Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux and Doctor of the Church

painting of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria, by Georg Andreas WasshuberArticle

Died A.D. 1153.

Saint Bernard, the glory of the twelfth century and one of the great men of all time, was born in 1091 at the castle of Fontaines, near Dijon, France. He belonged to an eminent family. Tecelin, his father, was lord of Fontaines. He was a good man, and a noble knight of gentle manners. The Saint’s mother, Elizabeth, was a truly Christian lady, who considered her children as sacred deposits committed to her charge by Heaven. Though of a very delicate constitution, she never trusted them to the care of strangers, but wisely and tenderly nursed them herself.

The little Bernard was especially dear to his pious mother, as she had a vision of his future greatness and sanctity. In the sunshine of her eye he unfolded like a beautiful flower. With the simplicity of a good, gentle child he secretly imitated her actions – prayed like his mother; gave bread to the poor, like his mother; behaved kindly to every one, like his mother; spoke little, like his mother, and wept over his faults with the pure, crystal tears of boyhood.

From his earliest years he showed a wonderful inclination for study. There was something quick and bright in the precocious intelligence which shone forth in his eye, and in the refined and expressive features of his gracious countenance. His kind, open heart diffused over his face and person the innocent joy and smiling grace so lovely in childhood. At this time his figure was slender, his hair golden, and his complexion very fair.

Bernard gave a striking proof both of his patience and his delicacy of conscience in one of his childish illness. A woman offered to cure him of a headache which had long baffled all remedies; but the keen-sighted boy, having caught sight of some superstitious object, in her hand, divined her intention, sprang out of bed, and chased her from the room with a cry of indignation, because she had sought to cure his malady by the hateful arts of magic.

Our Lord, it seems, rewarded the piety of this heroic act. The pain instantly left the child, and he rose full of joy and health. Some years now passed by, and Bernard grew in age and grace before God and man.

The promising boy was sent to Chatillon, on the Seine, to pursue a complete course of studies in the college of that town. He made rapid progress. He soon learned to read and write Latin with ease and elegance; he cultivated poetry, and even became too passionately fond of literature. He was, however, a wise, practical student, who was not misled by the mere tinsel and glitter of knowledge. He sought knowledge with a practical end in view; and any other intention would be unworthy of a Christian.

But in the pursuit of learning he never lost sight of virtue. The charm of early innocence was not destroyed, as too often happens, with the progress of years and education. In him, as time rolled away, the head was not a gainer at the expense of the heart, nor was love overlaid by intellect.

Whilst Bernard’s mental gifts developed, faith took deeper root in his soul. He enjoyed the inward sweetness of a perpetual spring. It was the blossoming period of life. There are few men who have no recollection of that mysterious time when the pure young soul opens and produces the first flower of love. Happy when its sweet perfume rises aloft towards heaven!

At this age every young man is a poet. He is a poet because he loves, and because poetry is the natural language of all who love. But poetry does not express itself in words alone. It lives in the pensiveness of silence; it lives sometimes in tears; it kindles the eyes; it gives birth to sighs and dreams. We love and know not what we love – we catch faint glimpses of it, we invoke it, we seek it everywhere amid the shadows and reflections of truth and beauty. But our ideal is not upon earth; and hence that mixture of love, and hope, and sorrow which fills the soul with feelings undefinable.

The young Bernard passed through the various stages of that poetical period of life. Alas! it is of short duration. The flower must fall before the fruit can appear; and between the fall of the flower and the maturity of the fruit there is in the spiritual as in the natural life a long, uncertain interval – a time of toil and heavy, anxious labor, which sometimes drags on even to the end of our earthly course!

Bernard was in this second period when he left Chatillon to return to his father’s house. He was then just nineteen, shining outwardly with all the brightness of youth and genius. His rank as a young nobleman, his prudence and natural modesty, his gift of conversation, his affability and sweetness of temper, made him beloved by every one. But these very advantages had their dangers. He no longer felt within him the transports of his first fervor. His piety seemed to have lost its sweetness. For him the springtime was past. Shadows were gathering around his precious soul.

Purity, with him as with most other young people, was the first virtue on trial. Protected hitherto by innocence and modesty, it had suffered no assault; but the charms of the world, into which he had just entered, excited his senses, and strongly allured a heart full of simplicity and only too open to outward impressions. He battled bravely, however, against this weakness of fallen human nature; and God mercifully came to his aid and blessed him with victory. Truly there is no king like him who is king of himself.

