St. Bernard

(August 20)

Are you familiar with the Trappist Cistercians --those silent, austere farming monks who have an abbey at Piffard in the Diocese of Rochester? Well, these men mirror the life and values of their “second founder,” St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard was born into a noble French family in 1090 AD. As he grew up, he was admired for his good looks, sharp wits and warm disposition. But those who liked him for these surface qualities did not see his underlying desire to serve God alone.

Attracted to the Cistercian monks at Citeaux, he not only entered this strict monastery in 1112, but brought 31 relatives and friends with him into the religious life. How is that for leadership! Just three years later, his superiors were so pleased with him as a monk that they sent him off, though only 25, to found a new monastery. The locale was called “Wormwood Valley.” He changed the name to “Clairvaux,” “Valley of Light.” The new monastery quickly rose in population from 12 to 130. During his own lifetime, Bernard witnessed the foundation of 767 more Trappist-Cistercian monasteries in many countries.

If he had had his “druthers,” St. Bernard would have spent his whole life within the walls of the cloister. But this was not to be. Most saints are not geniuses; Bernard was. He quickly became recognized as an expert on spiritual life, as a preacher without equal, and as a theological writer; eventually proclaimed a doctor of the Church.

He was recognized even more widely in his lifetime as a natural leader, called on to help Christendom wherever help was needed. Once, two men claimed to be pope. Bernard was brought in to defend the valid claimant. Abelard the philosopher was teaching errors, and the Albigensian sect, heresy. Bernard was brought in to refute both of them. The Holy Land, rescued in the First Crusade from the Muslims, was reconquered by them. Bernard was brought in to preach the Second Crusade (and unfairly blamed when the Crusade fizzled). Even in 1153, when Bernard was in his last illness, the Archbishop of Trier pleaded with him to leave the monastery and make peace between the citizens of Metz and the Duke of Lorraine. Again, the saint succeeded, but he died on August 20 of the same year.

Bernard of Clairvaux was thus both a mystic and a leader. “St. Bernard’s Glove” is a good symbol of both talents.

The glove is a relic that has come down from him. On each finger is embroidered a little French motto of Christian behavior. “Merci” (“Say thanks!”). “Volontiers (“Be generous!”). Qu’ importe?” (“Ignore trifles!”). “Tais-toi” (“Don’t Say it!”) and “Confie-toi” (“Be of good heart!”).

Try that on for size!

--Father Robert F. McNamara