Bookmark and Share

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Cistercian Abbot, Doctor of the Church - from France
Born in 1090; Died on 20 August, 1153 in Clairvaux
Canonized on 18 January 1174 by Pope Alexander III
In 1953 Pius XVII wrote an encyclical on St Bernard - 'Doctor Mellifluus'
Feast Day - 20th August

In danger, in distress, in uncertainty think of Mary, call upon Mary.
She never leaves your lips, she never departs from your heart;
and so that you may obtain the help of her prayers,
never forget the example of her life.
If you follow her, you cannot falter;
if you pray to her, you cannot despair;
if you think of her, you cannot err.
If she sustains you, you will not stumble;
if she protects you, you have nothing to fear;
if she guides you, you will never flag;
if she is favourable to you, you will attain your goal.

Benedict XVI: "Bernard of Clairvaux was called "Doctor mellifluus" by Pope Pius VIII because he excelled "in distilling from biblical texts their hidden meaning". Desirous of living immersed in the "luminous valley" of contemplation, events lead this mystic to travel throughout Europe serving the Church's needs of the time and defending the Christian faith. He was also described as a "Marian Doctor". This was not because he wrote so much on Our Lady but because he knew how to grasp her essential role in the Church, presenting her as the perfect model of monastic life and of every other form of Christian life."

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to talk about St Bernard of Clairvaux, called "the last of the Fathers" of the Church because once again in the 12th century he renewed and brought to the fore the important theology of the Fathers. We do not know in any detail about the years of his childhood; however, we know that he was born in 1090 in Fontaines, France, into a large and fairly well-to-do family. As a very young man he devoted himself to the study of the so-called liberal arts especially grammar, rhetoric and dialectics at the school of the canons of the Church of Saint-Vorles at Châtillon-sur-Seine; and the decision to enter religious life slowly matured within him. At the age of about 20, he entered Cîteaux, a new monastic foundation that was more flexible in comparison with the ancient and venerable monasteries of the period while at the same time stricter in the practice of the evangelical counsels. A few years later, in 1115, Bernard was sent by Stephen Harding, the 3rd Abbot of Cîteaux, to found the monastery of Clairvaux. Here the young Abbot he was only 25 years old was able to define his conception of monastic life and set about putting it into practice. In looking at the discipline of other monasteries, Bernard firmly recalled the need for a sober and measured life, at table as in clothing and monastic buildings, and recommended the support and care of the poor. In the meantime the community of Clairvaux became ever more numerous and its foundations multiplied.

In those same years before 1130 Bernard started a prolific correspondence with many people of both important and modest social status. To the many epistolae of this period must be added numerous sermons, as well as Sententiae and Tractatus. Bernard's great friendship with William, Abbot of Saint-Thierry, and with William of Champeaux, among the most important figures of the 12th century, also date to this period. As from 1130, Bernard began to concern himself with many serious matters of the Holy See and of the Church. For this reason he was obliged to leave his monastery ever more frequently and he sometimes also travelled outside France. He founded several women's monasteries and was the protagonist of a lively correspondence with Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, of whom I spoke last Wednesday. In his polemical writings he targeted in particular Abelard, a great thinker who had conceived of a new approach to theology, introducing above all the dialectic and philosophical method in the construction of theological thought. On another front Bernard combated the heresy of the Cathars, who despised matter and the human body and consequently despised the Creator. On the other hand, he felt it was his duty to defend the Jews, and condemned the ever more widespread outbursts of anti-Semitism. With regard to this aspect of his apostolic action, several decades later Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn addressed a vibrant tribute to Bernard. In the same period the holy Abbot wrote his most famous works such as the celebrated Sermons on the Song of Songs [In Canticum Sermones]. In the last years of his life he died in 1153 Bernard was obliged to curtail his journeys but did not entirely stop travelling. He made the most of this time to review definitively the whole collection of his Letters, Sermons and Treatises. Worthy of mention is a quite unusual book that he completed in this same period, in 1145, when Bernardo Pignatelli, a pupil of his, was elected Pope with the name of Eugene III. On this occasion, Bernard as his spiritual father, dedicated to his spiritual son the text De Consideratione [5 Books on Consideration] which contains teachings on how to be a good Pope. In this book, which is still appropriate reading for the Popes of all times, Bernard did not only suggest how to be a good Pope, but also expressed a profound vision of the Mystery of the Church and of the Mystery of Christ which is ultimately resolved in contemplation of the mystery of the Triune God. "The search for this God who is not yet sufficiently sought must be continued", the holy Abbot wrote, "yet it may be easier to search for him and find him in prayer rather than in discussion. So let us end the book here, but not the search" and in journeying on towards God.

I would now like to reflect on only two of the main aspects of Bernard's rich doctrine: they concern Jesus Christ and Mary Most Holy, his Mother. His concern for the Christian's intimate and vital participation in God's love in Jesus Christ brings no new guidelines to the scientific status of theology. However, in a more decisive manner than ever, the Abbot of Clairvaux embodies the theologian, the contemplative and the mystic. Jesus alone Bernard insists in the face of the complex dialectical reasoning of his time Jesus alone is "honey in the mouth, song to the ear, jubilation in the heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde iubilum)". The title Doctor Mellifluus, attributed to Bernard by tradition, stems precisely from this; indeed, his praise of Jesus Christ "flowed like honey". In the extenuating battles between Nominalists and Realists two philosophical currents of the time the Abbot of Clairvaux never tired of repeating that only one name counts, that of Jesus of Nazareth. "All food of the soul is dry", he professed, "unless it is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus in it." For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And, dear brothers and sisters, this is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!

