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Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Sermon: Authentic Christian Masculinity – Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

On January 7th 1844, nearly 29 years to the day before the birth of Saint Therese of Lisieux, another little girl was born at the opposite end of France and she was given the name: Bernarde-Marie Soubirous.  Though at her baptism two days later the Curé insistently referred to her as Marie-Bernarde and she was put down in the baptismal registry under that name.  But she was in fact named after the great French Medieval Saint: Bernard of Clairvaux.  Who was this man who’s devotion was still so fresh to the people of his land even nine-hundred years after his death?

In the history of the Church there have been many formally recognized Saints. To consider just one group: the martyrs alone number in the many millions.  And while many Saints are commemorated in the Martyrology, only one or two at the most are usually formally commemorated on the Church calendar each day.   Among these select few there are only thirty-three who have been raised up by the Church as Doctors of the Church.  And Saint Bernard is one of these, but he falls into another category even more elite than this incredible group of men and women.

Why then is he still so beloved to this day, not just in France, but throughout the world?  It is because he is among a small handful of saints who were called by God to change the course of history by being His most powerful instrument.  The first and greatest of these was our Lady who assenting to become the Mother of God most pronouncedly changed the course of history.  The other most notable example is that great Dominican Saint Vincent Ferrer who literally averted the end of the world in the later 14th and early 15th centuries.

If it were not for the work of Bernard two centuries earlier, however, the order that Saint Vincent belonged to may never have even existed.  As with many great saints Bernard has been given special titles, but whereas most only receive one or two he has been given five and is known as: “The Mellifluous Doctor”, the “Oracle of the Twelfth Century”, the “Thaumaturgus of the West”, the “Arbiter of Christendom”, and the “The Last of the Fathers”.

It is even said that he “carried the twelfth century on his shoulders.”  And it was a heavy burden indeed for the time in which he lived in the Church in Western Europe was in a terrible state.  A fellow Doctor of the Church and son of Saint Benedict: Saint Peter Damian, who labored in the previous century said this in a letter to his fellow Cardinals:

“In the ecclesiastical order, discipline is neglected almost everywhere; due reverence is not given to priests; canonical sanctions are trodden underfoot; and the work of God is done only for temporal gain.  Where are robberies lacking, where thefts, where false oaths, where sinful allurements? Who fears sacrilege? In fact, who has a horror of even the most atrocious crimes?” (Letter 51-52, written to the Cardinals of the Church)

Bernard would lead a restoration of the Church through a restoration of the monastic life.  He would join and then cause to flourish a new foundation of reformed Benedictines at Citeaux who we know now as the Cistercians.

The order had been established in 1098 to restore Benedictine monasticism it’s primitive observance. Bernard entered at Citeaux in 1112, and not long after he was send to make a new foundation at Clairvaux where he would be the abbot.  The monastery flourished under his leadership and by just 1118 Clairvaux was able to found its first daughter house.  Bernard would go on to found a total of 70 Cistercian monasteries, which in turn founded another 100 monasteries just in Bernard’s lifetime.

One of the most amazing aspects of Bernard’s story is that nearly his entire family has been canonized.  His Father: Venerable Tescelin the Tawny, Lord of Fontaine and Counsellor to the Duke of Burgundy would eventually place himself under the authority of his own son by becoming humble novice in Bernard’s Monastery.  Bernard’s Mother, Blessed Alice of Montbar,  was the grand matron who gave birth to and raised a family of Saints.  All told they are now: Blessed Guy, Blessed Giles, Saint Bernard, Blessed Humbeline, Blessed Andrew, Blessed Bartholomew, and the baby of the family, Blessed Nivard. All the children — even the married son, Guy — entered religious life.  The men all joined Bernard at Citeaux, several of them even joining at the same time as him and nearly 40 or so others who Bernard had convinced to join him as he entered!  His sister Humbeline join a Benedictine monastery as the female Cistercian reform had not yet begun.  Even his sister-in-law Elizabeth and his niece Adeline, entered religion and became blesseds, and it was Blessed Adeline who began the work of the Cistercian reform of nuns.  The entire store of this wonderful family can be read in the wonderful book: “The Family That Overtook Christ” by Father M. Raymond (O.C.S.O.), for which he also wrote essentially a prequel which contains the story of the founding of Citeaux, also a fantastic book, called: “Three Religious Rebels“.

