St. Bernard of Clairaux

Author: David Knowles


David M. Knowles

St. Bernard, long before he received the title of Doctor of the Church, had become part of the common inheritance of the Church's children. A majority, perhaps even the great majority, of canonized saints are wholly unknown outside a region or a religious family; others have a world-wide clientele, but only among theologians or the devout; a few are figures in world history, whose personality and actions molded the life of their day and attract the notice of all who read of the past. In this last group, and not among its shadows, stands St. Bernard. He is indeed there on more than one title. As a great religious statesman, as the leader and spokesman of a celebrated order, as a theologian, and as a writer and speaker of genius he can make his claim.

To the historian he is perhaps most remarkable for his achievement on the stage of Church politics. It is hard to name any other, not occupying the chair of St. Peter--St. Athanasius is the only possible rival--who so determined the policy and the fortunes of the Church as he. He confirmed one pope and instructed another; he confounded anti-popes and revolutionaries; he put down dynasts from their seats in Church and state; he determined the agenda at Councils; he sent Christendom on a crusade. He challenged and engaged single-handed the greatest monastic confederation that the Western Church had seen, and the acutest mind that the new dialectic had tempered. And all the time he was drawing to his abbey of Clairvaux, and sending as colonists all over Europe, a corps d'élite that counted among its numbers a pope, cardinals, bishops, and saints not a few. Had he been no more than a Cistercian abbot, his fame would have been secure. When, at the age of twenty-two and in the year 1112, he arrived at the gates of Cîteaux as a postulant --with twenty-nine relatives whom he had won to his ideal--the new abbey of Cîteaux, to outward sight, was on the point of foundering. Poverty, austerity and disease had killed many and deterred more. With Bernard's arrival it was as if a great spring had been tapped. When he died the progeny of Cîteaux numbered 339 houses, and his own abbey of Clairvaux had 68 daughters and 159 lineal descendants. As for the numbers of their monks, who shall tell them? Bernard's magnetism was indeed irresistible. He could launch armies on the road to Jerusalem, and call legions to the cloister. Wherever he went, we are told, mothers feared for their sons, and brides for their husbands, as they were to do centuries later at the passage of Napoleon. The whole world, it was said, was turning into Cîteaux.

The spiritual teaching of St. Bernard has never been neglected by the monastic order, and his treatises have throughout the centuries given joy to the city of God, but the historical personality of the saint has been strangely neglected by scholars and historians almost to our own day. Even now no fully satisfactory biography, no adequate critical edition of his works, exists. The classical Life of Vacandard, supplemented by articles in the great French Dictionnaires, is still indispensable, but, even apart from the precisions which every year has added to the story, it somehow fails to present the living Bernard. A Life to end all other Lives is even now in the making, but can any Life be adequate? A biographer of Bernard might well feel that had he a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths and a voice of iron, he could not comprehend all in his pages. A Life of Bernard becomes almost insensibly a history of Europe, in which dates and facts and unfamiliar names and episodes come crowding in till the sight of the wood is lost behind the endless trees.

Nor have the biographers with tightened rein fared better. St. Bernard, whose own voice could kindle a fire of desire or shatter an opposing adversary, has emerged a pale shadow from the hands of apologists and expositors, and has suffered from the misunderstanding and sheer ignorance of historians. And, although we have so many of his own words, and a chain of early biographies, all are, with scarcely an exception, too studied and too polished to give us those intimate incidents and sayings that make such unique records of Eadmer's Life of Anselm and the early Lives of St. Francis.

St. Bernard the Towering Figure

What was it in St Bernard that made him the towering figure that he was? Circumstances are no explanation of genius, but they may help it to expand, and undoubtedly one reason of St. Bernard's influence was his long life as master of himself and in high place. Many saints--an Augustine, a Dominic, a Teresa, a Vincent--have spent many years or decades of their lives in finding their salvation or their vocation; others--a Gabriel or a Thérèse-- have been made perfect in short space. For St. Bernard the decisive struggle was over before he came to Cîteaux; he was abbot at twenty-five, and for almost forty years he could act and speak as the father of an immense and saintly family. Then, the age and the man were exactly matched. The tide of reform was still running strongly, and with all the anarchy and evils of the time there were everywhere some men at least in high office who were united in their aims. Moreover, the monastic ideal was acknowledged by the whole of western Christendom; the monastic life seemed to most the one and only ideal Christian life. Finally, Bernard was at the heart of the greatest monastic revival the West had ever seen; in his later years he had his marshals, his garrisons, his storm-troops everywhere. With one of his sons in the chair of Peter, and others in sees from York to the Mediterranean, he was at the center of a network which he could use for intelligence, for propaganda and for execution.

