This is an edited version of the sermon I gave this morning
O God, by whose grace your servant Bernard of Clairvaux, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today is the feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a very important person in the Church of the twelfth century, a period which is not really in my area of expertise, but he is an interesting character.
He was born to a noble family near Dijon, France, in the year 1090. His father was a knight and landowner. Bernard showed an early inclination towards the life of a monk, and in the year 1112 he convinced thirty other young noblemen of Burgundy, including four of his own brothers, to enter the monastic life at the Abbey in Citeaux. Three years later, the Abbot, St. Stephen Harding, asked Bernard to found a new Abbey at Clairvaux, which soon became one of the most important centers of the Cistercian Order. The Cistercian Order, or the Order of the White Monks, was established in the year 1098 in France by monastics who were interested in an Order which adhered more striclty to the Benedictine Rule than any other Order. They wanted to be the extreme hard-core Benedictines. Their monasteries were to be in secluded and remote areas, and they gathered several times a day for corporate intercession and adoration. Their churches were to be simple, as were their vestments, and their chalice and paten were not to be made of precious metals. They had very strict rules concerning diet and silence, and manual labor held a very prominent place in the Order. Each monastery was independent from the main house in Citeaux, but they all had to adhere to the Benedictine Rule.
Bernard was put in charge of the Abbey at Clairvaux, and he completely immersed himself in his work. He wrote many letters and sermons and was reputed to deny himself sleep in order to have enough time for all his writing. Bernard earned the reputation of a very persuasive preacher, and soon an additional sixty Abbeys were founded, all in association with the house at Clairvaux. He was a prolific writer, writing on the subjects of Papal duty, on love, on the Three Comings of the Lord, on the veneration of the Blessed Virgin, various apologies, and a commentary on the Song of Songs. He wrote a book of 86 sermons for the whole year. He also wrote the texts for hymns, three of which we still sing to this day.
His writings became well-known throughout the Western Church of the Middle Ages, and with this renown also came great influence, but his service as secretary to the Synod of Troyes in 1128 was what gave him recognition and power throughout the Church. He also drew up the Rules for the Knights Templar, the knights who led the First Crusade and whose name is familiar to all who read the terrible DaVinci Code or its predecessor Holy Blood, Holy Grail. When Pope Honorius died in 1130, there was a dispute and two people were elected; Innocent II and the antipope Anacletus. Bernard sided with and supported Innocent against Anacletus, and actually helped secure Innocent’s victory as pope. As a reward, Pope Innocent II showered privileges upon the Cistercian Order. Later, Pope Eugenius III was elected, in the year 1143. He was a former student of Bernard’s, and Bernard became the Pope’s trouble-shooter and advisor.
Bernard was also a heresy fighter and fought hard against Henry of Lausanne and his heresy. Henry of Lausanne was a monk who had left his monastery and had become an itinerant preacher. Like many heretics, he started out on the right foot, but somehow went astray. He was traveling thoughout France preaching against the worldliness of the clergy, and he insisted upon the ideal of absoute poverty for priests, who had taken a vow of poverty at their ordinations. This, of course, made him very popular with the people. Preaching absolute poverty for the clergy was not heresy; the heresy took place when he began to preach against the objective efficacy of the Sacraments. He claimed that the efficacy of the Sacraments was dependent upon the worthy character of the priest. This is very similar to the heresy of Donatism, against which St. Augustine spent so much of his time fighting. While we want good priests, humble priests, priests free from corruption and greed and immorality, the efficacy of the Sacrament is entierly a matter of Grace, which is exactly what St. Augustine taught. Bernard was able to successfully defeat Henry and his heresy, and Henry recanted at the Synod of Pisa.
Now, there is another cause for which Bernard is known, and I do not think that this was a good cause. When it failed, he was roundly attacked. This cause was the Second Crusade to liberate Jerusalem in the year 1147. St. Bernard preached that it was a Christian’s duty to go to Jerusalem and fight against the Saracens and liberate the Holy City. As I mentioned earlier, he was a very persuasive preacher, and he stirred up a lot of support for this Crusade, especially in Germany and France. King Louis VII of France and the Emperor Conrad III helped lead the Crusade, but it ended badly and the Christians were unable to hold on to Jerusalem. Now, for me, the very idea that God would want you to go and kill people in the name of God is wrong and goes against what Jesus taught. While it may have been a noble cause preached by Bernard and followed by King Louis and Emperor Conrad, the facts are that the soldiers were more interested in grabbing land and loot, and they did terrible things in the name of Christ. Crusaders often killed Christians in the lands of the Middle East, mistaking them for Jews and Muslims. I don’t think that it was right to kill Jews and Muslims, either! The soldiers of the Third Crusade killed the Christians of Constantinople and looted the cathedrals and churches of the one-time Patriarchate. The idea that a man of God such as Bernard would support such a terrible act as the Second Crusade shows that even the saints, while models for us all, have their failings, too, although I must point out that Bernard fought against persecution of Jews, which was quite unusual for a Christian of his time. Bernard was bitterly disappointed by the failure of the Second Crusade, and he died not long afterward, in the year 1153.
Bernard was above all else a monk. He practiced austerities and self-mortifications which worried his friends. I’m sure, that if we knew anyone who followed such practices, we would be worried about them, too, as well we should! Severe denial of the flesh will not bring one closer to God, but it will bring about illness and and unnatural obsession with the flesh. We come closer to God by following God’s commandments and by seeking God in prayer and silence. Bernard had a severe character, yet his saintliness and his personality, rather than the force of his intellect, made him very powerful in the Europe of his day, and these traits found visible expresson in the rapid growth of the Cistercian Order under his leadership. His writings reveal a clear and penetrating grasp of theological problems, and his sermons are the result of an intimate knowledge of the Bible and a faith inspired by the most sublime mysticism. He insisted that God should be loved simply and purely because God is God. He was very much influenced by St. Augustine and wrote: “Remove free will, and there is nothing to be saved; remove grace, and there is left no means of saving. The work of salvation can not be accomplished without the co-operation of the two.” He insisted that prayer, preaching, and the life of self-denial and worship should be the duty of all Christians, monk and lay person alike. Bernard was able to adhere striclty to the vows he made both as priest and monk, even though he became one of the most powerful persons in Europe. He did not let this power distract him from his duty as a Christian. St. Bernard kept Christ’s commandments and abided in God’s love, and that is why we remember him today.