Bernard of Clairvaux, St.
BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX, ST.
Abbot, monastic theologian, and Doctor of the Church; b. Fontaines-les-Dijon, a village near Dijon, 1090; d. Clairvaux, August 20, 1153.
Life. Bernard's family was of noble lineage, both on the side of his father, Tescelin, and on that of his mother, Aleth or Aletta, but his ancestry cannot be clearly traced beyond his proximate forebears. The third of seven children, six of whom were sons, Bernard as a boy attended the school of the secular canons of Saint-Vorles, where it is probable that he studied the subjects included in the medieval trivium. In 1107 the early death of his mother, to whom he was bound by a strong affective tie, began a critical period in his life. Of the four years that followed, little is known but what can be inferred from their issue. In 1111 Bernard left the world and withdrew to the locality of Châtillon, where he was soon joined by all his brothers and a number of other relatives. He so distinguished
himself in following the rule of the Cistercians, the strictest rule of the time, that after only three years he was chosen as abbot for a new foundation. For it, he with his 12 companions chose a solitary valley not far from the Aube, which they called Clara Vallis or Clairvaux. He was ordained by William of Champeaux, Bishop of Châlons-sur-Marne. In 1115, at 25 years of age, he was already at the juridical summit of his career, but he was to go on growing in the esteem of his contemporaries and in the effectiveness of his activity until he became the center of unity and the forward impetus for the ecclesiastical life of his time.
The first years of his abbacy were spent dealing with problems of monastic life—the organization and strengthening of the community at Clairvaux and the making of new foundations, the number of which was to reach 68 by the time of Bernard's death.
Controversy with Cluny. But if Clairvaux was to become a model of strict observance, Cluny, which was still a greater power in the Benedictine world, followed an adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. The beginning of Bernard's polemic against the disciplinary decadence of the Cluniacs occurred in 1119. [See Bernard's letter of 1119 or 1120 to his cousin Robert and the famous Apologia ad Guillelmum S. Theodorici abbatem of 1124 or 1125, S. Bernardi opera, ed. Leclercq–Rochais (Rome 1963) 3.81–108; hereafter, Opera. ] In these writings the zeal of the saint expressed itself hotly at times and with some asperity, but in the warmth of debate a good fruit ripened, namely, the friendship between Bernard and peter the venerable, Abbot of Cluny. Because of the contrast of temperament between the two, they were not by nature inclined to look upon each other sympathetically, but the vicissitudes of their relationship made each respect the holiness of the other, and they overcame the difficulty of temperament by their charity and mutual esteem.
Bernard was troubled about the relationship of his to other forms of the monastic life, and he had views of his own with regard to transitus or the transfer of a monk or a canon regular from one observance to another. Bernard was guided by his conviction of the superiority of the Cistercian life to every other manner of pursuing evangelical perfection and thought that when a soul sought a higher way of life, it was moved duce spiritu libertatis, and, such being the case, the matter transcended the disposition of the Rule of St. Benedict (ch. 61), or the agreements existing between orders, or papal privileges, and it even escaped the line of reasoning Bernard himself took in his Liber de precepto et dispensatione (Opera 3.283–288).
Schism. The ardent charity of the saint went beyond the horizons of the world of monks and canons and reached out to all the members of the Church. His qualities as a man of action were brought to light in the schism that took place in the Church in consequence of the election of two popes in 1130, Innocent II and Anacletus II, representatives of opposing factions, whose rivalry was reflected in the division of the College of Cardinals into two parties. Those who supported the Curia and were traditionalist in their conception of ecclesiastical life and methods of reform espoused the cause of Anacletus. The monastic party, of more recent formation, supported Innocent. Throughout the schism Bernard devoted himself strenuously to the task of securing the recognition of Innocent, on whose side he had stood from the beginning.
