St. Bernard, 1090–1153, founder and abbot of the convent of Clairvaux, was the model monk of the Middle Ages, the most imposing figure of his time, and one of the best men of all the Christian centuries. He possessed a magnetic personality, a lively imagination, a rich culture, and a heart glowing with love for God and man. Although not free from what might now be called ecclesiastical rigor, he was not equalled by any of his contemporaries in services for the Church and man. "In his countenance," according to the contemporary biographer who knew him well, "there shone forth a pureness not of earth but of heaven, and his eyes had the clearness of an angel’s and the mildness of a dove’s eyes."625 There is no spotless saint in this world, and Bernard was furthest from claiming perfection, but he came as near the mediaeval ideal of ascetic holiness as any man of his century.626
In the twelfth century there were at least two other ecclesiastics of the first order of genius, Anselm and Innocent III. The former passed away a few years after the century opened. Innocent began his papal reign two years before it went out. Anselm has pre-eminence as a profound theological thinker and dialectician. Innocent ruled the world, as pope never ruled it before or since. Between the two fall the intellectual genius and activity of Bernard, combining some of the qualities of Anselm and Innocent. As a mystical theologian he is allied to Anselm, whose Meditations give him a high place in the annals of devotional literature. And Bernard was also a statesman, although he did not attain the eminence of Innocent and shrank from participation in public affairs which were so much to the taste of the great pope. Contemporary with himself was Peter Abaelard, whose brilliant mind won for him enviable fame as a teacher and thinker. But Abaelard never won the confidence of his own age, and is not to be compared with Bernard in moral dignity.
By preference a monk, Bernard figured, with almost equal prominence, in the history of the papacy, the Crusades, mysticism, monasticism, and hymnology. In the annals of monasticism, the pulpit, and devotional literature he easily occupies a place in the front rank. He was called the "honey-flowing doctor," doctor mellifluus. Twenty years after his death he was canonized by Alexander III. as "shining preeminently in his own person by virtue of sanctity and religion, and in the whole Church by the light of his doctrine and faith."627 Pius VIII., in 1830, admitted him to the select company of the doctors of the Church. Both Calvin and Luther, who ridiculed the Schoolmen as a body, held him in high regard.628
Bernard was descended from a noble family of Burgundy, and was born at Fontaines near Dijon. He was one of seven children, six of whom were sons. His mother, Aletha, like Nonna and Monica, was a deeply pious woman and planted in the son the seeds of religious faith.629 Carried away for a time with enthusiasm for scholastic learning, the son was overwhelmed, while on a lonely journey, with religious impressions, and, entering a chapel, resolved to dedicate himself wholly to God. He entered the convent of Citeaux, two of his brothers following him at once, and the rest later into the monastic life.
This was in 1113 that Bernard cast in his lot with the Cistercians, and the event proved to be an epoch in the history of that new community. His diet was bread and milk or a decoction of herbs.630 He devoted himself to the severest asceticism till he was reduced almost to a shadow, and his feet became so swollen from standing at devotions as almost to refuse to sustain his body. In after years, Bernard reproached himself for this intemperate self-mortification which unfitted his body for the proper service of the Lord. But his spirit triumphed over his physical infirmities.631 While he was engaged in work in the fields, it soared aloft to heavenly things. He studied the Scriptures and the Fathers. His writings betray acquaintance with the classics and he quotes Seneca, Ovid, Horace, and other classical writers. The works of nature also furnished him with lessons, and he seems to have approached the modern estimate of nature as an aid to spiritual attainment. "Thou wilt find," he wrote,632 "something greater in the woods than in books. The trees and rocks will teach thee what thou canst not hear from human teachers. And dost thou not think thou canst suck honey from the rocks and oil from the hardest stones!" This seems to lose its weight in view of what one of Bernard’s biographers relates. Bernard travelled the whole day alongside the Lake of Geneva, and was so oblivious to the scenery that in the evening, at Lausanne, he was obliged to inquire what they had seen on the journey. We are probably justified in this case in ascribing an ascetic purpose to the monkish writer.633