Meanwhile, he was struck to the heart by a new affliction. It put an end to his home happiness. His mother, like a fruit ripe for heaven, was snatched away by death. The good and gentle lady bade adieu to this world, fortified by the sacraments, and surrounded by her family and by many distinguished ecclesiastics.

The temptations of the world and the loneliness that seemed to surround his steps after the death of his mother deeply touched the heart of Bernard. Sometimes he seriously pondered the matter over, and began to think of forsaking his home and retiring to Citeaux, where God was served with great fervor. Grace touched his heart. One day, as he was going to see his brothers, who were then with the Duke of Burgundy at the siege of Grancei Castle, he stepped into a church on the roadside, and, in great anxiety of soul, prayed that God would direct him and show him the way in which he should go.

At that moment a deep calm fell upon his troubled soul, the breath of heaven rekindled the lamp of his spiritual life, and the young nobleman, all on fire with love, consecrated himself for ever to God, and joyfully took upon him the yoke of Him who is meek and humble of heart. He resolved to embrace the Cistercian Rule.

Many years after this change Bernard loved to recall its circumstances. “I am not ashamed to confess,” he would say to his monks at Clairvaux, “that frequently, and especially at the beginning of my conversion, I have experienced great hardness and coldness of heart. I sought Him whom my soul desired to love – Him upon whom my frozen heart might rest and gather warmth; and as no one came to help me, and to melt the thick ice which bound all my interior senses in its chain, my soul became more and more languid, weak, and benumbed, giving way to grief, and almost to despair, and murmuring inwardly, ‘Who can endure such cold?’ Then all at once, at the first sight, perhaps, of some spiritual person – or, perhaps, at the mere remembrance of the dead or the absent – the Spirit of God began to breathe upon these frozen waters; they flowed again, and my tears served me for food day and night.”

Bernard’s friends and brothers endeavored to dissuade him from entering the religious state; but he so graciously pleaded his cause as to draw them all over to join him in his noble undertaking. One of the saint’s uncles, named Gauldri, a veteran warrior, came to the same resolution. One by one his brothers made choice of the narrow way. And Hugh of Macon, a very rich, noble, and distinguished man, and an intimate friend and school-fellow of Saint Bernard, shed tears when he heard of his design; but two interviews induced him to become his companion.

The saint’s companions were now thirty in number, all assembled in a house at Chatillon, engaged in the work of preparing themselves for the final consecration to heaven. In truth, there was something very extraordinary in this union of so many persons of high distinction bent on one supernatural object. It gives a true idea of Bernard’s immense sway over his fellow-men. His burning words of love and power, like a living chain, bound them together and linked them to his own great heart.

On the day appointed for the execution of their design, Bernard and his four brothers went to the castle of Fontaines to bid a last farewell of their father, and to beg his blessing. It was a scene of sorrow. The pearly tears of the gentle young Hombeline mingled with the sobs of the aged Tecelin.

As Bernard and his brothers left the castle-yard they saw their youngest brother, who was at play with other children of his own age. Guido, the eldest, embraced him, saying: “Adieu, my little brother Nivard. Do you see this castle and these lands? Well, all will be yours – yours alone.”

“What!” exclaimed the child, with more than a child’s thoughtfulness, “are you going to take heaven for yourselves and leave earth for me? The division is not equal.” He soon after followed his brothers.

The thirty now journeyed together on foot, under the guidance of their beloved leader, who marched at their head. On reaching the famous monastery of Citeaux, this holy company prostrated themselves at the gate and begged of the abbot, Saint Stephen, to be allowed to join the monks in their penitential lives. The good abbot received them with open arms, and gave them the habit. This was in 1113. Saint Bernard was then twenty-three years of age.

From the moment of his entrance on the monastic life Saint Bernard’s chief care was to realize in himself the advice he had given to others. “If you begin,” said he,” begin well.”

“Bernard, Bernard,” he would say to himself, “why did you come here?” He studied to mortify his senses, and in all things to die to himself. This practice, by continual repetition, became a custom, and custom was almost changed into nature; so that, his soul being always occupied on God and the things of God, he seemed not to perceive what passed around him After a year’s novitiate he knew not whether the top of his cell was covered with a ceiling, nor could he tell whether the church had more than one window, though it had three.