Abelard, Gilbert de la Porrée, and Arnold of Brescia. Successful in this battle, Bernard did not retire to the peace of the cloister for long. In 1140 he conducted the delicate operation that led to the condemnation of Abelard. Bernard's part in this was not unlike the part he played in the attempted condemnation of gilbert de la porrÉe in 1148 at the Council of Reims. Many have been puzzled by his passionate involvement in these affairs. His polemical vehemence is impressive, even when due allowance is made for the peculiarities of that kind of literary genre (see Tractatus ad Innocentium II pontificem contra quaedam capitula errorum Abaelardi, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 182.1053–57; Epistolae 188–189, 191–193, 331–338). There is no doubt that he was sincerely convinced that the teaching of Abelard constituted a grave danger for the faith, and his reaction was harsh and precipitate and showed little concern for literal exactitude or for distinguishing between the written and the spoken word or between the teaching of the master and the interpretation of his disciples. The same can be said of his reaction to Gilbert [see John of Salisbury, Historia pontificalis, ed. M. Chibnall (Edinburgh 1956) ch. 8–12; Otto of Freisingen, Gesta Friderici imperatoris, Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores rerum Germanicarum (Berlin 1826–), ed. G. Waitz–Von–Simson, 48,61].
Between 1144 and 1145 Bernard was opposed to Arnold of Brescia, whose preaching against the wealth and luxury of the Church favored a movement of rebellion among the Roman people whom Bernard strove to win to the obedience of Lucius II and later of Eugene III. The election of the latter, a disciple of Bernard at Clairvaux, to the pontificate in 1145 further increased Bernard's influence upon ecclesiastical life at the center of Christendom, which reached its zenith in the first years of Eugene's pontificate.
The Crusades. In 1146 and 1147 Bernard was officially in charge of the preaching of the Second Crusade. Although the crusade itself ended in failure—a fact that saddened Bernard's last years—his success in winning support for it stood as evidence of the profound resonance evoked in the Christian West by the words and the personal charm of the saint. The war against the infidels was not Bernard's only cause in his popular preaching. Certain heresies then flourishing at home evoked his eloquence. Against the heretics he depended chiefly upon persuasion, but without neglecting, in cases of pertinacity, recourse to the secular arm.
At the hour of Tierce, August 20, 1153, Bernard died, consumed by sickness and austerity. He was canonized by Alexander III, Jan. 8, 1174, and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pius VIII in 1830. The most recent act of the Holy See with regard to St. Bernard was the encyclical Doctor mellifluus of Pius XII on the occasion of the eighth centenary of his death.
Personality. Those of his contemporaries who spoke of Bernard agreed in attesting to the spiritual charm that emanated from him; the more analytical sought to trace it to his fascinating eloquence, fed by a rare combination of natural gifts and by a continuous and skillful use of the Scriptures, sustained by a life in conformity with his words, and strengthened by charismatic graces. Nevertheless, Bernard's behavior could be looked upon from different points of view, and it provoked discordant judgments.
Otto of Freisingen, in the most penetrating appraisal of the personality of Bernard made by a contemporary (Gesta 1.49), singled out certain traits that help to clarify attitudes indicated above: the ardent zeal that made him quick to intervene when he perceived a danger to the integrity of the faith and the facility, peculiar to impulsive temperaments, in accepting evidence without properly evaluating it. Nevertheless, a historically accurate reconstruction of the saint's personality does not lessen but puts into clearer relief the essential greatness of the man. He was perhaps the most authentic and complete representative of the monastic tradition in the current of medieval civilization. The life of Bernard remains an example of the Christian ideal, realized with total service and selfsacrifice, without egoism or personalism. The difficulty of the struggle he had to face because of his temperament, and the humility with which he recognized his own defects should not be undervalued. [See Epist. 70 and its appraisal by Dimier, Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique (Louvain 1900–) 50 (1955) 550–551.]
Theology. St. Bernard was a typical exponent of what has been called monastic theology by certain modern scholars. It is a theology that aims at a clear, orderly, warm exposition of truth, such as will serve to dispose the soul to prayer and contemplation. Bernardine theology was not distinguished by the discovery of new modes of thought or the achievement of new conclusions but by its continual permeation with a rich interior experience. Bernard's sources were principally the Scriptures, then the Fathers of the Church, works concerned with the regulation of monastic life (especially the Rule of St. Benedict), and finally the liturgy. The whole design of his theology can be reduced to a few lines: God, that is charity, created man by love and by love redeemed him. The supreme proof of that love is the Incarnation of the Word and the Redemption. Another exquisite proof of that love is the presence of a Mother, who is also the Mother of God, in the great picture of the Redemption.