Every human personality is unique, and the richer and deeper the personality, the more is it distinguished from all others. Among the saints, ex hypothesi the most fully developed of all human beings, the variety is infinite. Nor can the historian, whom even the play of motive eludes, catch the workings of grace. Nevertheless, among the saints two broad classes appear. There are those who are roused and raised from a life of sin or mediocrity to sanctity, the so-called `twice-born', such as St. Paul and St. Augustine, and there are those whose life resembles, all due proportions guarded, those of Our Lady or St. John the Baptist; they seem sealed and set apart to a dedicated life from the waters of Baptism. With the former we can often watch the struggle between good and evil, with the latter we can only guess how they were called and strengthened to accept and not to fail, to cooperate and to receive, as wave after wave of grace came upon them. St. Bernard was clearly of this latter sort. From childhood, from infancy, he was a privileged soul. There is no hint, either in his writings or in his biographies, that he had ever closed his eyes to the light or slipped back. There was no great moral or psychological crisis in his youth. When he hesitated for a few months on the threshold of manhood, the choice was not between good and evil, God and the world, but between a life of letters and a life of solitude. Even then the hesitation was brief. For the rest his life, so far as we can observe it, was a series of responses to the demand for a love exclusive and heroic, and because such a love of God exceeds our experience and strains our sympathies, biographers of the saints take refuge either in silence or devotional exclamations. Moreover, though he wrote so much and was such an artist in words, and though in some of his sermons he professedly speaks of himself, Bernard is in a sense an extrovert. He was not interested in his own past and his own growth, as were Augustine, Ailred and the two Teresas. Even when he speaks of himself it is, so to say, Bernard speaking of the historical Bernard rather than a soul revealing itself.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that for the many who admire St. Bernard, either as a teacher or as a leader, or as a master of words and worker of wonders, there are few who have for him that personal love that the four saints just mentioned can evoke. With them we feel that we have a spark of kinship, however remote; they would understand and counsel us. With Bernard it is not so. Yet this is not the true picture of him. Bernard could be all things to all men; his biographer tells us not only that his counsel was sought, by letter and face to face, all over Christendom, but that he was happiest and most himself in the daily relations with his monks. The same biographer, who knew him well, goes on to say that with his monks he was not only most himself, but that he used a simplicity of intercourse with them which the world did not know.

Fortitude: the Most Characteristic of All the Virtues

Bernard's feats of endurance and the interminable list of his wonders fill almost all the space in his biographies that is not given to his achievements as founder of Clairvaux and her many daughters, as champion of the Church, and as the hammer of heretics. Bernard the friend, even Bernard the father in God, are lost. More strangely still, Bernard's real fortitude is lost also; he becomes a champion whose victories are assured by his skill and prowess in arms. Yet fortitude, both in secret and in facie ecclesiae, is perhaps the most characteristic of all his virtues. Every saint is what he is through charity alone, but in every human personality some characteristics are more obvious than others. In Bernard it is his fortitude, his utter fearlessness. Fortitude is as essential a part of the Christian character as is humility; both in the last resort spring from a love of God which obliterates human apprehensions and values; but the fortitude of many saints of recent times has been shown only in secret to a few and in the private relationships of life. Bernard's was shown pre-eminently in his external dealings with men. Here again his biographers have done him a disservice. They show him at war only with open heresy and vice and tyranny. In fact, he denounced and fought against falsehood, worldliness and weakness wherever he saw them, however revered or exalted might be the object of his attack. A more faithful servant of the pope could not be found, but neither could one be found who had a clearer sense of the duties and obligations of that sublime office. Bernard did not hesitate to tell a pope what he should do, and what he should have done; he did not hesitate to tell him that he had neglected his duty. Biographers are apt to give the impression that only simoniacs and interlopers were Bernard's targets. In fact, he did not hesitate to thwart, denounce and uproot bishops who to the eyes of their contemporaries were passable, even respectable, or at least were secure and powerful. If he was convinced that a bishop or an abbot or a community was bad, he said so. Like the man in the nonsense rhyme, he said it very loud and clear, and went on saying it. He did not mince his words or pull his punches. If he was persuaded that the great Henry of Winchester, legate of the Apostolic See and brother of a king, disgraced his high office and his monastic profession by his ambition and his riches, he called him, in well chosen scriptural phrases, a whore and a wizard. The bishop's protégé, the archbishop of York, was, he said, an idol set up in the temple of the Lord. If authority was remiss in acting or punishing, Bernard lashed authority and gave it no rest till, like the judge in the parable, as if fearful of physical violence, it was driven to act. But behind the fire and the eloquence the courage was not that of a knight-errant, still less that of a Quixote; it was the fortitude of Christ, despised as a Galilean and unlettered in the law, challenging and accusing the priests and lawyers because they set human respect and the traditions of men before the law of God; it was a fortitude that owed its clear sight of God's truth to a purity won in the secret conflict with pain and fatigue and physical illness.

The legendary austerity, the reputation for drastic and intolerant action, and the ceaseless activity of Bernard, suggest to the casual reader an iron constitution and physical powers that answered every call made upon them. Assuredly he came of a race of fighters, and had imposed his leadership upon the whole family while yet a young man in the world; he was tall and handsome as a youth, with a charm and grace of manner, and a gaiety which he never lost. But from his early years in the monastery, whether from unhealthy food, or excessive fasting, or from some cause which would elude medical science today as it did then, his health broke down utterly and never mended. For the whole of his adult life he was an invalid, brought more than once or twice to the edge of the grave. His earliest and most discerning biographer, William of St. Thierry, who spoke from long and loving observation, gives a number of realistic details which are hardly susceptible of presentation in English, but which establish beyond all doubt the painful and humiliating symptoms which made Bernard a burden to others as well as himself. During the greater part of his life his stomach repeatedly rejected all solid food. For a whole year in his early manhood as abbot he was forced to live apart from his monks in a hut because his physical presence was unbearable in choir or at table. He was, after his first years at Clairvaux, too weak to take part in any manual work; even walking exhausted him; and to his lifelong friends the characteristic memory was of a Bernard seated, emaciated and in pain. It was in such circumstances, which to most would seem an excuse for self-indulgence, self-pity and inertia, that Bernard guided his monks, made his foundations, wrote his treatises and journeyed across the Alps.

From The Dublin Review (1953) Vol. 227, pp. 104 sqq.