Bernard was born into a family of the highest nobility, the third of seven children, in Burgundy, France in 1090 A.D. He was sent to a renowned school at Chatillion-sur-Seine and excelled in his studies. He wanted to become proficient in literature so that he could take up the study of Sacred Scripture, which became his life-long love. From an early age he had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, Mary. He had the temptation of youth, but it was said his virtues triumphed over them.
When his pious mother Aleth died his bonds to the world were broken and he sought a monastic life. His father, sister and five brothers all tried to talk him out of a religious life, but his description of the life of a disciple living for Christ was so moving that four of his brothers, his uncle and many of his friends joined him in entering the Citeaux.
Probably the most famous Cistercian foundation was in the valley of Clairvaux (meaning valley of light), founded by St. Bernard. He became a monk and three years later so many men had joined him that he was sent by the Abbot, St. Stephen, to found the daughter abbey of Clairvaux, where he remained abbot until his death in 1153. The name Clairvaux became inseparable from his own. Even his aged father, Teslcelin, came to join the monastery.
Bernard of Clarivaux was a mystic, an eloquent preacher, a gifted writer and he contributed greatly to the life of the Cistercian order. In a speech he gave to the general chapter of the order in 1119 he spoke of the need for regularity and fervor in the monastery. This helped the chapter to give form to the constitutions of the order and the regulations of the “Charter of Charity,” which were approved by Pope Callistus II at the end of that year. One of his first works were his Homilies in Praise of Mary, which were published in 1120. His zeal resulted in many conversions and the restoration of discipline in the monasteries.
When at the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130 a schism threatened with the election of two popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II, the much respected Abbot of Clairvaux was called upon by the bishops to decide between them. He chose Innocent II and accompanied him into Italy (Anacletus had forced him to leave Rome) causing the great powers to recognize the true pope after years of peace making on Bernard’s part. Anacletus died still in schism in 1138.
Historian Fr. John Laux says that since the days of the early Church there was no greater miracle worker! The sick were brought to Clairvaux from all over and were healed by his touch and prayers. One of his early miracles was in healing a suffering child of Clairvaux whose arm was paralyzed and his hand withering. St. Bernard blessed the child with the sign of the cross and prayed over him, then, giving him back to his mother completely restored. In another case a rich man named Humbert, who was suffering from epilepsy falling into fits multiple times each day, was cured by Saint, who held him in particular affection. Humbert subsequently became a friar himself and eventually, the Abbot of the monastery of Igny. One of his miracles took place after the dedication of a new church for a monastery in the diocese of Leon. The holy service was disturbed by the buzzing and harassment of a great number of flies. St. Bernard, perhaps in frustration, cried "Excommunicabe eas.” The next day the dead flies blackened the church floor and had to be taken out with shovels. This miracle was so “this miracle was so well known, and so celebrated, that the curse of the flies of Foigny passed into a proverb among the people around, who had come from all parts to assist at the dedication of that church.”
Still another, occurred after a number of knights on their way to a tournament asked for lodging at Clairvaux. He asked them to concede a truce until after the days of holy Lent, but they refused. They left for the tournament but ended up returning in shame after hearing St. Bernard's prayers, and ended by taking off their knightly armor and becoming monks. Henceforth, they resolved their warfare would be spiritual and in the service of the children of God.
In less than 40 years seventy other monasteries all over Europe branched off from it. Before his death at age 63, he founded 143 monasteries in Europe. He was also a peace maker (e.g., settled long standing dispute between Pisa and Genoa) in world politics and a preacher of the second crusade. So he had tremendous influence in many areas. He was the most influential supporter of Pope Innocent II (1130-1143) in his long struggle against two anti-popes, persuading one to release his claims after the death of the other.
As a monk Bernard had a tremendous Marian devotion and hymns and was noted for his monastic spirituality and type of writing. One of Bernard’s greatest works was his commentary on the Song of Songs which is full of deep spiritual reflections. It is important though to see that Bernard was a great preacher and spiritual writer, considered by some historians as the last of the Fathers of the Church. Pope Pius VIII gave him the title “Doctor of the Church.”
In His work, On Loving God, he wrote:
Those who admit the truth of what I have said know, I am sure, why we are bound to love God. But if unbelievers will not grant it, their ingratitude is at once confounded by His innumerable benefits, lavished on our race, and plainly discerned by the senses. Who is it that gives food to all flesh, light to every eye, air to all that breathe? It would be foolish to begin a catalogue, since I have just called them innumerable: but I name, as notable instances, food, sunlight and air; not because they are God’s best gifts, but because they are essential to bodily life. Man must seek in his own higher nature for the highest gifts; and these are dignity, wisdom and virtue. By dignity I mean free-will, whereby he not only excels all other earthly creatures, but has dominion over them. Wisdom is the power whereby he recognizes this dignity, and perceives also that it is no accomplishment of his own. And virtue impels man to seek eagerly for Him who is man’s Source, and to lay fast hold on Him when He has been found.
We pray with St. Bernard in his words:
Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts, Thou fount of life, thou Light of men, From the best bliss that earth imparts We turn unfilled to Thee again. We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, And long to feast upon Thee still: We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead, And thirst our souls from Thee to fill. O Jesus, ever with us stay, Make all our moments calm and bright; Chase the dark night of sin away, Shed o'er the world Thy holy light. -
St. Bernard of Clairvaux pray for us!