and him stand Leo I, Nicholas I, and Gregory VII. Thus elements are found in Bernard which point to future developments combined with those which belong only to the ecclesiastical consciousness of the time.
Bernard is most deeply permeated by the feeling of owing everything to the grace of God, that on the working of God rests the beginning and end of the state of salvation, and that we are to trust only in his grace, not in our works and merits. From the forgiveness of sin proceeds the Christian life (De diversis, sermo iii, 1). Faith is the means by which we lay hold of the grace of God (In vigil. nativ. domini, v, 5; In Cant., sermo xxii, 8; cf. also In Cant., lxvii, 10; In vigil. nat. dom., sermo ii, 4). Man can never be sure of salvation by resting his hope upon his own righteousness, for all our works always remain imperfect.
On the other hand, Bernard does not deny that man can and should have merits, but they are only possible through the preceding and continually working grace of God; they are gifts of God, which again have rewards in the world to come as their fruit, but without becoming a cause of self-glory. Before God there is no legal claim, but an acquisition for eternity through the work of the pious, made possible and directed by God's grace.
A characteristic contrast to these thoughts, which lead man again and again to humility, is the excessive glorification which Bernard devotes to the saints, above all to the Virgin Mary. Though he opposes (Epist., clxxiv) the new doctrine of her immaculate conception, he nevertheless uses expressions concerning the mother of Jesus which go very far (e.g., In nativ. Beat. Virg. Mari�, v, 7; In assumpt. Beat. Virg. Mari�, i, 4; In adv. dom., ii, 5). The same concerns also other saints (e.g., In vigil. Petri et Pauli, � � 2, 4, and at the end of the second oration In transitu B. Malachi�). But the importance of such expression which a Protestant consciousness will never be able to adopt is restricted by this, that they are only used on special occasions, such as a feast of the saints. Otherwise the saints stand in the background, Christ alone stands in the foreground.Monasticism
Notwithstanding Bernard's many-sided activity, he was and remained above all things a monk, and would not exchange his monachism either for the chair of St. Ambrose or for the primacy of Reims. Monachism is to him the ideal of Christianity. He acknowledges indeed that true Christianity is also possible while living in the world (Apol., iii, 6; In Cant., lxvi, 3; De div., ix, 3), but such a life compared with monastic life seems to him a lower, and in spiritual relation, a dangerous position (De div., xxvii, 2), a partition of the soul between the earthly and heavenly. Monasticism itself he regards in an ideal manner; it appeals to him also not so much from the point of view of merit as from that of the safest way to salvation. To this the whole order of the monastery is subservient, aside from this it is of no value. Besides, Bernard had relations with the different monasteries and monkish associations and was interested in them (cf. with regard to the Premonstratensians Epist., viii, 4; lvi; and especially ccliii; concerning other regular canons, Epist., iii; xxxix, 1; lxxxvii-xc; and elsewhere).
In his many relations with the Cluniacensians, frictions were not wanting (cf. Epist., i; clxiv; cclxxxiii; etc., and especially the Apologia ad Guilelmum), for the rise of the new order took place partly at the expense of the old. Nevertheless Bernard was highly esteemed by the Cluniacensians, and close friendship associated him with their head, the noble Peter the Venerable. That it was not interrupted is mainly due to Peter, who knew how to bear occasional lack of consideration by his great friend (cf. Epist., clxvi, 1; clxviii, 1) without resentment (Epist., ccxxix, 5). There existed a mutual true affection and admiration; the letters which they exchanged with each other are an honorable monument for both men, and without regard to differences of times and confessions modern readers can appreciate them.Writings of Bernard of Claivoux
The works of Bernard include a large collection of letters; a number of treatises, dogmatic and polemic, ascetic and mystical, on monasticism, and on church government; a biography of St. Malachy, the Irish archbishop; and sermons. Hymns are also ascribed to him (see below). The most important are the letters, which constitute one of the most valuable collections of church history; and the sermons, of which those on the Song of Songs furnish the chief source of knowledge of Bernard's mysticism. The first and fifth books of his De consideratione are also of a mystic character, whereas ii, iii, and iv contain a critique of church affairs of his time from Bernard's point of view and lay down a programme for papal conduct which a contemporary pope would have found it difficult to follow. Source
This article is reprinted from S. M. Deutsch and M. Herold, "Bernard of Clairvaux," in Philip Schaff, ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. II (1953), pp. 62-66. This text is in the public domain. Formatting, images and further resources added by ReligionFacts.
External Links on Bernard of Clairvaux
- St. Bernard of Clairvaux - Catholic Encyclopedia
- Bernard of Clairvaux - Patron Saints Index
- Bernard of Clairvaux - The Cistercians in Yorkshire
- Online Books, Journals and Articles on Bernard of Clairvaux - Questia Online Library
- Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux G.R. Evans (ed.)
- On the Song of Songs Bernard of Clairvaux
- Bernard of Clairvaux: A Lover Teaching the Way of Love: Selected Spiritual Writings Bernard of Clairvaux
- Bernard of Clairvaux on the Life of the Mind John R. Sommerfeldt
- Bernard of Clairvaux (Great Medieval Thinkers Series) G.R. Evans
- Bernard of Clairvaux: Between Cult and History Adriaan H. Bredero
- The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter 'Doctor Mellifluus' Thomas Merton