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Who was Bernard of Clairvaux?

Bernard of Clairvaux audio

Bernard of Clairvaux was a French Catholic mystic, monk (in the Cistercian order), and influential church leader in the Middle Ages. Bernard of Clairvaux is a living illustration of a turbulent phase in Western Christendom. Christianity’s triumph over the Roman Empire also marked a slow march toward the Protestant Reformation. In between the fall of Rome and the dawn of the Reformation, various leaders spoke out against changes in Catholic theology. Yet some of those same voices were caught up in changes similar to the ones they refuted. Centuries after his death, Bernard of Clairvaux was cited by both Catholics and Protestants in defense of their views.

Bernard was born in AD 1090 to parents on the lower end of French nobility. He eventually joined a monastery, and his leadership brought both success and fame. He was particularly well-known for his eloquence as a writer. His hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” is considered a masterpiece today. Bernard is also credited with writing the traditional Catholic “Prayer to the Shoulder Wound of Jesus.” His devoutly holy lifestyle was acknowledged by critics and supporters alike. Bernard was enormously influential in both politics and church government. By the time of his death, Bernard was credited with founding more than 300 monasteries, the most famous of which was in Clairvaux, on the border of Burgundy and Champagne, France.

Bernard’s eloquence occasionally came with aggression. His tone toward theological opponents, in particular, could be harsh. His extreme asceticism, in which he denied himself food and sleep, resulted in lifelong health issues. While he preached humility and certainly practiced self-denial, he was also constantly involved at the highest levels of church and world affairs. This included drafting the basic framework for the Knights Templar, helping to resolve disputes over the papacy, and influencing the Second Crusade.

Bernard of Clairvaux’s involvement in the Crusades became the largest blemish on his reputation. Pope Eugenius III, a former student of Bernard’s, often complained that people thought of Bernard as more of a Pope than the Pope himself. At the same time, Eugenius realized that popular interest in a second Crusade was very weak. So he enlisted Bernard to begin a public relations campaign in favor of military action. Bernard did this with great enthusiasm, but when the Second Crusade failed miserably, he was assigned much of the blame.

Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the earlier “reformers,” in that he spoke out against Catholicism’s trend toward ritualism and sacraments. Like Anselm before him, Bernard was in favor of a more personal, spiritual, and practical apprehension of faith. He was a strong proponent of the mystical practice of Lectio Divina. He made statements suggestive of imputed righteousness and seemed to embrace a form of the doctrine of sole fide. His writings on these topics were used by Reformers of later centuries to support their efforts.

At the same time, Bernard supported indulgences and was a major advocate of Mariology, writing on the subject of the Holy Virgin and preaching her virtues: “If temptation storms, or you fall upon the rocks of tribulation, look to the star: Call upon Mary! If you are tossed by the waves of pride or ambition, detraction or envy, look to the star, call upon Mary. If anger or avarice or the desires of the flesh dash against the ship of your soul, turn your eyes to Mary. If troubled by the enormity of your crimes, ashamed of your guilty conscience, terrified by dread of the judgment, you begin to sink into the gulf of sadness or the abyss of despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in anguish, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let her name be even on your lips, ever in your heart; and the better to obtain the help of her prayers, imitate the example of her life: Following her, thou strayest not; invoking her, thou despairest not; thinking of her, thou wanderest not; upheld by her, thou fallest not; shielded by her, thou fearest not; guided by her, thou growest not weary; favored by her, thou reachest the goal. And thus dost thou experience in thyself how good is that saying: ‘And the Virgin’s name was Mary’” (“The Holy Name of Mary,” part V). Bernard of Clairvaux clearly favored viewing Mary as Mediatrix. According to one Catholic legend, Bernard was praying in a cathedral in 1146 before a statue of Mary. The image suddenly came alive, and the Virgin squirted milk from her right breast into Bernard’s mouth. Such stories only helped to further the cult of Mary-worship during the Middle Ages.

Bernard of Clairvaux died in 1154. The Roman Catholic Church canonized him about 21 years later. His feast day is August 20. As a writer, theologian, and public figure, Bernard of Clairvaux is certainly one of the most influential figures in medieval Christianity.

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This page last updated: August 26, 2022