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Bernard of Clairvaux |
More powerful than pope or prince

Bernard of Clairvaux is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 82, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Loved and feared, advocate and agitator, irritant and pacifier, visionary and vigilante, Bernard of Clairvaux dominated Christendom but never lost his anguished humility

Bernard of Clairvaux - More powerful than pope or prince

Bernard of Clairvaux - More powerful than pope or prince
BERNARD ON THE BEST WAY TO FIND GOD: It is not necessary for you to cross the seas, nor to pierce the clouds, nor to climb mountains to meet your God. It is not a lengthy road that is set before you; you have only to enter into yourself to find him.

There is but one opinion held by all the faithful shepherds among us. Namely that justice is vanishing in the Church, that the power of the keys is gone, that episcopal authority is altogether turning rotten, while not a bishop is able to avenge the wrongs done to God, nor is allowed to punish any misdeeds whatever, not even in his own diocese. And the cause of this they put down to you and the Roman court.

The author of this denunciation of papal incompetence and corruption was neither a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer nor a thirteenth-century skeptical emperor warring, as usual, with the bishop of Rome. He was, in fact, a twelfth-century monk who, although he yearned for tranquil communion with God in the cloister, was dragged away from that refuge times without number to serve five popes, to become the storm center of a dozen or more major controversies, and to go to his grave recognized as the most spiritually powerful figure of his era.

Such was Bernard of Clairvaux, the man chiefly responsible for the explosive growth of the Cistercian order and for the reform movement of Benedictine monasticism that swept western Europe in the twelfth century, bringing into being about 340 new monasteries, as many as 163 of them founded by Bernard himself. They represented a tough renewal of the monastic ideal, in notable contrast to the far less demanding Cluniac Benedictines, who two centuries earlier had themselves wrought a similarly radical reform (see volume 6, chapter 1).

But Bernard’s undoubted skills as a mediator, arbitrator, visionary, cheerleader, agitator, irritant, and vigilante on behalf of popes (whom he helped to elect and also freely castigated, as in the excerpt above) saw him repeatedly called from his beloved monastery at Clairvaux and plunged into theological and ecclesiastical controversy. One such summons led to the worst miscall of his life. At the behest of Pope Eugene III, himself a Cistercian, he preached the disastrous Second Crusade (see chapter 3) and had to live thereafter with its onerous consequences.

That such an incendiary personality drew respect is understandable; he solved major problems and enhanced thousands of lives. Unlike Francis of Assisi or the sainted King Louis IX of France, however, his image in the historical record is hardly endearing. Adulatory contemporary accounts, for example, insistently emphasize his “piety”–a word that both then and now can carry a strong odor of self-righteousness. Yet Bernard of Clairvaux had nothing of the pharisee, his admirers insist. Acutely conscious of his faults, he easily laughed at himself and before he died squarely faced the central ambiguity of his life. As he wrote to a friend,

It is time for me to remember myself. May my monstrous life, my bitter conscience, move you to pity. I am a sort of modern chimera, neither cleric nor layman. I have kept the habit of a monk, but I have long ago abandoned the life. I do not wish to tell you what I dare say you have heard from others: what I am doing, what are my purposes, through what dangers I pass in the world, or rather down what precipices I am hurled.

He may indeed have thought himself a sinful failure, this man who yearned from childhood to seek and serve God as a monk. His father was a crusader knight. His equally devout mother, the austere Aleth of Montbard, dressed her six sons as monks and fed them and their only sister on a hermit’s diet. But Aleth always considered Bernard special. While pregnant with him, recounts Abbot William of Thierry, his friend and first biographer, she dreamed that she carried in her womb a barking dog. Do not be alarmed, she was counseled, for this “dog” would become the guardian of the Lord’s house, barking at enemies of the faith and licking its master’s wounds “clean of all that may poison them.”1

This prophecy he would certainly fulfill. Aleth died in 1103, when Bernard was thirteen, but her influence continued. The boy was meticulously educated and is recorded as heroically surviving his youthful combats with carnality. In one instance young Bernard reportedly resisted sexual sin by plunging himself up to the neck in cold water; in another he summarily evicted from his bed a predatory married woman. At twenty-one he arrived at the abbey of Citeaux to join a faltering circle of thirteen monastic reformers there, the beginning of the Cistercian order. But he did not come alone. With him were some thirty other eager young recruits, early evidence of his powers of persuasion. They included some of his brothers, all five of whom would eventually join along with, finally, their father. Their sister would become a nun.

The Cistercians had been founded fourteen years earlier by a Cluniac abbot “appalled by the laxity into which the Order of Cluny had fallen,” says the Catholic Encyclopedia. They saw themselves as a corrective to the dominant Benedictines, known from their dress as the “black monks,” many of whose scores of monasteries were directed by Cluny (see volume 6, chapter 1). Though they still nominally followed the sixth-century rule of St. Benedict–“stability, obedience, and conversion of life”–things had definitely slackened, in the view of the Cistercians. “I chose Citeaux in preference to Cluny,” wrote Bernard, “because I was conscious that my weak character needed strong medicine.”

