Some saints sequester themselves in monasteries, steeped in the contemplation of God, sometimes sharing their insights with us in the great spiritual masterpieces. Others take an active role in the life of the Church, leaving their mark on the great debates, questions, and controversies of their day.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux was both.
St. Bernard, whose feast day is today, is best remembered as the founder of the great reforming Cistercian order in the 12th century. He also was a great preacher and teacher, authoring classic works such as On Loving God. His homilies on Advent and Christmas and the Song of Songs are must-reading for anyone looking to deepen their spiritual life. (He is also the author of the Memorare prayer and the hymn, O Sacred Head Surrounded.) So greatly esteemed is his spiritual and theological writing that St. Bernard is sometimes called the “last of the Fathers” even though the era of the Church Fathers is normally supposed to have ended many centuries before his time.
Here’s just a taste of the saint who is also known as the “Mellifluus” Doctor (or “honey-dripping”):
It is the spirit of wisdom and understanding which, like a bee bearing both wax and honey, is able to kindle the light of knowledge and to pour in the savor of grace. Hence, let nobody think he has received a kiss, neither he who understands the truth but does not love it, nor he who loves the truth but does not understand it.
In like fashion, St. Bernard warned, “What would be the good of learning without love? It would puff up. And love without learning? It would go astray” And again: “Merely to shine is futile; merely to burn is not enough; to burn and to shine is perfect” (as cited in the encyclical Doctor Mellifluus).
St. Bernard was a simple abbot who spent 40 of his 63 years in a monastery. But he was also engaged in some of the biggest controversies and battles of his time, laboring as a crusade preacher, heresy-killer, and schism-healer. As Catholic historian Warren Carroll puts it:
No man before or since who held no office of power throughout his life bestrode his age as did this monk of genius and of leashed but flaming passion, juridically only one of the many hundreds of abbots in the Church, yet the terror and inspiration of emperors and kings, the shield and sword—and where necessary the goad—of Popes (Glory of Christendom, 31).
Bernard first stepped onto the stage in 1128 at the Council of Troyes in France, where he was appointed secretary of the council and received a delegation of the Knights of the Temple (the Knights Templar) who asked the saint to draw up a rule for their new order (which he did). Bernard was also charged with drafting the statutes of the council. So involved was he in the business of the council that one cardinal scolded him for it, in a letter cited by the Catholic Encyclopedia. “It is not fitting,” the cardinal wrote, “that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.”
Over the ensuing decades, that marsh frog was to prove indispensable to preserving the moral and spiritual order of Christendom.
Bernard performed a signal service to the Church in the papal schism that broke out in 1130. In a letter to a council convened in France to decide between the contenders, Bernard announced his support for Pope Innocent II over antipope Cardinal Pierleoni.
Bernard did much more than write letters. He actively campaigned for the recognition of Innocent III across the continent. When the king of England, Henry I—the son of William the Conqueror—protested that he could not determine which claimant to the papal throne was lawfully elected and feared that he might sin in preferring either one (according to Carroll), St. Bernard responded:
Are you afraid of sinning by obeying Innocent? Just consider for how many other sins you have to answer to God! Leave this one to me; I will answer for it (as quoted in Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, by Watkin Williams, which is cited by Carroll).
Henry promptly sided with Innocent. When Bernard learned that Duke William of Aquitaine had gone over to the schism publicly scolded the powerful nobleman in a letter to the local bishops. When the schism had festered for two more years, Bernard took it upon himself to intervene personally and traveled to Aquitaine, leading to one of the most extraordinary confrontations in all of Church history. While there, Bernard celebrated Mass in the Church of Notre Dame de la Couldre. William, who by this time has been excommunicated, was forced to wait outside the church. Here’s how one account describes it:
The kiss of peace before the Communion had been given, when suddenly Bernard laid the wafer of the Host on the paten, turned, and holding it high advanced with it to the door, his eyes flashing and his countenance all on fire.
“Hitherto,” he said, “I have entreated and besought you, and you have despised me. Other servants of God have joined their prayers to mine, and you have not regarded them. Now the Son of the Virgin, the Lord and Head of that Church which you persecute, comes in person to see if you will repent. He is your judge, at whose name every knee bows, in Heaven, in Earth, and in Hell. Into His hands your obstinate soul will one day fall. Will you despise Him? Will you scorn Him as you have done His servants?”
Unable to bear more, the terrified duke fell on his face. Bernard lifted him up, and bade him salute the bishop of Poitiers. The duke did as bidden, abandoned the schism, and restored the bishop to his see (as recounted in the Crawley edition of the Lives of the Saints, excerpted here).
The schism reached its end in 1137, when the count of Sicily and supporter of Pierleoni, Roger, hosted a debate on who was the true pope. Bernard was tapped to make the case, once again for Innocent. He was so persuasive he won over his opponent (a cardinal), though not Roger. But the episode effectively led to the end of the schism.
Until his death in 1153, Bernard would continue to wield extraordinary influence across Catholic Christendom, seemingly always managing to show up in the biggest controversies and conflicts. He played a leading role in repudiating the heresy of Peter Abelard, one of the leading scholars of the day. He excoriated the king of France, Louis VII, for refusing to let a new archbishop take his seat at Bourges (at one time a national capital). He likewise lectured his wife, the queen, for meddling in the marriage of a nobleman so he could marry her younger sister. And in his later years, he helped stir enthusiasm for the Second Crusade across Europe.
Weighing his achievements, Carroll concludes:
[F]or 23 years, since the outbreak of the Pierleoni schism, he had almost been Christendom, in his own person. Christendom in those years lived under St. Bernard’s white mantle. Sword and scepter were vanquished by the spirit. The world was still, as it must always be until the Judgment, full of sin and evil; but the world of Christendom was full of the radiance of St. Bernard. The Church has had great saints since, perhaps even greater, but none ever again whose life and universal impact quite matched that of Bernard of Clairvaux (Glory of Christendom, 75).