Growing up my family had a St. Bernard dog. That dog breed did not receive its namesake from St. Bernard of Clairvaux. That was St. Bernard of Menthon, not the Cistercian reformer of the 12th Century. To many, St. Bernard is known as the Mellifluous (that is, the sweet tongued or honey sweet) Doctor. Anyone who has had the blessed fortune of reading Bernard’s treatises knows they are laced with scripture. He was a man immersed in the word of God; he could not speak without quoting scripture, and this earned him such a distinguished title.
In my study of Mariology, I have found no greater eloquent speaker of Mary than St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In some of my writings, I have characterized his Mariology as “High Mariology,” to use the language of theologians for high/low Christology or anthropology. On Bernard’s feast day, let us appreciate the Marian thought of this great saint, and set the record straight on a few points!
1. Eminent Preacher
The Vespers Magnificat Antiphon hails St. Bernard of Clairvaux as an “eminent preacher of the Virgin Mother’s glory.” His preaching has earned him other tributes within the Church, such as the “Marian Doctor” and the “Troubadour of Mary.” Quite surprisingly with such high Marian praise, Bernard’s Marian corpus comprises roughly 3 ½ percent of his total writings, including his most popular Marian homily Missus Est, or In Praise of the Virgin Mother. Bernard wrote A LOT, but not as much as Thomas Aquinas! A lot of his spiritual works are still referenced today—On Conversion, On Loving God, On Consideration, and The Steps of Humility and Pride. His countless sermons on The Song of Songs perhaps are his most popular work and arguably one of his greatest contributions to theology.
2. The Last of the Fathers
Pius XII attributed this title to Bernard in his 1953 encyclical Doctor Mellifluous. Thomas Merton even authored a work on Bernard under the title The Last of the Fathers and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI referenced Bernard as such in his Patristic catecheses. Theological study attributes the end of the Patristic age to Sts. Isidore of Seville and John Damascene. Bernard, however, earns this title because of his great reliance on scripture and his renewal of Patristic thought. Marian devotion comprised some of the works of the Fathers, so Bernard shares in that tradition.
3. Misattributed as Authoring the Memorare
A number of years ago, while I was in Washington DC on vacation, I attended Mass with one of the prelates of our Church. The homily he preached meditated on the Memorare– “Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary that never was it known…” I recall his reference to St. Bernard of Clairvaux as the author of the prayer, which I knew to be wrong. I shared with a friend that I might write His Eminence and share with him his error, but my friend advised me it would not be good for a seminarian to do such a thing! So, for the record, it is reasonably believed the Mellifluous Doctor did not author the Memorare. Why the confusion? Fr. Claude Bernard, a 17th century priest, popularized the prayer, and apparently this has been lost in the annals of history or misappropriated to our Cistercian abbot. While popular piety attributes the Memorare to Bernard, Mariological textbooks dispute his authorship.
4. Bernard “denied” the Immaculate Conception
Many people believe St. Bernard and denied the Immaculate Conception. The subject of the Immaculate Conception has been around for a long time, speculated for years, held in belief by many, long before its dogmatic proclamation in 1854. Before this time, it was a theological opinion or speculation. St. Bernard espoused a nuanced belief that Mary was sanctified in the womb and never committed any sin during her life. Basically, Bernard accepted the sinlessness of Mary throughout her life, but he struggled with her preservation from sin at conception, due in part to his Augustinian view on the propagation of sin.
5. Efficacy of Marian Intercession
St. Bernard has a beautiful passage in his Missus Est homily, in which he conveys the efficacy of Mary’s intercession. Take a moment to read the beauty of his reflection on Mary as Star of the Sea:
She, I say, is that shining and brilliant star, so much needed, set in place above life’s great and spacious sea, glittering with merits, all aglow with examples for our imitation. Oh, whosoever thou art that perceiveth thyself during this mortal existence to be rather drifting in treacherous waters, at the mercy of the winds and the waves, than walking on firm ground, turn not away thine eyes from the splendor of this guiding star, unless thou wish to be submerged by the storm! When the storms to temptation burst upon thee, when thou seest thyself driven upon the rocks of tribulation, look at the star, call upon Mary. When buffeted by the billows of pride, or ambition, or hatred, or jealousy, look at the star, call upon Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of thy soul, look at the star, call upon Mary. If troubled on account of the heinousness of thy sins, distressed at the filthy state of thy conscience, and terrified at the thought of the awful judgment to come, thou art beginning to sink into the bottomless gulf of sadness and to be swallowed in the abyss of despair, then think of Mary. In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name leave thy lips, never suffer it to leave thy heart. And that thou mayest more surely obtain the assistance of her prayer, see that thou dost walk in her footsteps. With her for guide, thou shalt never go astray; whilst invoking her, thou shalt never lose heart; so long as she is in thy mind, thou shalt not be deceived; whilst she holds thy hand, thou canst not fall; under her protection, thou hast nothing to fear; if she walks before thee, thou shalt not grow weary; if she shows thee favor, thou shalt reach the goal.”
