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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090/1–1153)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
BORN in 1091, at Fontaines, a castle of his father Tescelin, near Dijon, France, and devotedly instructed by his pious and gentle mother Aleth, Bernard of Clairvaux was from early childhood imbued with an active religious enthusiasm. When the time came to choose his way of life, instead of going into battle with his knighted brothers, he made them, as well as his uncle the count of Touillon, join a band of thirty companions, with whom he knelt in the rude chapel at Citeaux to beg the tonsure from Abbot Stephen Harding. To rise at two o’clock in the morning and chant the prayer-offices of the church until nine, to do hard manual labor until two, when the sole meal of the day—composed of vegetable food only—was taken, to labor again until nightfall and sing the vespers until an early bedtime hour: such was the Cistercian’s daily observance of his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience,—vows which Bernard and his followers were to lay down only upon the cross of ashes spread upon the hard cell floor to receive their outstretched, dying bodies.  1
  Citeaux became famous from the coming of these new recruits. There was, in those tough old days, a soldierly admiration for faithfulness to discipline; and when Bernard was professed in 1114, Abbot Stephen was obliged to enlarge the field of work. Bernard was sent in 1115 to build a house and clear and cultivate a farm in a thickly wooded and thief-infested glen to the north of Dijon, known as the Valley of Wormwood. Here at the age of twenty-four, in a rude house built by their own hands with timber cut from the land, the young abbot and his companions lived like the sturdy pioneers of our Northwest, the earth their floor and narrow wooden bunks in a low dark loft their beds. Of course the stubborn forest gave way slowly, and grudgingly opened sunny hillsides to the vine and wheat-sheaf. The name of the settlement was changed to Clairvaux, but for many years the poor monks’ only food was barley bread, with broth made from boiled beech leaves. Here Tescelin came in his old age to live under the rule of his sons; and Humbeline, the wealthy and rank-proud daughter, one day left her gay retinue at the door of their little abbey and went to join the nuns at Jouilly.  2
  While Bernard was studying and planting at Clairvaux, the word of his piety and worth went everywhere through the land, and he came to be consulted not only by his Superior at Citeaux, but by villein and noble, even to the august persons of Louis the Fat of France and Henry the Norman of England. His gentleness and integrity became the chief reliance of the royal house of France, and his sermons and letters began to be quoted at council board and synod even as far as Rome. The austerity and poverty of the Cistercians had caused some friends of the monks of Cluny to fall under Bernard’s zealous indignation. He wrote to William of St. Thierry a famous letter, mildly termed an Apology; in which, by the most insinuating and biting satire, the laxity and indulgence which had weakened or effaced the power of monastic example (from which arraignment the proud house of Cluny was deemed not to escape scot-free) were lashed with uncompromising courage.  3
  France and Burgundy, with the more or less helpful aid of the Norman dukes in England, had been very loyal to the interests of the Papacy. When the schism of Anacletus II. arose in 1130, Innocent II., driven from Rome by the armed followers of Peter de Leon, found his way at once to the side of Louis VI. There he found Bernard, and upon him he leaned from that time until the latter had hewed a road for him back to Rome through kings, prelates, statesmen, and intriguers, with the same unflinching steadfastness with which he had cut a way to the sunlight for his vines and vegetables in the Valley of Wormwood. Bernard it was who persuaded Henry of England to side with Innocent, and it was he who stayed the revival of the question of investitures and won the Emperor to the Pope at Liège. At the Council of Rheims in October 1131, Bernard was the central figure; and when the path was open for a return to Italy, the restored Pope took the abbot with him, leaving in return a rescript releasing Citeaux from tithes. Bernard stayed in Italy until 1135, and left Innocent secure in Rome.  4
  After a short period of peace at Clairvaux, he had to hurry off again to Italy on account of the defection of the influential monastery of Monte Casino to Anacletus.  5