It would be erroneous to attribute the detailed attention Bernard gave to the Blessed Virgin to reasons of pure sentiment. If the influence of his delicately sensitive spirit, sharpened by the sad loss of his own mother, cannot be denied, it must nevertheless be noted that Bernard exhibited a profound theological understanding of the function of Mary in Catholic dogma and particularly in the work of the Redemption.
Three points in his Mariology have been much commented upon. (1) With regard to the Immaculate Conception, there is his famous letter (n. 174), from which it can be certainly deduced that he did not admit that truth. (2) As to the dogma of the Assumption, clear texts are wanting, although a passage from the sermon recently published by J. Leclercq ["Études sur St. Bernard et le texte de ses écrits," in Analecta S. Ordinis Cisterciensis 9(1953)] seems to point in the direction of that truth. (3) The mediation of Mary is one of the themes upon which Bernard insisted with great effectiveness, for example, in his well–known Sermo de aquaeductu (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 183.437–448).
Apologetic and polemic considerations led Bernard to certain points in sacramental theology in his Tractatus de baptismo. He maintained, for example, that baptism of water was not absolutely necessary, and it could be substituted for that of blood or desire. He also held the justification of unbaptized infants in virtue of the faith of their parents.
Ascetical Doctrine. The theology of Bernard was so closely bound to personal experience of ascent to God that it is impossible to draw a clear dividing line between his dogmatic and his ascetical teaching. His fundamental ascetical treatises were three. (1) De gratia et libero arbitrio (Opera 3.165–203) is important because it provides the dogmatic and historical premises of Christian ascesis and describes the state of fallen but repaired human nature. Bernard insisted upon the primacy of the will, whose freedom from sin is actuated in Christ and through Christ. He strongly affirmed the necessity of grace, taking the strictly antipelagian position of St. Augustine. (2) The De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae (Opera 3.13–59) shows the fundamental importance that humility had for Bernard as the indispensable premise of charity. For him, humility was truth and was based in men on the humility-truth that is Christ, which takes possession of men and fills them with the gifts of His love. In the first part of the treatise are described the three degrees of humility; in the second, the 12 degrees of pride. This work, strongly marked by St. Bernard's personal experience, reveals his singular capacity for penetrating the human soul. (3) His brief Liber de diligendo Deo (Opera 3.119–154) is important for an understanding of his ascetical doctrine, but it is useful also for his mystical teaching, because it is centered upon the love of God and explains its motives. The first motive for loving God is the gifts He has given to mankind in general (ch. 2) and more especially those given to the Christian (ch. 3–4); the second is the good of man, who in God alone can satisfy his thirst for happiness. In the development of this meditation one encounters the central and vital function that the mysteries of the humanity of the Word have in Bernardine ascetical doctrine and piety. In a well-known passage of Sermo 43 super cantica (Opera 2.43) Bernard returns to the mysteries of the life and Passion of Jesus as the only wisdom and salvation and presents the Crucified as "mea subtilior, interior philosophia"—a statement that reveals the Christocentric nature of his theology as well as the strongly affective character of his piety.
There is also ascetical doctrine of importance in the De consideratione libri quinque ad Eugenium III (Opera 3.393–493). The "consideration" in question is, at least in part, mental prayer, and the whole treatise, although divided into points strictly connected with the high office of the one to whom the work was addressed, still contains a development of the theme capable of broader application. Book 1 brings out the necessity of meditation as an essential element of piety (ch. 7–8). In book 2 Bernard proposes four series of themes for meditation: te, quae sub te, quae circa te, quae supra te sunt (ch. 3). Books 3 and 4 are concerned with the duties of the pontiff. In book 5, after having declared that meditation finds its fullness and high point in mystical contemplation (ch. 2), Bernard suggests many motives for meditation.