But man may stumble, even in climbing to the mountain heights of sanctity. It was so with our Saint. His affection for his mother had induced him to make a vow to recite the Seven Penitential Psalms daily for the repose of her soul.

“Once,” says an ancient writer, “whilst still in his novitiate, he went to rest without having accomplished the duty which he had prescribed for himself. The next day Stephen, his spiritual father, being inwardly enlightened, said to him: ‘Brother Bernard, to whom did you give the care of reciting your seven psalms yesterday?’

“At these words Bernard, astonished that a practice which he had kept secret should be known, burst into tears, and, throwing himself at the feet of his venerable guide, confessed his fault, and humbly begged pardon for it.”

On finishing the year of novitiate, he and his companions made their profession. Bernard was now a monk. In all monastic exercises his ardor was extraordinary. He was unable, however, to reap the corn so as to keep up with the rest, and his superior appointed him other work; but he earnestly begged of God that he might be enabled to cut the grain, and soon equalled the best hands. As he toiled away his soul lived continually in God’s holy presence.

It was to him a season of abundant grace and rapid progress. “He avows,” says an ancient author, “that it was principally in the fields and woods that he received by prayer and contemplation the understanding of the Scriptures; and he is in the habit of saying pleasantly to his friends that he never had any other master in this study but the beech-trees and the oaks of the forest.”

Bernard’s constitution was feeble and delicate, but his fasts and mortifications were rigorous. At length he fell ill. He could neither eat nor sleep, and was often tormented by long fainting-fits. Thus he hastened the ruin of his health by the excess of his austerities; and, indeed, he had reason in after-years to regret his want of due discretion in the use of penitential practices.

He was a great lover of poverty in his habit, cell, and all others things, but he was none the less a lover of cleanliness. He termed dirtiness a mark of sloth or a pitiable vanity. His diet was coarse bread softened in warm water. He had a great aptitude for contemplation, and found everyplace suitable for that exercise.

But he omitted no opportunity of speaking for the good of his neighbor, and adapted himself with wonderful tact and prudence to the circumstances of all with whom he conversed – the rich or the poor, the learned or the ignorant. “When you speak,” he would say, “do not hurry your words.” And though his writings are warmed by the breath of his holy unction, yet they convey not the grace and fire of the winged words that flew from his burning lips.

The mother-house at Citeaux soon became too narrow to shelter the numerous earnest souls that sought safety and salvation within its sanctified precincts. New foundations became necessary. Saint Stephen Harding, therefore, appointed Bernard Abbot, and ordered him to go with twelve monks 12 and to establish a new house in the diocese of Langres.

Our Saint was then only in his twenty-fifth year; and it was a subject of general surprise that a young man of such delicate health, and who had no experience in worldly affairs, should be chosen as the head of so perilous an enterprise. But his virtue had shone forth in so remarkable a manner that Saint Stephen – better versed than others in the hidden ways of Providence – did not hesitate to uphold this choice, the consequences of which were so happy for the Church.

The holy company set out on their journey, and singing psalms, with their young Abbot at their head, they took their way across a wild, uncultivated country. At length they reached a swampy valley. It was once the haunt of robbers, was surrounded by a dense forest, and was called the “Valley of Wormwood.” Here they halted. It was to be the future home of Saint Bernard, who gave it the name of Claire-Valee – which in time took the form of Clairvaux – for it was, indeed, to become a furnace of divine light.

The thirteen hardy monks at once bent themselves to the work of clearing off a spot of earth, and, with the assistance of the country people, built themselves little cells. At first they had much to suffer. On one occasion the distress was so extreme that even the very salt failed them. But their holy Abbot was a light in darkness, and proved himself equal to all difficulties.

“Guibert, my son,” said Bernard to one of the monks, “take the ass, and go and buy salt in the market.”

“My father,” replied Guibert, “will you give me money to pay for it?”

“Have confidence,” said the man of God. “As to money, I do not know when we shall have any; but there is One above who keeps my purse and who has the care of my treasures.”

At this Guibert smiled, and, looking at the Abbot, ventured to say: “My father, if I go empty-handed I fear I shall return empty-handed.”

“Go,” still replied Bernard, “and go with confidence. I repeat that my treasure will be with you on the road, and will furnish you with what is necessary.”

