St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Special thanks to Tony Black who researched and produced the following information about the life and times of our parish patron. It was first published as part of a parish booklet in December 2001.


Near Dijon, France in 1090. His parents were aristocratic, and very virtuous. His mother, Aleth, influenced him as much at St. Augustine's mother, Monica, had influenced Augustine in the fifth century.

Bernard was greatly affected by his mother's death, when he was 16. He said that this was when 'his long path to complete conversion' began. After prayer and thought, he turned away from the aristocratic life in 1107.

In 1112 at the struggling abbey of Citeaux, Bernard presented not only himself but persuaded four of his brothers, an uncle and about 20 friends in the Burgundian nobility to join. His powers of persuasion were evident at a young age! Their arrival revived the abbey.

In 1113 Bernard was professed at Citeaux, so becoming a 'Cisterian' monk. The abbot of Citeaux, Stephen Harding (an Englishman) had developed the Cistercian order. The were an off-shoot of the Benedictines, keeping stricter observance of the Rule of Benedict. The wore a white tunic, not black.

In 1118 Bernard was sent to the Champagne district to found a daughter abbey, at Clairvaux. For ten years the small group of brothers, uncle and cousins endured extreme hardship until the abbey was self-sufficient. But his health suffered: anaemia, gastritis, migraine..... He remained the abbot for the rest of his life, though frequently travelling.

Bernard, for his learning and forthright opinions, was consulted by kings, popes and emperors throughout Europe. He therefore struggled with the pull between serving others in the wider world and developing his private spirituality in the monastery. He eventually retreated to a hut nearby and there began his many writings, often interrupted by long religious and diplomatic journeys across Europe.

He had much influence on the 12th century politics of church and state. For example:

  • In 1128 he wrote the Rule for the Knights Templar, the defenders of the Holy Land. One rule said a man could not join until he was 21. This is where, for over 800 years, the "21st birthday" celebration came from.
  • In 1130 two Popes were elected. Bernard was asked to decide who was the real Pope - Innocent II or Anacletus II. He gave clear reasons for supporting Innocent, and most of Europe accepted this, though it took eight years of campaigning by Bernard to end the schism.
  • In 1145 his former pupil became Pope Eugenius III. Bernard wrote him a book of guidance, stressing the role of Pope as a spiritual leader rather than any kind of worldly prince. Bernard played a major part in Church Councils.
  • In 1146 he preached all round Europe in favour of the Second Crusade to the Holy Land "since the Saviour is one again suffering in the place where he died for us". He was unjustly attacked for its failure.
  • In 1148 Bernard defended Jews in the Rhineland from massacre: ".... they are the same flesh and bone as the Messiah. If you injure them, you will wound the Lord himself, for they are the apple of his eye".

His lasting spiritual influence lies in the influence he had on monastic life throughout Europe. Many who heard his eloquent preaching were drawn to the Cistercian order. He personally helped found over sixty abbeys, including Rievaux (N. Yorks) in 1132, Whitland (Dyfed) in 1140, Mellifont (Co. Louth) in 1142 and Boxley (Kent) in 1146.

He was stylish and clear writer: over 300 letters, sermons and treatises survive, for example: "On the Love of God", "The Song of Songs", "On Consideration" (on papal duties), "In praise of the Virgin Mary", and "The life of St. Malachy of Armagh".

He taught simplicity: "God alone", reflected in the strong unadorned architecture of Cistercian abbeys (no gargoyles!). Through faith and prayer he sought to combine the spiritual life with the practical life.

Cistercian abbeys are renowned for their beautiful natural locations. The reflects Bernard's view of nature - very modern to our ears: "Believe me, for I know, you will find something far greater in the woods than in the books. Stone and trees will teach you that which you cannot learn from the masters".

Had Shakespeare read these word?

From "As You Like It" Act II, Scene I:

Duke: "And this our life, exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books and the running brooks. Sermons in stones and good in everything."

Had Wordsworth read them?

"One impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, of moral evil and of good, than all of sages can."

One topic not connected with him are the St. Bernard dogs of mountain rescue fame. Another saint - Bernard of Menthon (996-1081) - built shelters for travellers in his parish which included many Alpine passes. A pass is named after him, and so are the dogs, these were introduced much later.

Bernard died 20th August 1153, at 63, a good age for his time, especially considering the difficulties of all his many travels in those days. He was canonised in 1174, within twenty years of his death. He was named a 'Doctor' (Teacher) of the Church in 1830.

He promoted devotion to Our Lady but it is not certain that he wrote 'The Memorare'. This prayer only appeared 300 years after his death. It is, nevertheless, associated with him.