Abbot of Clairvaux
Bernard was born at the castle of Fontaines, in Burgundy near Dijon, in 1090. The grace of his person and the vigor of his intellect filled his parents with the highest hopes, and the world lay bright and smiling before him. But Bernard renounced it forever to join the monks of Citeaux, a few miles distant. Four of his brothers and a group of friends, thirty young Christians in all, went when he did to Citeaux, leaving the youngest brother, Nivard, to be the mainstay of his father in his old age. You will now be heir to everything, they said to him as they departed. Yes, said the boy; you leave me the earth, and keep heaven for yourselves; do you consider that fair? And he too left the world. At length their aged father came also, exchanging wealth and honor for the poverty of a monk in the monastery of Clairvaux, which Bernard with a band of monks founded in the diocese of Langres in 1115. One sister alone remained behind; she was married, and loved the world and its pleasures. Splendidly clothed, one day she came to visit Bernard, and he refused to see her. He finally consented to do so, not as her brother but as the minister of Christ. The words he then spoke moved her so deeply that two years later she retired to a convent with her husband’s consent, dying later in the reputation of sanctity.
Bernard’s holy example attracted so many novices that many other monasteries had to be built. Unsparing for himself, he at first expected too much of his monks, who were disheartened by his severity. Soon perceiving his error, he led them forward to wonderful perfection by the sweetness of his correction and the mildness of his government.
In spite of his desire to remain secluded, the fame of his sanctity spread far and wide, and many dioceses asked for him as their bishop. Through the help of Pope Eugenius III, his former subject, he escaped this dignity. Nonetheless, his retirement was continually invaded. The poor and the weak sought his protection; bishops, kings, and popes applied to him for advice; and at length Pope Eugenius himself ordered him to preach the crusade. By his fervor, eloquence, and miracles Bernard kindled the enthusiasm of Christendom, and two large armies were organized. Their defeat was only due, said the Saint, to their sins, but many had saved their souls by their dedication to the glory of God. Bernard died in 1153. His very precious writings have earned for him the title of the last Father of the Holy Church and one of its most famous Doctors.
Reflection: Saint Bernard used to say to those who applied for admission to the monastery, If you desire to enter here, leave at the threshold the body you have brought with you from the world; here there is room only for your soul. Every day he asked himself the question: Why have you come here, Bernard?
Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894).