August 19, 2016

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot, Reformer and Doctor of the Church

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

August 20th, is the Memorial of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, (1090-1153) the 12th century French abbot, gifted spiritual writer, counselor to popes, and Doctor of the Church who reformed the Cistercian Order. His extensive Marian theology marks him not only as a theologian of the highest rank, but also as the "cithara of Mary," (A cithara is a stringed instrument similar to a lyre.) He is especially noted for his development of the Blessed Mother's role as mediator. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Doctor Mellifluus, issued on the 800th anniversary of St. Bernard’s death, called him "The Last of the Fathers." The Divine Office contains numerous excerpts from his sermons. Like his other works, these are conspicuous for their genuine emotion and spiritual depth.

He was born the third of seven children, to a prominent noble family, the son of Lord Tescelin de Fontaine and Alèthe de Montbard near Dijon, France. From an early age, his intellectual gifts, literary propensity and personal piety were evident. His schooling entailed literature, rhetoric and philosophy in addition to theology and Sacred Scripture. At the age of 22, while at prayer in church, Bernard felt the calling of God to enter the Cistercian Order. Bernard’s testimony of faith was so compelling, thirty of his friends, brothers and relatives followed him into monastic life. (His widowed father would join him a short time later.)

Upon entering the Abbey of Citeaux in 1112, Bernard soon distinguished himself. His superior, Saint Stephen Harding, seeing the great progress Bernard had made in the spiritual life, sent him and twelve monks to found a new monastery that became known as the Abbey of Clairvaux. In time it would become a model for monastic reform throughout Europe. There, serving as Abbot, Bernard began an active ministry that made him one of the most influential figures in the Church.

In 1128, he participated in the Council of Troyes, convoked by Pope Honorius II to resolve disputes within the episcopacy of Paris. The bishops made Bernard secretary, charging him with formulating the council’s synodal statutes. Two years later, he was asked to end the papal schism between antipope Anacletus II and Pope Innocent II. Following eight years of arduous travel and skillful mediation by Bernard, the matter was resolved in favor of Innocent II

St. Bernard founded hundreds of monasteries, composed a prodigious number of works and undertook many journeys for the honor of God. Several Bishoprics were offered him, but he declined them. The reputation of St. Bernard was such that even Popes solicited his advice. He was commissioned by Pope Eugene III to advance the Second Crusade. In obedience Bernard traveled through France and Germany, recruiting the faithful and generating great enthusiasm for the effort. This Second Crusade was a miserable failure. In reply the future saint declared that he had trusted God to bless a crusade undertaken for the honor of His Name, but that the army's sins had brought catastrophe; yet who could judge of its true success or failure?

Although he suffered from constant physical debility and oversaw a monastery with several hundred monks, he still found time to compose countless and varied spiritual works that speak to us today. This excerpt from the Office of Readings is a sermon of St. Bernard’s reflecting upon the nature of Divine love.

"Love is sufficient of itself, it gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Its profit lies in its practice. I love because I love, I love that I may love. Love is a great thing so long as it continually returns to its fountainhead, flows back to its source, always drawing from there the water which constantly replenishes it. Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all he desires is to be loved in return; the sole purpose of his love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love him are made happy by their love of him."

A great number of miracles are attributed to the saint. Popular piety attests that the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernard and that Jesus came down from the Cross to embrace him. He died at Clairvaux on August 20, 1153. He was canonized 21 years after his death by Pope Alexander III. Pope Pius VII declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1830. O God, who made the Abbot Saint Bernard a man consumed with zeal for your house and a light shining and burning in your Church, grant, through his intercession, that we too may be on fire with the same spirit and walk always as children of light.

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