St. Bernard of Clairveaux, Abbot
St. Bernard, illustrious throughout the whole Christian world for his great learning, holiness and miracles, was born of very pious parents who had, besides him, six sons and one daughter. Before he was born, his mother dreamed that she was bearing a dog, which barked while still in the womb. The priest to whom she related this, said: “Fear not; you will give birth to a child, who will enter the religious state, watch over the Church of God, combat her enemies, and heal the wounds of many with his tongue.” The mother was greatly comforted, and when her child was born, she endeavored to educate him most carefully. To her great joy, she perceived that, early in childhood, he possessed a most tender love for God and the Blessed Virgin, a great horror for sin, a most watchful care to preserve his innocence and purity, a great contempt for all temporal goods, and a high esteem of all that related to God and the salvation of souls. One day, while still a small boy, he suffered intensely from headache; and when a woman came to him to pronounce some superstitious words over him, the pious child, perceiving her intentions, leaped out of bed and drove her from the room, saying that he would rather die of pain than be relieved by sin. The Almighty recompensed this heroic conduct by immediately relieving him of his pain.
In his early youth, he was visited by the Infant Jesus, one Christmas eve, from which dates the tender love St. Bernard always felt for the Saviour. Having early lost his pious mother, he had much to suffer from wicked persons on account of his manly beauty. He always showed himself brave, however, and either escaped by flight, or drove away those who endeavored to tempt him to sin, or saved himself by loudly calling for help. An unchaste person had, one day, secretly entered the chamber of the youth to tempt him. Bernard immediately cried out: “Murder! Murder!” Those who came to his rescue, on seeing no one who would kill him, asked him why he called for help. “Are they then no murderers who endeavor to rob me of the priceless treasure of my purity, and thus deprive my soul of life everlasting?” said the pious youth. To guard this treasure more securely, he prayed with the greatest devotion, most carefully controlled his senses, especially his eyes, severely chastised his body, and cherished a filial love for the Blessed Virgin.
One day, contrary to his resolution, he had imprudently looked upon something impure. No sooner did he perceive his fault, than he sprang into the river, though it was in the depth of winter, and remained there until he was almost frozen. In this manner he punished himself, and God delivered him, from that moment, from all impure temptations. This occurrence was a great incentive to the young man to enter the religious state as soon as possible, in order to be more removed from the danger of losing his purity. His brothers and other relatives tried to dissuade him, but by his eloquent descriptions of the vanities of this world, he persuaded his uncle and four of his brothers to enter with him, into the Cistercian Order, founded by St. Robert. While on the way to the monastery with thirty of his companions, he met his youngest brother, Nivard, playing with some companions of his own age. Guido, the eldest brother said to him; “Nivard, we are going into the convent now, and leave you sole heir to all our property.” Inspired by the Almighty, Nivard replied: “Ah! you intend to keep Heaven for yourselves and leave the earth to me. This division is too unequal.” He resolved to follow his brothers, and arrived at the convent a few days later. Hardly had St. Bernard entered the novitiate, when he became a model of monastic perfection.
Pages could be filled with the description of his virtues, his humility, his severity towards himself, his love for God and man, his devotion at prayer. He was no less remarkable for his wisdom and the talents with which he was gifted. Hence, his abbot, St. Stephen, soon sent him to found and govern the monastery of Clairvaux. Bernard, still young, delicate in health and inexperienced in the duties of a superior, hesitated to accept the charge, but was obliged to obey. In the new convent, besides many other difficulties, he had to battle with poverty; but the Almighty often came to the relief of His faithful servant by miracle, and also inspired many to seek his direction in the religious life. Among these, was Bernard’s own father. Henry, brother of the King of France, who visited the cloister, was, by a few words of its abbot, persuaded to take the habit. The sister of St. Bernard was the only one left in the world, and though she was leading a life of pleasure and dissipation, he induced her to make the same resolution. The prayers which he offered for her, and his earnest exhortations won her from the vanities of the world and induced her to turn her heart to God.
The holy abbot at first ruled those under him rather severely; but having received a divine admonition, he was more lenient. He won the affection of all under his charge, and made them willing to obey him; moreover, he was an example to them in everything. Towards himself he continued his rigor to the end, in fasting, penances, scourgings and long vigils. When he occasionally perceived in himself the least indolence, he would reanimate himself by saying; “Bernard, why art thou here?”
Meanwhile, his fame spread throughout all countries, and everywhere people spoke of his great knowledge and experience. Several Episcopal sees were offered to him, which he always humbly declined, under the plea of his incapacity to fill so high an office. At the time of the great schism, which took place at a papal election, he was invited to attend the council, and to him was left the decision of the important question, whether Innocent II. or Peter Leo, who took the name of Anaclet, should be recognized as the lawful pope. After mature deliberation and many fervent prayers, the Saint gave his decision, and all submitted to it. Henry, King of England, who favored the antipope, was induced by St. Bernard to recognize and protect Innocent II. He had more difficulty in persuading William, duke of Guienne, to do penance for his iniquities and obey the true pope; but he succeeded.