In 1115, in company with twelve companions, Bernard founded Clairvaux—Claravallis, Clear Valley—in a locality which before had been called Wormwood, and been the seat of robbers. William of St. Thierry, Bernard’s close friend and biographer, is in doubt whether the name vallis absinthialis came from the amount of wormwood which grew there or from the bitter sufferings sustained by the victims of the robbers.634 But he does not fail to draw the contrast between the acts of violence for which the place was once notorious, and the peace which reigned in it after Bernard and his companions set up their simple house. Then he says, "the hills began to distil sweetness, and fields, before sterile, blossomed and became fat under the divine benediction."635
In this new cloistral retreat Bernard preached, wrought miracles, wrote innumerable letters,636 received princes and high ecclesiastics. From there he went forth on errands of high import to his age. The convent soon had wide fame, and sent off many shoots.637
William of St. Thierry638 draws an attractive picture of Clairvaux, which at this long distance compels a feeling of rest. William says: —
I tarried with him a few days, unworthy though I was, and whichever way I turned my eyes, I marvelled and thought I saw a new heaven and a new earth, and also the old pathways of the Egyptian monks, our fathers, marked with the recent footsteps of the men of our time left in them. The golden ages seemed to have returned and revisited the world there at Clairvaux.... At the first glance, as you entered, after descending the hill, you could feel that God was in the place; and the silent valley bespoke, in the simplicity of its buildings, the genuine humility of the poor of Christ dwelling there. The silence of the noon was as the silence of the midnight, broken only by the chants of the choral service, and the sound of garden and field implements. No one was idle. In the hours not devoted to sleep or prayer, the brethren kept busy with hoe, scythe, and axe, taming the wild land and clearing the forest. And although there was such a number in the valley, yet each seemed to be a solitary.639
Here is another description by the novice, Peter de Roya, writing from Clairvaux:640 —
"Its monks have found a Jacob’s ladder with angels upon it, descending to provide help to the bodies of the monks that they fail not in the way, and also ascending, and so controlling the monks’ minds that their bodies may be glorified. Their song seems to be little less than angelic, but much more than human.... It seems to me I am hardly looking upon men when I see them in the gardens with hoe, in the fields with forks and rakes and sickles, in the woods with axe, clad in disordered garments—but that I am looking on a race of fools without speech and sense, the reproach of mankind. However, my reason assures me that their life is with Christ in the heavens."
Bernard, to whom monastic seclusion was the highest ideal of the Christian life, bent his energies to induce his friends to take the vow. Its vigils and mortifications were the best means for developing the two cardinal virtues of love and humility.641 His persistent effort to persuade his sister Humblina shocks our sense of what is due to the sacred ties of nature, but was fully justified by the examples of St. Anthony and Benedict of Nursia. Humblina was married to a husband of rank and had a family. When she appeared one day at Clairvaux, Bernard refused to go down to see her, for he had insisted before on her taking the veil and she had declined. Now she finally communicated to him the bitter cry, "If my brother despises my body, let not the servant of God despise my soul."642 Bernard then heeded and again called upon her to renounce the vanities of the world and lay aside the luxuries of dress and ornaments. Returning to her household, Humblina, after two years, and with her husband’s consent, retired to the convent of Juilly, where she spent the remainder of her days.
Bernard’s attack upon the conventual establishment of Cluny was born of mistaken zeal. If of the two men Peter the Venerable appears to much better advantage in that controversy, it was different when it came to the treatment of the Jews. Here Peter seems to have completely laid aside his mild spirit, while Bernard displays a spirit of humaneness and Christian charity far beyond his age. In the controversy with Abaelard, a subject which belongs to another chapter, the abbot of Clairvaux stands forth as the churchman who saw only evil in views which did not conform strictly to the doctrinal system of the Church.