  Not long after his last return from Italy, Bernard met Pierre Abelard. This brilliant and unfortunate man had incurred the charge of heresy, and at some time in the year 1139 Bernard was induced to meet and confer with him. Nothing seems to have resulted from the conference, for Abelard went in 1140 to the Bishop of Sens and demanded an opportunity of being confronted with Bernard at an approaching synod. The abbot of Clairvaux, although unwilling, was at last persuaded to accept the challenge. Louis VII., King of France, Count Theobald of Champagne, and the nobles of the realm assembled to witness the notable contest. Abelard came with a brilliant following; but on the second day of the synod, to the surprise of everybody, he abruptly closed the proceeding by appealing to Rome. The works of Abelard were condemned, but his appeal and person were respected, and Bernard prepared a strong condemnatory letter to be sent to the Pope. As the great scholar was on his way to Rome to follow his appeal, he stayed to rest at Cluny with Peter the Venerable, who persuaded him to go to Bernard. When the two great hearts met in the quiet of Clairvaux, all animosities were resolved in peace; and Abelard, returning to Cluny, abandoned his appeal and observed the rule of the house until his death, which he endured, as Peter the Venerable wrote to Héloïse, fully prepared and comforted, at Châlons in 1142.  6
  The infidels of the East having taken Edessa in 1146, the power of the Christians in the Holy Land was broken; and Eugenius III., who had been a monk of Clairvaux, appointed Bernard to preach a new crusade. He set on foot a vast host under the personal leadership of Louis VII. and Conrad the Emperor, accompanied by Queen Eleanor and many noble ladies of both realms. The ill fortunes which attended this war brought to Bernard the greatest bitterness of his life. So signal was the failure of the Second Crusade, that but a pitiful remnant of the brilliant army which had crossed the Bosphorus returned to Europe, and Bernard was assailed with execration from hut and castle throughout the length of Europe. His only answer was as gentle as his life: “Better that I be blamed than God.” He did not neglect, however, to point out that the evil lives and excesses of those who attempted the Crusade were the real causes of the failure of the Christian arms.  7
  In Languedoc in 1147 he quelled a dangerous heresy, and silenced Gilbert, bishop of Poitiers, at the Council of Rheims.  8
  In 1148 Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, who nine years before had visited Clairvaux and formed a lasting friendship for Bernard, came there again to die in the arms of his friend. It is related that the two saints had exchanged habits upon the first visit, and that Malachy wore that of Bernard on his death-bed. The funeral sermon preached by Bernard upon the life and virtue of his Irish comrade is reputed to be one of the finest extant. It seemed as if the Gael had come to show the Goth the way of death. Bernard’s health, early broken by self-imposed austerity and penances, had never been robust, and it had often seemed that nothing but the vigor of his will had kept him from the grave. In the year 1153 he was stricken with a fatal illness. Yet when the archbishop of Trèves came to his bedside, imploring his aid to put an end to an armed quarrel between the nobles and the people of Metz, he went cheerfully but feebly to the field between the contending parties, and by words which came with pain and in the merest whispers, he persuaded the men who were already at each other’s throats to forget their enmities.  9
  He died at Clairvaux on January 12th, 1153, and was buried, as he wished, in the habit of Saint Malachy. In 1174 he was sainted, and his life is honored in the liturgy of the church on the 20th of August.  10
  The marks of Saint Bernard’s character were sweetness and gentle tolerance in the presence of honest opposition, and implacable vigor against shams and evil-doing. His was the perfect type of well-regulated individual judgment. His humility and love of poverty were true and unalterable. In Italy he refused the mitres of Genoa and Milan in turn, and in France successively declined the sees of Châlons, Langres, and Rheims. He wrote and spoke with simplicity and directness, and with an energy and force of conviction which came from absolute command of his subject. He did not disdain to use a good-tempered jest as occasion required, and his words afford some pleasant examples of naïve puns. He was a tireless letter-writer, and some of his best writings are in that form. He devoted much labor to his sermons on the Canticle of Canticles, the work remaining unfinished at his death. He wrote a long poem on the Passion, one beautiful hymn of which is included in the Roman Breviary.  11

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