Mystic of the Month: Bernard of Clairvaux

“You want me to tell you why God is to be loved and how much. I answer, the reason for loving God is God Himself.”

ernard of Clairvaux is this months mystic, also known as the, “the mellifluous doctor”. Bernard was very passionate with his work for the Lord and because of it he had a great deal of influence with the religious, political, and military leaders of his day.  Bernard was sought after for advice from people in all walks of life and his words and works were highly respected.  It was said of Bernards personality that it, “was so attractive, his power of persuasion so difficult to withstand, that we are told that mothers hid their children and wives clung to their spouses lest he seduce them into the monastery.” The life of Bernard intrigues me so much because it is a rarity in these days to see a man of God with such passion for Christ and influence on the “leaders” around him.  Saint Bernard carried a lot of weight in the 12th Century and although like every human being, he had his flaws, he shaped history for the better.

Bernard’s father was a knight that died in battle and his mother passed when he was at a young age.  In 1098 Bernard joined a monastic community of reformed Benedictines in Citeaux along with 30 of his friends, relatives, and family members from the neighborhood.  This shows the influence that he had at a young age! The community received a fresh breath of life and continued to grow as well as heavily impact the Western way of monachism.  It was here that Bernard wished to live hidden and forgotten, concerned only with God.  Due to the rapid growth of the community they sent out Bernard and 11 others to establish a monastery in Clairvaux in 1115.  Before the monastery was established the town was called Wormwood and was a haven for thieves.   It was here in Clairvaux where Bernard was positioned as abbot and was launched into a world of popularity in and outside of the religious world.

The new established monastery grew fast and rapidly accumulated 130 monks.  It was known that Bernard was strict with fasting and eating habits and became ill, but he was restored and lightened up on his strict eating rules with his monastery.  He felt led to start preaching and because of his eloquent preaching style, he was sought from all over and people started flocking to hear Bernard of Clairvaux.   It was said by Erasmus, author of, Art of Preaching, “Bernard is an eloquent preacher, much more by nature than by art; he is full of charm and vivacity, and knows how to reach and move the affections.” The teachings brought many, but Bernard was also operating in healing and miracles, thus bringing throngs of sick people in order to get touched and healed.  There are said to be accounts of sick people whom Bernard healed by making the sign of the cross over them.

Bernard longed for a life of contemplation in Clairvaux, but his reputation was wide spread and sought after by princes, popes, and other high ranking leaders in the religious and political arenas. Because of this Bernard was traveling all over Europe.  He once wrote that his life was, “overrun everywhere by anxieties, suspicions, cares. There is scarcely an hour free from the crowd of discordant applicants, and the troubles and cares of their business. I have no power to stop their coming and cannot refuse to see them, and they do not leave me even time to pray.” Bernard himself sought after justice and longed to see righteous men in “church” positions.  The words of Bernard swayed many high up churchmen to change their ways and humble themselves.  Bernard said to the dean of Languedoc: “You may imagine that what belongs to the Church belongs to you, while you officiate there. But you are mistaken; for though it is reasonable that one who serves the altar should live by the altar, yet it must not be to promote either his luxury or his pride.”

In 1130 the death of Pope Honorius II brought Bernard into the middle of a highly disputed election.  It was a show down between Innocent II and Anacletus II.  Anacletus had Rome in its grasp but Bernard in Innocent’s defense was able to persuade a panel of bishops that Anacletus was a “worldly man” and that Innocent was the one to be pope.  His defense was heard and Innocent the II became the pope.  It was here where Bernard traveled with the Pope and preached as he went, bringing reconciliation, harmony, healing, miracles, and decisions for Christ! Bernard himself was offered bishop positions, but they were all declined and he decided to focus his time at Clairvaux.  It was his days in Clairvaux where he was able to spend his time on his sermons and writings.  Bernard never ceased to see righteousness in the land with the advancing of the Lords Kingdom, although he was heavily opposed by heresies of the time.  These heresies eventually gained momentum, thus thrusting Europe into the second Crusade of 1146, the Pope had Bernard to preach the Holy War. The second Crusade was a complete failure and Bernard received a lot of criticism for this, in his defense he said, “”How is it,” he asked, “that the rashness of mortals dares condemn what they cannot understand?”

In his aging and tiredness he returned to Clairvaux and continued in his meditations and writings.  His works include Grace and Free Choice, On Loving God, and his very well known commentary on Song of Songs which is comprised of 86 sermons as well as many more prolific writings from his lifetime.  On August 20, 1153 he gathered those who were close to him and had his Last Sacrament and passed away at the age of 63.

Commenting on Song of Songs 2:17 in his seventy-fourth sermon on the book:

“I have to confess that the Word has come to me, and come often… As often as he would enter into me, I didn’t perceive the different times when he came. I perceived he was present; I remembered that he had been there. Now and then I would be able to get a premonition of his coming, but never perceive it, or sense it when he left (Ps 120:8). Where he came from when he entered my soul, or where he went to when he left it again, and whatever the means were of his entry and exit, I must confess I’m still quite ignorant of… But perhaps he does not have to enter because he is already within? He is not something on the outside (I Cor 5:12)… Since his ways are beyond all investigation (Rom 11:33), you may want to ask how I could know that he was present? He is life and power, and as soon as he came within he roused my sleeping soul to instant wakefulness. He moved and mollified and wounded my heart (Song 4:9), since it was hard as a rock and desperately ill. And then he began to root up and to destroy, to build and to plant, to water what was parched, to enlighten what was dark (Jer 1:10), to set free what was chained up, to set on fire what was cold, as well as to set the crooked ways straight and rough ways plain (Is 40:4), so that my soul might bless the Lord, and all that is in me might bless his holy name (Ps 102:1). Therefore, when the Word and Bridegroom entered into me from time to time, his coming was never made known by any signs – by word, or appearance, or footstep. I was never made aware by any action on his part, nor by any kinds of motion sent down to my most inward parts. As I have said, it was only from the motion of my heart that I understood he was present. And I recognized the power of his might from the way vices were banished and how carnal desires were repressed… This is all true, because when the Word has departed, just as if a boiling pot had been removed from the fire, all these things began to become frigid and cold by a kind of torpor. This was the sign of his going away – my soul would necessarily be sad until he returned once more. When my heart was re-kindled in the usual way within me, I knew that it was that sign of his return.” The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn (editor), (New York: the Modern Library, 2006), p 222-4.

Some of Bernard’s focuses were Centrality of Love, Ordering, Preoccupation with Union, and Inclusion of Experience which have been brought into “Mystical Theology”.

I know that God is raising up passionate and influential believers in this day.  I pray that we set apart our hearts on the things of Christ and not allow us to be influenced by the “ways of the world” but that we may influence the influencers and carry a spirit of reconciliation wherever we go because it is the ministry that Christ has given us (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Thank you for reading.


Patrick Judah


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