Feast Day : August 20
Patronage: bees; cancer victims; chandlers; Cistercians; climbers; Burgundy; Gibraltar; Liguria, Italy; Speyer Cathedral, Germany
Also known as: Doctor Mellifluus, “The Honey-Mouthed Doctor,” for the spiritual sweetness of his teachings
Bernard of Clairvaux was born in Fontaines, near Dijon, in France, to a leading family of the nobility. He excelled in his early studies, especially in literature, while at the same time giving evidence of great piety. Bernard’s lifelong devotion to Mary began in childhood in 1098. He dreamed he saw a young woman praying in a stable, who suddenly held a radiant baby in her arms. He recognized the baby as Jesus. Mary smiled and allowed Bernard to caress him. He prayed often to Mary and felt a close bond to her. Bernard found himself equally attracted to the reformed Benedictine community at Citeaux, and to a career as a writer and scholar as his family wished. In 1111, he prayed to God for direction. He had a vision of his own departed mother, whom he understood to be sent by Mary. He knew instantly that he was to become a monk. At about age 23 he entered the monastery at Citeaux along with 30 companions; he was eventually followed by his father and five brothers. In 1115, the abbot, St. Stephen Harding, sent Bernard to found a new daughter house that was to become famous as the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux. Though Bernard sought quiet and solitude to contemplate, the needs of the Church, the orders of his superiors and the urgent pleas of rulers caused him to spend much time in travels and controversies. Early in his career, when denounced to Rome for “meddling” in high ecclesiastical affairs, he won over his accusers by explaining that he would like nothing better than to retire to his monastery, but had been ordered to assist at the Synod of Troyes. He likewise found himself called upon to judge the rival claims of Innocent II and Anacletus II to the papacy, and traveled widely to bring others over to the side of Innocent. His other activities included assisting at the Second Lateran Council (1139), preaching the Second Crusade (1146) and countering the theological errors of Peter Abelard (1139) and of Gilbert, bishop of Poitiers (1147–48). Bernard was a key figure in the condemnation of Abelard by the Council of Sens. Bernard’s health suffered throughout his life. He ate very little and endured acute abdominal pains. Once when he was quite ill, he prayed at the altars of Mary and SS. Lawrence and Benedict. Mary and the two saints appeared to him, placed their hands on his abdomen and instantly healed his pain. Worn out by his labors, and distressed by the failure of the Crusade, he died at Clairvaux on August 20, 1153. According to lore, Mary appeared to him to welcome his soul to heaven. Despite his many activities, the real center of Bernard’s life was prayer and contemplation: From them he drew strength for his labors and journeys and inspiration for his writings. Bernard, like all Christians, believed that the vision of God and union with Him was the end for which man was created. This can be fully attained only in the afterlife, but Bernard and many others throughout the ages have claimed an experience, even in this life, of that vision and union. This mystical experience, like the Beatific Vision of which it is a foretaste, is, in the Christian view, a free gift of God; the most that man can do is desire it and strive to remove obstacles to it. The methods of removing obstacles are the subject of ascetic and mystical theology. Many Christians before Bernard had described this mystical experience, but he was one of the first to address himself to the theological understanding of it, though not in any systematic way. His work shows a profound and precise knowledge of doctrinal subtleties. Ascetic theology deals with groundwork of the spiritual life: the eradication of vices, the cultivation of virtue, the attainment of detachment, by which one learns to give up one’s own will and accept God’s will for one. Bernard’s works in this field include De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio (Of grace and free will) and De Gradibus Humilitatus et Superbiae (Of the steps of humility and pride). Bernard’s teaching is typical of the paradoxical Christian view of man, simultaneously affirming his dignity as made in the image and likeness of God (which image, for Bernard, consisted primarily in man’s free will) and his need for humility as a creature— a fallen creature, in whom the likeness to God is obscured by sin. But for Bernard, as for the author of the Johannine book (Fourth Gospel) of the New Testament, the beginning, end and driving force of the whole mystery of creation and redemption is love: God’s love for man enabling man to love God in return. In De Dilgendo Deo (Of loving God), Bernard presents motives for loving God, both those that all men may acknowledge (the gifts of creation) and those that compel Christians, who believe that God became incarnate and died to save them (the goods of redemption). Here, as elsewhere in his writings, the humanity of Christ has the central role. Love is nurtured by conversation, and so in the four books De Consideratione (Of meditation), written for his pupil who had become pope as Eugene III, Bernard discusses meditation, or mental prayer, by which one converses with God and may, perhaps, attain a vision of God and union with Him even in this life. It is in the 86 Sermones super Cantica Canticorum (Sermons on the song of songs) that Bernard eloquently expounds on this vision and union, and the desire for it. As many would do after him, he sees these ancient Hebrew poems as describing the union of God and the soul as a mystical marriage. Bernard stresses that the mystical experience is, precisely, an experience, and thus strictly incommunicable, to be known only by one who has experienced it. In addition to these works, Bernard composed more than 300 sermons and 500 letters, which demonstrate his deep devotion to Mary and the infant Jesus. A story is told that one letter to his cousin, Robert, was dictated in a field during a heavy downpour. The paper never became wet. The episode was looked upon as miraculous, and an oratory was built on the spot. Of other miracles and unusual events ascribed to the saint, an interesting one concerns the “flies of Foigny.” Bernard attended the dedication of a church in Foigny, and the service was disturbed by a great multitude of buzzing flies. Bernard cried, “Excommunicabo eas!” (I shall excommunicate them!). The next day the excommunicated flies were found dead. There were so many they blackened the pavement and had to be shoveled out of the church. Bernard’s symbol is a white dog. In art he is often depicted in Cistercian habit with a vision of Our Lady.