Monastic reformer St. Bernard of Clairvaux remembered August 20

Denver, Colo., Aug 14, 2011 / 07:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On August 20 the Catholic Church will honor St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century monk who helped to build up the Cistercian order – some of whom are known today as the Trappists. Bernard is considered the last of the Church Fathers in the Western tradition.

St. Bernard

Bernard was born during the year 1090, near the French town of Dijon. His father Tescelin and his mother Aleth belonged to the highest class of nobility in the region and had six other children. Bernard, their third child, received an especially good education, in response to a local man’s prophecy that he was destined for great achievements.

After his mother’s death, Bernard began to consider a life of solitude and prayer. At Citeaux, near Dijon, a group of monks had gathered in 1098 with the intention of returning to St. Benedict’s original rule of monasticism from the sixth century. Bernard, together with 30 other noblemen of Dijon, sought to join this monastery around the year 1113.

Three years into his life as a monk of Citeaux, Bernard received a commission from his abbot to become the head of a new monastery, practicing the same rule of life. Bernard himself dubbed the new monastery’s location “Clairvaux,” or “Clear Valley.”

In his zeal to set an example for the Cistercian monastic reform, Bernard lived a life of such severe penance that his health suffered, and his superiors in the order had to persuade him to be more moderate. Meanwhile, the monastery thrived and attracted large number of men, including Bernard’s five brothers and his widowed father.

In 1119, Bernard played an important role in the first General Chapter of the Cistercian Order, which drew up its constitutions and rules. The following year, he composed a treatise on the vice of pride and the virtue of humility, as well as a series of homilies in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He also defended the Cistercians against charges from other monks, who claimed that their rule was too severe.

At the local Council of Troyes, in1128, Bernard assisted the Cardinal Bishop of Albano in resolving internal disputes within the Church of Paris. At this same council, Bernard outlined the rule of life for the Knights Templars, the Catholic military order charged with the defense of the Holy Land. Bernard developed the ideals of Christian knighthood in his writings addressed to the Templars.

These were not the Abbot of Clairvaux’s last forays into civil and religious controversies. He also defended the Church’s freedom against the intrusions of temporal rulers and he admonished bishops who had abandoned their sees. In 1130, he had the responsibility of determining which of two rival clerics, both claiming to have been elected Pope, would ultimately occupy the Chair of Peter.

Bernard became a close adviser to Pope Innocent II, who prevailed in the controversy. Further threats to the Church’s peace and unity occupied him for much of the 1130s, although he continued to produce important writings, including his commentary on the Biblical “Song of Songs.” He also sent monks to established new Cistercian monasteries throughout Western Europe.

One of Bernard’s own Cistercian monks became Pope Eugene III in 1145, prompting Bernard to write him a letter of instructions that subsequent Popes have also found valuable. When Eugene declared a crusade for the protection of Christians in Antioch and Jerusalem during 1146, he appointed Bernard to strengthen the faith of the crusaders with his preaching.

The “Second Crusade,” however, failed in its attempt to take the Syrian city of Damascus. This was a heavy blow to Bernard’s cause, and he received undue blame for a defeat more likely due to political intrigue and military misconduct. Bernard sent a letter to the Pope, stating that the crusade failed because of the moral failings of its participants.

Pope Eugene III, Bernard’s onetime disciple and close friend, died in 1153, and was eventually beatified. Bernard died the same year, at the age of 63, having spent forty years as a monk. He personally founded 163 Cistercian monasteries, a number which had more than doubled by the time of his death.

Pope Alexander III canonized St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1174. During the 19th century, Pope Pius VIII declared him to be a Doctor of the Church.