Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Bernard, Abbot

[Saint Bernard of Clairvaux]Article

A.D. 1153

Saint Bernard, the prodigy and great ornament of the eleventh age, was the third son of Tescelin and Aliz or Alice, both of the prime nobility of Burgundy, and related to the dukes, particularly Aliz, who was daughter of Bernard, lord of Mombard. Our saint was born in 1091, at Fontaines, a castle near Dijon, and a lordship belonging to his father. His parents were persons of great piety, and his mother not content to offer him to God as soon as he was born, as she did all her seven children, afterwards consecrated him to his service in the church, as Anne did Samuel, and from that day considered him as not belonging to her, but to God; and she took a special care of his education, in hopes that he would one day be worthy to serve the altar. Indeed she brought up all her children very discreetly and piously, and never trusted them to nurses. Their names were Guy, Gerard, Bernard, Humbeline, Andrew, Bartholomew, and Nivard. The other sons were applied young to learn military exercise and feats of arms; but Bernard was sent to Chatillon on the Seine, to pursue a complete course of studies in a college of secular priests who were canons of that church. He even then loved to be alone; was always recollected, obedient, obliging to all, and modest beyond what can be expressed. He made it his continual earnest prayer to God, that he would never suffer him to sully his innocence by sin. He gave to the poor all the money he got. The quickness of his parts astonished his masters, and his progress in learning was far greater than could be expected from one of his age; but he was still much more solicitous to listen to what God, by his holy inspirations, spoke to his heart. One Christmas-night in his sleep he seemed to see the divine infant Jesus so amiable, that from that day he ever had a most tender and sensible devotion towards that great mystery of love and mercy, and in speaking of it he always seemed to surpass himself in the sweetness and unction of his words. His love of chastity so restrained his senses, that he never showed any inclination to the least levity or curiosity, by which the passions are usually inflamed, and his body being kept always in subjection to the spirit, was readily disposed to obey it in all habits of virtue. The saint entered upon the studies of theology, and of the holy scriptures, at Chatillon. He was nineteen years old when his mother died. Her excessive charities, and attendance in the hospitals, her fasts, her devotions, and all her other virtues, had gained her the reputation of a living saint. Having a great devotion to Saint Ambrose, she had a custom of inviting all the clergy from Dijon to Fontaines, to celebrate his festival. On the vigil of that day, in 1110, she was seized with a fever, and on the festival itself received the extreme-unction and viaticum, answered to the recommendation of her soul recited by all this religious company, and having made the sign of the cross, happily expired.

Bernard was then returned to Fointaines, and now became his own master; for his father was employed at a distance about his business and in the army. He made his appearance in the world with all the advantages and talents which can make it amiable to a young nobleman, or which could make him loved by it. His quality, vivacity of wit, and cultivated genius, his prudence and natural modesty, his affability and sweetness of temper, and the agreeableness of his conversation, made him beloved by all; but these very advantages had their snares. His first clanger was from his false friends and companions; but the light of grace made him discover their first attempts and resolutely repulse them, and shun such treacherous worldly company for the time to come. Once he happened to fix his eyes on the face of a woman; but immediately reflecting that this was a temptation, he ran to a pond, and leaped up to the neck into the water, which was then as cold as ice, to punish himself, and to vanquish the enemy. On another occasion, an impudent woman assaulted him; but he drove her out of his chamber with the utmost indignation. Bernard, by these temptations, was affrighted at the snares and dangers of the world, and began to think of forsaking it, and retiring to Citeaux, where God was served with great fervour. He fluctuated some time in his mind, and one day going to see his brothers, who were then with the Duke of Burgundy at the siege of the castle Grancei, in great anxiety he stept into a church in the road, and prayed with many tears that God would direct him to discover and follow his holy will. He arose steadily fixed in the resolution of embracing the severe Cistercian institute. His brothers and friends endeavoured to dissuade him from it; but he so pleaded his cause as to draw them all over to join him in his courageous undertaking. Gauldri, lord of Touillon, near Autun, the saint’s uncle, a nobleman who had gained great reputation by his valour in the wars, readily came into the same resolution. Bartholomew and Andrew, two younger brothers of Bernard, also declared that they made the same choice. Guy, the eldest brother, held out longest, having greater obstacles which seemed to fix him in the world; for he was married, and had two daughters; but his lady consenting, and professing herself a nun at Laire near Dijon, he also came over. Gerard, the second brother, was not to be so easily overcome, being a captain of reputation, and full of the world; but being soon after wounded in his side by a lance, and taken prisoner, he by serious reflection entered into himself, and ran to join his brothers. Hugh of Macon, a very noble, rich, and virtuous lord, (who afterwards founded the monastery of Pontigni, and died bishop of Auxerre,) an intimate friend of Saint Bernard, upon the news of his design, wept bitterly at the thoughts of his separation, but by two interviews was induced to become his companion. They all assembled at a house at Chatillon, preparing themselves by suitable exercises to consecrate themselves to God in the most perfect dispositions of soul. On the day appointed for the execution of their design Bernard and his brothers went to Fointaines to take their last farewell of their father, and to beg his blessing. They had left Nivard their youngest brother to be a comfort to him in his old age. Going out, they saw him at play with other children of his age, and Guy, the eldest said to him: “Adieu, my little brother Nivard; you will have all our estates and lands to yourself.” The boy answered: “What! you then take heaven for your portion, and leave me only the earth. The division is too unequal.” They went away; but soon after Nivard followed them; so that, of the whole family, there only remained in the world the old father, and with him his daughter Saint Humbeline.

Bernard was seconded in his resolutions by thirty noblemen and gentlemen, including his brothers, and after they had staid six months at Chatillon to settle their affairs, he accompanied them to Citeaux. That monastery had been founded fifteen years, and was at that time governed by Saint Stephen. This holy company arrived there in 1113, and, prostrating themselves before the gate, begged to be admitted to join the monks in their penitential lives. Saint Stephen seeing their fervour, received them with open arms, and gave them the habit. Saint Bernard was then twenty-three years old. He entered this house in the desire to die to the remembrance of men, to live hidden, and to be forgotten by creatures, that he might be occupied only on God. To renew his fervour against sloth he repeated often to himself this saying of the great Arsenius; Bernard, Bernard, “why camest thou hither?” He practised himself what he afterwards used to say to postulants who presented themselves to be admitted into his monastery at Clairvaux: “If you desire to live in this house, you must leave your body; only spirits must enter here;” that is, persons who live according to the Spirit. He studied to mortify his senses, and to die to himself in all things. This practice by habit became a custom, and by custom, was almost changed into nature; so that his soul being always occupied on God, he seemed not to perceive what passed about him, so little notice did he take of things, as appeared in several occurrences. After a year’s novitiate he did not know whether the top of his cell was covered with a ceiling; nor whether the church had more than one window, though it had three. Two faults, however, into which he fell, served to make him more watchful and fervent in his actions. The exact author of the Exordium of Citeaux relates, that the saint had been accustomed to say every day privately seven psalms for the repose of the soul of his mother; but he one day omitted them. Saint Stephen knew this by inspiration, and said to him the next morning: “Brother Bernard, whom did you commission to say the seven psalms for you yesterday?” The novice surprised that a thing could be known which he had never disclosed to any one, full of confusion, fell prostrate at the feet of Saint Stephen, confessed his fault, and asked pardon, and was ever after most punctual in all his private practices of devotion, which are not omitted without an imperfection; nor without a sin, if it be done through sloth or culpable neglect. His other offence was, that one day being ordered by his abbot to speak to certain secular friends, he took some satisfaction in hearing their questions and answers: in punishment of which he found his heart deprived of spiritual consolation. In expiation he prayed often prostrate long together at the foot of the altar during five-and-twenty days in sighs and groans, till he was again visited by the divine Spirit. He afterwards in necessary conversation kept his mind so carefully recollected on God that his heart did not go astray.