(Translation from Pius XII’s encyclical, paragraph 31).
The Catholic tradition often places Mary as a model of virtue to be imitated. Not only should she be imitated, but she also has efficacy with her son. In temptation, turn to Mary’s intercession. Fr. Donald Calloway in his book, Under the Mantle, says the rosary takes 20 minutes, which is the average duration of a strong temptation, whether it would be to lust, drink, etc. When one succumbs to many vices, pride, hatred, jealously, look up to the star, look up to Mary, the humble one who loved much. St. Bernard helps us to appreciate the importance of Mary’s prayers during our day.
6. Proposed Mary as a Mediatrix of Grace
Marian intercession serves as an excellent segue to Marian mediation of grace, which St. Bernard writes about. In a homily on the birth of Mary, Bernard compares Mary to an aqueduct which floods the earth with grace. In the same homily, Bernard says, “God has willed that we should have nothing which would not pass through the hands of Mary.” The Marian thought of St. Bernard places great emphasis on the role of Mary in relation to her son and the distribution of graces.
7. Beautiful Meditation on Mary’s Fiat
Each year during the Advent season, those who pray the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours are afforded the opportunity to reflect on a wonderful meditation from St. Bernard on the Annunciation. Here is the text:
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.
The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.
Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.
Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.
What a beautiful mediation Bernard offers us. In the Annunciation we see the patience with which all of Israel waited for the Messiah. Mary too waited. And then she learns she is to become the mother of the Messiah. Bernard places us right in the moment of the Annunciation, as if we are there, waiting for her to give her response. Just as Mary and Israel were patient, we wait, patiently within Bernard’s meditation, for her fiat, in which after Mary utters the words, the whole world breathes a sigh of relief. Salvation has come! Also, notice the last paragraph, the descriptive words Bernard uses—prudent, modest, faith—this is how he sees Mary—as one who embodies virtues. This is how we should see her too!
8. The Mysterious Lactation
Gethsemani Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, made famous by their author-monk, Thomas Merton, once housed a stained glass window called “the Lactation of St. Bernard.” This image has been reproduced in art via many different mediums and various artists. As legend has it, St. Bernard prayed before a statue of Mary asking her, “Show yourself a mother.” The statue came to life and squirted milk onto the lips of Bernard. The significance of such an occurrence points to Bernard being nourished at the breast of Mary, as a sign of Mary’s special protection over him. This mystical experience is disputed in the historical record.
9. The Divine Comedy
In Dante Alighieri’s three part poetic work, The Divine Comedy, St. Bernard makes an appearance as a guide for Dante through Paradiso. In that section, Bernard begins with a prayer to the Blessed Virgin. Those unfamiliar with The Divine Comedy should also note Dante includes a Marian virtue which corresponds to a particular vice. The presence of Bernard, given his great Marian devotion, adds to the Marian elements contained within The Divine Comedy.
10. Miscellaneous Marian Tidbits
There is so much more one could say about Mary and St. Bernard, but number ten will have to be a catch-all. Three more quick facts: Bernard had a dream at a young age on Christmas day in which he saw the Christmas events unfold. This greatly influenced him and is evidenced in his preaching. Secondly, Bernard preached several homilies on the feast of the Assumption, but never made a claim on the bodily assumption of Mary. Instead, he focused on Mary’s role in the life of the Christian. Thirdly, through Bernard’s reflections on the Song of Songs, and his great love for Mary, it is possible for a reader to see Mary as an image of the Bride in the biblical love poem. Mary is the one without blemish, the enclosed garden, and a fountain in the work of Solomon.
St. Bernard has much to teach us about our Triune God, the need for conversion in our own lives, the necessity of prayer, and to love God for the right reason. He also teaches us many lessons about Mary, whose praises he wrote, preached, and sung while in this life. Now, in paradise, Bernard intercedes for the Church he loved so much, and asks the great Aqueduct of God’s grace, to flood the earth and our lives both now and at the hour of our death with heavenly grace.