The Portrait of the Saint

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The Portrait of the Saint

from “Saint Bernard”
The Oracle of the 12th Century
by Rev. Hugo H. Hoever 

The whole world knows that God glorified his servant Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, through miraculous signs. However, he displayed the greatest miracle in his own person. His gaze was serene, and his appearance humble. In his sermons, he exercised prudent caution, and his actions were filled with fear of God. He was a man of meditation and prayer, who, in all his undertakings, trusted more in prayer than in his own abilities. God had given this holy soul a fitting body to assist him. A more spiritual than sensual charm enveloped his whole appearance. Heavenly glory brightened his face, and from his eyes shone out the innocence of an angel and the simplicity of a dove. So great was the interior beauty and fullness of grace of this man that it was radiated in his bodily exterior. The body of the Saint was built most tenderly and almost completely without flesh. A fine red covered his cheeks. His hair was very fair and the reddish beard grew grey in the last years of his life. Although he was only of medium height, Bernard appeared tall rather than short. If he could withdraw from exterior businesses he prayed, read, wrote, taught his monks or enjoyed silent meditation …”


“With regard to clothing Bernard liked poverty, but not uncleanliness. This would, he said, rather be a sign of negligence or reveal a proud man who is intent on snatching some false glory from his fellow men. In the later years of his life, by order of the visiting Abbots he wore besides the “cuculla” (cowl) and tunic a short woolen coat and a head-wear of similar material. In spite of his bodily sufferings he could not be induced to put on a fur.”

Gift of Speech

“Notwithstanding his weak body, Bernard had a strong and beautiful voice which was given him by God because He had chosen him for the office of preacher. Bernard knew well how to adapt his speech to the audience. With people from the country he talked like someone who himself was reared in the country. When he was dealing with representatives of other classes his words sounded as though he were familiar with their occupations in detail. This gift of eloquence which God had bestowed upon him became evident also by the fact that the Germans with great enthusiasm listened to his sermons, although they did not understand his language. No interpretation in their own language could have more edified or more deeply affected them. They contritely beat their chests during his sermons and wept loudly.”

Interior Recollection

“When Bernard visited the charter- house (chartreuse) near Grenoble, Prior Guigo was amazed by the refined saddlery of Bernard’s riding-animal which corresponded little with his poverty. When the holy Abbot learned of this he was also surprised and asked what kind of saddle it was. Bernard had ridden from Clairvaux to the charterhouse without taking notice of the saddle and up to this hour he did not know what it looked like. The riding-animal belonged to his uncle, a Cluniac monk, who lived close by and who had lent it to him. Bernard had used the horse just as his uncle had left it. When the Prior heard this explanation it was again his turn to be surprised. How must this servant of God have guarded his eyes! Bernard on his long way had not noticed what he (the Prior) had caught at first glance. In a similar way Bernard traveled a whole day along the shore of Lake Geneva without noting it or at least without being conscious of it. When in the evening his companions talked about the lake he asked, to the surprise of all, the time during which they had passed the lake.

“From the very first Bernard always endeavored to keep away from worldly things and to stay at the Monastery. For a certain time he was able to carry out this plan since the reference to his bodily weakness afforded a favorable excuse. But finally, the distressed condition of the Church of God and the command of the Pope as well as of the Abbots of the Order, to whom he readily submitted all his affairs, compelled him to step out of his solitude. He was surprised when he heard religious-minded people laughing loudly. Often we heard Bernard say that, since he entered the Monastery it was more difficult for him to laugh than to suppress the laughter.”

The Humble, Amiable Monk

“Bernard had lived already for several years in Clairvaux when one day he decided to pay a friendly visit to Bishop Hugo of Grenoble and the Carthusians living close by. The Bishop who recognized the sanctity in his guest received him with such respect that he fell upon his knees before him. When the Abbot saw the aged Bishop in that position, he was much embarrassed. Immediately he also went on his knees, and then he received the Kiss of peace. From this time on, Bernard and the Bishop were intimate friends and seemed to be of one heart and soul.