After the year of his novitiate he made his profession in the hands of Saint Stephen with his companions in 1114; but with that perfect sacrifice of himself and disengagement of his heart from all creatures, which is better imagined than expressed, and which drew on him the most abundant graces. He set out with extraordinary ardour in all his monastic exercises. The saint not being able to reap the corn so as to keep up with the rest, his superior ordered him other work; but he begged of God that he might be enabled to cut the corn, and soon equalled the best hands. At his work his soul was continually occupied on God in great fervour, and he used afterwards to say, that he never had any other master in his studies of the holy scriptures but the oaks and beeches of the forest; for that spiritual learning in which he became so great an oracle, was a gift of the Holy Ghost, obtained by his extraordinary purity of heart, and assiduous meditation and prayer. The peace, humility, and fervour of his soul seemed painted in his countenance, in which the charms of a certain heavenly grace often captivated and surprised those who beheld him, though his face was emaciated, and exceedingly pale and wan, and his whole body bore visible marks of his austere penitential life. He almost always laboured under some corporal infirmity, and his stomach, through a habit of excessive fasting, was scarcely ever able to bear any solid food. He suffered all his distempers without ever speaking of them, or using any indulgence, unless compelled by those who took notice of them. He often made a scruple of taking on those occasions an herb pottage, in which a little oil and honey were mixed. When another expressed his surprise at his making such a difficulty, he answered: “Did you know how great the obligation of a monk is, you would not eat one morsel of bread without having first watered it with your tears.” He used to say: “Our fathers built their monasteries in damp unwholesome places, that the monks might have the uncertainty of life more sensibly before their eyes.” For monasteries were anciently built chiefly in uncultivated deserts, rocks, or swampy lands; though the monks in many places, with incredible industry, drained their morasses and converted them into gardens and meadows. Saint Bernard was a great lover of poverty in his habit, cell, and all other things; but called dirtiness a mark of sloth or of affectation. He seemed, by a habit of mortification and recollection, to have lost all attention to, or relish of food, and often took one liquor for another, when offered him by mistake, so that he once drank oil instead of water. His chief sustenance was coarse bread softened in warm water. All the time which he spent in contemplation seemed short to him, and he found every place convenient for that exercise. He did not interrupt it in the midst of company, conversing in his heart always with God: but he omitted no opportunity of speaking for the edification of his neighbour, and adapted himself with wonderful charity to the circumstances of all ranks, learned or unlearned, nobles or plebeians. Though his writings are filled with holy unction, they cannot convey the grace and fire of his words; and he employed the holy scripture with so much readiness and so happily on all occasions, that therein he seemed to follow the light of the Holy Ghost.

The number of monks being grown too great at Citeaux, Saint Stephen founded in 1113, the monastery of La Ferté, upon the river Grosne, in Burgundy, two leagues from Challons on the Saone; and in 1114, that of Pontigni, in Champagne, upon the frontiers of Burgundy, four leagues from Auxerre. Hugh, earl of Troyes, offered a spot of ground in his estates, whereon to found a third monastery; and the holy superior, seeing the great progress which Bernard had made in a spiritual life, and his extraordinary abilities for any undertaking in which the divine honour was concerned, gave him a crosier, appointed him abbot, and ordered him to go with twelve monks, among whom were his brothers, to found a new house in the diocess of Langres, in Champagne. They walked in procession singing psalms, with their new abbot at their head, and settled in a desert called the Valley of Wormwood, encompassed by a wild forest, which then afforded a retreat for abundance of robbers. These thirteen monks grubbed up a sufficient spot, and, with the assistance of the Bishop of Challons and the people of the country, built themselves little cells. This young colony had often much to suffer, and, being several times in extreme necessity, was as often relieved in some sudden unexpected manner; which wonderful effects of kind providence Saint Bernard made use of to excite their confidence in God. These fervent monks, animated by the example of their abbot, seemed to find nothing hard or difficult in their extreme poverty and austerity. Their bread was usually made of coarse barley, and sometimes chiefly of vetches or cockle; and boiled beech-tree leaves were sometimes served up instead of herbs. Bernard at first was so severe upon the smallest distractions and least transgressions of his brethren, whether in confession or in chapter, that although his monks behaved with the utmost humility and obedience, they began to fall into dejection; which made the abbot sensible of his fault. He condemned himself for it to a long silence. At length, being admonished by a vision, he resumed his office of preaching with extraordinary unction and fruit, as William of Saint Thierry relates. The reputation of this house, and of the sanctity of the abbot, in a short time became so great, that the number of monks in it amounted to one hundred and thirty, and the country gave this valley the name of Clara-vallis or Clarval. It is now commonly called Clairvaux or Clervaux, and is situated eleven leagues from Langres, in Champagne. This monastery was founded in 1115.

Saint Bernard seemed to set no bounds to the austerities which he practised himself. William of Saint Thierry says, that he went to his meals as to a torment, and that the sight of food seemed often his whole refection. His watchings were incredible. He seemed by his mortifications to have brought upon himself a dangerous distemper, and his life was almost despaired of about the end of the year 1116. His great admirer, the learned and good bishop of Challons, William of Champeaux, who had formerly been a most eminent professor of theology in the schools of Paris, apprehensive for his life, repaired to the chapter of the Order then held at Citeaux, and obtained authority to govern him as his immediate superior for one year. With this commission he hastened to Clairvaux, and lodged the abbot in a little house without the inclosure, with orders that he should not observe even the rule of the monastery as to eating and drinking; and that he should be entirely discharged from all care of the affairs of his community. Here the saint lived under the direction of a physician, from whose hands he received every thing with silence and an entire indifference. William, the saint’s historian, paid him a visit in this situation, and in the description which he gives of Clairvaux says, that the bread which the monks ate seemed rather made of earth than of flour, though it was made of corn of their own sowing in their desert; and that their other food could have no taste but what extreme hunger or the love of God could give it. Yet the novices found it too dainty.

After a year, Saint Bernard returned in good health to his monastery, and to the practice of his former austerities. His aged father Tescelin followed him, received the habit at his hands, and died happily soon after at Clairvaux. In 1115 Saint Stephen founded the abbey of Morimond, in Champagne, though part of the refectory now stands in Lorrain. The four first daughters of Citeaux, namely, La Ferté, Pontigni, Clairvaux, and Morimond, became each a mother house to many others, which are called their filiations. Subordinate to the abbey of Morimond are reckoned seven hundred benefices, chiefly in Spain and Portugal, where five military Orders are subject to it, namely, those of Calatrava, Alcantara, Montesa, Avis, and Christi. But that of Clairvaux has the most numerous offspring. Saint Bernard founded, in 1118, the abbey of Three Fountains, in the diocess of Challons; that of Fontenay, in the diocess of Autun, and that of Tarouca, in Portugal. He about that time wrought his first miracle, restoring to his senses, by singing mass, a certain lord, his relation, called Josbert de la Ferté, that he might confess his sins; though he died three days after. When the saint had confidently promised this miraculous restoration of Josbert, his uncle Balderic or Baudri, and his brother Gerard, fearing for the event, were for correcting his words; but the saint reproving their diffidence, repeated the same assurance in stronger terms; for the saints feel a secret supernatural instinct when for the divine honour they undertake to work a miracle. The author of Saint Bernard’s life adds an account of other sick persons cured instantaneously by the saint’s forming the sign of the cross upon them, attested by eye-witnesses of dignity and unexceptionable veracity. The same author and Manriquez relate certain visions by which the saint was informed in what manner some of his monks were delivered from purgatory, by masses said for the repose of their souls and of the glory of others. They also mention that, in 1121, Saint Bernard founded the abbey of Foigni, in the diocess of Laon, in which the venerable bishop of that see made his monastic profession. The church of that monastery was exceedingly haunted by flies, till by the saint’s saying he excommunicated them, they all died; and such swarms of them appeared there no more; which malediction of the flies of Foigni became famous to a proverb. The saint about that time began to compose his works.

Being obliged to take a journey to Paris in 1122, at the request of the bishop and archdeacon, he preached to the students who were candidates for holy orders; many of whom were so moved by his discourses, that they accompanied him back to Clairvaux, and persevered there with great fervour. Several German noblemen and gentlemen who called to see that monastery, were so strongly affected with the edifying example of the monks, that after they had gone a little way, discoursing together upon what they had heard from the saint’s mouth, and observed in his holy community, they agreed to return, hung up their swords, and all took the habit. Their conversion appeared the more wonderful, as, till that day, they had lived full of worldly vanity, and passionately addicted to combats of chivalry, and the foolish pride of tilts and tournaments. Humility made the saint sincerely to regard himself as utterly unworthy and incapable of admonishing others; but the ardour of his zeal and charity opened his mouth, and he poured forth his thoughts with such a strength of eloquence, and tender affective charity and humility, that his words could not fail to inflame the most frozen hearts.