This was enough. The monk saddled his ass, received the Abbot’s blessing, and started on his way to the market, which was held near a castle called Risnellus.

“Guibert,” continues the simple chronicler who relates the foregoing, “had been more incredulous than he should have been; nevertheless, the God of all consolation procured him an unexpected success, for not far from the neighboring town he met a priest, who saluted him and asked him whence he came. Guibert confided to him the object of his mission and the extreme poverty of his monastery. The recital so touched the heart of the charitable priest that he furnished him abundantly with all sorts of provisions.”

The happy monk returned in haste to Clairvaux, and, throwing himself at Bernard’s feet, related what had happened to him on the road.

“I told you, my son,” said the Abbot gently, “that there is nothing more necessary to the Christian than confidence in God. Never lose it, and it will be well with you all the days of your life.”

Clairvaux, at the time of its foundation, may be compared to the grain of mustard-seed spoken of in the Gospel. Nothing, in fact, could have been weaker, humbler, and more miserable than this heavenly seed when it was first cast into the field of the Church. It long vegetated without any development. It had to struggle against the most violent storms and tempests; but the principle of life contained within it rendered the work of God indestructible, and after many profound humiliations it made a sudden spring and grew into vast proportions.

In the year 1118, 11 William of Saint Thierry, one of the most learned men of his age, visited the wonderful valley. “On coming down from the mountain,” he writes, “and entering Clairvaux, the presence of God was visible on all sides, and the silent valley published, by the simplicity and humility of the dwellings, the humility and simplicity of those who inhabited them Then, penetrating further into this holy place, so full of men, where none were idle, but all occupied at some kind of work, there was to be found at mid-day a silence like that of midnight, interrupted only by manual labor and the voices which sang the praises of God. The harmony of this silence and the order maintained was so imposing that even worldly strangers – struck with reverence – not only feared to utter an idle or wicked word, but even to indulge a thought which was not serious and worthy the holy retreat.”

Such was this illustrious school of Christian wisdom under the direction of the Abbot Bernard!

The Saint, on account of indiscreet austerities, was often afflicted by severe bodily illness. In truth, he was frequently on the very verge of the tomb; but such trials only ennobled his nature and increased his merits. To common souls, however, sickness is an occasion of weakness. It relaxes the springs of the spiritual life. But to strong souls it is, on the contrary, an exercise of courage and patience – a means by which the Christian overcomes himself, tames his inferior nature, and learns to imitate the patience of Him who suffered in order to leave us a golden example.

It was about this period that Saint Bernard began to compose his works.

The fame of his greatness soon spread to distant parts; and his ability, holiness of life, and rare capacity for business drew to him a large number of persons, who made him the umpire of their differences. Priests and laymen alike came to consult him; and princes, prelates, and even kings had recourse to this man of God, as to an oracle. Thus his light began to shine as the dawn of the morning.

Henry, Archbishop of Sens, was one of the first who opened his heart to the holy Abbot of Clairvaux. His life had hardly been in harmony with his responsibilities and exalted profession; and he wrote to our Saint, asking for some instructions on the duties of the episcopate. Bernard’s humility was alarmed.

“Who am I,” he exclaimed, “that I should dare to teach a bishop? And yet how can I dare to refuse him? The same reason inclines me to grant and to refuse. There is danger on both sides; but, no doubt, there is most in disobedience.”

He then despatched to the Archbishop of Sens, under the form of a letter, a work on the duties of bishops. It is a production of great merit. In one paragraph he thus pointedly addresses the archbishop:

“As to you, bishop of the Most High, whom do you desire to please – the world or God? If the world, why are you a priest? If God, why are you a worldly priest? We cannot serve two masters at once. To desire to be a friend of the world is to declare one’s self the enemy of God. If I please men, said the Apostle, I shall not be the servant of Jesus Christ.”

Some time after this Saint Bernard was declared Archbishop of Rheims, by the election of the clergy and the acclamations of the faithful; but his refusal of this dangerous post was most firm and decided. He was obliged, however, to have recourse to the authority of Rome, that he might not be forced to yield to the earnest desires of the ancient and noble church of Rheims.

He opposed the election of unworthy persons to the episcopacy and other ecclesiastical dignities with the zeal of an Elias. This made the Saint many malignant enemies, who spared neither slander nor invectives. Their commonplace topic was that a monk ought to confine himself to his cloister. To this Bernard boldly answered that a monk was a soldier of Christ as well as other Christians, and that he ought to defend the truth and honor of God’s sanctuary.

