August 20: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot and Doctor

Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of the Cistercian Order, beekeepers, and candlemakers


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Today’s saint was like a medieval rock star who never stopped touring Europe. He traveled with an entourage, drew enormous crowds, was wildly popular, and called the cream of society his friends. The details of Saint Bernard’s life, though he lived before even Saint Francis of Assisi, the Magna Carta, and Dante, are abundantly documented. He was nearly as prolific a writer as Saint Augustine, but primarily via letters, not thick books. And these letters outline his character in sharp profile. He was intelligent, emotion laden, erudite, forceful, and contemplative. He spoke and wrote poetically, beautifully, clearly, and deeply. Pope Pius XII called him “the last of the Fathers” of the Church.

Bernard was born in a castle to a highborn family and was sent away by his parents during his youth to receive a classical education. After the death of his mother left him in a depression, he pondered more seriously what God wanted of him. When Bernard was a child, in his native region of Southeastern France, a local monk decided to try something new. He founded a new monastery at a place called Cîteaux in the hope of living the Benedictine Rule with exactitude and rigor. At the age of twenty-two, still mourning his mother, Bernard decided to dedicate his life to God and to enter this new, experimental monastery. But Bernard being Bernard, with all the force of his mind and personality, when he knocked on the door of the abbey, he was not alone. Behind him at the door stood a long train of thirty of his brothers, cousins, and friends, all noblemen. Bernard was the leader. They were the followers. They wanted to become monks because he wanted to become a monk. When he asked, they answered, and they answered “Yes.” This natural gift to command and lead was a sign of things to come.

Cîteaux inspired and gave its name to the Cistercian movement of monastic reform. Because of Bernard’s dynamic presence, Cîteaux soon overflowed with monks, and Bernard was sent, as Abbot, to found a new monastery at Clairvaux, or Clear Valley. This was his base for the rest of his itinerant life. As the first Abbot of Clairvaux, Bernard stamped the Cistercian movement with its distinctive character: sobriety in art and architecture, solemnity in liturgy, austerity in life, industriousness in labor, strictness in observance of the Rule, and silence pervading all. Cîteaux gave birth to Clairvaux, and Clairvaux spawned a vast Cistercian family that considers Bernard its founder. By the time of Bernard’s death, there were 343 Cistercian monasteries the length and breadth of Europe.

For an austere contemplative monk, Bernard, ironically, spent much of his life on the road. His gifts were such that he was consulted by princes, kings, and popes on every imaginable issue. He participated in Church councils, mediated civil conflicts, inaugurated Crusades, and wrote long commentaries on prayer, theology, and Scripture. He had to employ secretaries, like a minister of state, who recorded the prodigious correspondence that flowed constantly from his mouth. He became famous as a miraculous healer. Crowds of people lined his route to receive his blessing or to feel his hands press against their skulls. In one incident, after wading into a large, clamoring crowd desiring his miraculous touch, he had to fight to return to his lodging as the people tore at his habit. A wit wrote that the real miracle was not his healing, but that Bernard escaped alive.

Bernard’s authentic and tender devotion to the Virgin Mary was expressed sublimely in his writings. For his Marian devotion, eloquence, and contemplative spirit, Bernard substitutes for Beatrice as Dante takes the final steps of his mythical voyage toward God in the Divine Comedy. In the blazing fire of pure love that is the Beatific Vision, Bernard is at Dante’s side as their eyes drink in the vision of a splendid, holographic, white rose emanating like a vision from the Godhead’s bright light. The Queen of this mystical white rose is the Virgin, and “faithful Bernard” gazes in silent admiration at the woman he loves so dearly. Saint Bernard was canonized in 1174 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1830.

Saint Bernard, may we see in your devotion to Mary, endless travels, strict life, and keen eye for beauty, the model of an educated and devoted monk. Intercede for all religious, and for all those with a contemplative heart who are in the world, to love God half as well as you did. Amen.

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