In another famous Sermon on the Sunday in the Octave of the Assumption the Holy Abbot described with passionate words Mary's intimate participation in the redeeming sacrifice of her Son. "O Blessed Mother", he exclaimed, "a sword has truly pierced your soul!... So deeply has the violence of pain pierced your soul, that we may rightly call you more than a martyr for in you participation in the passion of the Son by far surpasses in intensity the physical sufferings of martyrdom." Bernard had no doubts: "per Mariam ad Iesum", through Mary we are led to Jesus. He testifies clearly to Mary's subordination to Jesus, in accordance with the foundation of traditional Mariology. Yet the text of the Sermone also documents the Virgin's privileged place in the economy of salvation, subsequent to the Mother's most particular participation (compassio) in the sacrifice of the Son. It is not for nothing that a century and a half after Bernard's death, Dante Alighieri, in the last canticle of the Divine Comedy, was to put on the lips of the Doctor Mellifluus the sublime prayer to Mary: "Virgin Mother, daughter of your own Son, / humble and exalted more than any creature, / fixed term of the eternal counsel" (Paradise XXXIII).

These reflections, characteristic of a person in love with Jesus and Mary as was Bernard, are still a salutary stimulus not only to theologians but to all believers. Some claim to have solved the fundamental questions on God, on man and on the world with the power of reason alone. St Bernard, on the other hand, solidly founded on the Bible and on the Fathers of the Church, reminds us that without a profound faith in God, nourished by prayer and contemplation, by an intimate relationship with the Lord, our reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming an empty intellectual exercise and losing their credibility. Theology refers us back to the "knowledge of the Saints", to their intuition of the mysteries of the living God and to their wisdom, a gift of the Holy Spirit, which become a reference point for theological thought. Together with Bernard of Clairvaux, we too must recognize that man seeks God better and finds him more easily "in prayer than in discussion". In the end, the truest figure of a theologian and of every evangelizer remains the Apostle John who laid his head on the Teacher's breast.

I would like to conclude these reflections on St Bernard with the invocations to Mary that we read in one of his beautiful homilies:

"In danger, in distress, in uncertainty think of Mary, call upon Mary.
She never leaves your lips, she never departs from your heart;
and so that you may obtain the help of her prayers, never forget the example of her life.
If you follow her, you cannot falter;
if you pray to her, you cannot despair;
if you think of her, you cannot err.
If she sustains you, you will not stumble;
if she protects you, you have nothing to fear;
if she guides you, you will never flag;
if she is favourable to you, you will attain your goal.
"

BXVI - Wednesday General Audience - video- 21 October 2009 - © Copyright 2009 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Saint Bernard, from his Sermons on the Song of Songs:

Love is self-sufficient; it is pleasing to itself and on its own account. Love is its own payment, its own reward. Love needs no extrinsic cause or result. Love is the result of love, it is intrinsically valuable. I love because I love; I love in order to love. Love is a valuable thing only if it returns to its beginning, consults its origin and flows back to its source. It must always draw from that endless stream. Love is the only one of the soul's motions, senses and affections by which the creature in his inadequate fashion may respond to his Creator and pay him back in kind. When God loves, he wishes only to be loved in return; assuredly he loves for no other purpose than to be loved. He knows that those who love him are happy in their love. 

The Bridegroom's love, that Bridegroom who is himself love, seeks only reciprocal love and loyalty. She who is loved may well love in return! How can the bride not love, the very bride of Love? Why should Love itself not be loved?

The bride, duly renouncing all other affections submits with all her being to love alone; she can respond to love by giving love in return. When she  has poured forth her whole being in love, how does her effort compare with the unending flow from the very source of love? Love itself of course is more abundant than a lover, the Word than a created soul. the Bridegroom than the bride, the Creator than the creature. As well compare a thirsty man with the fountain which satisfies his thirst!

Can it be that all will perish and come to nought, the promised love of the bride, the longing of the creature here below, the passion of the lover, the confidence of the believer, simply because it is futile to race against a giant, or to contend with honey in sweetness, with the lamb in gentleness, with the lily in whiteness, with the sun in splendour, with Love in love? Not at all. Even though the creature loves less than the Creator, for that is his nature, nevertheless if he loves with all his being, he lacks nothing. One who so loves, therefore, has indeed become a bride; for she cannot so offer love and not be loved in return: in the agreement of the partners lies the wholeness and the perfection of marriage. Who can doubt that the Word's love for the soul is prior to, and greater than, the soul's love for him?

Saint Bernard - 1st Sermon of the Epiphany

“Behold, goodness and kindness has appeared, the humanity of God our Savior” (Tit 3,4 Vg). Thanks be to God, through whose mercy in this our pilgrimage, in this our banishment, in this our state of misery, has also greatly increased our consolation... Before his humanity appeared, his goodness remained hidden too. Of course, it existed beforehand, for “the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting” (Ps 103[102]. But how could we have known its greatness? It was the object of a promise, not of an experience, which is why many people did not believe in it...

Now, however, people can believe in what they see, since: “The Lord's decrees are worthy of trust indeed”, and: “He has pitched his tent in the sun” (cf. Ps 93[92],5; 19[18],5). Now peace is no longer promised but sent, not reserved until later but given, not prophesied but set forth. Now God has sent the treasures of his mercy upon earth, treasures that are to be exposed by his Passion to pour forth the prize of our salvation concealed in them... For if it is only a tiny child that has been given to us (Is 9,5), yet “in him dwells the whole fulness of the godhead bodily” (Col 2,9). In the fullness of time it came in the flesh to be visible to our eyes of flesh, that seeing his humanity and his kindness we should recognize his goodness... Does anything better prove his mercy than to see him take on our misery? “What is man, O Lord, that you notice him; the son of man that you take thought of him?” (Ps 144[143],3; Jb 7,17 Vg).