He often put priests in mind of the strict obligations they incurred in relation to the Church revenues which they enjoyed. “You may imagine,” he wrote to the dean of Languedoc, “that what belongs to the Church belongs to you while you officiate there. But you are mistaken. Though it be reasonable that he who serves the altar should live by the altar, yet it must not be to promote his pride or his luxury. Whatever goes beyond bare nourishment and plain, simple clothing is sacrilege and rapine.”

In this respect his own conduct was a bright model. A great famine desolated the surrounding country in 1125, and in order to relieve the poor he often left his monks destitute of all provisions.

One day, as Saint Bernard was going to visit the Count of Champagne, he met a sad procession which was leading an unhappy wretch to execution. The great Abbot was touched with compassion. He darted into the crowd, and took hold of the cord which bound the criminal.

“Trust this man to me,” he said. “I wish to hang him with my own hands.” And holding the cord, he led the unfortunate fellow to the palace of the Count of Champagne.

“At this sight the terrified ruler exclaimed: ‘ Alas! reverend father, what are you doing? You do not know that this is an infamous wretch who has deserved hell a thousand times. Would you save a devil?”

“No,” replied the Saint gently; “I do not come to ask you to leave this unhappy man unpunished. You were about to make him expiate his crimes by a speedy death. I desire that his punishment should last as long as his life, and that he should endure the torments of the cross to the end of his days.”

The prince was silent. But Saint Bernard took off his tunic, clothed the criminal with it, and brought him to Clairvaux, where “this wolf,” says the chronicle, “was changed into a lamb.” He was called Constantine. He persevered in the practice of good works for more than thirty years, and at last died at Clairvaux in a most edifying manner.

Our Saint kept up a vast correspondence not only with princes, prelates, kings, and popes, but with women of rank who sought his holy direction, or others whom he had converted to a devout life. From these epistles, which breathe the spirit of wisdom and tenderness, we have room but for one short extract, ft is from a letter addressed to a young lady of great virtue named Sophia.

“You are most happy,” writes the Abbot of Clairvaux, “to have distinguished yourself from those of your rank, and to have raised yourself above them by the desire of solid glory, and by a generous contempt of that glory which is false. By this distinction you are more illustrious than by the splendor of your birth.

“Let other women borrow foreign beauty when they find themselves deprived of that which was once their own. They show clearly that they are deficient in the true and interior beauty, because they adorn themselves with such care to please madmen.

“As to you, my daughter, consider as unworthy of you a beauty which is derived from the skins of beasts or the labor of worms. The true beauty of anything resides in itself, and depends not upon anything apart from itself. Chastity, modesty, silence, humility – these are the ornaments of a Christian virgin.

“Oh! how many graces does chaste modesty shed over the countenance. How much more lovely are these charms than pearls and jewels! As for you, your treasures depend not on the body, which withers and corrupts – they belong to the soul, and they will share its immortality.”

Saint Bernard had fled from the world. The life of one hidden with Christ was his choice. The reigning desire of his soul was to live and die unknown to men, amid the daily duties of a Cistercian monk. He would have sung the office, toiled in the fields, prayed, and read the Holy Scriptures and the works of the Fathers, and when he was ripe for heaven would have passed peacefully away to his eternal reward. Thus has many a brave monk lived and died, while the dull, dizzy world dreamed not of the hidden saints who were warding from it the just anger of Almighty God. But such was not to be the destiny of the great Abbot of Clairvaux.

We can, however, merely glance at his public life. He was the chief figure of his time, and around him clusters the history of the twelfth century.

He first stands before us as the valiant and successful defender of the Holy See and the Vicar of Christ. On the death of Pope Honorius II, in 1130, Innocent II was chosen to fill the chair of Saint Peter by the majority of the cardinals. At the same time, however, a faction endeavored to invest the proud and powerful Cardinal Peter di Leone with that supreme dignity. He took the name of Anacletus. He was a worldly, ambitious man, and succeeded in getting into his hands the strongholds about the city of Rome. Innocent was obliged to fly to Pisa.

