Every August 20, the Catholic Church celebrates Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk who lived between the 11th and 12th centuries. He was one of the most relevant figures of his time, and his contribution to theology and spirituality have been decisive -especially with regard to devotion to the Virgin Mary-. Tradition has called him “the hunter of souls and vocations” and “the oracle of Christianity.”
Bernardo was the first and most famous abbot of the Clairvaux monastery, a famous Cistercian abbey for its abundant fruits of holiness. In this sense, Bernardo is recognized as one of the great promoters of the renaissance of monastic life at the beginning of the second millennium.
An intelligent man, endowed with a singular sharpness and capacity for persuasion, he was also a man of iron will, although, above all, he was someone who knew how to put his gifts and abilities at the service of the Gospel. He fought numerous intellectual battles and converted many to Christ, including his own family. He was advisor to kings and popes, wrote several books and is the author of one of the most beautiful prayers to the Virgin that exist.
Bernardo de Fontaine -by his first name- was born in 1090 in the castle of Fontaine-les-Dijon, located in the Burgundy region (France). His family belonged to the French nobility. His father, Tescelino, was one of the Duke of Burgundy’s knights; and his mother, Alice, was the daughter of a powerful feudal lord named Bernard of Montbard. Bernardo was the third of seven brothers.
As a child, he had a very close relationship with his mother. She said that, being pregnant, she had had a vision about the life of her son as a saint. Bernardo was a sensitive and usually reserved child. He received a careful education, like his brothers.
When his mother died, little Bernardo turned his eyes to the Virgin Mary, source of his consolations and for whom he professed a strong devotion all his life. Bernardo was the author of “Acordaos”, one of his most beautiful Marian prayers.
The “escape” from the world
During his youth he forged a vigorous temperament, but he also allowed himself to be won over by the things of the world, between empty friendships and vainglory. Deep down, Bernardo felt empty and tired.
On Christmas night in the year 1111, Bernardo fell asleep. In his dream the Virgin appeared carrying the Child Jesus in her arms and offered him to him so that he would love him and make others love him too. From that night he decided to consecrate himself to God and achieve holiness.
In 1112 he entered the Cistercian monastery of Citeaux, founded by three great saints: Saint Robert, Saint Alberic and Saint Stephen Harding. At that time, the monastery had become the center of a renewal movement through a return to the origins: the rule of Saint Benedict was rigorously practiced there. Saint Stephen Harding, who was the prior, accepted Bernardo and all those who accompanied him with unusual joy: they had not received vocations for 15 years.
Bernardo’s determination to achieve sainthood through the original spirit of monastic life made his superiors trust him to lead an ambitious project. At only 25 years old he was sent as abbot to found, with twelve other monks, a new monastery in Champagne, which he called “Clairvaux” – that is, Clairvaux, which in French means “clear valley” -.
Bernardo led a rigorous and demanding life. His constant prayer and his concern to be faithful to Christ in everything attracted many to the monastic life. He earned the nickname “the hunter of souls and vocations”. It is said that the girls were afraid that he would talk to their boyfriends because they would end up asking to be admitted to the abbey.
Bernardo visited and preached in schools, universities, towns, and fields to speak about the benefits of religious life.
He founded nearly 300 monasteries and got 900 men to profess their vows. One of his disciples, Bernard of Pisa, became Pope, with the name of Eugene III.
The family that reached Christ
Bernardo was not only part of a noble family. Bernardo belonged to a holy family.
His mother, Blessed Alice de Montbard, was a charitable woman who gave herself over to the will of God. She educated her seven children in the Christian faith and died praying the rosary. Her father, the venerable Tescelino, spared the life of a knight who challenged him to a duel. The good man thus wanted to instill in his two eldest sons – Blessed Gerardo and Blessed Guy – the importance of mercy.
However, every process on the way to sainthood has costs: when Saint Bernard expressed his desire to become a monk to his family, he encountered strong opposition. Despite this, the saint managed to change things. Not only did he overcome the initial opposition, but he ended up taking with him his four older brothers: Gerardo, Guy, Andrés and Bartolomé -all of them future saints-, one of his uncles and 31 of his companions.
When Bernardo and his brothers left the family home, Nivardo, the younger brother -another who would be beatified- told them: “Aha! So you guys are going to earn heaven and leave me here on earth? I cannot accept this.” Years later, Nivardo would follow in the footsteps of his older brothers.
The story would not end there: Bernardo’s father, Tescelino, would also enter the Citeaux monastery some time later.
The good is diffuse
Blessed Guy’s wife, Elizabeth, was also made a nun along with their two daughters. The Saint’s sister, Blessed Humbelina, came to a mutual agreement with her husband, Guy de Marcy, that they would both consecrate themselves to God. Humbelina was the founder of several convents. Her motto was “to love is to serve”.
Bernardo had been the one who unleashed love for Christ in the family, and the family more than responded to God’s call.
Always abbot, always father
Saint Bernard became a counselor to princes and bishops, who asked him for insights on the most important issues thanks to his upright thinking and wisdom. Therefore, they ended up calling it “the oracle of Christianity”.
Bernard died on August 21, 1153, aged 73, after having been abbot for nearly four decades. He was canonized in 1174 and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1830.
Among the reflections on the Doctors of the Church made by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during his pontificate, the one dedicated to Saint Bernard stands out. In it, the Pope beautifully highlighted the role of the Virgin Mary in the work of salvation:
“I want to conclude these reflections on Saint Bernard with the invocations to Mary that we read in a beautiful homily of his: “In dangers, in anguish, in uncertainties – he says – think of Mary, invoke Mary. from your lips, may it never depart from your heart; and so that you may obtain the help of her prayer, never forget the example of her life. If you follow her, you cannot go astray; if you invoke her, you cannot despair; if you think in her, you can’t go wrong. If she supports you, you don’t fall; if she protects you, you don’t have to fear; if she guides you, you don’t get tired; if she is favorable to you, you will reach the goal…” (Hom ii super “Missus est”, 17: PL 183, 70-71).
If you want to know more about this great saint, we recommend this article from the Catholic Encyclopedia: https://ec.aciprensa.com/wiki/San_Bernardo_de_Claraval.
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