Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was a renowned spiritual master and a significant Church leader in the first half of the 12th century. He was instrumental in promoting the Cistercian reform within the Church.
Born in Fontaines-les-Dijon in 1090, Bernard joined the Abbey of Citeaux in 1112, along with thirty of his relatives, including five of his brothers. His youngest brother and widowed father joined later. Under the guidance of St. Stephen Harding, Bernard formed himself in monastic life. In 1115, he founded the Clairvaux Abbey near Aube, which became known as the “Valley of Light.”
As a young abbot, Bernard wrote a series of sermons on the Annunciation, showcasing his spiritual prowess and earning him the title “cithara of Mary” for his emphasis on Mary’s mediatorial role.
Bernard’s captivating writings and charisma attracted many to the Cistercian monasteries, leading to numerous new foundations. This success stirred controversy between the emerging Cistercian movement, represented by Bernard, and the established Cluniac order of the Benedictines. In response, he wrote the popular and contentious work, Apologia.
Beyond monastic disputes, Bernard was a sought-after advisor and mediator for political leaders. He worked tirelessly to heal the papal schism of 1130, which arose due to the election of antipope Anacletus II, through eight years of travel and mediation. He also promoted peace and reconciliation between England and France and among various nobles.
Bernard’s influence grew further when his spiritual disciple, Eugene III, became pope in 1145. At Eugene’s request, Bernard preached the Second Crusade, mobilizing large armies for Jerusalem. In his later years, despite illness, Bernard defended Jews against persecution in the Rhineland and helped establish the Knights Templars, writing their rules.
Bernard led Clairvaux Abbey through considerable growth, overseeing a community of hundreds of monks and contributing to the founding of 65 of the 300 Cistercian monasteries established during his 38-year tenure as abbot. Despite his administrative duties, he found time to write influential spiritual works on topics such as grace, free will, humility, and love. He responded to the controversial teachings of figures like Peter Abelard, Gilbert de la Porree, and Arnold of Brescia, and composed his masterpiece, Sermons on the Song of Songs, which remains a significant work on mystical theology.
Bernard passed away on August 20, 1153, at Clairvaux. He was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1174, and in 1830, Pope Pius VII declared him a Doctor of the Church.