Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
By Kristin Koblentz
God calls us all to be saints, but some He calls to be extraordinary saints. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was one such man. Born in the year 1090, he grew up to be one of the most influential men of the twelfth century. One of seven children, Bernard’s parents raised him with a superb education, sending him off at only the age of 23 to join the reformed Benedictines of Citeaux, later known as the Cistercians. Not only did Bernard enter the monastery himself, but he brought thirty young noblemen of Burgundy with him, including his six brothers and his widowed father. He received his monastic formation from St. Stephen Harding and was then sent out only two years later as an abbot to start a new monastery in Clairvaux.
Bernard struggled with the beginnings of his new monastery. The daily routine of the monks was so rigid and austere that Bernard’s health began to take a toll and the authority of the General Chapter was called in to lessen the asceticism of the monks’ regime. But despite the rigidity of daily life, the monastery thrived and was bringing in more vocations than it had room for. The monks met wise and sincere spiritual direction in Saint Bernard. He was an eloquent speaker and spoke out passionately on the revival of the primitive spirit of regularity and fervor in all monastic orders.
So many men flocked to the leadership of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He founded 163 monasteries in various parts of Europe, numbering around 343 at the time of his death. But Bernard was not just a skilled spiritual father for monasteries. Bernard’s writings, speeches, and opinions were sought out by many in political and theological affairs. One such instance was the papal schism, which broke out after the death of Pope Honorius II on February 14, 1130. Two popes, Pope Innocent II and Pope Anacletus II, had been elected and at the national convention of French bishops called by King Louis VI, Bernard was chosen as judge between the two rival popes. He chose Pope Innocent II causing the pope to be recognized by all heads of state. Amongst his other achievements in provincial affairs, he was very influential in leading and recruiting for the Second Crusade.
His theological achievements were numerous; having written many treatises and books by the end of his life, St. Bernard’s writings achieved high esteem and even helped to defeat heresy. Towards the end of the 1100s, human reason and rationalism became exalted above the spiritual and supernatural. Peter Abelard was a powerful advocate of this movement and published a treatise on the Trinity that proved to be very controversial. Bernard agreed to a debate with Abelard and he convinced Abelard so completely that Abelard rescinded his view by the end of their discussion.
Saint Bernard’s eloquence of speech, passion for the truth, and fervor in religious monasticism changed the Church forever. He is considered today to be one of the founders of the Cistercian order, a Doctor of the Church, and his devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary still pervade our music and prayers. St. Bernard’s fervor in following the will of God should be mirrored in our daily lives, always striving for the truth, meditating on God’s love, and bringing others to the Light of Christ.