Saint Bernard of Clairvaux – Abbot and Doctor; 1090 – August 20, 1153 France
Canonized 1174 – Patron of Beekeepers, Candle Makers, Gibraltar
Parents are often surprised by their children. Bernard’s wealthy parents were no exception. At the age of twenty-two Bernard decided to become a monk. The most likely choice for him was to enter the monastery at Cluny. The Benedictine monks there had a reputation for holiness, and the place was alive with young, enthusiastic men. Instead, Bernard chose to join the recently formed Cistercian order in a poor, crumbling monastery called Citeaux. The older monks there lived a strict life of prayer, silence and penance.
The Cistercian movement, founded by Robert of Molesmes in 1098, is significant because it marked a return to a strict Benedictine rule. The Cistercians were also the first order to have a written constitution, the Carta Caritatus, which defined the roles of monks within the monastery. The monks were divided into two groups, the choir monks whose lives were spent focusing on prayer, and another group of monks who focused on providing food and shelter for the monks at the monastery. The monks at a Cistercian monastery lived spare lives that were secluded from the outside world. This is in sharp contrast to the leading monastery of the day, Cluny, where monks lived easier and more luxurious lives. Under Bernard’s leadership, the monks of the Cistercian order led lives according to the constitution of the Cistercian order.
These new monks brought vitality to Citeaux. Within three years Bernard was sent to start a new monastery in a place that came to be named Clairvaux. As abbot, Bernard wanted to establish a life-style opposite to the worldly, powerful ways of the rich. He was strict about meals, work, prayers and sleep. Then he became sick and learned to be more understanding of human needs.
During his busy years as abbot, Bernard longed for solitude and time to live a simple, monk’s life. However, almost daily he received visitors and letters asking for advice and help. Because of his ability to settle disputes, Bernard was called on to travel to various countries to give advice on Church and government affairs. He was fearless in giving his opinion and highly respected for his insight into problems.
In 1130, the newly elected Pope Innocent II faced the popularity of an antipope named Anacletus. The Church was facing a possible split. Bernard asked leaders in different countries to support the true pope, who had been forced to flee. Finally, Anacletus lost his power and Innocent II returned as bishop of Rome.
When Bernard was chosen as an official preacher for the Second Crusade, he inspired many soldiers and pilgrims to join the cause for Christ. The Crusade failed because of the cruelty and greed of some of those who joined and Bernard was unjustly blamed.
For his advice and preaching, he has been called “the honey-tongued teacher.” Because of his role in government and Church matters, he is known as “the man of the twelfth century”. He has been named a Doctor of the Church for his writings on the love of God, Scripture, the spiritual life and Mary.
St. Bernard, pray for us!