It was a most deplorable contest. But God always raises up an extraordinary man for extraordinary occasions. A council of French bishops was held near Paris, and Saint Bernard was invited to attend. His voice rang loud and clear in favor of Innocent, who was thus recognized by the council, and soon after came into France. The Saint also brought over Henry I of England, who was at first inclined to favor the anti-pope. He passed from city to city, from nation to nation, and at the sound of his voice they became reconciled to the Holy See.

Among the most obstinate adherents of the anti-pope were the people of Milan. Saint Bernard was sent to the city. He wrought miracles, and was received as a man from heaven. Of him, as of Caesar, it may be said, “He came, he saw, he conquered”; but how different was the victory! Milan was at once reconciled to Innocent.

The Milanese were so charmed with the holy Abbot of Clairvaux that one day the faithful, headed by the clergy, came in procession to his abode, and wished to conduct him by force to the archiepiscopal throne, then vacant. Resistance was in vain; but the Saint made use of an expedient.

“Tomorrow,” said he, “I shall mount my horse and abandon myself to Divine Providence. If the horse takes me outside of the walls of your city, I shall consider myself free from any engagement; but if he remains within the city, I will be your Archbishop.”

The following morning he mounted his horse, and, riding at full speed, he departed in haste from the walls of Milan.

Our Saint next found a fitting sphere for the exertion of his zeal in maintaining the purity of the Catholic faith. He stood the bold and watchful sentinel of the Church. He entered the lists against the famous but unhappy Peter Abelard, some of whose writings had been condemned, in 1121, by the Council of Soissons. The vanity of Abelard made him imagine that he could explain the most profound mysteries of religion by the mere light of reason. He seemed ignorant of nothing but himself, and, of course, fell into many errors. It was then that Saint Bernard broke silence, and pursued the innovator with invincible energy. He thus wrote to the Pope:

“It is to you, Most Holy Father, that we turn when the kingdom of God is in danger or suffers any scandal, especially in what touches the Faith. This is the privilege of the Apostolic See, since to Peter alone it was said, I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not. We must claim, then, of the successor of Saint Peter, the fulfillment of the words which follow: When thou shalt be converted, strengthen thy brethren. Now is the time to fulfill these words, to exercise your primacy, to signalize your zeal, and to do honor to your ministry.

“A man has arisen in France who, from an ancient doctor, is turned into a modern theologian; who, having sported from his youth up with the art of dialectics, now, in his old age, gives forth to us his reveries on Holy Scripture; who, imagining himself to be ignorant of nothing that is in heaven or on earth, decides all questions without hesitation; who, ready to give a reason for everything, pretends, against all the rules of faith – and of reason itself – to explain even that which is above reason.

“This is the sense which he gives to these words of the wise man: He who believes lightly is a fool! He says that to believe lightly is to put faith before reasoning; although the wise man is not speaking of the faith we owe to God, but of the too easy credence we give to the words of men. After all, Pope Gregory taught that Divine Faith loses all merit when it is based upon human reason.

“Mary is praised because she prevented reason by faith; Zachary is punished for having sought in reason for a support to faith. But quite differently speaks our theologian. In the very first lines of his extravagant theology he defines faith to be an opinion – as if the mysteries of our faith depended upon human reason, instead of being supported, as they are, on the immutable foundations of truth!

“What! do you propose to me as doubtful that which is of all things most certain? Saint Augustine did not speak thus. Faith, said he, is not a conjecture or opinion formed within us by the labor of our reflections. It is an interior conviction, and an evident demonstration. Let us, then, leave these questionable opinions to the peripatetic philosophers, who make it a rule to doubt of everything, and who, in fact, know nothing.

“But let us hold to the definition of the Doctor of the Gentiles. Faith, says that Apostle, is the foundation of the things we hope for, and a certain proof of those we see not. It is, then, a foundation, and not an opinion – not a deduction. It is a certainty and not an estimation.” Abelard was silenced and confounded by the thunder of Saint Bernard. He wrote an apology for his errors, retired to the monastery of Cluni, and died an edifying death in 1142.”

In 1147 Pope Eugenius III. appointed Saint Bernard to preach the second Crusade. This the eloquent Abbot performed with incredible success in all the chief provinces of France. He afterwards did the same in the principal cities of Germany.

The Abbot of Clairvaux spoke as one having authority, and numberless miracles marked his footsteps “This morning, after Mass,” says an ancient writer, “I presented to him a girl who had a withered hand. He cured her on the spot.”