Bernard was a man of his age as well as a monastic. He fully shared the feelings of his time about the Crusades. In 1128, at the Synod of Troyes, his voice secured recognition for the Knight Templars, "the new soldiery." The ignoble failure of the Second Crusade, which he had preached with such warmth, 1146, called forth from him a passionate lament over the sins of the Crusaders, and he has given us a glimpse into the keen pangs he felt over the detractions that undertaking called forth.643 The ill issue was not his fault. He himself was like Moses, who led the people towards the Holy Land and not into it. The Hebrews were stiff-necked. Were not the Crusaders stiff-necked also and unbelieving, who in their hearts looked back and hankered after Europe? Is it any wonder that those who were equally guilty should suffer a like punishment with the Israelites? To the taunt that he had falsely represented himself as having delivered a message from God in preaching the Crusade, he declared the testimony of his conscience was his best reply. Eugenius, too, could answer that taunt by what he had seen and heard. But, after all was said, it was a great honor to have the same lot with Christ and suffer being unjustly condemned (Ps. 69:9).
When, at a later time, Bernard was chosen at Chartres to lead another Crusade, the choice was confirmed by the pope, but the Cistercians refused to give their consent.644
In the reigns of Innocent II. and Eugenius III. Bernard stood very near the papacy. He did more than any other single individual to secure the general recognition of Innocent II. as the rightful pope over his rival, Anacletus II. He induced the king of France to pronounce in favor of Innocent. Bent on the same mission, he had interviews with Henry I. of England at Chartres, and the German emperor at Liége. He entertained Innocent at Clairvaux, and accompanied him to Italy. It was on this journey that so profound were the impressions of Bernard’s personality and miracles that the people of Milan fell at his feet and would fain have compelled him to ascend the chair of St. Ambrose. On his third journey to Rome, in 1138,645 Bernard witnessed the termination of the papal schism. In a famous debate with Peter of Pisa, the representative of Anacletus, he used with skill the figure of the ark for the Church, in which Innocent, all the religious orders, and all Europe were found except Anacletus and his two supporters, Roger of Sicily and Peter of Pisa. But an attempt, he said, was being made to build another ark by Peter of Pisa. If the ark of Innocent was not the true ark, it would be lost and all in it. Then would the Church of the East and the Church of the West perish. France and Germany would perish, the Spaniards and the English would perish, for they were with Innocent. Then Roger, alone of all the princes of the earth, would be saved and no other.646
Eugenius III. had been an inmate of Clairvaux and one of Bernard’s special wards. The tract de consideratione647 which, at this pope’s request, Bernard prepared on the papal office and functions is unique in literature, and, upon the whole, one of the most interesting treatises of the Middle Ages. Vacandard calls it "an examination, as it were, of the pope’s conscience."648 Here Bernard exhorts his spiritual son, whom he must address as "most holy father," and whom he loves so warmly, that he would follow him into the heavens or to the depths, whom he received in poverty and now beholds surrounded with pomp and riches. Here he pours out his concern for the welfare of Eugenius’s soul and the welfare of the Church under his administration. He adduces the distractions of the papal court, its endless din of business and legal arbitrament, and calls upon Eugenius to remember that prayer, meditation, and the edification of the Church are the important matters for him to devote himself to. Was not Gregory piously writing upon Ezekiel while Rome was exposed to siege from the barbarians! Teacher never had opportunity to impress lessons upon a scholar more elevated in dignity, and Bernard approached it with a high sense of his responsibility.649
As a preacher, Bernard excels in the glow of his imagination and the fervor of his passion. Luther said, "Bernard is superior to all the doctors in his sermons, even to Augustine himself, because he preaches Christ most excellently."650 In common with his other writings, his sermons abound in quotations from the Scriptures.651 They are not pieces of careful logical statement nor are they keen analyses of the states of conscience, but appeals to the highest impulses of the religious nature. His discourse on the death of his brother Gerard is a model of tender treatment652 as his address before Konrad was of impassioned fervor.653 The sermons on the Canticles preached within convent walls abound in tropical allegory, but also in burning love to the Saviour. One of the most brilliant of modern pulpit orators has said, "the constant shadow of things eternal is over all Bernard’s sermons."654 His discourses, so speaks his biographer Gaufrid, were congruous to the conditions of his hearers. To rustic people he preached as though he had always been living in the country and to all other classes as though he were most carefully studying their occupations. To the erudite he was scholarly; to the uneducated, simple. To the spiritually minded he was rich in wise counsels. He adapted himself to all, desiring to bring to all the light of Christ.655
