St. Bernard preaching to the Crusaders in 1147 AD. Stained glass at St. Edward in Minneota
St. Bernard (1090-1153) was born in 1090 near Dijon, Burgundy, France, into an upper class family. Despite his religious upbringing, he was unbridled at times during his youth. Upon his mother’s death, he underwent a conversion and worked diligently to live a more temperate life.
Bernard joined the Cistercian community at Citeaux in 1112 at the age of twenty-two. The monastery was cloistered and observed a rigorous and austere lifestyle. Bernard was so motivated to live the spiritual live and so convinced of its value that he convinced thirty of his relatives and friends, including four of his own brothers, to accompany him upon entering.
Shortly thereafter, Bernard was sent to found a new Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux, and by the age of twenty-five he became the abbot, the major superior of the community, a ministry he performed for the next thirty-eight years. As a monk, he was a person of exceptional holiness, and through his fine example he was able to inspire the others to live more virtuous lives. As a superior, he was overly strict at first, but was able to adjust. He energetically reformed and revitalized the Order. The Cistercians experienced tremendous growth as the Clairvaux monastery increased to over seven hundred members and sixty-eight new monasteries were founded in places such as England, France, Ireland, Sicily, Spain, Sweden, and Syria.
Abbot Bernard’s special spiritual gifts could not be confined to the cloister, and he made many journeys across Europe. In 1130 two popes claimed the papacy at once, Innocent II, who had been elected legitimately, and Anaclete II, who had not, and through Bernard’s intervention, the validity of Innocent’s election was confirmed and order and unity was restored to the Church. As he preached more widely, his reputation spread, which gave him the status to move into problem situations. Bernard helped the Lombards reach an accord with Emperor Lothaire II; in 1140 he successfully challenged the heretical teaching of Abelard; in 1142 he mediated a dispute in York, England; and in 1145 he went to southern France to challenge the Albigensian heresy, and he subsequently became known as the Hammer of the Heretics. In 1146, the newly-elected Pope, Eugene III, asked him to preach the Second Crusade, and he rallied Christians across Europe to confront the Turks who had conquered Edessa in 1144.
St. Bernard also was a prolific author. Some of his major works were De Diligendo Deo, On Loving God, a profound mystical reflection; De consideratione, On Consideration, a treatise on papal spirituality; a collection of sixty-eight sermons on the Canticle of Canticles; and hundreds of other sermons, letters, and Scripture commentaries. He also had a deep devotion to Mary, and often said, Omnia per Mariam, “All through Mary.”
St. Bernard excelled as a preacher. His words were well-chosen and highly-descriptive, so poetic that they were “honey sweet,” “honey” to the ears, and he became known at the Doctor mellifluus, “The Honey-Sweet Doctor.” The bee hive became his symbol, and he emerged as the patron saint of beekeepers, wax makers, and candle makers.
Bernard died on August 20, 1153, and only twenty-one years later, in 1174, he was canonized a saint, and he is regarded by many as the most important saint of the Twelfth Century, so great that it is sometimes called the Bernardine Period. Seven centuries later, in 1830, he was declared a Doctor of the Church. He is also the patron saint of Gibraltar.