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Bernard of Clairvaux – a new contemplative community

Date: Feb 4th 2022

Bernard of Clairvaux, was a French abbot and a major leader in the reform of Benedictine monasticism that caused the establishment of the Cistercian (Trappist) contemplative order. He  was known in his day for his teachings and sermons primarily on how to love God. He was the best known spiritual authority in Europe in the 12th century. Bernard’s writing was given high marks by the intellectuals; it was creative, passionate and focused, and concerns basically the human relationship to the Christian God. His was a most busy monk: he established over 60 monastic communities in 35 years. His writings on Love and monastic leadership helped him earn the title of Doctor of the Catholic Church and eventually Sainthood.

Family Early Life:

Born in 1090 of Burgundian land owning aristocracy, France was populated primarily by peasants at this time. Bernard grew up in a family of five brothers and one sister. His family life engendered in him a deep respect for mercy, justice, and loyal affection for others. Faith and morals were taken seriously. Both his parents were exceptional models of virtue. These family qualities greatly influenced his understanding of love.It is said that his mother, Aleth, exerted a virtuous influence upon Bernard only second to what Monica had done for Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century. Her death, in 1107, so affected Bernard that he claimed that this is when his “long path to complete conversion” began. He turned away from his literary education, ecclesiastical advancement, toward a life of renunciation and solitude.

Entering the Monastery:

Bernard sought the counsel of the abbot of Cîteaux, Stephen Harding, and decided to enter this struggling, small, new community that had been established by Robert of Molesmes in 1098 as an effort to restore Benedictinism to a more primitive and austere pattern of life. Bernard took his time in terminating his domestic affairs and in persuading his brothers and some 25 companions to join him. He entered a small Benedictine community in 1112, and from then until 1115 he cultivated his spiritual and theological studies.

Bernard’s struggles with the flesh during this period may account for his early and rather consistent penchant for physical austerities. He was plagued most of his life by impaired health, which took the form of anemia, migraine, gastritis, hypertension, and an atrophied sense of taste.

Founder and abbot of Clairvaux

He was appointed to lead a small group of monks to establish a monastery at Clairvaux. This appointment led to Bernard becoming the abbot of the monastery which housed his newly formed Cistercian order. He entered this small Benedictine community in 1112, and from then until 1115 he cultivated his spiritual and theological studies which influenced his legacy of writings and sermons on loving God on the borders of Burgundy and Champagne.

Four brothers, an uncle, two cousins, an architect, and two seasoned monks under the leadership of Bernard endured extreme deprivations for well over a decade before Clairvaux was self-sufficient. Meanwhile, as Bernard’s health worsened, his spirituality deepened. Under pressure from his ecclesiastical superiors and his friends, notably the bishop and scholar William of Champeaux, he retired to a hut near the monastery and to the discipline of a quack physician. It was here that his first writings evolved. They are characterized by repetition of references to the Church Fathers and by the use of analogues, etymologies, alliterations, and biblical symbols, and they are imbued with resonance and poetic genius. It was here, also, that he produced a small but complete treatise on Mariology (study of doctrines and dogmas concerning the Virgin Mary),

“Praises of the Virgin Mother.” Bernard was to become a major champion of a moderate cult of the Virgin, though he did not support the notion of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.