Mystical Doctrine. Bernard left no systematic exposition of mystical theology, but the Sermones in cantica and numerous passages in his other works contain the fruit of a genuine mystical experience, and in them, in spite of the lack of a systematic exposition, certain fundamental lines can be discerned. The ultimate and culminating development of theology for Bernard consisted in mystical experience. It represents the apex of all the works of God. Love wants to unite the soul to itself by charity even to the extent of mystical nuptials or spiritual marriage. In the stage of mystical union Bernard always presented the Word as the spouse of the soul, according to the characteristic Christocentricity of his thought.
His mystical teaching reveals another striking characteristic of the saint, his need to communicate his religious experience to others. In dispensing the riches of his interior life, he uncovered the whole grandeur of his mystical life. Few indeed even of the great mystics have had the ability to describe the mystical states so effectively. His truly great talent as an artist and a stylist was helpful to him in this, as can be seen in the descriptions of the visit of the Word to the soul in ch. 5 and 6 of Sermo 74 in cantica. To be noted are the limpid simplicity with which Bernard succeeds in expressing the ineffable; the paratactic construction permitting the period to proceed more rapidly and brokenly, thus giving more effective expression to the sighing of the soul; the exquisite use of rhythm extending to groups of phrases and giving rise to strophes and hymnic passages [see C. Mohrmann, "Le Stile de St. Bernard" in S. Bernardo (Milan 1954) 170–184].
St. Bernard must be ranked among the saints who have had a most profound influence by their doctrine and spirituality upon the life of the Church. The Franciscan school received some of its Christocentric orientation from St. Bernard. The author of the Imitation of Christ shows signs of having been abundantly nourished by the reading of the works of Bernard, and the French school of the 17th century manifests a notable affinity with certain fundamental lines of Bernardine theology (see Le Bail, 1.1492–98).
Culture and Art. Bernard was one of the most notable exponents of the monastic culture of the Middle Ages. He achieved a mastery of prose, despite his lack of direct acquaintance with the classics. Recent investigations by J. Leclercq of the manuscripts tradition appear to show that although Bernard dictated with facility and without much fussiness, he nevertheless took some care with the revision and polishing of his works.
His style, besides its well-known use of rhythm, was characterized by parallelism, antithesis, alliteration, and assonance, all of which are evidence of the influence of St. Augustine. One of his most admirable qualities as a stylist was his brilliant and fascinating ability to adapt the sacred text to the exigencies of artistic expression and to weave the passages of Scripture, which he had assimilated so well, into ever new designs (see john of salis bury, Historia pontificalis 12).
Bernard was hostile to the scholastic culture of his time, which was characterized by a growing sense of the function and autonomy of reason in the sphere of its competence. Nor did he look with favor upon the related demand for a theology that, although deduced from revealed premises and with all the reverence due to mystery, nevertheless built itself up with the exercise of reason and assumed the dignity of a science. Bernard could not see the need for such a theology. For him the search for truth simply out of a desire for truth was not a positive value, nor did he clearly recognize a field reserved to reason, although the beginning of such recognition can be found in certain passages of his writings.
In general, however, it can be affirmed that he had an awareness of the part study and knowledge can play in the ascent of the soul to God. But he valued knowledge only in that context. He was acutely conscious of the dangers involved in intellectual investigation, and he distrusted all that could give nourishment to pride. This attitude is to be explained in large part by his own inner experience that enabled him to draw supreme certitude from the joys of contemplation and from his own experience of the fecundity of grace. He felt no need for much reasoning and subtlety. He was inclined rather to be bored with it, and he viewed it as an obstacle. Nevertheless, within the limits he would set, Bernard valued study. At Clairvaux he laid the foundations of one of the best monastic libraries of the Middle Ages and maintained relations with William of Champeaux, Hugh of Saint-Victor, John of Salisbury, and Peter Lombard.
Feast: Aug. 20.
