St. Bernard of Clairvaux

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Today, August 20, is the Memorial of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard was one of the founders of the monastery at Clairvaux. After entering the Cistercian Abbey of Citeaux in 1113 and inspiring others by his example to also enter monastic life, Bernard was sent with others in 1115 to found another monastic house. They founded the house in the Vallee d’Absinthe, which Bernard called Claire Vallee, or Clairvaux. He was named abbot and served as such from 1115-1128.

Bernard lived in tumultuous times. In 1130, Pope Honorius II died and the Church was thrown into schism with the election of two competing popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II. Anacletus banished Innocent to France, where King Louis VI called a national council of French bishops, who then called on Bernard to settle the dispute between the two popes, and Bernard favored Innocent. For the next eight years, Bernard would travel Europe convincing the citizens of towns and cities, as well as royals, to reject Anacletus’ claim to the papal throne and support Innocent. He was largely successful, but the schism only ended at the death of Anacletus in 1138.

After the schism, Bernard dedicated himself to preaching against heresies, including the Henricians and the Petrobrusians, both of whom rejected infant baptism, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and prayers for the dead, and the Cathars, a dualistic, gnostic sect. Bernard came into conflict with Peter Abelard, the great middle ages philosopher, accusing Abelard of heresy in his teaching on the Trinity. Bernard and Abelard were to have it out at a council of bishops in Sens, but when Bernard presented his case against Abelard, Abelard kept silent and refused to answer. The bishops found in favor of Bernard, and Abelard retired to the monastery at Cluny, where he died two years later.

When news of a defeat of the Christians by the Muslim Turks at the Siege of Edessa arrived in Europe, there was great concern that the Christian holdings in the Holy Land would be lost. Pope Eugene III commissioned Bernard to preach a second crusade, which he did with enthusiasm and vigor, inspiring many to join the effort to win back ground lost to the Turks. The Second Crusade, however, was a failure and a humiliation for Bernard, who took the brunt of the blame for its failure. Bernard, for his part, blamed the sins of the crusaders for their failure.

Bernard was greatly devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and also to the practice of lectio divina, a form of prayer centered on reflecting on the Scriptures. He founded or helped found 163 monasteries across Europe and was a central figure in the revitalization of Benedictine monasticism. He was widely regarded as an effective and inspiring preacher.

St. Bernard died on August 20, 1153 at the age of 63. He was canonized in 1174 by Pope Alexander III and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius VIII.

Heavenly Father, Saint Bernard was filled with zeal for your house and was a radiant light in your Church. By his prayers may we be filled with this spirit of zeal and walk always as children of light. Amen.

St. Bernard, pray for us.


Liturgy of the Hours, Memorial of Bernard, Abbot and Doctor

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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