While at Sarlat, a town in which many errors contrary to faith had been spread, the man of God blessed with the Sign of the Cross some loaves which were brought to him for that purpose. “By this,” said he, “shall you know the truth of our doctrine, and the falsehood of that which is taught by the heretics. Such as are sick among you shall recover their health by tasting of these loaves.”

Geoffrey, Bishop of Chartres, who stood near the Saint, having some doubts on the point, said:

“That is, if they taste with a right faith they shall be cured.”

“I say not so,” replied Saint Bernard. ” Assuredly they that taste shall be cured, that you may know by this that we are sent by authority derived from God, and preach His truth.” A great number of sick persons were cured by tasting the bread.

The true greatness of this apostolic man never shone with a brighter lustre than in the hour of sorrow and humiliation. One of his biographers relates a characteristic anecdote. “A certain cleric,” said he, “having come to Clairvaux, demanded of Saint Bernard in an imperious tone why he would not admit him into his community.

“‘What good is it,’ he exclaimed, ‘for you to recommend perfection in your books, when you will not afford it to those who are seeking for it?’ adding in an angry tone, ‘If I had your books in my hands I would tear them to pieces!’

‘I think,’ replied the Saint, ‘that you have not read in any of those books that it is impossible for you to become perfect at home; for, if I recollect what I have said, it is a change of manners, not a change of place, that I have advised in all my books.’

“On which, this man, transported with rage, struck him so rudely on the cheek that it grew red and swelled. Those who were present at this sacrilegious action, unable to contain their fury, were about to fall upon the hardened wretch; but the Saint stopped them, and besought them, in the name of Christ, not to touch him, but to let him depart without molestation.’

From the beginning of the fatal year 1152 the illustrious Abbot of Clairvaux experienced a return of his old maladies, and suffered from long fainting-fits; but his mind, ever calm and powerful, ruled his feeble limbs, and he was still able to use them within the monastery in the service of heaven. While enduring the most acute sufferings, he wrote with a trembling hand to the Abbot of Bonneval, one of his dearest friends. It was his last letter.

“I have received,” said the kind and venerable old man, “with much gratitude, the marks of affection which you have sent me; but henceforth nothing can give me pleasure. What joy can a man taste who is overwhelmed with suffering? I have no moment of respite, except when I go entirely without food. I can say with Job that sleep has departed from me, lest the insensibility of sleep should hinder me from feeling my sufferings.

“My stomach can no longer endure any food, and yet it causes me pain when I leave it altogether empty. My feet and my legs are swelled with dropsy; but, that I may conceal nothing from your heart, which interests itself in all that concerns me, I must confess, though, perhaps, somewhat imprudently, that amid all these evils my soul sinks not; the spirit is ready in a weak frame.

“Pray to our Lord, who desires not the death of sinners, to keep me at my departure out of this world, and not to delay this departure. It is time for me to die. Aid with your prayers a man devoid of all merit, that in this momentous hour the tempter may not triumph over me. In this my extremity, I have yet desired to write to you with my own hand, to show you how much I love you, and that when you recognize my handwriting you may also recognize my heart; but I should have been much better pleased to have spoken than to have written.”

Silence and sorrow now mingled in the cloisters of Clairvaux. The monks surrounded the couch of their great father, contemplating, with a holy fear, the last shining of that bright star whose light was about to disappear from the horizon of this world, to rise more grand and glorious in the land of triumphant souls. The Saint himself seemed like some ripe and perfect fruit bound to this life by a slight thread, which the least motion might break. He received the Sacraments of the Church, and, while awaiting his last hour, we find him lovingly employed in comforting his children.

“I know not,” said he, casting a glance toward heaven, “to which I ought to yield – the love of my children which urges me to stay here, or the love of my God which draws me to Him.”

These were his last words. The tolling of the bells, accompanying the funeral chants intoned by the deep voices of seven hundred monks, interrupted the profound silence of the valley, and announced to the world the death of the incomparable Saint Bernard. It was about nine in the morning, on the 20th of August, 1153. The Saint was sixty-three years of age. For forty years he had been consecrated to Christ in the cloister, and for thirty-eight he had exercised the office of Abbot. He left behind him seven hundred monks at Clairvaux, and one hundred and sixty monasteries, founded in different nations of Europe and Asia.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux and Doctor of the Church”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 22 January 2019. <>