St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

Bernard was born of noble parents at Fontaines near Dijon in France and entered the recently-founded monastery of Citeaux, in 1112 together with 30 other young noblemen of the place, including his own brothers. Citeaux was the birthplace of the Cistercian Order which was growing fast and the abbot of Citeaux asked Bernard to choose a place for a new monastery and he established a house at Clairvaux which soon became one of the chief centres of the Cistercian Order. There he remained abbot for the rest of his life. By the time of his death, the Cistercian Order had grown from one house to 343, of which 68 were daughter houses of Clairvaux itself. As abbot of Clairvaux Bernard came to exercise immense influence in ecclesiastical and political affairs. He could make and unmake Popes, and even helped make one of his own pupils Pope, the Cistercian Pope Eugenius III. He energetically fought heresy and preached the second Crusade and when it failed he blamed the Crusaders for their lack of faith.

Bernard combined monastic zeal, mystical piety, immense literary activity and defence of the Church. He was a man of great holiness and wisdom, and although he was often in very poor health, he was active in many of the great public debates of the time. He strongly opposed the wealth and luxury of the Church, especially, in the cluniac monasteries. He was a prolific and inspiring writer. His writings were widely read in his own time and later, by monks and laymen alike, and after the Reformation by both Protestants and Catholics.

Bernard’s best-known work is the unfinished series of sermons on the Song of Songs. In it he ranges from practical life of the monk to the mystical confrontation between the bridegroom and the bride of the Canticle. By use of allegory he interprets the bridegroom as Christ and the bride sometimes as the Church, sometimes as himself. He wrote a large number of sermons and many of them display his deep-felt devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and it is even said that they influenced the Marian cult of the Church. The widely used prayer “Memorare” is commonly attributed to Bernard, but probably owing to a confusion with Claude Bernard who popularized it. He also treated particular themes of the ascetic life, particularly humility and love. His treatise “On Loving God” became a classic of spiritual literature. It was written in response to some questions addressed to him by the cardinal deacon and chancellor of Rome, Haimeric. Bernard says that the reason for loving God is God Himself. The measure of such love is to love without measure. These principles contain everything, yet they are not enough; it is necessary to know what they contain. What Bernard says is very simple. He starts with three elementary chapters about the reasons for loving God. We should love God because of His gifts to us: first of all Himself, then all the gifts of nature and finally the gift of ourselves. God gave Himself to us in a wholly gratuitous love. The whole of spiritual life is a response to this gratuitous love. Whom does He love? His extreme opposite, the nefarious sinner, who has disobeyed Him. How has He loved? To the fullest extent possible. Then he comes to speak about the gifts of God in nature and then about the gift of the human person. Bernard has an optimistic view of human nature because it is created in the image of God Himself. He has endowed Him with the supreme dignity of freedom and the ability to know our own dignity. Our dignity lies in our freedom to love God. But he also says that no one can seek God unless that person has first been found by God. In his numerous letters we see his concern with political and moral matters and his determination to fight heresy. His writings were marked by a special beauty of language which made him stand apart among the writers of his time. In his opposition to the persecution of the Jews he stood apart from most of his contemporaries. He was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1830.

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