Christian History Home > 2002 > Severe Success
Bernard of Clairvaux was a tough act to follow—yet thousands of Christians walked his path.
The default impulse for struggling religious institutions is to reach out and ease up. Broaden the criteria for ordination. Reinterpret or abolish old rules. Make worship more inviting. Give everyone a say. Forge partnerships. Work with the culture.
Bernard of Clairvaux took exactly the opposite approach when he founded his first monastery on June 25, 1115. Yet by his death in 1153, his monastery had spawned almost 170 daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter abbeys across Europe. The story defies typical logic.
Bernard was born into a family of minor French nobles in 1090. Around age 22 he entered the abbey at Citeaux, home of the Cistercian order. The abbey had been founded in 1098 by Robert of Molesme and other monks who thought the prominent Benedictine order had drifted from its mooring—Benedict of Nursia's ascetic Rule for monastic life. Bernard agreed with the reformers.
In fact, Bernard attacked the center of Benedictine life, the Cluny monastery, writing of the Cluniac diet:
"Meanwhile course after course is brought in. Only meat is lacking and to compensate for this two huge servings of fish are given. You might have thought that the first was sufficient, but even the recollection of it vanishes once you have set to on the second. 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 . …The selection of dishes is so exciting that the stomach does not realize that it is being over-taxed."
Bernard's stomach would have noticed. He hardly ate anything. And when he was sent from Citeaux to find a like-minded monastery at Clairvaux, he didn't let the monks under his authority eat much, either. In CH issue 24, author Tony Lane described the situation:
"At Clairvaux Bernard carried his reforming ideas to extremes, and in his early years this had unfortunate consequences. His high standards proved to be too severe for the frail humanity of his monks. After a time they were unable to cope and Bernard had to slacken the reins. Furthermore, Bernard was stricter with himself than with others, with the result that his health was permanently damaged. In particular, he suffered from severe gastric problems and had ongoing problems with digestion. A place had to be provided for him to be sick during monastery services."
Strict and sickly, opposed by some of his own monks, Bernard nonetheless proved to be an amazing recruiter for the Cistercian order. By the middle of the twelfth century, it had more than 10,000 adherents in 350 houses, 70 of which Bernard had founded himself. All followed Benedict's guidance to live simply, obey superiors, eschew pleasures, work hard, and worship vigorously.
At least, they all did at first. Before long, the Cistercians faced many of the same challenges that had sidetracked the Benedictines. Still, Bernard's campaign proved that the hard road can lead to success.
Christian History issue 24: Bernard of Clairvaux is available for purchase here:
Bernard on the luxurious conditions at Cluny:
The Rule of Benedict
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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