He received into his monastery monks who came to him from Cluni, and other Orders that were less austere; but declared that he was most willing to dismiss any of his own who should desire to pass to any other religious institute, out of the motive of seeking their greater perfection. So little did he think of the interest of his own body, which easily becomes a cloak to avarice and ambition, that he yielded to the Order of Premontré and others several good foundations which were first offered him. He was several times chosen bishop of Langres and Challons, and archbishop of Genoa, Milan, and Rheims; but so strenuously opposed the motion with entreaties and tears, that the popes were unwilling to offer too great violence to his humility, and seemed with the whole world to stand in awe of his wonderful sanctity. In 1120, he was for a long time confined to his cell by a dangerous fit of sickness, and in the year 1125, in which, during a grievous famine, he had often exhausted the provisions of his monastery to furnish the poor with bread, he seemed by a dangerous distemper brought to the very gates of death. It happened in this fit of illness that he once appeared to those about him as if he had been in his agony, and, his monks being all assembled round him, he fell into a trance, in which he seemed to himself to behold the devil grievously accusing him before the throne of God. To every part of the charge he made only this answer: “I confess myself most unworthy of the glory of heaven, and that I can never obtain it by my own merits. But my Lord possesseth it upon a double title: that of natural inheritance, by being the only begotten Son of his eternal Father; and that of purchase, he having bought it with his precious blood. This second title he hath transferred on me; and, upon this right, I hope, with an assured confidence, to obtain it through his adorable passion and mercy.” By this plea, the perverse accuser was confounded, and disappeared, and the servant of God returned to himself, and shortly after recovered his former state of health.

Most affecting are the sentiments of profound humility, holy fear, and compunction, which this great saint discovers. He tells us that he embraced God by his two feet, that of his mercy, and that of his justice; to exclude, by the latter, sloth and presumption; and, by the former, despair and anxiety. He declares often, in the most moving terms, how much he was penetrated with this saving fear, which he nourished in his soul by having the divine judgments always before his eyes. “I am seized all over,” says he, “with horror, dread, and trembling, whenever I repeat within myself that sentence: Man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred.” Compunction is the parent of sincere humility; and, in this, our saint appeared always most admirable. Inculcating to others the advantages and obligations of this virtue, he observes, that so great is its excellency, that pride dares not show itself naked, but seeks to appear in a mask, and puts on that of humility, which he defines a virtue by which a man, from a true knowledge of himself, is contemptible in his own eyes. Whence he puts us in mind that it resides partly in the understanding and partly in the will; for it is founded in a perfect knowledge of ourselves, that is, of our nothingness, sinfulness, baseness, weakness, and absolute insufficiency. Nor is this to be a speculative, but a feeling and experimental knowledge, by which we sincerely despise ourselves, as deserving all contempt, disgrace, and chastisement from all creatures; and as unworthy of all mercy, grace, or favour, temporal or spiritual, all which are the most pure gratuitous effects of the divine goodness in favour of undeserving creatures. He discovers the most profound sense of his own baseness and wretchedness, and treats himself as the outcast of all creatures. The praises and esteem of others were to him the most stinging reproaches, and covered him with confusion and grief, because they only showed the opinion of others concerning him, and what he ought to be, not what his actions were; for he saw them to be full only of stench and corruption. “All commendation bestowed on us,” said he, “is flattery, and the joy which is conceived from it, is foolish vanity.” To some he said: “My monstrous life, and my afflicted conscience, cry towards you for compassion; for I am a kind of amphibious creature, that neither lives as an ecclesiastic nor as a recluse. When you have learned my dangers, favour me with your advice and prayers.” In another place he says: “They who praise me, truly reproach and confound me.” These and the like sincere protestations were extorted from him by his profound contempt of himself, and desire that all should know his baseness: for, as he observes, nothing is more base than that refined pride which feigns an affected humility, and would needs wear its mask to make humility itself support its vanity. To raise glory from humility is not the mark, but the ruin of that virtue. “He who is truly humble would be reputed vile and abject,” says he, “not humble.” He never ceased to inculcate this virtue to others as the measure of their advancement in sanctity; and he often repeated to his monks that he among them was the greatest before God who was the most humble in his own eyes.

It is related in the Exordium of Citeaux, that one day in a conference which the saint made to the choir monks, he declared publicly that he doubted not but the humility of a certain lay-brother, then absent, gave to his actions a higher degree of true perfection than any one of the choir monks had attained to, and that this person, though perfectly ignorant of profane literature, was the best skilled in the science of the saints, the true knowledge of himself; for he was always condemning himself as a miserable criminal in the presence of God; and his soul was so entirely employed on his own weaknesses and imperfections, that he saw nothing else in himself, and only virtue in every one else. Saint Bernard one day seeing him bathed in tears, asked him the reason? The humble monk told him: “Miserable sinner as I am, I see all heroic virtues practised by my brother who works with me; but have not myself one degree of the least among them. I beseech you to pray that God will grant me in his mercy those virtues which through my sinfulness and sloth I neglect to dispose myself to obtain.” Another lay-brother was obliged to watch the sheep in the fields all night on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, to which he had a singular devotion. When the bell rung to matins at midnight, condemning himself as unworthy to join his brethren in singing the divine praises, he turned his face towards the church, and lifting up his eyes towards heaven, with a thousand genuflections and prostrations, continued till morning a repetition of the Hail Mary; every time with fresh ardour praising his Redeemer, and imploring his mercy through the intercession of his virgin Mother. His humble devotion, simplicity, and obedience were discovered by God to Saint Bernard, who preferred his virtue in this action to that of the most perfect penitents and contemplatives in that house of saints. True humility removes a soul as far from pusillanimity and abjection as from pride and presumption; for it teaches a man to place his whole strength in God alone. Hence sprang that greatness of soul and undaunted courage, with a firm confidence in the divine goodness and mercy, that astonishes us in the actions and writings of this saint. It would be too long to mention the wonderful instances of these and other virtues, especially of his devotion, tender charity, and ardent zeal. He nourished them in his heart by a spirit of prayer and retirement, the characteristical virtue of the monastic state. “Believe me upon my own experience,” said he to those whom he invited into his order, “you will find more in the woods than in books; the forests and rocks will teach you what you cannot learn of the greatest masters.” Meaning that to learn the secrets of heaven, and the science of saints, solitude, sanctified by penance and contemplation, is the best school. He severely condemns those monks who wandered out of their cells; and, out of a love of the world and dissipation, intruded themselves into the ministry of preaching. To one of those he said: “It is the duty of a religious man to weep, not to teach. Cities must be to him as prisons, and solitude his paradise. But this man, on the contrary, finds solitude his prison, and cities his paradise.” This saint, though charity often called him abroad, never left his cell but with regret; and, amidst crowds, his soul was interiorly recollected, and often quite absorbed in God. When he had walked a whole day on the borders of the lake of Lausanne, hearing his companions in the evening mention the lake, he was surprised, affirming that he had never seen it, and did not know that there was a lake there. The saint, who had contracted so close a friendship with Guigo, prior of the great Chartreuse, and the monks of his order, that he seemed to be with them as one heart and one soul, happened once to pay them a visit at the Chartreuse on a horse which he had borrowed of a friend. The prior Guigo was surprised to see him use a fine bridle, and spoke to him of it. The saint answered in surprise that he had never taken notice either of the bridle or saddle. So much was he accustomed by habit, when he was free from the necessity of applying his mind to external business, to immerse himself in the consideration of invisible truths, that he seemed at those times scarcely to have any sense or memory left for earthly things. Saint Bernard was particularly devoted to the Blessed Virgin, as his works sufficiently declare. In one of his missions into Germany, being in the great church at Spire, he repeated thrice in a rapture: “O merciful! O pious! O gracious Virgin Mary!” which words the church added to the anthem Salve Regina. The custom was introduced from this devotion of Saint Bernard to sing that anthem every day with great solemnity in the cathedral of Spire. The same is done every Saturday in the Cistercian order, and with particular devotion at La Trappe.