This explosion and flourishing of religious life could not but have a most profound effect upon France, Europe, and the World.  In fact even in his own day we saw the foundations of the great Norbertine Order (Bernard even gave Saint Norbert the land for his first monastery), and in the following century there was the foundation of the Trinitarian Order, and the two great powerhouses of the religious life: the Franciscans and Dominicans.  And those two orders would in turn give the Church four Doctors of the Church in just 50 years: Saint Bonaventure, Saint Anthony of Padua, THE Doctor of the Church: Saint Thomas Aquinas, and his teacher (and after the death of his student his greatest promoter) Saint Albert the Great.

Let us pray God gives us another Saint Bernard of Clairvaux today!

The Liturgical Year


Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.


August 20


Saint Bernard


Abbot and Doctor of the Church

The valley of wormwood has lost its bitterness; having become Clairvaux, or the bright valley, its light shines over the world; from every point of the horizon vigilant bees are attracted to it by the honey from the rock which abounds in its solitude. Mary turns her glance upon its wild hills, and with her smile sheds light and grace upon them. Listen to the harmonious voice arising from the desert; it is the voice of Bernard, her chosen one.

“Learn, O man, the counsel of God; admire the intentions of Wisdom, the design of love. Before bedewing the whole earth, be saturated the fleece; being to redeem the human race, he heaped up in Mary the entire ransom. O Adam, say no more: ‘The woman whom thou gavest me offered me the forbidden fruit say rather: ‘The woman whom thou gavest me has fed me with a fruit of blessing.’ With what ardour ought we to honour Mary, in whom was set all the fulness of good! If we have any hope, any saving grace, know that it overflows from her who to-day rises replete with love: she is a garden of delights, over which the divine South Wind does not merely pass with a light breath, but sweeping down from the heights, he stirs it unceasingly with a heavenly breeze, so that it may shed abroad its perfumes, which are the gifts of various graces. Take away the material sun from the world: what would become of our day? Take away Mary, the star of the vast sea: what would remain but obscurity over all, a night of death and icy darkness? Therefore, with every fibre of our heart, with all the love of our soul, with all the eagerness of our aspirations, let us venerate “Mary; it is the will of him who wished us to have all things through her.” (Bernard. Sermo Nativ. B.M.)

Thus spoke the monk who had acquired his eloquence, as he tells us himself, among the beeches and oaks of the forest, (Vita Bernardi, L. iv. 23.) and he poured into the wounds of mankind the wine and oil of the Scriptures. In 1113, at the age of twenty-two, Bernard arrived at Citeaux, in the beauty of his youth, already ripe for great combats. Fifteen years before, on the 21st March, 1098, Robert of Molesmes had created this new desert between Dijon and Beaune. Issuing from the past, on the very feast of the patriarch of monks, the new foundation claimed to be nothing more than the literal observance of the precious Rule given by him to the world. The weakness of the age, however, refused to recognize the fearful austerity of these new comers into the great family, as inspired by that holy code, wherein discretion reigns supreme ; (Greg. Dialogue II., xxxvi.) for this discretion is the characteristic of the school accessible to all, where Benedict “hoped to ordain nothing rigorous or burdensome in the service of God.” (S. P. Benedict, in Reg. Prolog.) Under the government of Stephen Harding, the next after Alberic, successor of Robert, the little community from Molesmes was becoming extinct, without human hope of recovery, when the descendant of the lords of Fontaines arrived with thirty companions, who were his first conquest, and brought new life where death was imminent.

“Rejoice, thou barren one that bearest not, for many will be the children of the barren.” La Ferte was founded that same year in Chalonnais; next Pontigny, near Auxerre; and in 1115 Clairvaux and Morimond were established in the diocese of Langres; while these four glorious branches of Citeaux were soon, together with their parent stock, to put forth numerous shoots. In 1119 the Charter of charity confirmed the existence of the Cistercian Order in the Church. Thus the tree, planted six centuries earlier on the summit of Monte Cassino, proved once more to the world that in all ages it is capable of producing new branches, which, though distinct from the trunk, live by its sap, and are a glory to the entire tree.

During the months of his novitiate, Bernard so subdued nature, that the interior man alone lived in him; the senses of his own body were to him as, strangers. By an excess, for which he had afterwards to reproach himself, he carried his rigour, though meant for a desirable end, so far as to ruin the body, that indispensable help to every man in the service of his brethren and of God. Blessed fault, which heaven took upon itself to excuse so magnificently. A miracle (a thing which no one has a right to expect) was needed to uphold him henceforth in the accomplishment of his destined mission.