For the early Cistercians, who from their white habits became known as the “white monks,” pleasure was not minimal; it was totally denied. Food was sparse, plain, and unappetizing. Manual labor was mandatory. Architectural ornamentation was shunned. Reading was largely confined to the Scriptures and the church fathers. Citeaux, then verging on early extinction, would be saved by Bernard’s early infusion of recruits. Scores, hundreds, and then thousands of men would soon follow until Cistercian abbeys dotted Europe.

One of the first such “missions” was Clairvaux, founded in 1115 with Bernard himself as its abbot. A rude habitation situated in a rugged and desolate gorge, Clairvaux would become his lifelong base and refuge. Here pilgrims could come to hear his renowned sermons. Here also he likely produced much of his written work on the grace of God that would captivate so many earnest seekers and composed the hymns that so plainly radiate his unabashed love for Jesus.2

It might actually be considered miraculous that Bernard even survived his first years at Clairvaux, where he reportedly embraced Cistercian privations with a youthful zeal that nearly killed him. He wore a hair shirt under his habit and forsook food and sleep until he became so ill as to impair his health for life. His skin took on a translucent pallor, and his digestive system was so unsettled that, to the distress of fellow monks, he would suddenly vomit during liturgies. (A basin had to be installed in the floor at his place in the choir.) Finally a friendly bishop had a small house built outside the monastery boundaries, and there for a full year Bernard was put on an improved diet under the dictatorial eye of a physician (though the physician, according to one account, was a “quack”).

Sick or not, Bernard was already involved in the first of the imbroglios that would absorb so much of his life. The target was Cluny, whose lifestyle and majestic monasteries he castigated with typic-ally satirical invective:

Quite apart from the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, their costly polishings, which attract the worshipper’s gaze and hinder his attention, let’s let all this pass. . . . We are supposed to be monks who have left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ’s sake, who have counted but dung the things fair to look at, or soothing to hear, sweet to smell, delightful to taste, or pleasant to touch–in a word all bodily delights. So pray tell me, whose devotion do you aim to excite by all these things?

This conflict worsened after Pope Innocent II visited Clairvaux in 1131 and was fed a pauper’s meal of bread and fish, then visited Cluny the next year and feasted like royalty. The impoverished should not support the affluent, the pope decided, and cut off the traditional levy Clairvaux was required to pay Cluny, perpetuating the conflict for another twenty years. It was eased, however, by Cluny’s abbot, the affable Peter the Venerable, whose response to Bernard’s acid observations could hardly have been milder: “Candid and terrible friend,” he began, “what could quench my affection for you?” Like so many of Bernard’s targets, Peter became his fast friend.

So did Innocent II, the man to whom he addressed the castigation of the papacy that leads this subchapter. “The Church,” Bernard fumed, “is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor. She clothes her stones in gold and leaves her sons in rags.” This sort of thing, along with his moving sermons on the power of the grace of God, would cause Protestants four centuries later to hail him as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation and Luther to call him “the greatest of monks.” Bernard was actually the papacy’s most outspoken champion, and for centuries popes would cite his essays on its necessity and obligations. But his praise was conditional: he lauded what the papacy was supposed to do, rarely what it was doing.

Similar ambiguity attended his passionate devotion to the Virgin Mary, a veneration that had long flourished in the Orthodox Church and had become increasingly evident in the West since the tenth century. Bernard was the first to call her “Our Lady,” writes the historian Henri Daniel-Rops in his biography (Bernard of Clairvaux), and he advised his followers, “Do you want an advocate near Jesus? Turn to Mary. I will say it unhesitatingly. The Son will listen to his Mother and the Father to his Son. This is the sinners’ ladder.”

Yet when theologians began pressing to have the conception of Mary declared “immaculate,” Bernard was opposed. If Mary was never subject to original sin, she would never have needed a redeemer, he reasoned. Yet Mary herself acknowledged her “Savior” in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47). The Immaculate Conception of Mary was not proclaimed as a dogma of the Catholic Church for another seven centuries.3

In 1127, renowned throughout Europe as a teacher and evangelist, Bernard received the kind of papal summons that would largely separate him from the monastic life for his remaining twenty-six years. He was asked to act as secretary for a church council at Troyes in 1128, and his report greatly irked the papal secretary, Cardinal Harmeric. “It is not fitting,” the cardinal indignantly protested, “that noisy and troublemaking frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.” Bernard’s reply was such a skillful blend of deep respect and delicate sarcasm that it amused and delighted much of the college of cardinals, making him thereafter the favored designate for “sensitive” jobs.

These rapidly arrived, with three in 1130 alone. One was to lecture the archbishop of Sens and the bishop of Paris on episcopal responsibilities. Bernard’s communiqué with the archbishop in this case was by no means subtle: “You are so despicable, so hard to deal with that I had resolved to do nothing more for you. You discourage your defenders in advance and create your own accusers. In all circumstances, you know no law but your own pleasure. Your every act is despotic. You never think of God nor do you fear him.”

