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 ...

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