Notwithstanding Saint Bernard’s love of retirement, obedience and zeal for the divine honour frequently drew him from his beloved cell; and so great was the reputation of his learning and piety, that all potentates desired to have their differences determined by him; bishops regarded his decisions as oracles or indispensable laws, and referred to him the most important affairs of their churches. The popes looked upon his advice as the greatest support of the holy see, and all people had a very profound respect and an extraordinary veneration for his person and sanctity. It may be said of him, that even in his solitude he governed all the churches of the west. But he knew how to join the love of silence and interior recollection of soul with so many occupations and employs, and a profound humility with so great elevation. The first occasion which called for his zeal abroad was a dissension between the archbishop and citizens of Rheims, whom the saint reconciled, confirming his words by the miraculous cure of a boy that was deaf, blind, and dumb, which he performed in that city, as is recorded by the abbot of Saint Thierri. He opposed the elections of unworthy persons to the episcopacy, or other ecclesiastical dignities, with the zeal of an Elias, which raised him many enemies, who spared neither slanders nor invectives against him. Their commonplace topic was, that a monk ought to confine himself to his cloister. To this he answered, that a monk was a soldier of Christ, as well as other Christians, and ought to defend the truth and the honour of God’s sanctuary. By his exhortations Henry, archbishop of Sens, and Stephen, bishop of Paris, renounced the court and their secular manner of living. Suger, who was chosen abbot of Saint Denis in 1122, was made by King Lewis VI, surnamed the Big or the Fat, prime minister, and by Lewis the Young, for some time regent of the kingdom; and the reins of the government of the French monarchy have seldom been put in the hands of an abler or better statesman. Whilst he held this employment he lived in great state, and Saint Bernard reproached him, in his apology, with having fifty attendants in his train. But so efficacious were the discourses with which our saint entertained him on the obligations of his state, that he laid aside his worldly views, resigned all his posts, and shut himself up in his abbey of Saint Denis, where he banished the court out of his abbey, re-established austerity and regular discipline, and made an edifying end in 1152, after having built, in three years and three months, the stately church of that abbey as it now stands. The remarkable conversions of innumerable great princes and prelates wrought by Saint Bernard are too long to be inserted. He often put ecclesiastics in mind of their strict obligation of giving whatever they enjoyed of church revenues above a necessary maintenance to the poor. Thus he wrote to the dean of Languedoc: “You may imagine that what belongs to the church belongs to you while you officiate there. But you are mistaken; for though it be reasonable that one who serves the altar should live by the altar, yet must it not be to promote either his luxury or his pride. Whatever goes beyond bare nourishment, and simple plain clothing, is sacrilege and rapine.” In this, his own conduct was at all times a true model. In a great famine in 1125, to relieve the poor, he often left his monks destitute of all provisions.

After the death of Honorius II, in 1130, Innocent II was chosen pope on the same day by the greater number of cardinals. But, at the same time, a faction attempted to invest with that supreme dignity Cardinal Peter, the son of Leo, who took the name of Anacletus. He had formerly been a monk of Cloni, was an ambitious worldly man, and so powerful that he got all the strong-holds about Rome into his hands. Innocent II, who was a holy man, and had been duly elected, was obliged to fly to Pisa. Upon this unhappy contest a council of French bishops was held at Etampes, twenty-five miles from Paris, to which Saint Bernard was invited. He strenuously maintained the justice of Innocent’s cause, who was recognised by the council, and soon after came into France. He was splendidly received at Orleans by King Lewis the Big. Saint Bernard waited on him, and accompanied him to Chartres, where he met Henry I, king of England. That prince was at first inclined to favour the antipope, but was better informed by Saint Bernard, and persuaded to acknowledge Innocent. The saint followed the pope into Germany, and was present at the conference which he had with the Emperor Lothaire at Liege, who recognised the lawful pope, but demanded of him the right of giving the investitures of bishoprics. Saint Bernard’s remonstrances struck him dumb, and made him humbly alter his resolution. His holiness held a council at Rheims in 1131, and went from Auxerre to visit Cluni and Clairvaux. At this latter place he was received in procession, as in other places, but without any splendour; the monks were clad in coarse habits, and before them was carried a homely wooden crucifix, and they sung leisurely and modestly hymns and anthems, not one lifting up their eyes or casting them about to see who was near them. The pope, and several of his assistants, could not contain their tears at the sight. The bread which was served at table was made of coarse flour that had never been sifted; the repast was made up of herbs and legumes; a dish of fish was got ready, but this was only for his holiness. The year following Saint Bernard attended the pope into Italy, and reconciled to him Genoa and some other cities. At length he arrived with him at Rome, whence he not long after was sent into Germany, to make peace between the Emperor Lothaire II. and the two nephews of Henry V., his predecessor; Conrad III, duke of Suabia, (who succeeded Lothaire in the empire,) and Frederic, the father to Frederic I, or Barbarossa, who ascended the throne after Conrad. The saint in this journey signalized every stage he made by the conversion of many sinners, and, among others, of Aloide, duchess of Lorraine, sister to the Emperor Lothaire, who had for a long time dishonoured her rank and religion by her scandalous deportment. Saint Bernard having happily pacified the troubles of Germany, returned into Italy, being obliged by the pope to assist at the council of Pisa in 1134, in which the schismatics were excommunicated. After the conclusion of this synod the pope sent him to Milan, to reconcile that city to the holy see. He wrought there many miracles, and wherever he came was received as a man sent from heaven. He easily induced the Milanese to renounce the schism; and in all places, and in all affairs, succeeded to a miracle. The authors of his life remark that nothing was more admirable in him than his extraordinary humility amidst the greatest honour and respect imaginable, with which he was every where treated.

Having happily finished his negotiation at Milan, he returned to his dear solitude at Clairvaux, in the same year, 1134, and after performing his prayer in the church, made a most pathetic affectionate discourse to his monks. He was soon after called abroad into Brittany; and afterwards into Guienne, where William, the powerful and haughty duke of that province, violently persecuted those who adhered to the true pope, and had on that account expelled the bishops of Poitiers and Limoges. Gerard, bishop of Angouleme, an abetter of the schism, encouraged him in these excesses. This William (who is styled duke sometimes of Aquitain, sometimes of Guienne, which was part of Aquitani,) was a prince of high birth, immense wealth, a gigantic stature and strength of body, and extraordinary abilities in worldly affairs; but was in his youth impious, haughty, and impatient of the least control. He seemed not to be able to live out of war, and was so shamelessly abandoned to his passions and lusts, as to have kept his brother’s wife three years by main force, glorying in his iniquities like Sodom. Saint Bernard, in 1130, took an occasion to visit the monastery of Chatelliers, which he had then lately founded in Poitou, on purpose to have an opportunity of endeavouring to reclaim this prince from his scandalous disorders. The duke listened to him with great respect during seven days, and appeared to be much affected by his discourses on the last things, and on the fear of God. Nevertheless, he was not yet converted. Saint Bernard, who had learned never to despair of the most obstinate sinners, redoubled his tears, prayers, and pious endeavours, till he had the comfort to see him begin to open his heart to the divine grace. When he abetted the schism, the saint, by several conferences, brought him over to the obedience of the rightful pope, but could not prevail upon him to restore the two bishops whom he had unjustly deprived of their sees. At length he had recourse to more powerful arms. He went to say mass, the duke and other schismatics staying without the door, as being excommunicated persons. After the consecration, and the giving of the peace before the communion, the holy abbot put the host upon the paten, and carrying it out, with his eyes sparkling with zeal, charity, and devotion, and his countenance all on fire, spoke to the duke no longer as a suppliant, but with a voice of authority, as follows: “Hitherto we have entreated you and prayed you, and you have always slighted us. Several servants of God have joined their entreaties with ours, and you have never regarded them. Now, therefore, the Son of the Virgin, the Lord and head of that church which you persecute, comes in person to see if you will repent. He is your judge, at whose name every knee bends, both in heaven, earth, and hell. He is the just revenger of your crimes, into whose hands this your obstinate soul will one day fall. Will you despise him? Will you be able to slight him as you have done his servants? Will you?” Here the duke, not being able to hear any more, fell down in a swoon. Saint Bernard lifted him up, and bade him salute the bishop of Poitiers, who was present. The astonished prince was not able to speak, but went to the bishop, and led him by the hand to his seat in the church; expressing by that action that he renounced the schism, and restored the bishop to his see. After this, the saint returned to the altar and finished the sacrifice. A particular impulse of the Holy Ghost, the great authority of the saint, and the dignity with which this man of miracles was enabled to perform so extraordinary an action, make it an object of our admiration, though not of imitation.