Many other important questions were decided by him to the great benefit of the church. One of the most difficult undertakings imposed on him by the Sovereign Pontiff was to unite all the crowned heads of Europe in a crusade against the Saracens. St. Bernard obeyed the papal order; and when he exhorted the people to go on the crusade, God worked through him such miracles, that all were convinced that the project was agreeable to the Almighty. When, however, the expedition had failed, the holy man was everywhere calumniated, derided, persecuted. Bernard bore it all with great patience, and said: “It is better that they murmur against me than against God. I do not care if they impair my honor, so that the honor of the Almighty remains inviolate.” God defended the name of His faithful servant by many new miracles, which not only closed the mouths of his slanderers, but placed him higher in the estimation of every one than ever before. There are few Saints of whom so many and so well authenticated miracles are recorded, as of St. Bernard. It is well known that, at Constance, he gave sight to eleven who were blind, restored the use of their hands to ten, and of their feet to eighteen. At Cologne, three who were dumb, ten deaf, and twelve lame were miraculously healed. At Spire, he performed similar miracles. Countless sick persons recovered their health by partaking of the bread he had blessed. Besides this, he relieved many who were possessed of the Evil One, and had the gift of prophecy. We must omit the details of all this, to say a few words of his happy end.
The holy man, already completely exhausted by his many journeys, penances, and illnesses, was seized with a painful malady. He could retain no food whatever, while he suffered, at the same time, from swelling of the feet and other disorders. He bore it all not only with patience but with cheerfulness, and received the holy sacraments with great devotion. Many prelates of the church and other persons of distinction visited him and sympathized with him on account of his sufferings; but he answered; “I am a useless servant; an old barren tree ought to be felled and uprooted.” Amidst the tears of all present, he yielded up his soul to God, at the age of 64, in the year 1153, having founded one hundred and sixty convents, written a great many works against heresies, in defense of the Catholic faith, and for the instruction of the faithful, and performed many other works for the welfare of the church and the salvation of souls.
At Spire, a miraculous picture of the Blessed Virgin is still preserved, before which St. Bernard, one day, three times bowed his knees, exclaiming: “O gracious, O mild, O sweet Virgin Mary,” and when he said: “I salute thee, Queen of Heaven,” a voice came from the picture distinctly saying: “I salute thee, Bernard.” In another city, a crucifix is shown, before which St. Bernard was fervently praying, when the Saviour stretched out His arms to embrace His faithful servant. Many other great favors which God granted to this Saint are to be found in the histories of his life. His works abound with the most wholesome advice to all classes of people. Often and emphatically he admonishes all to love God, to honor the Blessed Virgin and ask her intercession, and to practise good works.
A great deal is to be found in the life of this Saint, which ought to inspire us to imitate him. I will here place a few of the principal points before you.
I. St. Bernard, when only a boy, would not allow anyone to alleviate or cure a headache by superstitious means. Take care that you resort to superstitious practices in sickness or on other occasions; for, it is committing a great sin against God. If you doubt whether a thing is superstitious or not, ask some priest before using it.
II. St. Bernard looked upon those who would tempt him to sin, as murderers, and called for help, as if his life had been in danger. May you so regard those who tempt you to sin; for, they are murderers, because they seek to kill the spiritual life of your soul, and place you in danger of forfeiting eternal life and happiness. Therefore treat them as assassins. We do not laugh and jest with a murderer, but we call for help and defend ourselves with all our might. Earnest and brave must we show ourselves when we are tempted to do wrong. God commanded His people, in the Old Testament, to stone a fallen woman together with her seducer. Why? “Because she cried not out, being in the city (Deut. xxii.).” She ought to have cried out; but not doing this was a sign that she did not seriously desire to defend herself.
III. This holy man punished an unguarded look at something impure, by throwing himself into the river and remaining there till he was almost frozen. He shows by this, that those who would lead a chaste life must carefully guard their eyes. What shall we say then of looking curiously or unnecessarily at the other sex, or at obscene pictures or certain theatrical scenes?
IV. St. Bernard induced many, by his example and exhortations, to embrace the religious life. A zealous servant of God is not content with serving the Almighty himself, but seeks also, by his words and example, to lead others to the same path.
V. When he was tempted to weariness in the service of God, he reanimated himself by saying: “Bernard, why art thou here?” Animate yourself in a similar manner, by recalling the destiny for which you were born, and ask yourself: “Why am I upon earth? For what was I created?”
VI. St. Bernard bore, with great patience, the derision and persecutions which he had to suffer on account of the unhappy end of the war to which he had called and encouraged the Christian princes. Do not regret too deeply if your plans and undertakings do not succeed as you expected. Be not disturbed if others mock you and persecute you.
VII. St. Bernard regarded himself as a useless servant, as a barren tree which deserved to be cut down; so deep was his humility. How then can you feel so elated, when you have done some good action? Ought you not to have done much more? Should not your laziness, your negligence humble you before God?
VIII. The holy man, by founding one hundred and sixty convents, left many servants of the Lord, and by his books, many wholesome instructions which are yet very beneficial to all who read them. Take care that when you die, you do not leave the spirit of Satan in your children or in those whom you scandalized or tempted to do wrong. Especially, leave no obscene books or pictures which may be occasion of sin to others. Furthermore, St. Bernard was remarkable for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin. He called to Her in all his trials, and advised others to do the same, as is evident from his sermons. ” Let us,” says he, “venerate Mary. It is the will of Him, who wishes that we should receive everything through her. In danger, in anxiety, in doubt, think of Mary, call to her.” Somewhere else he says: “Let us have admittance to thy Son through thee, thou giver of graces, O Mother of life, O Mother of salvation.” Follow the Saint’s advice and example in this, and you will live free from sin, under the protection of Mary; find help in all your needs, and most surely gain your salvation.