AUGUST 20 is the traditional feast day of ST. BERNARD, Abbot and Doctor of the Church (+1153). This saint was a major leader of Benedictine monasticism, through the newly found Cistercian order.
Born about 1090, in Burgundy, France, near Dijon, he was the son of the very pious and virtuous Tescelin de Fontaine and his wife Alethe de Montbard. Bernard was one of 6 brothers and one sister. The seven children were taught deep respect for mercy and justice, as well as a loyal affection for others. Faith and morals were taken seriously. He was sent to school in Chatillon, over 50 miles from home, as a young child. There he was known for his piety and his great powers of recollection. His goal was the education needed to climb the ecclesiastical ladder. He moved to the higher education offered at Chatillon to study theology and Holy Scriptures.
When Bernard was 18, his mother died. He was affected by a fear of living in the current culture and began to think of living a life of austerity. Finishing his education, Bernard convinced his brothers and 25 of his closest friends to follow him into the Cistercian abbey near Dijon, where St. Stephen Harding was the current abbot. The men were accepted into the novitiate for the next year. Bernard professed the very next year, 1114, and he continued his theological studies for another year.
By then, St. Stephen was impressed with Bernard’s spiritual life and sent Bernard and 12 others, including Bernard’s uncle, out to found another abbey, 70 miles away, on the Burgundy/ Champagne border. This was Clairvaux. Bernard was immediately named abbot. Physically, this was a far from perfect spot and the men suffered hardships and deprivations for a decade before the abbey became self-sustaining.
During the next 25 years or so, Bernard and his men founded a number of other monasteries. 200 years later there were 500 Cistercian abbeys throughout Europe, all of which asked the men to live a very primitive and austere life.
Bernard preached a Christianity of intimate love of God, which one can come to know immediately, as opposed to a scholastic analytic way of looking at God. He debated the foremost authorities of scholasticism. He wrote about coming to God by understanding Mary, the start of the Mariological school of thought. About 300 works of his are still extant.
All this activity drew the attention of several popes. Bernard became advisor to several, assisting and writing at councils.
In the last decade of his life, suffering from anemia, migraines, gastritis and hypertension, Bernard went out to Germany and France, preaching the need for a second Crusade. Unfortunately, the men who answered his call were mercenaries, not fighters for Christ, and the crusade failed. This affected him greatly and he was blamed for the failure.
“Whence arises the love of God? From God. And what is the measure of this love? To love without measure.” St. Bernard