Saint of the Week: St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Bernard (1090-1153) is an interesting character, and not only because he has a breed of dog named after him.  In 1113, he and 30 other Burgundian youths sought entrance into the Abbey of Citeaux (founded 1098), birthplace of the Cistercians.  Three years later he was sent off to found the third Cistercian Abbey in the Vallée d’Absinthe, Valley of Bitterness; he named this place, instead, Claire Vallée–Clairvaux, on June 25, 1115.

In 1118, 1119, and 1121, Clairvaux founded 3 new abbeys to make room for those taking holy orders within its walls.  The abbey was becoming a force within mediaeval Christendom.  Indeed, during Bernard’s lifetime, some 290 Cistercian monasteries were to be founded.

As Abbot of Clairvaux, St. Bernard was to be a man of influence both in ecclesiastical affairs — helping spur Peter the Venerable on in the reforms at Cluny, for example — and in temporal affairs, defending ecclesiastical rights against those of kings and princes.  He sought to encourage not only monks but bishops, priests, and the laity to live lives of simplicity and holiness rather than the excess often displayed by clergy and the upper classes in the Middle Ages.

He also wrote various works and homilies, including “On the Love of God,” a work which later was to influence the devotional life of a young Augustinian friar named Martin Luther.  Amidst his writings, he also complained about the influx of contemporary music in church.  Apparently, in a lot of churches at this time, people were playing secular instruments in the secular style in sacred space.  Bernard longed for nothing but Gregorian Chant in church.  No doubt in Clairvaux and the other 290 Cistercian monasteries founded in his lifetime, this is what he got.

Despite all of these virtues, one cannot leave behind St. Bernard without mentioning the less pleasant aspects of his life.  St. Bernard lived during the age of the Crusades.  Now, one could argue that as a political war to reclaim land on behalf of the Eastern Roman Empire and make safe the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, the First Crusade in the 1090s was as justified as any other mediaeval war.  Unfortunately, during that war, and especially in the years that followed it, the concept of the Crusade as a “holy war”, as something ordained by God, developed.  Muslims were not merely enemies of the West in political terms but were, in fact, the enemies of God and worth killing.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a man of his day, not just in terms of monastic reform and ascetic zeal.  He helped provide the theological framework for the Crusades and preached the ill-fated Second Crusade (1145-47).  Before St. Bernard, the term miles Christi had referred either to the Christian or, more frequently and specifically, to the monk.  Monks were the soldiers of Christ, fighting demons, praying continually, training through asceticism.  Now, however, Bernard turned the term from the spiritual to the physical; the miles Christi was the Crusader, fighting for Christ against the Muslims (or, as the [somewhat outdated] Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “Mohammedan tyranny”).

I do not wish to dwell on this aspect of St. Bernard.  However, while we should not seek out only the faults of the saints, we should behold them with both eyes open.  Otherwise, we will write notably naive things like this:

There were thousands of men, generally young, who left society and often a military career to take up the cloistered life.  If to this number one adds the members of some 290 other Cistercian monasteries founded during Bernard’s lifetime, one has some idea of the tremendous peace corps, with tens of thousands of members, taht Bernard helped to establish.  What architect of peace has played such a role in his century or in any other? (Jean Leclercq, quoted by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, New Monasticism)

Nevertheless, St. Bernard is worth noting and admiring.  Admirable is his zeal for reforming and founding monasteries as well as the lifestyle of the average Christian.  Admirable as well is his defence of orthodoxy.  Admirable, to be sure, are his many influential works, the orthodoxy of which withstand the centuries even if his Crusade ideology does not.  These many works and sermons have gained him the title “Doctor of the Church.”

His learning and zeal for holy living are to be emulated.  May we live as he does.


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