The miraculous power of Bernard is so well attested by contemporary accounts that it is not easy to deny it except on the assumption that all the miraculous of the Middle Ages is to be ascribed to mediaeval credulity. Miracles meet us in almost every religious biographer of the Middle Ages. The biographer of Boniface, the apostle of Germany, found it necessary to apologize for not having miracles to relate of him. But the miracles of Bernard seem to be vouched for as are no other mediaeval works of power. The cases given are very numerous. They occurred on Bernard’s journeys in Toulouse and Italy, nearer home in France, and along the Rhine from Basel northward. William of St. Thierry, Gaufrid, and other contemporaries relate them in detail. His brothers, the monks Gerard and Guido, agree that he had more than human power. Walter Map, the Englishman who flourished in the latter years of Bernard’s life and later, speaks in the same breath of Bernard’s miracles and his eloquence.656 But what, to say the least, is equally important, Bernard himself makes reference to them and marvelled at his power. Miracles, he said, had been wrought of old by saintly men and also by deceivers, but he was conscious neither of saintliness nor of fraud.657 He is reported as recognizing his power, but as being reluctant to speak of it.658 In a letter to the Toulousans, after his visit in their city, he reminded them that the truth had been made manifest in their midst through him, not only in speech but in power.659 And appealing to the signs which had accompanied his preaching the Second Crusade, he speaks of his religious shrinking which forbade his describing them.660
These miracles were performed at different periods of Bernard’s life and, as has been said, in different localities. The bishop of Langres, a near relative, says that the first miracle he saw Bernard perform was upon a boy with an ulcer on his foot. In answer to the boy’s appeal, Bernard made the sign of the cross and the child was healed. A mother met him carrying her child which had a withered hand and crooked arm. The useless members were restored and the child embraced its mother before the bystanders.661 A boy in Charletre, ten years old, unable to move his head and carried on a pillow, was healed and shown to Bernard four years afterwards.
Sometimes Bernard placed his hand upon the patient, sometimes made the sign of the cross, sometimes offered prayer, sometimes used the consecrated wafer or holy water.662 In Milan many persons possessed with evil spirits were healed.663 As for the miracles performed on his tour along the Rhine from Constance and Basel to Cologne, when he was engaged in preaching the Second Crusade, Hermann, bishop of Constance, with nine others kept a record of them, declaring the very stones would cry out if they were not recorded.664 After a sermon at Basel, says Gaufrid, a woman, who was mute, approached Bernard and after he had uttered a prayer, she spoke. A lame man walked and a blind man received his sight.665 Thirty men, moved by the sight of Bernard’s healing power, accompanied him back from Germany to France to take the monastic vow.666
Abaelard and his pupil, Berengar, were exceptions to their age in expressing doubts about the genuineness of contemporary miracles, but they do not charge Bernard by name with being self-deceived or deceiving others. Morison, a writer of little enthusiasm, no credulity, and a large amount of cool, critical common sense, says that Bernard’s "miracles are neither to be accepted with credulity nor denied with fury."667 Neander recognized the superior excellence of the testimony,668 refused to pronounce a sentence denying their genuineness, and seeks to explain them by the conditions of the age and the imposing personality of Bernard as in the case of those possessed with evil spirits.669 A presumption against the miracles of Bernard, which can hardly be put aside, is the commonness of miracles in the mediaeval convent and in the lives of eminent men like Norbert, not to speak of the miracles wrought at shrines, as at the shrine of Thomas à Becket and by contact with relics. On the other hand, there are few mortal men whom miracles would so befit as Bernard.
