In the year 1112, a bright young nobleman embarked on an adventure that pioneered new pathspolitically, socially, and spirituallythroughout Western Europe.
His passion for the gospel and his charismatic personality were so attractive that he drew thirty other menpeers and eldersinto the adventure with him.
Over the next thirty-five years, hundreds of others would join him on his mission. His advice was sought by kings and popes; he unleashed an international army with the goal of recapturing the Holy Land. He resolved the most complex of disputes between church and state. His sermons and letters on Gods love melted the coldest of hearts and endeared him to the most unlikely combination of peopleyoung and old, rich and poor, noble and common. This was the legacy of Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who was both the busiest man of his century and an intensely personal, intimate lover of God.
Bernard was born in 1090 into a noble family in Fontaines, France. His father, Tescelin, was a knight, and all six of his brothers (he had one sister) were expected to follow in their fathers footsteps. Bernard, however, showed great intellectual promise, and he was sent to a renowned school at an early age. Both at school and at home, Bernard proved to be an active young man. He read all the literature he could get his hands on, and was always engaging his friends in debates and arguments. Like all the young noblemen of his time, he learned the ways of the court and, while there is no direct testimony, it is likely that he participated in some of the minor wars that were constantly springing up between the different noble families of his region.
A Pioneer. When he was twenty-three years old, Bernard entered the recently founded monastery of Citeaux, a few miles from his familys castle. So compelling was his anticipation of the new life he was about to embrace that Bernard managed to persuade thirty other noblemen, including his uncle and all of his brothers, to enter as well. Citeaux was an experimental monastery whose goal was to breathe new life into the venerable Benedictine tradition, and such a prospect must have appealed to these young adventurers. Like the youth of today, the challenge of a new thing, the appeal of pioneering a new way of life, captured their imaginations as they asked how they could best serve God and his church.
Just three years after he entered Citeaux, Bernard was chosen to lead a group of monks in opening a new monastery in Langres, Champagne. Bernard named the monastery Clairvaux, or Clear Valley, reversing the tradition of calling the region The Valley of Bitterness. He was only twenty-five years old, but Bernards wisdom, his passionate love for God, and his obvious capacity for leadership made him the logical choice.
News of the success at Clairvauxespecially of the young noblemen who joined Bernardspread, and soon the house was filled to capacity. In 1118, Bernard sent out a band of monks to start a monastery in Chalons. A year later, another group was sent to Dijon, and in 1121, another group went to Soisson. The pace continued throughout his thirty-five year administration, and by the end of his life Bernard was responsible for having founded sixty- eight monasteries, stretching from Scandinavia to Portugal and from England to central Europe.
A Counselor and Diplomat. In every house he founded, Bernard saw to it that the brothers were deeply rooted in Christ through personal prayer, scripture, and the liturgical rhythm of Benedictine life. His primary responsibility was to foster a deep love for Jesus in his brothers so that whatever work they undertook would be marked by humility, wisdom, and gentleness. To this end, he wrote a treatise entitled On The Steps of Humility and Pride and A Letter on Love, both around the year 1124.
As Bernards men spread throughout Europe, his influence and reputation grew as well. In 1128, at the request of the Archbishop of Sens, he wrote another treatise: On the Conduct and Duties of Bishops. This was a somewhat risky undertaking, since it had the potential of putting him on the wrong side of the hierarchy. His worst fears went unrealized, however, and Bernard was invited to participate in the Council of Troyes later in that year. From that point, Bernards place in higher circles of church and state was secured. He alternated his attention between the care of his monasteries and the public arena, all the time preserving and deepening his love for Jesus through his treasured monastic life.
Bernard spent five years trying to resolve a split in the church that had given rise to the election of two rival popes. He crisscrossed Europe preaching the Second Crusade, urging knights and rulers throughout Christendom to fight, not for treasures or land, but out of love for Christ. They were not to give in to the bloodthirstiness that characterized previous wars. Rather, they were to lay down their lives to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of unbelievers. Needless to say, Bernard was deeply saddened by the soldiers inability to uphold such spiritual aimsthe reason, he believed, why the Crusade was a massive failure.
An Active Lover of God. Bernard was an intense man, and he brought this intensity into his relationship with God. Not content simply with reciting prayers and psalms, Bernard wanted to know this God to whom he had dedicated his life. Unless he had experienced God, he felt he could not speak about him. Unless he had experienced Gods love, he felt he could not urge others to seek this love.
Bernards writings testify that his seeking was rewarded far beyond his expectations. Throughout his commentaries and sermons he consistently refers to his own experiences of God, personal and intimate though they were. With as capable and talented a mind as he had, Bernard could easily have focused his attention on the intellectual sphere alone, becoming a noted theologian. But this was never enough. If God is love, then to know God is to know loveliving, active, effective. If Scripture spoke about Jesus as a bridegroom and a lover seeking his bride, then those who wanted to follow the Lord were invited to experience an embrace of love so intimate that the only human analogy that drew close to it was the union of a husband and wife.
This is the logic behind Bernards Sermons on the Song of Songs, a project he pursued for almost twenty years, even as he kept up with all his other responsibilities. Rather than produce a verse-by-verse commentary, Bernard used this biblical love poem as a pretext for speaking about the way Jesus had won his heart. It is a telling fact that Bernard wrote eighty-six sermons on the Song, yet he only made it up to the first verse of the third chapter!
A Man of Contemplation and Action. For Bernard, it was an ever-deepening encounter with the transforming love of God that gave him the motivation to take up such an active and public life. Even when he threw himself into his roles as diplomat or administrator or arbiter, in his heart was always a desire to return to his home of Clairvaux. More than anything, he treasured his times of intimacy with the Lord, when he could allow the limitless love of his Savior to flood his heart and mind. In one of his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard explained this relationship:
After the Bridegroom has gazed on the soul with kindness and mercy, his voice softly whispers the divine will. His voice is love itself, and love never rests but is continually urging the heart to do Gods bidding. The spouse also hears the call to rise up in haste and take up the work of saving souls. The nature of true, pure contemplation is such that, while kindling the heart with divine love, it sometimes fills it with great zeal to win other souls for God. The heart gladly gives up the quiet of contemplation for the work of preaching. Once its desires are fulfilled, the heart quickly returns to contemplation, as to the source of good works. In the same way, once it has tasted anew the delights of contemplation, it joyfully dedicates itself to new works. (57.9)
When he died in 1153, Bernard left behind the witness of a man who was a successful politician, businessman, and diplomat because the man was a successful lover of Christ. As he was filled with Gods love, he rightly understood the challenges and demands of his age and responded to them effectively. Increasingly freed from the self-love that is at the root of all sin, Bernard moved beyond his own needs and desires to meet the needs of those around him.
Leo Zanchettin is editor of The Word Among Us.