Bernard of Clairvaux (Latin: Bernardus Claraevallensis), O.Cist (1090 – 20 August 1153) was born from Tescelin de Fontaine, lord of Fontaine-lès-Dijon, and Alèthe de Montbard, both members of the highest nobility of Burgundy. He was the third of seven children, six of whom were sons. At the age of nine years, he was sent to a school at Châtillon-sur-Seine run by the secular canons of Saint-Vorles. Bernard had a great taste for literature and devoted himself for some time to poetry. His success in his studies won the admiration of his teachers. He wanted to excel in literature in order to take up the study of the Bible. He had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, and he would later write several works about the Queen of Heaven.

In the year 1111, at the age of 21, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux, after the death of his mother. His five brothers, two uncles, and some 30 young friends followed him into the monastery. Three years later, he was sent to found a new abbey at an isolated clearing in a glen known as the Val d’Absinthe, about 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) southeast of Bar-sur-Aube. According to tradition, Bernard founded the monastery on 25 June 1115, naming it Claire Vallée, which later evolved into Clairvaux, the valley of light. There Bernard would preach an immediate faith, in which the intercessor was the Virgin Mary.

Within four years, a dying community had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot. The zealous young man was quite demanding, though more on himself than others. A slight breakdown of health taught him to be more patient and understanding.

His ability as arbitrator and counselor became widely known. More and more he was lured away from the monastery to settle long-standing disputes. On several of these occasions, he apparently stepped on some sensitive toes in Rome. Bernard was completely dedicated to the primacy of the Roman See. But to a letter of warning from Rome, he replied that the good fathers in Rome had enough to do to keep the Church in one piece. If any matters arose that warranted their interest, he would be the first to let them know.

Shortly thereafter it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope.

The last years of Bernard’s life were saddened by the failure of the Second Crusade he had preached, the entire responsibility for which was thrown upon him. Bernard considered it his duty to send an apology to the Pope and it is inserted in the second part of his “Book of Considerations.” There he explains how the sins of the crusaders were the cause of their misfortune and failures. When his attempt to call a new crusade failed, he tried to disassociate himself from the fiasco of the Second Crusade altogether. Moved by his burning words, many Christians embarked for the Holy Land, but the crusade ended in miserable failure.

The death of his contemporaries served as a warning to Bernard of his own approaching end. The first to die was Suger in 1152, of whom Bernard wrote to Eugene III, “If there is any precious vase adorning the palace of the King of Kings it is the soul of the venerable Suger”. Conrad III and his son Henry died the same year. From the beginning of the year 1153, Bernard felt his death approaching. The passing of Pope Eugenius had struck the fatal blow by taking from him one whom he considered his greatest friend and consoler. Bernard died at age sixty-three on 20 August 1153, after forty years spent in the cloister. He was buried at the Clairvaux Abbey, but after its dissolution in 1792 by the French revolutionary government, his remains were transferred to Troyes Cathedral.

Bernard was named a Doctor of the Church in 1830. At the 800th anniversary of his death, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on Bernard, Doctor Mellifluus, in which he labeled him “The Last of the Fathers.” Bernard did not reject human philosophy which is genuine philosophy, which leads to God; he differentiates between different kinds of knowledge, the highest being theological. The central elements of Bernard’s Mariology are how he explained the virginity of Mary, the “Star of the Sea”, and her role as Mediatrix.

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