A far more climactic endeavor was to decide between two claimants to the papal throne. One had taken the title Anacletus II and was backed by money and an army. The other, Innocent II, was supported by most of the cardinals, most of France, and all of Germany, Spain, and England. Innocent II, having been banished from Rome by Anacletus, took refuge in France. King Louis VI convened a national council of the French bishops at Etampes and with the consent of the bishops summoned Bernard there to judge between the rival popes. He decided in favor of Innocent II as the most “pious, disinterested and morally the most worthy” and because he had been chosen by “the sanest party.”

This caused Innocent to be recognized by all the great Catholic powers. Bernard next reconciled Pisa and Genoa with the pope and attended the Council of Reims at the side of Innocent II, whose oracle he became. Anacletus, backed by his army, held Rome and clung to the papal office until he died eight years later. His chosen successor soon yielded to Innocent, however, after Bernard’s eloquence swayed the people of Rome to Innocent’s cause.

Battling for Innocent had meanwhile plunged Bernard into a whole series of new confrontations, the sharpest with Duke William of Aquitaine, father of the flamboyant Eleanor (see sidebar page 72) and a backer of Anacletus. First, wrote William of Thierry, Bernard spoke quietly to the duke, who agreed–but only in part. Then Bernard, “with eyes no longer meek and persuasive, but blazing and full of menace,” warned his noble adversary that by flouting the church and most of the people of Aquitaine, he would face the judgment of Christ. “Do you dare despise him,” thundered the monk, dwarfed beside the huge William, “as you have despised most of us and your people? Tell me! Do you dare?” whereupon the duke, a giant of a man, collapsed groaning. When he awoke, he capitulated entirely, and Bernard, in a voice remarkably changed, addressed him as a father would and urged him to keep his word.

In 1139 began the first of his two most celebrated battles, his victorious showdown with the brilliant Abelard (detailed on pages 188—189). The other was the heresy trial in 1148 of Bishop Gilbert of Poitiers, who was accused of teaching that God’s nature never did become incarnate in Jesus Christ because the attributes of God could not take fleshly form. (Gilbert, in fact, denied the accusation, and teachings such as these were never found in his published works.) After hearing Bernard’s refutation, he declared that he believed as Bernard believed and did not believe what he was accused of teaching. The church condemned the teaching ascribed to Gilbert but did not condemn Gilbert himself.

Something definitely not a victory began that same year, when Bernard so convincingly preached the Second Crusade, which sent thousands of young men to what proved to be pointless deaths. For this he shouldered all the blame, although most of it rightly belonged with the crusade’s commanders. Bernard, writes John Richard Meyer in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “was an idealist with the ascetic ideals of Citeaux grafted on those of his father’s knightly tradition and his mother’s piety, who read into the hearts of the crusaders–many of whom were bloodthirsty fanatics–his own integrity of motive.”

Idealist he may have been, but he was also preeminently human. The death of his brother Gerard, his favorite, shook him to the core in grief. Reminded that grief was of the flesh, not the spirit, he brokenly replied,

You tell me, “Do not weep!” My entrails have been torn from me and they tell me, “Do not feel pain!” I confess my suffering. “It is very carnal,” they tell me. It is human, I admit. But I also admit that I am a man. It is carnal, I well know, as I also know that I am carnal, given over to sin, condemned to die and subject to suffering. What do you expect? I am not insensitive to pain. I have a horror of death, for my own people and for myself. Gerard has left me. I suffer. I am wounded to death.

There, some might say, was Bernard of Clairvaux at his clearest and best. He himself died at his monastery on August 23, 1153, of the digestive disease that had plagued him so long. Pope Alexander III canonized him twenty-one years later, but controversy surrounded him after death as before it, and his reputation suffered, particularly in the eighteenth century’s age of rationalism. This lofty comment from philosopher-poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller is typical:

I have been absorbed by my study of St. Bernard these days, and am quite pleased by this acquaintance. It would be difficult to find another equally clever spiritual rogue in such an excellent position for playing such a dignified role. He was the oracle of his time and controlled his time, in spite of the fact, and especially because of the fact, that he remained aloof and let others stand in the important positions. Popes were his pupils and kings his creatures. He hated and oppressed as much as he could, and stimulated none but the greatest monkish stupidities. He himself was only a monk and possessed nothing but shrewdness and hypocrisy.

Perhaps the best response in Bernard’s defense would be to cite the Cistercian order. In the twentieth century it would number five thousand monks and nuns, mostly the “strict observant” Cistercians known as Trappists, who would expand from 82 monasteries in 1940 to 127 in 1970 and 169 by the year 2000. Fully 850 years after Bernard’s death (and some three hundred after Schiller’s), all these dedicated men and women would still be drawn by the imperishable influence of the tempestuous abbot from Clairvaux.

This is the end of the Bernard of Clairvaux category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 82, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Bernard of Clairvaux from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at