St Bernard, the founder of Clairvaux Abbey in France, was one of the most commanding Church leaders in the first half of the twelfth century as well as one of the greatest spiritual masters of all. He was born in Fontaines-les-Dijon in 1090 and entered the Cistercian Abbey of Citeaux in 1112, bringing thirty of his relatives with him, including five of his brothers – his youngest brother and his widowed father followed later. He was sent in 1115 to begin a new monastery near Aube at Clairvaux, the Valley of Light. As a young abbot, he presented a series of sermons on the Annunciation. These marked him not only as a gifted spiritual thinker, but also as a promoter of Mary’s role as a mediator between humanity and divinity.
Bernard’s writing and leadership began to attract many to Clairvaux and Cistercian life, leading to many new foundations. He personally saw to the establishment of sixty-five of the three hundred Cistercian monasteries founded during his thirty-eight years as abbot. He was also sought as an advisor and mediator by the rulers of his time, including King Louis the Fat and King Louis the Young. After eight years of laborious travel and skillful mediation, he helped to bring about the healing of the papal schism, which arose in 1130 with the election of the antipope Anacletus II. At the same time he labored for peace and reconciliation between England and France and among many lesser nobles. His influence mounted when his spiritual son was elected pope in 1145. At Pope Eugene III’s command, he preached the Second Crusade and sent vast armies on the road toward Jerusalem. In his last years he rose from his sickbed and went into the Rhineland to defend the Jews against a savage persecution.
Although he suffered from constant illness and had to govern a monastery that soon housed several hundred monks, he found time to compose great spiritual works that still speak to us today. He laid out a solid foundation for the spiritual life in his works on grace and free will, humility and love. His masterpiece, his Sermons on the Song of Songs, was begun in 1136 and was still in composition at the time of his death. With simplicity and poetic grace, Bernard writes of the deepest experiences of the mystical life in ways that became normative for all succeeding writers. For Pope Eugene he wrote Five Books on Consideration, the bedside reading of Pope John XXIII and many other pontiffs through the centuries. He thought it important to celebrate the lives of saints, writing:
Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them…. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us.
Bernard died at Clairvaux on 20 August 1153. He was canonized by Pope Alexander III on 18 January 1174, becoming the first Cistercian monk placed on the calendar of saints. Pope Pius VII declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1830.