Bernard of Clairvaux was first and last a monk. Whatever else he did or contributed to Christendom must be relegated to a secondary role. The call to monasticism was for over a thousand years preeminent in Christendom, and Bernard faithfully answered the call. For yet a longer time many people considered the call to seclusion, prayer, contemplation, and a life of rigor and service as the choice will of God—though this vocation was for a select group. Bernard was a leader in this select group. He desired above all to draw near to the heart of God, and to lead others in that way.

During the European Middle Ages (about 500–1500) monasticism was a dominant feature of the church and religious life in general. To be a monk was to respond to the call of God to the life of special devotion and withdrawal from secular concerns. It was to work out one’s own religious quest, to live close to God, and to emulate as closely as possible the instructions of Scripture for living the Holy Life.

Such a life was not possible, it was believed, when there were other concerns and temptations ever present: family, secular responsibilities, lust, the desire for power. Whether it be Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, or Paul, the record of Holy Writ provided examples for those who would undertake to follow a stricter and more limited interpretation of God’s will for living.

The Benedictine Way

Benedict of Nursia (480–543) left an indelible mark on Western monasticism through the influence of the rule that he drew up for those also affiliated with him in his monastic vocation at Monte Casino, Italy, in 528. Although he began as a hermit and lived alone for several years, he soon attracted a number of other people who wanted to adopt his lifestyle and ...

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