Bernard’s activity was marked, all through, by a practical consideration for the needs of life, and his writings are full of useful suggestions adapted to help and ameliorate human conditions. He was a student by preference, but there were men in his day of more scholastic attainments than he. And yet in the department of speculative and controversial theology his writings also have their value. In his work on the Freedom of the Will670 he advocated the position that the power to do good was lost by sin, and prevenient grace is required to incline the will to holiness. In his controversy with Abaelard he developed his views on the Trinity and the atonement. In some of his positions he was out of accord with the theology and practice of the Roman Communion. He denied the immaculate conception of Mary671 and accepted foot washing as one of the sacraments. In his views on baptism he was as liberal as the most liberal of his age in declaring that baptism was not indispensable to salvation when the opportunity is not afforded.672
Severe at times as Bernard, the Churchman, from the standpoint of this tolerant age seems to be, the testimonies to his exalted moral eminence are too weighty to be set aside. Bernard’s own writings give the final and abundant proof of his ethical quality. It shines through his works on personal religion, all those treatises and sermons which give him a place in the front rank of the mystics of all ages.673
William of St. Thierry, himself no mean theological writer, felt that in visiting Bernard’s cell he had been "at the very altar of God."674 Joachim of Flore praised him in enthusiastic language and evidently regarded him as the model monk.675 The impression upon Hildegard, the prophetess of the Rhine, was the same.676 In his Memoir of St. Malachy, Bernard, as has been said, put, an image of his own beautiful and ardent soul."677 No one but a deeply religious character could have written such a life. Malachy, the Irish archbishop, visited Clairvaux twice and on the second visit he remained to die, 1148. Bernard wrote:—
"Though he came from the West, he was truly the dayspring on high to us. With psalms and hymns and spiritual songs we followed our friend on his heavenward journey. He was taken by angels out of our hands. Truly he fell asleep. All eyes were fixed upon him, yet none could say when the spirit took its flight. When he was dead, we thought him to be alive; while yet alive, we thought him to be dead.678 The same brightness and serenity were ever visible. Sorrow was changed into joy, faith had triumphed. He has entered into the joy of the Lord, and who am I to make lamentation over him? We pray, O Lord, that he who was our guest may be our leader, that we may reign with Thee and him for evermore. Amen."
Bernard’s sense of personal unworthiness was a controlling element in his religious experience. In this regard he forms a striking contrast to the self-confidence and swagger of Abaelard. He relied with childlike trust upon the divine grace. In one of his very last letters he begged his friend the abbot of Bonneval to be solicitous in prayer to the Saviour of sinners in his behalf. His last days were not without sorrow. His trusted secretary was found to have betrayed his confidence, and used his seal for his own purposes. William of St. Thierry and other friends had been passing away. Bernard’s last journey was to Metz to compose a dispute between bishop Stephen and the duke of Lorraine. Deutsch, perhaps the chief living authority on Bernard, says: "Religious warmth, Genialitaet, is the chief thing in his character and among his gifts."679 Harnack pays this tribute to him, that "he was the religious genius of the twelfth century, the leader of his age in religion."680 "Bernard," said Luther,—and he was not easily deceived by monkish pretension,—"Bernard loved Jesus as much as any one can."681 Ray Palmer has imparted to his version of Bernard’s hymn its original religious fervor,
"Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss which earth imparts
We turn unfilled to Thee again."
The encomium of Bernard’s early biographer Alanus is high praise, but probably no man since the Apostles has deserved it more: "The majesty of his name was surpassed by his lowliness of heart,"682
vincebat tamen sublimitatem nominis humilitas cordis.