The abbott, leaving the churches of Guienne thus settled in peace, returned to Clairvaux. But the duke, who had been a worldly and tyrannical prince, relapsed into his former habits, and committed new acts of violence. The saint being informed thereof, wrote him a strong remonstrance, which, through the divine grace, made so deep an impression upon his mind, that his conversion was rendered complete. From that time, he honoured the bishop of Poitiers so much the more as he had formerly persecuted him; and shortly after resolving entirely to devote himself to a penitential life, he sent for this prelate, and in his presence made his last will, wherein he declared, that: “In honour of our Saviour and all the saints, and being penetrated with sorrow for his innumerable sins, and with the fear of the last judgment; likewise considering that all the goods which we seem to possess, vanish in our hands like smoke and leave only bitterness, anguish, and pain, he was resolved to forsake all things in order to follow God, and to obtain more perfectly his holy love. He added, that he left his daughters under the protection of the king, and desired that Eleanor, the elder of them, should marry him, if the barons of Aquitain consented, giving to her Aquitain and Poitou, and to his daughter Petronilla his estates in Burgundy, and to all the monasteries in his dominions one thousand livres of yearly rent to be distributed by his barons.” 15 After this he put on the habit of a pilgrim, entered upon an austere course of life, and undertook a penitential pilgrimage to Compostella, in which some say he died at Leon in Spain. Others tell us he survived this pilgrimage, and passed some time in a hermitage in a wilderness, before God called him to himself. 16 Thus by the prudence and zeal of Saint Bernard was the schism extinguished in so many kingdoms; but it was still protected by Roger, king of Sicily, and duke of Calabria. The pope called the saint to Viterbo in 1137, and then sent him to this prince. Bernard, in a public conference at Salerno, convicted Anaclet’s partizans of schism, and brought over many persons of distinction to the union of the church; but Roger, having ambitious views to maintain the usurped possession of the duchy of Benevento, continued inflexible. The saint foretold his defeat in a battle he was preparing to fight with Duke Ranulph, whose forces were much inferior in number; and taking leave of him, hastened back to Clairvaux. The death of the antipope in 1138, opened the way to the peace of the church; for though the schismatics chose one Gregory to the papacy, he surrendered his pretensions to Innocent II. Hereupon Bernard sued to the pope for the pardon of those who had been engaged in the schism.

The saint saw himself obliged to exert his zeal also in maintaining the purity of the Catholic faith, which he employed so often and with such success in the support of its unity and discipline. He heard of no dangerous innovator in the doctrine of the church with whom he did not enter the lists. One of these was the unhappy Peter Abelard, or Abailard, 17 in whose writings certain errors were discovered, which were condemned in the council of Soissons in 1121; and he so far acquiesced in the censure as to cast his book into the flames. In 1139, William, abbot of Saint Thierry, discovered several erroneous principles in his later writings, and informed Geoffrey, bishop of Chartres, who was legate of the holy see, and Saint Bernard, saying, they were the only persons who could crush the mischief in its embryo. Saint Bernard wrote a strong letter of private admonition to Abelard, but was answered by insults and loud complaints. He informed Pope Innocent II. of Abelard’s errors and conduct by a long letter, and also wrote to several French prelates upon that subject. A council of bishops met at Sens in 1140 upon this affair. Saint Bernard was unwilling to appear, acquainting the bishops it was their business. Hereupon Abelard triumphed, and his friends said, Bernard was afraid to encounter him face to face. The saint therefore was obliged to be present. But Abelard, who dreaded above all things the eloquence and learning of the holy abbot, only presented himself in the council, to hear the charge drawn up by Saint Bernard out of his own book, read against him; for he declined giving any express answer to the articles charged upon him, though he had the liberty given him to do it, had very favourable judges, and was in a place where he had no reason to fear any thing. After having recourse to shifts, he appealed to the pope, and then withdrew from the synod with those of his party. The bishops condemned fourteen propositions extracted out of his works, and wrote to Pope Innocent II. who confirmed their sentence, imposed perpetual silence on Abelard as an heretic, and ordered that he should be imprisoned. Abelard wrote an apology, in which he gave a Catholic exposition to several of his propositions. Saint Bernard accused him of denying the Trinity with Arius, of destroying the incarnation with Nestorius, of taking away the necessity of grace with Pelagius, of having bragged that he was ignorant of nothing; of being never willing to say of any thing, Nescio, I do not know it; of pretending to expound inexplicable things, to comprehend incomprehensible mysteries, and to give reasons for what is above reason. It is manifest from his apology, and chiefly from his book, entitled, An introduction to Theology, which had raised this storm, that he advanced several propositions absolutely heretical, others, which, though he expounded them more favourably, were new, harsh, and intolerable. One of the errors contained at this day in his writings is the system of the Optimists, renewed by Leibnitz, pretending that every thing in the world being the best, God could not have made or done any thing any other way than he has done it. After he had published his Apology, he set out on his journey towards Rome; but stopping at Cluni, he was persuaded by the abbot, Peter the Venerable, to recal whatever he had wrote which gave offence, and to wait upon Saint Bernard. He did so, and was reconciled to him. With the pope’s leave he resolved to spend the remainder of his life at Cluni, and behaved himself there with great humility and piety for two years. Towards the end of his life he was sent for his health to the monastery of Saint Marcellus at Chalons upon the Seine, where he died in 1142, being sixty-three years old. His body was sent to the abbey of Paraclet, to be interred, and Peter the Venerable wrote to Eloïsa an edifying account of his death.

Arnold of Brescia, his disciple, was not so happy as to imitate his repentance and submission. He was a native of Brescia, in Italy, became a scholar of Abelard, took the habit of a monk, and falling into many errors, preached them at the head of armed troops, first in France, and afterwards in Italy. He taught, that neither the pope nor the clergy ought to possess temporal estates; and erred about several other articles of faith. Saint Bernard, by his writings and labours, opposed the ravages of this wolf in sheep’s clothing. Saint Bernard drew his portrait in lively colours, when, among other things, he says: “Arnold of Brescia is a man who neither eats nor drinks, because, like the devil, he thirsts only after the blood of souls. His conversation has nothing but sweetness, and his doctrine nothing but poison. He has the head of a dove, but the tail of a scorpion.” His description of Abelard is not less strong. He says he was a man always unlike himself, altogether equivocal and unconstant; that he had nothing of a monk but the name and habit, and that his life was the contrast of his character or profession. He adds, to express his vanity, that he knew every thing that is in heaven and earth, but himself. Another person of eminence in that age, by deviating from the scripture and tradition to philosophize on the mysteries of religion, adulterated their simplicity. This was Gilbert de la Porrée, a famous professor of theology at Poitiers, and at length bishop of that city. He was accused of heterodox opinions by his two archdeacons. His doctrine was begun to be examined in an assembly of prelates at Auxerre in 1147, and continued in another held at Paris the same year, before Pope Eugenius III. who was lately come into France. Saint Bernard, on account of his eloquence and learning, was pitched upon to open the charge; but as Gilbert denied that he had ever advanced the propositions imputed to him, it was decreed that his writings should be examined, and the decision referred to the council which was to be held at Rheims the year fallowing. In this synod Gilbert openly maintained what he had taught in his writings, that the godhead, or form by which God is God, is really distinguished from God; likewise that his wisdom, justice, and other attributes, are not really God himself; that the divine nature or essence is really distinct from the three persons, and that the divine nature was not incarnate, but only the second Person, which he held to be really distinct from the nature. Saint Bernard demonstrated that no real distinction can be admitted between the nature and the persons, or between the attributes and the nature, or between the attributes themselves; for in God all is perfect unity and simplicity, without any real distinction, except that of relation between the three Persons; any other real multiplicity must produce a composition repugnant to the essential simplicity and unity of God. Four propositions of Gilbert were censured by this council, and he himself retracted and condemned them. On this account his person was spared. Some of his disciples continued to maintain his erroneous opinions, and are confuted by Saint Bernard. Gilbert died in 1154.