Bernard was as ardent in the service of God as others are for the gratification of their passions. “You would learn of me,” he says in one of his earliest works, “why and how we must love God. And I answer you: The reason for loving God is God himself; and the measure of loving him is to love him without measure.”( De diligendo Deo, I., 1.) What delights he enjoyed at Citeaux in the secret of the face of the Lord! When, after two years, he left this blessed abode to found Clairvaux, it was like coming out of Paradise. More fit to converse with Angels than with men, he began, says his historian, by being a trial to those whom he had to guide: so heavenly was his language, such perfection did he require surpassing the strength of even the strong ones of Israel, such sorrowful astonishment did he show on the discovery of infirmities common to all flesh. (Vita, I., vi. 27-30)

But the Holy Spirit was watching over the vessel of election called to bear the name of the Lord before kings and people; the divine charity, which consumed his soul, taught him that love has two inseparable, though sadly different, objects: God, whose goodness makes us love him; and man, whose misery exercises our charity. According to the ingenious remark of William de Saint-Thierry, his disciple and friend, Bernard re-learnt the art of living among, men. (Ibid. 30) He imbued himself with the admirable recommendations given by the legislator of monks to him who is chosen Abbot over his brethren: “When he giveth correction, let him act prudently, and push nothing to extremes, lest whilst eager of extreme scouring off the rust, the vase get broke. … When he enjoineth work to be done, let him use discernment and moderation, and think of holy Jacob’s discretion, who said: ‘If I cause my flocks to be overdriven, they will all die in one day.’ Taking, therefore, these and other documents regarding that mother of virtue, discretion, let him so temper all things as that the strong may have what to desire and the weak nothing to deter them.”(S. P. Bened. Reg. lxiv.)

Having received what the Psalmist calls “understanding concerning the needy and the poor,” Bernard felt his heart overflowing with the tenderness of God for those purchased by the divine Blood. He no longer terrified the humble. Beside the little ones who came to him attracted by the grace of his speech might be seen the wise, the powerful, and the rich ones of the world, abandoning their vanities, and becoming themselves little and poor in the school of one who knew how to guide them all, from the first elements of love to its very summits. In the midst of seven hundred monks receiving daily from him the doctrine of salvation, the Abbot of Clairvaux could cry out with the noble pride of the Saints: “He that is mighty has done great things “in us, and with good reason our soul magnifies the “Lord. Behold we have left all things to follow “thee: it is a great resolution, the glory of the great Apostles; yet we, too, by his great grace have taken it magnificently. Perhaps, even if I wish to glory therein, I shall not be foolish, for I will say the truth: there are some here who have left more than a boat and fishing-nets.”(Bern. De diversis, Sermo xxxvii. 7.)

“What more wonderful,” he said on another occasion, “than to see one who formerly could scarce abstain two days from sin, preserve himself from it for years, and even for his whole life? What greater miracle than that so many young men, boys, noble personages, all those, in a word, whom I see here, should be held captive without bonds in an open prison by the sole fear of God, and should persevere in penitential macerations beyond human strength, above nature, contrary to habit? What marvels we should discover, as you well knew, were we allowed to seek out the details of each one’s exodus from Egypt, of his passage through the desert, his entrance into the monastery, and his life within its walls.” (In Dedicat. Eccl., Sermo i. 2.)

But there were other marvels not to be hidden within the secret of the cloister. The voice that had peopled the desert was bidden to echo through the world; and the noises of discord and error, of schism and the passions, were hushed before it; at its word the whole West was precipitated as one man upon the infidel East. Bernard had now become the avenger of the sanctuary, the umpire of kings, the confidant of sovereign Pontiffs, the thaumaturgus applauded by enthusiastic crowds; yet, at the very height of what the world calls glory, his one thought was the loved solitude he had been forced to quit. “It is high time,” he said, ” that I should think of “myself. Have pity on my agonized conscience: “what an abnormal life is mine! I am the chimera “of my time; neither clerk nor layman, I have the “habit of a monk and none of the observances. In “the perils which surround me, at the brink of precipices yawning before me, help me with your “advice, pray for me.” (Epist. cel.)

