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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Movers and Shakers > Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Clairvaux
Medieval reformer and mystic
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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"You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason he is to be loved."

It's hard to know how to characterize Bernard of Clairvaux. On the one hand, he is called the "honey-tongued doctor" for his eloquent writings on the love of God. On the other hand, he rallied soldiers to kill Muslims. He wrote eloquently on humility; then again, he loved being close to the seat of power and was an adviser to five popes.



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What is clear is this: 400 years after his death, he was still widely quoted by Catholics and Protestants, both of whom claimed his support. John Calvin considered him the major witness to truth between Gregory the Great and the 1500s. And today his writings still guide spiritual lives not only of the order he made famous, the Cistercians, but by men and women in all walks of life.

Austere leader

>Bernard was born on the outskirts of Dijon in Burgundy to a family of lower nobility. Both his parents were models of virtue, but it was his mother who exerted the most influence on him (some speculate only second to what Monica had done for Augustine of Hippo). Her death, in 1107, marked for Bernard the beginning of his "long path to complete conversion."

Bernard sought the counsel of the abbot of Citeaux, Stephen Harding, and decided to enter his struggling, small, new community called the Cistercians. The order had been established in 1098 to restore Benedictine monasticism to a more primitive and austere state. Bernard was so taken with the order, he persuaded not only his brothers but some 25 others to join him at Citeaux in 1112.

Here he began practicing lifelong ascetic disciplines (strict fasting, sleep deprivation, etc.), which severely impaired his health—he was plagued by anemia, migraines, gastritis, hypertension, and an atrophied sense of taste his whole life.

Within three years of joining the order, he was appointed abbot of the third Cistercian monastery, at Clairvaux. There Bernard showed little patience with monks who wanted him to relax his standards. Mocking other monasteries' eating habits, he wrote, "The cooks prepare everything with such skill and cunning that the four or five dishes already consumed are no hindrance to what is to follow, and the appetite is not checked by satiety."

At the same time, he showed his growing spiritual wisdom. Regarding the danger of spiritual pride, he said, "There are people who go clad in tunics and have nothing to do with furs, who nevertheless are lacking in humility. Surely humility in furs is better than pride in tunics."

Despite the objection of some monks, the monastery under his leadership prospered. By 1118 Clairvaux was able to found its first daughter house—the first of some 70 Cistercian monasteries Bernard founded (which in turn founded another 100 monasteries in Bernard's lifetime).

World monk

>As the order grew, so did Bernard's influence and responsibilities. Though he longed to return to a life of solitude (he had been a hermit for a time), he was thrust into the world for many of his remaining years.

Bernard had warm relationships with other reforming orders of his day, like the Carthusians and the Premonstratensians. He also wrote the Rule for the new order known as the Knights Templar, an order of men who took monastic vows and swore to defend the Holy Land militarily.

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