The heresies broached by Abelard, Gilbert, and many others, at this time, took their rise from an abuse of the scholastic theology, as Abelard himself acknowledged after his conversion, 20 making a long enumeration of errors which sprung up in his time. The holy scriptures, and the tradition of the church being the sources and foundation of all genuine theology. Saint Anselm raised on them his excellent structure, by bringing the different parts more into order, under general heads, and illustrating each part with the additional force of logical reasoning. This method was followed by all sound scholastics, especially Saint Thomas, whose divine science was derived from his perfect skill in the holy scriptures, and in the writings of the most approved fathers; taking Saint Austin for his chief guide in questions of speculation, Saint Ambrose and Saint Gregory in moral resolutions, and Saint Chrysostom in the interpretation of the holy scriptures; he employs human reasoning with the most happy penetration, but so as to make it every where subservient to these principles; but these were quite lost sight of by some who, in the shoal of philosophers and theologians which appeared in the twelfth age, pursued, in many questions, only the subtle imaginations of their own refining genius; a rock against which many great men have suffered shipwreck in faith. 21 Saint Bernard opposed this fatal abuse with that erudition and eloquence of which his works are a standing monument. The Cistercian Order, in its origin, like the Carthusians, was devoted to the practice of penance, assiduous contemplation, and the angelical function of singing the divine praises. Wherefore it did not admit the ordinary dissipation of scholastic disputations. Yet we find a foundation made for teaching little children in a monastery of this Order in the diocess of Bazas, in 1128. 22 And learned men were every where received into it, and allowed all means of improving themselves in the sciences, and of thus serving the church. The first founders, Saints Alberic, Stephen, and Bernard, were persons eminently learned. Conrad, son of Henry, duke of Bavaria, was famous for his learning at Cologn, before he professed himself a monk at Clairvaux, in 1126. Henry, a son of king Lewis the Big, who was a monk under Saint Bernard, and afterwards successively bishop of Beauvais, and archbishop of Rheims, was a good scholar; and many among the most eminent doctors in the church embraced this institute. The revision of the bible, made by Saint Stephen and his brethren, proves that some of them then understood the Oriental languages. To encourage learning, Saint Bernard was very solicitous to furnish all his monasteries with good libraries. 23 The manual labour in which the Cistercian and Benedictin monks at that time employed themselves was not only to till the ground, but frequently to copy books; several beautifully illumined, which were written at Clairvaux, in Saint Bernard’s time, are still shown there.

The great reputation of the sanctity of Saint Bernard and his monks drew many great men to his Order. The monastery of Clairvaux, which is at present a most stately and spacious structure, was in his time a low and mean building; yet he left in it at his death seven hundred monks. He founded, before his death one hundred and sixty other monasteries; and their number was so much increased after his death, that before the dissolution of monasteries in Britain and the northern kingdoms, eight hundred abbeys were subject to Clairvaux, being filiations of that house. In 1126, Otho, the son of Leopold, duke of Austria, and of Agnes, daughter to the emperor Henry IV. brother to the emperor Conrad III. with fifteen other young German princes, one of whom was Henry, earl of Carinthia, made their monastic profession together at Morimond; in 1115 thirty gentlemen had done the same on one day at Citeaux; a company of young noblemen did the like at Bonnevaux; once at Clairvaux one hundred novices took the habit on the same day. The Cistercian annals and Le Nain, mention two persons of quality who professed themselves lay-brothers in this Order, the one to be shepherd of the monastery, the other, whose name was Lifard, to keep the hogs. In 1120, Alexander, a prince of the royal blood of Scotland, and in 1172, Silo, a learned and famous professor at Paris, and Alan, another professor in the same place, so renowned for his skill in theology, and all other sciences, that he was surnamed the Universal Doctor humbly made their profession among the Cistercians in the quality of lay-brothers.

Evrard, earl of Mons, was so touched with compunction for a sin he had committed in war in Brabant, that in his return homewards from that expedition, having disguised himself in mean apparel, he set out at midnight, and, unknown to any one, performed a penitential pilgrimage to Rome and Compostella. After his return he hired himself, in the same spirit of penance, to keep swine under the lay-brothers in a farm belonging to the abbey of Morimond. Some years after, a servant of two officers who in the army had been under his command, coming to this farm to inquire the road, knew him by his voice and features, and in surprise went and told his masters that their lord was there, and keeper of the hogs. They rode up to the place, and though he at first strove to disguise himself, they knew him; and dismounting, embraced him with tears of joy, and all possible tokens of respect. When they had informed the abbot, he came down to the farm, and learned the truth from the holy penitent’s own mouth, who confessed to him his sin with a flood of tears. The abbot persuaded him to take the religious habit, and to complete the sacrifice of his penance in the monastery. Evrard received the advice with great humility and joy, and acknowledging himself most unworthy, made his monastic profession. About the same time he founded the abbey of Einberg in Germany, and that of Mount Saint George in Thuringia. This happened in 1142. His holy death is recorded in the Necrology of the Cistercians on the 20th of March. The lay-brothers were at that time very numerous in this Order; Saint Bernard had a particular affection for them, and it seemed his greatest pleasure to instruct them in the interior paths of perfect virtue. It is recorded of one of them at Clairvaux, that he had so perfectly subdued the passion of anger, as always to feel in his heart, instead of any emotion of impatience, a particular affection, and sensible tenderness for any one from whom he received an injury. It was his constant custom to soy an Our Father for every one that did him any wrong, spoke harshly to him, or accused him of any fault in chapter; which practice has from him passed into a rule in this Order. A certain monk, named Nicholas, whom Saint Bernard had converted from a secular life in the world, was much afflicted that he lived in the company of saints without the spirit of compunction. Saint Bernard comforted him, and by his prayers obtained for him that gift in so eminent a degree, that even when be ate, travelled, or conversed with others, tears trickled down his cheeks.

Our saint had, at Clairvaux, a monk whose name was Bernard, and who took his surname from Pisa in Italy, of which city he was a native. He was a person of learning and abilities, and had made such progress in monastic perfection, that when Pope Innocent II. repaired, and gave to Saint Bernard, the monastery of the Three Fountains, commonly called of Saints Vincent and Anastasius, near Rome, the saint appointed him first abbot of the colony which he planted there. Innocent II. died in 1143; his successor, Celestine II, lived in the pontificate only five months and some days; and Lucius II, who followed him, died about the end of his first year, on the 26th of February, 1145. The abbot Bernard of Pisa was chosen in his place, and took the name of Eugenius III. Saint Bernard was struck with surprise at the news, and wrote to the cardinals, conjuring them to assist him with their best efforts. Fearing lest so great an exaltation should make him forget himself, and some of the high obligations of his charge, he wrote to him five books, Of Consideration, pressing upon him, without flattery, the various duties of his station, and strongly recommending to him always to reserve time for self-examination, and daily contemplation, applying himself still to this more than to business. He proves to him, that consideration serves to form and to employ in the heart all virtues. He puts the pope in mind, that he is in the utmost danger of falling, by the multiplicity of affairs, into a forgetfulness of himself, and hardness of heart; the thought of which danger made the saint tremble for him, and tell him that his heart was already hardened, and made insensible, if he did not continually tremble for himself. Most succeeding popes have highly esteemed, and been accustomed often to read this excellent work.