While absent from Clairvaux he wrote to his monks: “My soul is sorrowful and cannot be comforted till I see you again. Alas! Must my exile here below, so long protracted, be rendered still more grievous? Truly those who have separated us have added sorrow upon sorrow to my evils. They have taken away from me the only remedy which enabled me to live away from Christ; while I could not yet contemplate his glorious Face, it was given me at least to see you, you his holy temple. From that temple the way seemed easy to the eternal home. How often have I been deprived of this consolation? This is the third time, if I mistake not, that they have torn out my heart. My children are weaned before the time; I had begotten them by the Gospel, and I cannot nourish them. Constrained to neglect those dear to me and to attend to the interests of strangers, I scarcely know which is harder to bear, to be separated from the former or to be mixed up with the latter. O Jesus, is my whole life to be spent in sighing? It were better for me to die than to live; but I would fain die in the midst of my family; there I should find more sweetness, more security. May it please my Lord that the eyes of a father, how unworthy soever of the name, may be closed by the hands of his sons; that they may assist him in his last passage; that their desires, if thou judge him worthy, may bear his soul to the abode of the blessed; that they may bury the body of a poor man with the bodies of those who were poor with him. By the prayers and merits of my brethren, if I have found favour before thee, grant me this desire of my heart. Nevertheless, thy will, not mine, be done; for I wish neither to live nor to die for myself.” (Epist. Cxliv.)

Greater in his Abbey than in the noblest courts, Bernard was destined to die at home at the hour appointed by God; but not without having had his soul prepared for the last purification by trials both public and private. For the last time he took up again, but could not finish, the discourses he had been delivering for the last eighteen years on the Canticle. These familiar conferences, lovingly gathered by his children, reveal in a touching manner the zeal of the sons for divine science, the heart of the father and his sanctity, and the incidents of daily life at Clairvaux. Having reached the first verse of the third chapter, he was describing the soul seeking after the Word in the weakness of this life, in the dark night of this world, when he broke off his discourses, and passed to the eternal face to face vision, where there is no more enigma, nor figure, nor shadow.

The following is the notice consecrated by the Church to her great servant:

Bernard was born of a distinguished family at Fountains in Burgundy. As a youth, on account of his great beauty he was much sought after by women, but could never be shaken in his resolution of observing chastity. To escape these temptations of the devil, he, at twenty-two years of age, determined to enter the monastery of Citeaux, the first house of the Cistercian Order, then famous for sanctity. When his brothers learnt Bernard’s design, they did their best to deter him from it; but he, more eloquent and more successful, won them and many others to his opinion; so that together with him thirty young men embraced the Cistercian Rule. As a monk he was so given to fasting, that whenever he had to take food he seemed to be undergoing torture. He applied himself in a wonderful manner to prayer and watching, and was a great lover of Christian poverty; thus he led a heavenly life on earth, free from all anxiety or desire of perishable goods.

The virtues of humility, mercy, and kindness shone conspicuously in his character. He devoted himself so earnestly to contemplation, that he seemed hardly to use his senses except to do acts of charity, and in these he was remarkable for his prudence. While thus occupied he refused the bishoprics of Genoa, Milan, and others, which were offered to him, declaring that he was unworthy of so great an office. He afterwards became Abbot of Clairvaux, and built monasteries in many places, wherein the excellent rules and discipline of Bernard long flourished. When the monastery of Ss. Vincent and Anastasius at Rome was restored by Pope Innocent II., St. Bernard appointed as Abbot the future sovereign Pontiff, Eugenius III.; to whom he also sent his book ” De Consideratione.”

He wrote many other works which clearly show that his doctrine was more the gift of God than the result of his own labours. On account of his great reputation for virtue, the greatest princes begged him to act as arbiter in their disputes, and he went several times into Italy for this purpose, and for arranging ecclesiastical affairs. He was of great assistance to the Supreme Pontiff Innocent II. in putting down the schism of Peter de Leone, both at the courts of the emperor and of king Henry of England, and at a Council held at Pisa. At length, being sixty-three years old, he fell asleep in the Lord. He was famous for miracles, and Pope Alexander III. placed him among the Saints. Pope Pius VIII., with the advice of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, declared St. Bernard a Doctor of the universal Church and commanded all to recite the Mass and Office of a Doctor on his feast. He also granted a plenary indulgence yearly, for ever, to all who visit churches of the Cistercian Order on this day.

