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Saint Bernard: A Mystic and Monk

Robert A. Boileau

Dr. Christian Washburn THL 303: Introductory Church History 11/24/06

2 Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who was born in the year 10911, was arguably the most influential ecclesiastical figure of the twelfth century, and remains one of the Church’s most venerated saints. At an early age, Bernard’s mother died of a sickness that caused her to endure a severe fever and be bed-ridden until her death2. After his mother’s death, Bernard was heavily affected, for she had been the main influence in his life. It was she who had inspired him to serve God either as a monk or as a priest, and it was she who had insisted on his being educated for the Church3. Bernard chose to enter into the monastery of Citeaux, accepting their hard lifestyle, the poor community, and the unhealthy situations. Many assumed he would enter the monastery of Cluny because he had kinsmen in that community and their life was regular and not oversevere4. However, despite popular belief, Bernard was committed to Citeaux, and embraced that lifestyle for the love of Christ. In the year 1115, Bernard founded the Clairvaux Abbey5 with only thirteen monks. In the year 1130, the then Pope Honorius fell very ill in early February6. Bernard was then only forty years old, and had been abbot of Clairvaux for about fifteen years. After Pope Honorius had died, a cardinal of the Frangipani family was elected Pope, and he took the name of Innocent II7. Three hours after this election, Cardinal Pierleone, who had a majority of the cardinals on his side, denounced the election as failing to comply with the canonical requirements8. After appealing to the clergy and the people, another
Adriaan H. Bredero, Bernard of Clairvaux: Between Cult and History (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 1. 2 Ailbe J. Luddy, Life and Teaching of St. Bernard (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, LTD., 1950), 13. 3 Bruno S. James, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957), 20-21. 4 James, 22. 5 Leon Cristiani, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1977), 28. 6 Cristiani, 64. 7 Cristiani, 66. 8 Cristiani, 66.

3 election proceeded to commence. He was the choice of his faction, and took the name of Anacletus II9. The Church now had in their midst two reigning Popes. Two options were presented to solve this dilemma. The Church could either remain under the authority of two simultaneous Popes, and each of them would hold key positions in the city of Rome10, or the Church could appeal to the people to make a choice between the two Popes who had been elected11. As early as February fifteenth, Pope Anacletus, with the help of an army of his supporters, drove Pope Innocent II out of St. John Lateran, and took possession of St. Peter’s12. Bernard did not have the slightest bit of hesitation in accepting Innocent as the true Pope13, due undoubtedly to the superiority of Innocent’s character over that of his rival. Bernard began to write to countless Bishops, informing them of the validity of Innocent’s election, but to no avail. After writing numerous letters to Bishops, as well as kings, some started to accept Innocent as the true Pope. Bernard’s eloquence won some triumph for Innocent, as the King of France had completely submitted to Innocent as the true Pope14. The King of England, however, was still hesitant. Anacletus had spent some time in England and had made many powerful friends there15. Bernard met the King of England personally, and asked him why he was doubtful. Upon receiving no discernable answer, Bernard said to the King: “Is it that you are afraid of sinning by submitting to Innocent? Well, you just think of your other sins and leave this one to me. I will answer for it”16. After this the King submitted.


Cristiani, 67. Cristiani, 67. 11 Cristiani, 68. 12 Cristiani, 68. 13 James, 103. 14 James, 106. 15 James, 106. 16 James, 107.

4 After converting many other bishops and Kings as accepting Innocent as the true Pope, Anacletus’ reign began to slowly come to an end. In approximately the year 1130, Bernard wrote a letter titled “In Praise of the New Knighthood”, which significantly influenced the Holy See to make Templars only answerable to the Pope17. In the year 1133, Innocent was re-installed in the Lateran palace18. It has been said that Innocent could “no longer get along without Bernard”19. In visiting Bernard’s monastery in the year 1131, Innocent and the other cardinals who were with him are said to have been moved to tears at the sight of the monastic poverty and reserve of the monks of Clairvaux20. Pope Innocent II was received at Clairvaux with the simplicity befitting the poor monks21. They went before him in a procession, and chanted psalms in a low tone while holding up a wooden cross, all the while keeping their eyes downcast, displaying humility unlike that of which Pope Innocent II and the other cardinals had ever seen22. Through all of this, Bernard remained a great monk and mystic. His life of poverty and humility, while at the same time his aggressiveness and inspirational writings, have left a lasting impression on the Church; not only the Church of the twelfth century, but also the Church of today. Saint Bernard died in the year 1153, in a small, bare room23. In a letter he wrote to his friend from his death-bed, Bernard states: “Pray our Saviour, who wills not the death of a sinner, that he may witch over my passing. Support, I beg you, with your prayers a poor wretch destitute of all virtue, so that the enemy who lies in wait for me may find no place where he can grip me with his teeth and wound me24.”
Chronicles of Events Concerning the Crusades and the Knights Templar History, 18 April 2006, available from; Internet; accessed 24 November 2006 18 Crisitani, 80. 19 Cristiani, 79. 20 Cristiani, 75. 21 Cristiani, 75. 22 Cristiani, 75. 23 James, 11. 24 James, 11.


During the last forty years of his life, Saint Bernard not only healed a schism among the papacy, but he also fearlessly rebuked Popes and kings, upheld the cause of the poor, and made peace between warring armies. Throughout all of this, Bernard managed to stay not only humble and holy, but also a devout monk and mystic.

6 Works Cited Bredero, Adriaan H. Bernard of Clairvaux: Between Cult and History. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996. Chronicles of Events Concerning the Crusades and the Knights Templar History. 18 April 2006. Available from; Internet; accessed 24 November 2006. Cristiani, Leon. St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1977. James, Bruno S. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957. Luddy, Ailbe J., O. Cist. Life and Teaching of St. Bernard. Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, LTD., 1950.