King Lewis the Big died in 1137, leaving five sons besides Lewis his successor; namely, Henry, a monk of Clairvaux, who died archbishop of Rheims; Robert, count of Dreux, head of that royal branch, long since extinct; Peter, lord of Courtenay, of which territory he married the heiress, from whom is descended the present family of Courtenays in France; Philip, archdeacon of Paris (who being chosen bishop, modestly yielded that dignity to Peter Lombard), and Hugh, of whom we have no particular account. The father, after the death of his eldest son Philip, had caused Lewis to be crowned in his own lifetime; who thereupon, for distinction, was called Lewis the Young, which surname he retained even after his father’s death. The Christians in Palestine were at that time much distressed. The Latins had, by the first crusade, erected there four principalities, namely, that of Edessa, which comprehended a large country that lay upon the Euphrates; those of Tripoly and Antioch, which were extended all along the sea of Phœnicia; and lastly, the kingdom of Jerusalem, which, by the death of Fulk, in 1142, was devolved on his son Baldwin III, only thirteen years of age. The Saracen caliphs at Bagdat having lately lost their empire, reserved only a sacred authority as interpreters of the Mahometan law; for the Salsuccian Turks, who embraced their religion, obtained the sovereignty first in Persia, and soon after in Asia Minor, and in Syria. In this last country, Melech and Ducat were the first Turkish sultans at Aleppo. Their successor, Sanguin, was a famous general, and at his death, left his warlike son Noradin, possessed of that dignity, a prince endowed with all the qualities of a conqueror. He took Edessa, and threatened the other three principalities of the Christians, who were in no condition to defend themselves, and therefore sent ambassadors into Europe, to desire immediate succour from the Christian princes. Lewis VII or the Young received the message favourably. Pope Eugenius III coming into France in 1147, held there several councils to promote a second crusade, and, at the king’s request, commissioned Saint Bernard to preach the holy war. This the abbot executed with incredible success in all the chief provinces of France. He afterwards did the same in the principal cities of Germany.

The authority of his sanctity and prudence was not less established in the empire than in Italy and France. When Lothaire II, duke of Saxony, was chosen emperor upon the demise of Henry V. in 1125, the two nephews of the late emperor (Conrad, duke of Franconia, and Frederick, duke of Suabia) raised a dangerous rebellion; but Saint Bernard prevailed with them to lay down their arms, and reconciled them to Lothaire, who ruled with great piety and tranquillity, treating even those who had been his enemies with mildness and generosity, and protecting the holy see. He exceedingly honoured Saint Bernard, and died, without leaving any male issue, in 1138. Conrad III succeeded him in the imperial dignity. He, on this occasion, received Saint Bernard with honour, took the cross from his hands at Spire, accompanied him through several cities, and the same year set out for the Levant, at the head of an army of sixty thousand horse, and almost as many foot, the bravest that had been seen. King Lewis took the cross in an assembly of the princes and prelates of his realm at Vezelay, in Burgundy, appointed his prime minister, abbot Suger, regent of France during his absence, and followed the emperor into the East. Manuel Comnenus was at that time Emperor of Constantinople, the son of John, and grandson of that Alexis who had used the first crusards so ill. Manuel had some good qualities; but his policy degenerated into trick and treachery. Though Conrad was his brother-in-law, he received him at Constantinople with great coldness. The Germans crossed the straits, and marched through Bithynia towards Lycaonia. Lewis passed the Rhine at Worms, and the Danube at Ratisbon, and marching through Hungary arrived at Constantinople in October, two months after the Germans. Conrad, deceived by guides whom the Greeks had given him, engaged his army in the deserts on the borders of Cappadocia, where his cavalry could not act. In this place the Mahometans surrounded his troops in the month of November, 1147, and cut them to pieces, where not a tenth part of them were able to engage. Conrad, after paying a private visit of devotion to the holy places at Jerusalem the year following returned in great affliction to Germany.

Lewis, passing into Asia, took his route by the sea-side through Smyrna and Ephesus, and advancing towards Laodicea, in Lydia, in the beginning of the year 1148, encamped on the banks of the Meander, a river difficult to pass on account of its depth, and the height of its banks. He crossed it, however, with some loss; but beyond Laodicea, by the ill conduct of him who commanded the van, which he had separated too far from the rest of the army, his rear was cut to pieces. The king escaped with great difficulty. Pushing forwards, he left behind him a great part of his forces at Attalia, a seaport of Pamphylia, where they mouldered away in great want of provisions through the treachery of the Greeks. The king himself went thence by sea into the principality of Antioch, and arrived in the port of Saint Simeon in the mouth of the Orontes, five leagues below that capital. Raymund, prince of Antioch, the queen’s uncle, received him with all due honours. The scandalous amours of his Queen Eleanor at Antioch gave him great vexation. However, he laid siege to Damascus; but, through the jealousy of some Christian lords, this enterprise did not succeed. Wherefore the king, having performed his devotions at Jerusalem, returned by sea into Europe. He landed in Calabria, in Italy, and passing through Rome, arrived in France. He found his kingdom in the utmost tranquillity through the wise conduct and steady management of Abbot Suger, who was honoured, with the title of Father of his country, and had the chief share in the administration both in this and the preceding reign. This wise statesman had advised the king against the expedition; but when it was resolved upon, had most liberally concurred to promote it. The ill success of this crusade is chiefly ascribed by all our historians to the treachery of the Greeks; but the finger of God was visible in chastising the sins of the Christians. A great part even of those who composed the crusade were led by no other motive than the prospect of plunder, were lawless, and committed every kind of disorder in their march. To those who were conducted by motives of sincere penance and religion, these afflictions were trials for the exercise of their virtue. This unfortunate expedition raised a great storm against Saint Bernard, because he had seemed to promise success. His answer was, that he confided in the divine mercy for a blessing on an enterprise undertaken for the honour of his divine name; but that the sins of the army were the cause of their misfortunes.” 26 The zeal of our saint was at the same time employed in the conversion of notorious sinners and heretics.

Henry, an apostate monk, a disciple of Peter Bruis, had spread, in Aquitain and in the diocess of Mans, the same errors which his master and others had propagated in Provence and Languedoc, deceiving and ingratiating themselves with the people by violent invectives against the pope, bishops, and clergy, which is usually the first step towards defection from the church. Cardinal Alberic, bishop of Ostia, was sent by the pope, in 1147, legate into Languedoc and Aquitain, to endeavour to apply some remedy to this evil. The legate took Saint Bernard with him in this mission, and the saint, not only by the reputation of his sanctity, and the force and eloquence of his zealous discourses, but also by many evident miracles, animated the faithful, and brought back to the truth many that were seduced. Geoffrey, some time the saint’s secretary, accompanied him at that time, and relates many miracles to which he was an eyewitness. He tells us, that at Sarlat, a town in Perigord, the man of God, blessing with the sign of the cross some loaves of bread which were brought to him for that purpose, said: “By this shall you know the truth of our doctrine, and the falsehood of that which is taught by the heretics, if such as are sick among you recover their health by tasting these loaves.” Geoffrey, bishop of Chartres, who stood near the saint, being fearful for the event, said: “That is, if they taste with a right faith, they shall be cured.” But the holy abbot replied: “I say not so; but assuredly they who taste shall be cured, that you may know by this that we are sent by authority derived from God, and preach his truth.” Accordingly, a great multitude of sick persons were cured by tasting that bread. The same author assures us, that when the saint lodged at Saint Saturninus’s, a house of regular canons at Toulouse, one of the canons lay at the point of death, quite emaciated, and so weak that he could not rise from his bed even on the most necessary occasions; but that by a visit and prayer of the saint, he was restored to perfect health. “That instant,” says our author, “he rose from his bed, and following after, overtook us, and kissed the blessed man’s feet, with that eager devotion which is not to be imagined but by those who saw it.” The bishop of the place, the legate, and the people went to the church, the man who had been sick leading the way, and gave thanks to God for this blessing. This canon became a monk of Clairvaux, and was abbot of Valdeau when this account was written. Many other like miracles were wrought by the man of God at Meaux, Constance, Basil, Spire, Frankfort, Cologn, Liege, and other places where he preached, as the same author relates; 28 some in presence of the Emperor Conrad and his court at Spire, all publicly, persons of the first rank in the church and state looking on, and confessing, with astonishment, that the hand of God was with his servant.

