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Abbot, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c.1090-1153

 MOTHERS hid their sons; wives locked up their husbands. Bernard of Fontaines, France, was going to a monastery, and half the men in the area seemed determined to go with him. A week ago he hadn't even been certain about his own vocation, but now he seemed to be directing everyone else's. Five of his brothers had sought to dissuade him, and now four of them were going with him. An uncle came to the same decision, as did friend after friend. Only the youngest brother was left to care for their father, and later both father and son entered the monastery where Bernard was abbot.

 Six months later the group arrived at the monastery at Citeaux. Saint Stephen Harding, who had not had a novice in several years, was undoubtedly a bit startled when thirty-one young men presented themselves and begged to be admitted, but he welcomed them with open arms. It was the year 1112, and Bernard was exactly twenty-two years old.

 In the next two years, two new monasteries developed from Citeaux, but still the monastery was overcrowded. Aware of the spiritual progress and zeal of Bernard, Saint Stephen put a cross in his hand, appointed him abbot, and sent him with twelve other monks to found a new house in Champagne. The land which had been donated was a dreary valley called Absinthe, "wormwood." The monks cleared it, built a house, and renamed the place Clairvaux, "bright valley," in a few years Clairvaux was renowned as the first among the monasteries of France in its strict observance, in its discipline, and in its sanctity. Novices came from everywhere, in spite of the rugged environment of the valley, the monastery was soon crowded, and it became necessary to establish new houses which, in turn, developed still other monasteries, so that in his lifetime Bernard saw sixty-six houses spring from Clairvaux.

 By the time he was thirty, Bernard was looked to as one of the wise men of Europe. He was often called upon to arbitrate in civil as well as in religious disputes and discussions. In 1119, he was invited to take part in the first general chapter of the Cistercian order. In 1120, he composed the first of the many religious works that were to earn him the title of Doctor of the Church, and in 1128 he was invited to assist at the Council of Troyes.

 In 1130, a schism occurred. Two popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II, were elected by two groups of cardinals. Emperors and kings took sides and the world was in turmoil. At a national council of French bishops in Etampes, Bernard was appointed judge in the controversy and decided in favor of Innocent II. It was partly through Bernard's influence as he campaigned for Innocent in France and Germany that the true pope finally, after much hardship, won the allegiance of all the Christian princes and took his rightful place in Rome.

 In our day, much interest has been directed at the controversy between Bernard and Abelard. If Bernard was the most eloquent and influential man of the times, Abelard was the most brilliant. Peter Abelard was a theologian, a philosopher, a teacher whose scholarly methods marked a turning point in the intellectual life of the Middle Ages. He was a man confident in his ability, whom Bernard regarded as scornful of authority and tradition. Yet, he once burned some writings which Bernard convinced him were dangerous. However, as his popularity increased, so did Bernard's uneasiness concerning his orthodoxy, and after a public debate with Bernard before an assembly of bishops Abelard retracted those of his writings that were condemned.

 Having spent so many years away from his beloved monastery in France, giving counsel to Pope Innocent II, Bernard had hoped that he might, after the pontiff became firmly established, have the solitude he so earnestly desired. This was to be denied him. Only eighteen months after the death of Innocent II, one of his own monks, Peter Bernard of Pisa, was elected pope and became Blessed Eugenius III. A shy, retiring man, not suited to the business that the papacy entailed, he looked to Bernard for aid and advice. Bernard's longest and most important work was the Book of Consideration, written to guide his former subject and impress upon him the duties of his office. it has been considered a model for popes ever since. it has been said that Bernard "carried the twelfth century on his back, but not without suffering." Perhaps his deepest sorrow came in the failure of the Second Crusade. Since he had encouraged the Crusade by miracles as well as by sermons, many blamed him for its failure. They seemed to think that, in spite of the immorality of the armies and the political intrigues of the leaders of the troops, God owed them victory. Bernard answered the critics simply: "How is it that the rashness of mortals dares reprove what they cannot understand?"

 In 1150, Bernard himself was elected to lead another Crusade, but the project never materialized, and shortly after, Bernard was struck with the last of the many illnesses that had afflicted him in his lifetime. He received the last sacraments with his monks gathered about him, and seeing their tears he tried to comfort them by saving that the unprofitable servant should not occupy a place uselessly and that it was necessary for the barren tree to be rooted up. He was torn between his love of his spiritual children and his desire to be united forever with Christ. "I am straitened between two," he cried, "and what to choose I know not. I leave it to the Lord; let Him decide." On August 20, 1153, at the age of sixty-three, he died at Clairvaux, which had for so long been his home. He was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1174 and was declared Doctor of the Church in 1830.

 Today, we do not so much remember him as an arbitrator, or avenging preacher, or worker of miracles. We remember him first of all as a writer, a teacher of the Church, the "Honey-sweet Doctor." The source of Bernard's strength was his devotion to the humanity of Christ and His Passion. He wrote, in his Sermons on the Canticle: "To meditate on these, the life and sufferings of Jesus Christ, I have called wisdom; in these I have placed the perfection of righteousness for me, the fullness of knowledge, the abundance of merits, the riches of salvation. There is among them for me sometimes a draught of salutary bitterness, sometimes, again, a sweet unction of consolation. In adversities they raise me up, and in prosperity repress my exuberant delight . . . . It is for these reasons that I have them frequently in my mouth, as you know, and always in my heart, as God knows . . . . In a word, my philosophy is this, and it is the loftiest in the world, to know Jesus and Him crucified."

 Of all those writers given the title Doctor of the Church, none has more natural appeal than Saint Bernard. We remember with awe the monk who befriended popes, inspired Crusades, and founded monasteries, but we remember with love the man who wrote, "The reason for loving God is God Himself; and the measure of loving Him is to love Him without measure."



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved