Catholic Heroes ... St Bernard of Clairvaux
By CAROLE BRESLIN
In the Gospel of John, during the Last Discourse at the Last Supper, our Lord prays for unity. Jesus said: “that they may be one even as we are” (John 17:11). During the most challenging times of Church history, God has sent men to restore peace to His Church. Certainly St. Bernard of Clairvaux should be counted among that number.
Near Dijon, France, lies a town called Fontaines where Bernard of Clairvaux was born. Both his father’s family and his mother’s family were pious Christians. Before marrying St. Bernard’s father, Elizabeth — daughter of Count Bernard de Montbar — had planned to join a cloister. His father, Teceline, Lord of Fontaines, possessed a great fear of God. This man also had a deep respect and love for his wife.
Together they brought forth seven children: six boys and one girl.
During her third pregnancy, Elizabeth experienced a recurring dream which she related to her spiritual director. This holy man prophesied about the dream which had a white barking dog. Although the dream frightened her, he told her, “Fear nothing; you shall be mother of a child who, like a faithful dog, shall one day guard the house of the Lord, and bark loudly against the enemies of the faith; for he shall be an excellent preacher, and with his healing tongue he shall heal the wound of many souls.”
Realizing the implications as explained by a man of God, the parents took special care in the education and formation of their son, Bernard. When Bernard was nine years old, his family sent him to Chatillon-sur-Seine to a school run by the canons of Saint-Vorles.
Here he applied himself well to both literature and growing in holiness so that he would better understand Sacred Scripture, earning the praise of his masters. Even in his youth, his life centered on piety. He had a particular devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, confident of her support during the trials of his youthful temptations.
Because of these lustful temptations, Bernard resolved to remove himself from the world and live in holy solitude. Hence, in 1113, at the age of 23, Bernard and 30 noblemen presented themselves to the abbot of the Monastery of Citeaux. This monastery had been founded in 1098 to restore the Benedictine rule. Barely three years later St. Stephen sent St. Bernard to a village in the Diocese of Langres called the Valley of Bitterness. On June 25, 1115, Bernard founded a new house for the monks, naming their abode Clairvaux.
As with many saints, Bernard suffered many persecutions and disappointments. When he founded the monastery in Clairvaux, the established routine of fasting and penances was so austere that his health suffered. Only the influence of a trusted friend and the order of the Chapter General convinced Bernard to ease up on his stringent regime.
Nevertheless, the monastery at Clairvaux flourished as more and more disciples sought to place themselves under the leadership of St. Bernard. Included in these numbers were his father and all his brothers.
Not surprisingly, the monastery became so severely overcrowded that bands of monks left to found houses in other districts. Meanwhile, Bernard’s presence at the general chapter meeting held in Citeaux in 1119 revealed his gifts. His expositions on the revival of the primitive monastic spirit served to organize the rule for the Charter of Charity later approved by Pope Calixtus II on December 23, 1119.
Around 1120 dissension rose again between Cluny and Citeaux. Cluny was envious of the Citeaux monastery’s popularity and criticized its rigidity. Bernard stoutly defended his rules, stating that there were no abuses and explaining his adherence to the rules. Ultimately, the Cluny monks established a reform of their own and relations were improved.
Bernard’s influence in the Cluny affair and the subsequent conversion to his rule also had an effect on many prominent Church rulers who also converted to his monastic spirit.
In 1128 at the Council of Troyes, Bernard served as secretary, writing the statues of the council. When the council deposed the bishop of Verdun, Bernard bore the brunt of the outcry. There was such a clamor that the Pope’s assistant in Rome wrote a stunning rebuke to Bernard. Bernard’s response was so eloquent and reasonable that the papal aide reversed his previous position.
It was during that same council that St. Bernard laid down the first rules for the lay movement of the French nobility that became known as the Knights Templar. When the council was over, Bernard was happy to return to the quiet of the cloister, but it was not to be. Time and time again his skills as an arbitrator were called upon.
His influence was not limited to Church affairs. He also settled many disputes between civil authorities, especially those who sought to usurp the Church’s responsibilities and possessions.
When a schism in the Catholic Church broke out in 1130 after the death of Pope Honorius II, Bernard labored to bring unity by supporting Pope Innocent II against Anacletus, the anti-pope. For years he traveled around Italy working to bring unity. Finally, he garnered enough support, so that with the help of Lothaire he ushered Pope Innocent II into Rome where he was installed. Without fanfare, Bernard once again returned to Clairvaux.
However, once again, in 1137, Bernard was called to Italy where he acted as arbitrator between Lothaire and Roger of Sicily. After unity was restored Bernard returned to Clairvaux.
Noting the overcrowding at the monastery, Bernard sent bands of men out to establish new houses around Europe, including Germany, England, Ireland, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Italy.
Trials befell Bernard once again in 1140 as the battle between faith and the rationalist movement raged. Abelard, the movement’s leading proponent, was brilliant and shrewd.
When the Pope called for a council to discuss the humanistic principles, Bernard made such a clear presentation on the truths of faith and reason that Abelard did not even attempt to refute it. In fact, Bernard had refuted Abelard’s errors so convincingly that Abelard threw the book of his writings into the fire.
After the death of Pope Innocent II, his two successors died shortly thereafter, and then Pope Eugenius III, a dear friend of Bernard, was elected Pope. The new Vicar of Christ called on Bernard once again to leave the monastery of Clairvaux and write on the sanctity of the Church as well as to stop the spread of the Albigensian heresy. He battled the heresy and returned again to Clairvaux.
Yet again Bernard was called from Clairvaux — to preach the Second Crusade. Although his preaching met with much success as leaders in both the Church and civil life rushed to join the Crusade, the Crusade was a failure.
In his final days during 1153, Bernard lived at Clairvaux, and he then was called upon to restore peace in Lorraine. Bernard rose from his sickbed and reconciled the warring parties only to return to Clairvaux and die on August 20, 1153. The Church celebrates his feast on this date.
Dear St. Bernard, look upon the Church today and see our great need for unity. Show us the way to bring peace to Holy Mother Church and to this world full of conflict. Amen.
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This article appeared in The Wanderer on August 18, 2015 and has been included here with their permission. For more information see www.thewandererpress.com
(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)