Bibliography: The four ancient lives of St. Bernard are in Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne, 217 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 185:225–368. Biog. sources. e. vacandard, Vie de Saint Bernard (5th ed. Paris 1920). j. m. canivez, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et al. (Paris 1912–) 8:610–611. The letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, tr. b.s. james (Chicago 1953, reprinted New York 1980). Lettres, ed. j. leclercq, h. rochais, and h. talbot, tr. h. rochais (Paris 1997). Bernardine bibliog. l. janauschek, Bibliographia bernardina (Vienna 1891). j. bouton, Bibliographie bernardine (Paris 1958). j. leclercq, "Les Études bernardines en 1963," Bulletin de la société internationale pour l'Étude de la philosophie médiévale 5(1963) 121–138. Bernardine apocrypha and disputed writings. f. cavallera, Dictionnaire de dpiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 1:1499–1502. Information on the critical ed. of the text. j. leclercq, "L'Édition de St. B.," Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 45(1950) 715–727. h. m. rochais, "L'Édition critique des oeuvres de St. B.," Studi medievali 1 (1960) 701–719. Biog. studies. The biog. by Vacandard, mentioned above, was the first attempt at a truly hist. reconstruction of the personality of St. B. Hist. Commission of the Order of Citeaux, Bernard de Clairvaux (Paris 1953). Bernard of Clairvaux: A Saint's Life in Word and Image, ed. m. b. pennington, y. katzir, and n. johnston (Huntington, Ind. 1994). a. h. bredero, Bernard de Clairvaux: Culte et histoire (Turnhout, Belgium 1998); Eng. tr. Bernard of Clairvaux: Between Cult and History (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1996). w. w. williams, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (Westminster, Md. 1952). j. calmette and h. david, Saint Bernard (Paris 1953). g. g. coulton, Two Saints, St. Bernard & St. Francis (Norwood, Pa. 1976). p. dinzelbacher, Bernhard von Clairvaux: Leben und Werk des berühmten Zisterziensers (Darmstadt 1998). b. p. mcguire, The Difficult Saint (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1991). t. merton, The Last of the Fathers (New York 1981, c. 1954); Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard (Kalamazoo, Mich.1980). m. raymond, The Family that Overtook Christ (Boston, Mass. 1986). b. scott–james, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (London 1957). Special studies. Bernardus Magister, papers presented 10–13 May 1990 at Institute of Cistercian Studies, ed. j. r. sommerfeldt (Spencer, Mass. 1992). É. gilson, Mystical Theology of St. Bernard (2d ed. New York 1955). St. Bernard théologien: Actes du Congrès de Dijon (Rome 1953). e. c. butler, Western Mysticism (New York 1975). m. casey, A Thirst for God: Spiritual Desire in Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1988). g. g. coulton, St. Bernard, his Predecessors and Successors (Cambridge 1923, reprinted New York 1979). c. dumont, Pathway of Peace, tr. e. connor of Au chemin de la paix (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1999). g. r. evans, Bernard of Clairvaux (New York 2000). m. k. hufgard, Bernard of Clairvaux on Being and Beauty (Lewiston, N.Y. 2000). j. leclercq, "Un Guide de la lecture pour St. B.," La Vie Spirituelle 102 (1960) 440–447; Saint Bernard mystique (Paris 1948). Festschrift zum 800 Jahrgedächtnis des Todes Bernhards von Clairvaux (Vienna 1953). Mélanges St. Bernard, 24e Congrès de l'Assoc. bourguignonne des sociétés savantes (Dijon 1954). m. b. pranger, Bernard of Clairvaux and the Shape of Monastic Thought (Leiden 1994). c. rudolph, The "Things of Greater Importance:" Bernard of Clairvaux's Apologia and the Medieval Attitude Toward Art (Philadelphia 1990). c. stercal, Il "Medius adventus:" saggio di lettura degli scritti di Bernardo di Clairvaux (Rome 1992). m. stickelbroeck, Mysterium venerandum: der trinitarische Gedanke im Werk des Bernhard von Clairvaux (Münster 1994). d. e. tamburello, Bernard of Clairvaux (New York 2000); Union with Christ: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard (Louisville, Ky.1994). The Joy of Learning and the Love of God (Kalamazoo, Mich.1995). j. leclercq, A Second Look at Bernard of Clairvaux (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1990). g. r. evans, The Mind of Saint Bernard (Oxford 1983). m. basil pennington, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: Studies Commemorating the Eighth Centenary of His Canonization (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1977). Bernard of Clairvaux: Studies Presented to Dom Jean Leclerq, ed. h. rochais (Spenser, Mass. 1973).