Fleury has inserted in his history a journal of this saint’s miracles, attested by ten venerable and faithful vouchers, 29 and Mabillon has proved their incontestable authenticity. But we may regard his admirable sanctity as the greatest of his miracles. This, diffusing its bright beams on every side, was a light not only to his own disciples, but to the whole church. In 1151 Gumard, king of Sardinia, made a visit to Clairvaux, and was so edified with what he saw practised there, that he returned the year following, and made his religious profession in that house. In 1148 Pope Eugenius III. visited the saint at Clairvaux, and afterwards assisted at the general chapter of that Order held at Citeaux, in which the whole Order of Savigni, consisting of thirty monasteries, passing into that of Citeaux, out of respect to Saint Bernard, became a filiation of Clairvaux. The saint had founded a monastery for nuns of his Order at Billette or Julli, in the diocess of Langres, in 1113. His sister, Saint Humbeline, embraced this institute in 1124, and by the abundance of graces that heaven bestowed on her, she arrived at so high a degree of sanctity as to be the admiration of all who saw her, and a subject of the greatest joy to her holy brother and director. She often watched almost the whole night in reciting psalms, and meditating on the sacred passion of Christ, taking only a little rest on some boards. She was always one of the first at every duty of the community, and acquitted herself in a manner that edified the most fervent, and inflamed those that were lukewarm. Thus she lived seventeen years. In her last sickness she was visited by Saint Bernard, and amidst his prayers and exhortations, in sentiments of holy joy and humble confidence in the divine mercy, she breathed out her holy soul on the 21st of August, 1141. Her name is commemorated among the saints.

In the beginning of the year 1153 Saint Bernard fell into a decay, with a loss of appetite and frequent fainting fits. He had long dwelt in heaven in desire, sighing continually under the weight of his banishment from God; though this desire he by humility ascribed to pusillanimity, not to charity. “The saints,” said he, “were moved to pray for the corporal dissolution out of a desire of seeing Christ; but I am forced hence by scandals and evils. I confess myself overcome by the violence of storms, and through want of courage.” 31 Such desires arising from pusillanimity would be a criminal impatience; but the vehemence of divine love was the spring of these ardent sighs in our saint, as he pathetically discovers in many other passages. 32 His distemper considerably abating, he ascribed this symptom of recovery to the prayers of his spiritual children, with whom he expostulated as follows: “Why do you detain a wretched sinner here below? your prayers have prevailed over my wishes; but have compassion on me, suffer me to go to God.” However, he clearly foretold them, that this delay would not exceed six months. During this interval the inhabitants of Metz having been attacked and defeated with great slaughter, by certain neighbouring princes, they were vehemently bent on revenge. To prevent the shedding of blood the Archbishop of Triers went to Clairvaux, and fell at the saint’s feet, earnestly entreating him to undertake a journey to Metz, in order to reconcile the parties who were at variance. At this call of charity the servant of God forgot his corporal infirmity, and immediately repairing thither, prevailed on both sides to lay aside their resentment, and overcome their former enmity by mutual benefactions, and tokens of sincere charity and kindness. When he was come back to Clairvaux his distemper returned with more grievous symptoms. With regard to physicians he doubtless observed his own rule, 33 not neglecting ordinary helps and medicines, yet rejecting those that are extraordinary, and the instruments of delicacy, not of real service; but his disease was too strong for nature to resist with all the succours which art could bring to its relief. His stomach was so weak as to be scarcely able to bear the least nourishment taken even in liquids, his legs swelled exceedingly as if he had had a dropsy, and he was hardly able so much as to close his eyes for ever so few moments. Seeing his spiritual children assembled about him all in tears, he comforted and encouraged them, saying that the unprofitable and unfruitful servant ought not to occupy a place in vain, and that the barren tree with good reason ought to be plucked up. His charity for them inclined him to be willing to remain with them till they should be gathered with them to God; but his earnest desire speedily to enjoy Christ made him to sigh ardently after the possession of Him who filled the whole capacity of his heart. Commending therefore his brethren to the divine mercy, he, with inflamed sighs of compunction and holy love, prepared himself for his last moment; in which he happily yielded up his soul to God, on the 20th of August, 1153, the sixty-third of his age, having been abbot thirty-eight years. He was buried before our Lady’s altar at Clairvaux. His name was solemnly enrolled among the saints by Alexander III in 1165. M. Villefore has prefixed to the life of Saint Bernard his portrait, engraved from an old picture drawn from the life when the saint was sixty-two years old.

This holy doctor was during his life the oracle of the church, the light of prelates, and the reformer of discipline; since his death he still continues to comfort and instruct devout persons by his most pious and learned writings. The judicious critic Henry Valois hesitates not to say they are the most useful for piety among all the works of the fathers of the church, though he is the youngest of them in time. To pass over the eulogiums which pious writers have bestowed on him, and to appeal to the judgment which the merit of his works hath extorted from the most severe and dry critics, Sixtus Senensis saith of him: “His discourse is every where sweet and ardent; it so delighteth and fervently inflameth, that from his most sweet tongue honey and milk seem to flow in his words, and out of his most ardent breast, a fire of burning affections breaks forth.” Erasmus gives him this character: “Bernard is cheerful, pleasant, and vehement in moving the passions.” And in another place: “He is Christianly learned, holily eloquent, and devoutly cheerful and pleasing.” 34 The Protestants who oppose his doctrine, admire his piety and learning. Bishop Morton says of him: “In the midst of darkness, Bernard shone forth with the light as well of his example as of his learning.” And Bishop Carleton writes, amidst many invectives: “I would to God we had at this day many, nay, but one such as it is certain and manifest Bernard was.”

The eminent sanctity and sublime gift of contemplation which we admire in the saint, had their foundation in his profound humility. We shall be so far disciples of Christ as we shall imitate his servant in the study of this virtue. It is a lesson which Saint Bernard often repeats, that it is to be acquired by the knowledge of ourselves and of God, and by frequent humiliations. “Let thy consideration begin from thyself and end in thyself! what, who, and what kind of being thou art,” says this saint. 35 He complains that many men know many things; measure the heavens, count the stars, and pretend to dive into mysteries of faith, and secrets of nature; whose science is all folly and empty vanity, because they know not themselves, consequently have not learned the first elements of the science of the saints. Learning, which fills men with presumption and self-conceit, banishes the Holy Ghost with his gifts out of their souls; the most illiterate idiot is more capable of receiving him and his heavenly wisdom. So long as men see in their own imagination, not themselves, but certain phantoms raised by their own pride, quite different from what they are, so long are they incapable of true piety, of the gift of prayer, and of the true heavenly treasure. A deep sense of our own entire nothingness, weakness, sinfulness, and unworthiness, which makes us empty of ourselves, and ready to give all glory to God alone, is the key to the grace of compunction, contemplation, divine love, and all sincere and Christian virtue. This knowledge of ourselves must be improved and perfected by the study and knowledge of God, his infinite greatness, goodness, mercy, glory, and other perfections, in which we most perfectly see our own nothingness, and learn sincerely to give all glory to God alone, and to place our whole trust in him and in his mercy. As one ray of the sun enlightens the earth much better than all the stars together; so one ray of this heavenly light discovers to us our own imperfections and miseries more clearly than all our study and reflections on ourselves can do. This knowledge of God is chiefly infused into our souls through the channel of contemplation and devout humble prayer, in which, the nearer our hearts approach the throne of God, and the more they see his infinite majesty, the more shall we with Abraham, Isaias, and Job, drown ourselves in the abyss of our own nothing. Hence we must pray with Saint Austin: “Lord teach me to know thee, and to know myself:” thee to love and glorify alone in all things; myself, never secretly to confide in, or ascribe any good to. Domine noverim te, noverim me. Saint Bernard adds, that besides the foundation of this double knowledge, humility is to be improved by repeated humiliations. “Humiliation,” says he, “is the road to humility, as meekness in suffering tribulations and injuries produces patience. If you do not exercise humiliations, you cannot attain to humility.” Humiliatio via est ad humiliatatem. Si non vis humiliari, non poteris ad humilitatem proveki.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Bernard, Abbot”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 3 December 2013. Web. 22 August 2017. <>