Saint Reflection: Bernard of Clairvaux (Memorial Aug 20)


A Knight for Christ, A Divine Romance

“As he now stood before his two oldest boys, holding a large crucifix in his hand and pointing to the wound in Christ’s side, he was manifesting more emotion than they had ever seen him show in all their years, even though Guy was eighteen and Gerard just sixteen.

” ‘My boy,’ said the father, ‘look at this wound often and let it speak to you. Let it tell you that there is a victory greater than vanquishing a foe, a fiercer enemy for you to conquer than the one who comes to you from without, clothed in armor and armed with steel, that there is a battle more bitter to fight than the one fought in the open field.’ “[1]

These words exemplify the fatherhood of Tescelin the Tawny, the Lord of Fontaines, a magnificent knight, unmatched in battle, the principal counselor of the Duke of Burgundy and universally respected among the noble courts of the late 11th century. Tescelin was also the husband of a woman who had longed to be a religious, but was persuaded to marry and together they conceived and raised seven boys and a girl. In the end, Tescelin’s wife was the only one who never became a religious, but all ten of them are venerated today as saints and blesseds.

Bernard, the third son, had the same romantic heart as the rest, but instead of living that romance in the way of his father and brothers, in noble chivalry on the battlefield, he was captivated by Christ. His desire to live the romance radically led him to be captivated by a new monastic movement that was developing in the swamps of Citeaux. Three saints from the massive Benedictine monastery of Cluny had set out to establish a monastery that followed a primitive observance of the Rule of St Benedict. Although the monastic “experiment” of these three saints was on the verge of failure, Saint Bernard was able to see the romance at its heart and began to prepare to be a Knight for Christ, fighting the battle his father spoke so eloquently about to his two older brothers. Furthermore, he was so convicted of the importance of this spiritual battle and so gifted in speech that he convinced his whole family and many knighted friends to join him and in the end thirty-two men arrived with him to join the monks of Citeaux. Over the course of his monastic life as founder and Abbot of Clairvaux, hundreds more followed this spiritual romance as Knights for Christ.

Although the life of the Cistercian monks was strict and austere, Saint Bernard’s extensive preaching shows the pure love and healthily embodied humanity that lies at the heart of their ascetical lifestyle. Their ascesis of fasting, vigils, hard labor and silence was not motivated by a hatred of the body, but by a tender love of Christ. They had a tender love for Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a tender love for each other, as well.

A Tender Love for Christ

Francisco_Ribalta<_Christ_Embracing_St_Bernard<_WGA19350Echoing the words placed on the lips of Tescelin, above, Saint Bernard preached in his 61st Sermon on the Song of Songs, “Through the wounds of Jesus I can suck honey from the rock and oil from the flinty rock (cf. Deut 32:13), I can taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” (Song 61:4) This is the kind of embodied Christian prayer, filled with intimacy (the image of pressing lips against the wounded side of Christ and drawing the sweetness of love, grace, mercy, and life from His pierced heart) that moved Saint Bernard to make so many sacrifices for the Lord and that sustained him in his adventurous journey of faith. He knew this was not a love that he deserved, but rather that was freely given to him, a sinner, “My merit is God’s mercy. I am by no means lacking merits as long as he is rich in mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are manifold, I too will abound in merits” (ibid., 5). The intimacy with Christ that Saint Bernard enjoyed was not a luxury of one who was rich by his own merits, but rather was rich in the mercy of Christ so that he could even assert, “So what if my conscience gnaws at me for my many sins? ‘Where sin has abounded, there grace has abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20)” (ibid.).

A Tender Love for Our Lady

St.-Bernard-Blessed-MotherIn addition to the embodied intimacy Saint Bernard had for Christ, he also had a tender love for our Lady. When he was ordered by his bishop to take some time on retreat, away from the affairs of the Church and from his monastery, he composed four magnificent sermons on the Blessed Virgin Mary. He sings her praise as he encourages us to trust her more, “When the immensity of your sins weighs you down and you are bewildered by the loathsomeness of your conscience, when the terrifying thought of judgment appalls you and you begin to founder in the gulf of sadness and despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in hardships, in every doubt, think of Mary, call out to Mary. Keep her in your mouth, keep her in your prayer. … Following her, you will never go astray. Asking her help, you will never despair. … With your hand in hers you will never stumble.” (Sermon 2:17 in Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Again, this prayer is so tender and so embodied, “keep her in your mouth, keep her in your prayer, follow her, place your hand in hers.” Saint Bernard has a special gift for opening up the drama of Scripture and for helping our prayer, through imagination, to touch the senses and stir our affections, in order to move our wills to choose the good with the help of God’s grace.

A Tender Love for the Brethren

Furthermore, the richness of his prayer and the erudition of his preaching do not diminish his human relationships but, rather, intensified them. This is demonstrated most powerfully when he mourns the loss of his brother, Gerard. Gerard, his older brother, and one of his first followers, died as a monk in Clairvaux where Bernard was Abbot. Saint Bernard celebrated the funeral rites for his brother, and held back his tears, but during the next chapter meeting as he continued his sermons on the Song of Songs, he allowed his grief to interrupt him and he burst into tears in front of his brothers. “You know, O my children, how reasonable is my sorrow, how worthy of tears is the loss I have sustained, for you know how faithful a friend has been taken from my side. … I was weak in body, and he supported me. I was cowardly, and he encouraged me. I was slothful and negligent, and he spurred me on. I was forgetful and improvident, and he acted as my monitor. Oh, wither have you been taken from me? Why have you been torn from my arms? We have loved each other in life, why then should we be parted in death? Oh, most cruel divorce, which only death can have power to cause…” (Sermon 26 on the Song of Songs) After additional lamentation, St. Bernard concludes with a trusting prayer, “Gerard You gave; Gerard You have taken away; and if we lament his removal, we do not forget that he was only a loan…” (ibid)

In this great saint, who accomplished an unimaginable amount in his few decades of life, we find a man driven by love–love of Christ, love of Mary and love of his fellow man. Saint Bernard was not disembodied in his asceticism, but became even more tender as he denied so much pleasure to his senses. He did not become more ethereal due to his intense and dedicated life of prayer, but he became even more romantic in fighting the spiritual battle against vices, that also played out in the monastery and the world as a battle against petty politics, abuse of power and thinly masked self-interests. Saint Bernard’s example and teaching remain a bright light for us today.

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Father Boniface Hicks, O.S.B. is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey and is the program manager and a host for We Are One Body (WAOB) Catholic radio in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Father Boniface has attended the Theology of the Body & the Interior Life course, as well as Theology of the Body I: Head & Heart Immersion course as a participant and a chaplain. Father Boniface served as the chaplain for the first National Theology of the Body Congress hosted by the Theology of the Body Institute in 2010, was a part of the Clergy Enrichment Program focus group and was a contributor to the TOB & Priestly Prayer curriculum.


[1] “The Family that Overtook Christ: the amazing story of the family of Bernard of Clairvaux,” M. Raymond, OCSO, IVE Press, New York 2008.

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