Let us offer to St. Bernard the following Hymn, with its ingenuous allusions; it is worthy of him by the graceful sweetness wherewith, it celebrates his grandeurs:

Lacte quondam profluentes,
Ite, montes vos procul,
Ite, colles, fusa quondam
Unde mellis flumina;
Israel, jactare late
Manna priscum desine.Ecce cujus corde sudant,
Cujus ore profluunt
Dulciores lacte fontes,
Mellis amnes aemuli:
Ore tanto, corde tanto
Manna nullum dulcius.Quaeris unde duxit ortum
Tanta lactis copia;
Unde favus, unde prompta
Tanta mellis sua vitas;
Unde tantum manna fluxit,
Unde tot dulcedines.

Lactis imbres Virgo fudit
Ccelitus puerpera:
Mellis amnes os leonis
Excitavit mortui:
Manna sylvae, ccelitumque
Solitudo proxima.

Doctor o Bernarde, tantis
Aucte cceli dotibus,
Lactis hujus, mellis hujus,
Funde rores desuper;
Funde stillas, pleniore
Jam potitus gurgite.dulcius

Summa summo laus Parenti,
Summa laus et Filio:
Far tibi sit, sancte, manans
Ex utroque, Spiritus;
Ut fuit, nunc et per aevum
Compar semper gloria. Amen.

Ye mountains, once flowing with milk,
depart to a distance; depart,
ye hills that once poured forth streams of honey;
Israel, cease to boast freely of your ancient manna.Behold one from whose heart ebb forth,
and from whose mouth flow out sweeter fountains of milk
and rival rivers of honey: than such a mouth,
than such a heart no manna could be sweeter.Thou askest whence such abundance of milk originated;
whence the honeycomb, whence the swift –
flowing sweetness of honey; whence such manna;
and whence so many delights.

The showers of milk the Virgin-Mother shed on him from heaven:
the mouth of the dead lion was the source of the honeyed rivers:
the woods and the solitude so nigh the heavens produced the manna.

O Bernard, O Doctor, enriched with such gifts of heaven,
shed down upon us the dews of this milk and of this honey;
give us the drops, now that thou possessest the full

Highest praise be to the Sovereign Father,
and highest praise to the Son: and be the like to thee,
O Holy Spirit, proceeding from them both, as it was, now is,
and ever will be, equal glory eternally. Amen.

It was fitting to see the herald of the Mother of God following so closely her triumphal car; entering heaven during this bright Octave, thou delightest to lose thyself in the glory of her whose greatness thou didst proclaim on earth. Be our protector in her court; attract her maternal eyes towards Citeaux; in her name save the Church once more, and protect the Vicar of Christ.

But to-day, rather than to pray to thee, thou invitest us to sing to Mary and pray to her with thee; the homage most pleasing to thee, O Bernard, is that we should profit by thy sublime writings and admire the Virgin who, “to-day ascending glorious to heaven, put the finishing touch to the happiness of the heavenly citizens. Brilliant as it was already, heaven became resplendent with new brightness from the light of the virginal torch. Thanksgiving and praise resound on high. And shall we not in our exile partake of these joys of our home? Having here no lasting dwelling, we seek the city where the Blessed Virgin has arrived this very hour. Citizens of Jerusalem, it is but just that, from the banks of the rivers of Babylon, we should think with dilated hearts of the overflowing river of bliss, of which some drops are sprinkled on earth to-day. Our Queen has gone before us; the reception given to her encourages us who are her followers and servants. Our caravan will be well treated with regard to salvation, for it is preceded by the Mother of mercy as advocate before the Judge her Son.” (1 Bernard. In Assurapt. B.M.V., Sermo i)

“Whoso remembers having ever invoked thee in vain in his needs, O Blessed Virgin, let him be silent as to thy mercy. As for us, thy little servants, we praise thy other virtues, but on this one we congratulate ourselves. We praise thy virginity, we admire thy humility; but mercy is sweeter to the wretched; we embrace it more lovingly, we think of it more frequently, we invoke it unceasingly. Who can tell the length and breadth and height and depth of thine, O Blessed one? Its length, for it extends to the last day; its breadth, for it covers the earth; its height and depth, for it has filled heaven and emptied hell. Thou art as powerful as merciful; having now rejoined thy Son, manifest to the world the grace thou hast found before God: obtain pardon for sinners, health for the sick, strength for the weak, consolation for the afflicted, help and deliverance for those who are in any danger, (Bernard. In Assumpt. B.M.V., Sermo iv.) O clement, O merciful, O sweet Virgin Mary!” (A tradition of the cathedral of Spires attributes to St Bernard the addition of this triple cry of the heart to the Salve Regina.)


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