“With the same love and respect the holy Abbot was received by Prior Guigo and the other friars of the “chartreuse.” They were delighted to find in his person the picture that they had formed of him in their minds from his letters.” (Gaufrid, Vita Bernardi, lib. Ill, c. 1-3.)

Bodily Sufferings and Death

“Bernard’s health suffered from several bodily diseases. Especially dangerous was a narrowing of his gullet which hardly permitted the reception of solid food. Moreover he had a serious gastric condition. He found it difficult to stand for long periods; for this reason he usually sat and moved around only a little.”

“After the holy Abbot had brought peace to Metz and all of Lorraine he returned to the Monastery and suffered much from the infirmities of his slowly decaying body. However, he faced death gladly and cheerfully just as one who enters the desired harbor and reefs the sails one by one. When Bishop Godfrey of Langres asked Bernard for his advice in an official affair he was astonished at his indifference. Bernard replied: ‘Don’t be surprised, I do not belong to this world any longer.'”

“He who desires further information on his sickness can obtain this knowledge from a letter which Bernard, a few days before his death, sent to a friend: ‘I was glad to receive your letter, but my condition does not permit me to enjoy it fully. How could one even speak of pleasure when suffering prevails. Sleep eludes me so that pain is not even interrupted for a time by the blessing of drowsiness of the senses. A sick stomach is the cause of almost all my sufferings. Day and night it must be strengthened with beverages since it inexorably rejects any solid food . . . The feet and legs are swollen like those of a dropsical person. That nothing remains concealed between friends, I want to add that in spite of all hard- ship the spirit remains willing in the weak flesh. Pray to the Divine Redeemer that He may not detain the imminent death but mercifully allow me to die.'”

“Finally when the mortal frame was completely shattered, the waiting soul returned home. When this day of death commenced, which for Bernard was the beginning of eternal reward, the neighboring Bishops and many Abbots and friars gathered together. Now the loyal servant of our Lord, the first Abbot of Clairvaux, the (direct or indirect) founder of more than 160 Monasteries happily completed his course of life. He died at the age of almost 63, on August 20, 1153, in the presence of his spiritual sons.”

“On August 22, he was buried in front of the altar of the Blessed Virgin and Mother, whose most devoted Priest he was. Upon his request a capsule with relics of St Thaddeus, which he had received that same year from Jerusalem, was laid on his chest. He desired to celebrate the day of general resurrection in communion with this apostle.” (Gaufrid, Vita Bernardi, lib. V, c. 2.)

His Writings Reflect His Inner Life

“These, in brief, are some remarks on the holy life of St. Bernard. One becomes much better acquainted with him through his writings and letters, on which he stamped his picture. These became a mirror of his inner life. He who wants to learn what severe penance Bernard imposed upon himself, may read his book, “On the Steps of Humility” (De gradibus hwmlitatis). His piety and Godliness shine out of his sermon, “On the praise of the Virgin Mary” (De laude Mariae V.) and of the booklet, “On the love of God” (De diligendo Deo). He appears as a strict judge of himself as well as of the other monk’s shortcomings in the “Apology” (Apologia ad Guillelmum), addressed to William of St. Thierry. Prudent moderation in spite of austerity, is revealed in his treatise, “On commandment and dispensation” (De praecepto et dispensatione). The “Encouragement of the Knights Templars” make us recognize that every good undertaking found support in his person. That he was not ungrateful for the grace of God becomes evident by his work, “On grace and free will” (De gratia et libero arbitrio). Everybody can recognize in the treatise, “On consideration” (De consideratione), dedicated to Pope Eugene, how frankly and eloquently he spoke, how well acquainted he was with the duties of superiors and subordinates. In the “Life of St. Malachy” (Vita St. Malachiae), he praised without envy the sanctity of others. In his “Sermons on the Canticle of Canticles” (Sermones in Cantica), Bernard reveals himself as an expert of the mystical life and as a teacher of the Christian striving for virtue. From his “Letters” (Epistolae), which on numerous occasions were addressed to different prominent persons, the observant reader leams how much Bernard loved justice and despised all injustice.” (Gaufrid, Vita Bernard!, lib. Ill, c. 8, n. 29.)

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