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History of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

A Biography of our Patron Saint
by Fred J. Rauscher

This brief biography of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux highlights the life of a great saint. Almost every historian writing about the 11th and 12th Centuries includes Bernard’s name and accomplishments, both ecclesiastical and political. To do him justice, some have said, would take two huge volumes. Several have been written by such authors as Watkins Williams, Etienne Gilson, and Daniel Rops. Bernard played a part in all of the leading events of his century, in many cases, the leading role.

A bitter and relentless critic of the Cluniac Style that epitomizes ecclesiastical splendor, Bernard sought to build churches that were architecturally sound, but built far from the influences of commerce and industry, and the pleasures of life. We have, close at hand, the Cistercian Churches in Western Kansas, examples of his influence. The imposing, but remote Cathedral of the Plains, standing in solitary splendor on the prairie near Hays is a 20th Century monument to Bernard.

Born in 1090, in the Chateau of Fontaines-les Dijon, of pious parents, Aleth and Tescelin, members of Bernard’s family were part of the upper nobility of Burgundy. Family names, at that time, had not become generally established in this region. His greatness, according to stories of the era, was foretold even before his birth, when Aleth had a dream, interpreted for her by a Religious, that Bernard would become the "Guardian of the House of God."

He was recognized as an outstanding preacher and orator, and many of his sermons have been preserved and excerpted in Holy Liturgy.

Throughout his life, Bernard remained a devoted servant of our Blessed Mother.  He often admonished the Faithful to seek her protections, blessings and grace.

Despite wishing to remain a humble Apostle of Christ, Bernard’s personality and vigor could at times arouse some of his contemporaries to question his humility. Never the less, Bernard arose with the same vigor to proclaim his love for Christ, and his work for God.

Bernard became involved in the schism of Anacletus in 1130, when Innocent II was elected Pope, but was rejected by Cardinal Pierlone, who wished himself to be named. He arranged another election involving factors whom he controlled, and was, of course, elected and took the name Anacletus II. A council was called at Etampes to solve this outrage, and it was Bernard’s influence which resulted in the pronouncement of "Anathema" on Anacletus, and the final seating of Innocent II as the one and only Pope. The Kings of England, France, and Germany were all concerned and involved, and became impressed with Bernard's wisdom and influence. Bernard, on the side of Innocent II, fought vigorously in support of the Church, and his prescience and powerful personality were mostly responsible for the ultimate peaceful solution to this unspeakable blot on Church history.

History also remembers Bernard for his vigorous opposition to Peter Abelard, a teacher and theologian of the Cathedral School of Paris. Abelard's writings became popular and accepted by many of the Church intellectuals, and among the common people. His thesis was "Faith through Reason"; completely adverse to the teachings of the Church through the centuries, that Faith is a "Gift of God". Abelard's words, "Nothing can be believed unless it is understood" came to be widely accepted, and the mystery of God and His infinite love and mercy were submerged. Bernard's influence prevailed and, following the Council of Sens (1140), the Pope, writing to Bernard and others, declared Abelard's teachings to be heretical. The Catholic World and the political rulers again felt the profound influence of Bernard.  Bernard's teaching on Grace and Free Will became monuments of Catholic theology.

The Benedictine philosophy and teachings were a constant in Bernard’s life.  Because of this devotion, Bernard became a great confidant and friend of Suger, Abbot of St. Denis, home of the famous Benedictine Abbey near Paris.

Much is owed to Bernard for fearlessly condemning some of his contemporaries who scorned the Sacrament of Marriage. He is to be given credit for the solid groundwork he laid for the future recognition of the sanctity of this Rite, both in the Church and Juris Prudence.

On August 20, 1153, Bernard died after a period of great suffering.  He is buried in his Monastery of Clairvaux, and his tomb is a shrine for the Faithful. He was named "Doctor of the Church" in 1830. The proclamation of his Canonization as a Saint took place on January 18, 1174.