Saint Bernard of Clairvaux entered the Presence of the Lord, on January 12, 1153.
He has been described as “certainly the most prominent figure of medieval times” (Hymns and Hymn Writers, by J. Brownlie, page 41).
Bernard was born in Fontaines-les-Dijon in 1090 and entered the Abbey of Citeaux in 1112. The ability of the young abbot to influence others can be seen by the fact that he brought into the Abbey thirty of his relatives, including five of his brothers. What’s more, his youngest brother and his widowed father followed later.
In 1115 he was sent to establish a new monastery, near Aube in Burgundy, known as Clairvaux – the Valley of Light, from which he gained his enduring nomenclature. That monastery soon housed several hundred monks and sent out teams to establish 65 new Cistercian monasteries, while Bernard oversaw the total growth of 300 monasteries in his 38 years as Abbot.
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As a gifted writer and keen thinker, with obvious talents to influence others, Bernard’s dynamism quickly impacted people outside of his cloistered circles. He played the major role in healing the papal schism of 1130 when the antipope Anacletus II was elected, even though it involved 8 years of extensive travel and skilful mediation.
He also laboured for peace between England and France. He preached the Second Crusade, sending vast armies on the road to Jerusalem. In his closing years he rose from his sickbed and travelled into the Rhineland to defend Jews against savage persecution.
Harold O. Brown speaks of Bernard … “Although he never sought high office, from his monastery he advised kings and popes and was virtually the uncrowned ruler of Europe. The ability of one man without political office or power to change history solely by his teaching and example is without parallel until the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther would once again transform Europe from his pulpit.” (Great Leaders of the Christian Church, Moody Press, page 134).
Protestants, of course, would not agree with all his teachings. His emphasis on the place of Mary, the mother of our Lord, is often quite unscriptural. But he did take up his pen against Abelard and his heretical teachings concerning the atonement. And he denied the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception (i.e. that Mary was born without sin), although it was to later become an official teaching of the Church of Rome. (Dates with Destiny, page 75).
Whether he wrote the hymns once attributed to him is no longer certain …
Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts, and Jesus, the very thought of Thee, with sweetness fills my breast, but it can be safely said that these sentiments reflect the desires of his heart.
His extensive writings have been enjoyed in the centuries since, including his Sermons on the Song of Songs which he began in 1136 and had not completed by his death in 1153. He wrote Five Books on Consideration for Pope Eugene.
Thus Bernard is recognised as one of the greatest spiritual masters of all times.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com
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