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Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Cistercian Abbot, Doctor of the Church - from France
Born in Fontaine-lès-Dijon in 1090
Died in Clairvaux on 20 August 1153
Canonized in 1174 by Pope Alexander III
Feast Day - 20th August
Major shrine - Troyes Cathedral

Pius XII wrote an encyclical on St Bernard, Doctor Mellifluus. Benedict XVI gave a catechesis on St Bernard suring his series on the Fathers of the Church.

Benedict XVI: "Bernard of Clairvaux was called "Doctor mellifluus" by Pope Pius VIII because he excelled "in distilling from biblical texts their hidden meaning". Desirous of living immersed in the "luminous valley" of contemplation, events lead this mystic to travel throughout Europe serving the Church's needs of the time and defending the Christian faith. He was also described as a "Marian Doctor". This was not because he wrote so much on Our Lady but because he knew how to grasp her essential role in the Church, presenting her as the perfect model of monastic life and of every other form of Christian life."

Catechesis by Pope Benedict XVI    
General Audience, Wednesday 21 October 2009 - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about St Bernard of Clairvaux, called "the last of the Fathers" of the Church, because in the XII century, he once again renewed and made present the great theology of the Fathers. We do not know in detail about the years of his childhood; we do know however that he was born in 1090 in Fontaines in France, into a numerous and fairly wealthy family. In his adolescence, he devoted himself to the study of the so-called liberal arts - especially grammar, rhetoric and dialectics - at the school of the Canons of Saint-Vorles Church at Châtillon-sur-Seine and the decision to enter religious life slowly matured (within him). Around the age of twenty he entered Cîteaux, a new monastic foundation, more agile than the ancient and venerable monasteries of that time, more rigorous in the practice of the evangelical counsels. A few years later, in 1115, Bernard was sent by St Stephen Harding, the third Abbot of Cîteaux, to found the monastery of Clairvaux. Here the young Abbot, only 25 years old, was able to refine his own conception of monastic life and commit to putting it into practice. In looking at the discipline of other monasteries, Bernard decisively recalled the necessity of a sober and measured life, at table as in clothing and in monastic buildings, recommending the sustenance/support and care of the poor. Meanwhile the community of Clairvaux became ever more numerous and multiplied its foundations.

In those same years, before 1130, Bernard started a vast correspondence with many people, both important and of modest social conditions. To the many Letters of this period must be added numerous Sermons, as well as Sententences and Treaties. Bernard's great friendship with William, Abbot of Saint-Thierry, and William of Champeaux, among the most important figures of XII century, also date from this time. From 1130 onwards, he began to deal with many serious matters of the Holy See and the Church. For this reason he increasingly had to leave his monastery, and sometimes travel outside of France. He also founded several women's monasteries and was the protagonist of a lively correspondence with Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, about whom I spoke last Wednesday. He directed his polemical writings above all against Abelard, a great thinker who started a new way of doing theology, by introducing above all the dialectical-philosophical method in the construction of theological thought. Another front against which Bernard fought was the heresy of the Cathars, who despised matter and the human body, despising by consequence the Creator. Conversely, he felt duty bound to defend the Jews, condemning the increasingly widespread outbursts of anti-Semitism. For this last aspect of his apostolic action, Ephraim, rabbi of Bonn, addressed a vibrant tribute to Bernard a few decades later. In this same period the holy Abbot wrote his most famous works, such as the famous Sermons on the Song of Songs. In the last years of his life - his death occurred in 1153 - Bernard had to limit his journeys, without however stopping them altogether. He took the opportunity to review definitively the collection of his Letters, Sermons and Treaties. It is worth mentioning a rather particular book, which he finished precisely in this period, in 1145, when one of his pupils, Bernardo Pignatelli, was elected Pope with the name Eugene III. In this circumstance, Bernard, as spiritual Father, wrote to his spiritual son the text De Consideratione, which contains teaching on how to be a good Pope. In this book, which remains fitting reading for the Popes of all time, Bernard not only indicates how to be a good Pope, but also expresses a profound vision of the mystery of the Church and of the mystery of Christ, which is resolved ultimately in the contemplation of the mystery of God triune and one: "One must still pursue the search for this God, who is still not sought enough", writes the holy Abbot, "but one can perhaps better seek Him and more easily find Him with prayer than with discussion. So let us here put an end to the book, but not to the search" (xiv, 32), to being on the pathway towards God.

I would now like to dwell on two central aspects of Bernard's rich doctrine: they concern Jesus Christ and Mary Most Holy, his Mother. His solicitude for the Christian's intimate and vital participation in the love of God in Jesus Christ does not bring new orientation to the scientific status of theology. But, in a way more decisive than ever, the Abbot of Clairvaux configures the theologian to the contemplative and the mystic. Only Jesus - insists Bernard in front of the complex dialectical reasoning of his time - only Jesus is "honey in the mouth, song to the ear, joy in the heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde iubilum)". Precisely from here comes the title, attributed to him by tradition, of Doctor mellifluus: his praise of Jesus Christ, in fact, "flows like honey". In the grueling battles between nominalists and realists - two philosophical currents of the epoch - the Abbot of Clairvaux never tired of repeating that there is only one name that counts, that of Jesus the Nazarene. "Arid is every food of the soul", he confesses, "if it is not bathed with this oil; insipid, if it is not seasoned with this salt. What you write has no taste for me, if I have not read Jesus in it." And he concludes: "When you discuss or talk, nothing has flavour for me, if I have not heard the name of Jesus resonate there" (Sermones in Cantica Canticorum XV, 6). For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consists in the personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And this, dear brothers and sisters, is so for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is experiencing his closeness, his friendship, his love, and it is only thus that one learns to know him more and more, to love him and follow him more and more. May this happen for each one of us!

In another famous Sermon on the Sunday in the Octave of the Assumption, the holy Abbot describes in passionate terms Mary's intimate participation in the redemptive sacrifice of the Son. "O holy Mother", he exclaims, "truly a sword pierced your soul!... So deeply has the violence of sorrow pierced your soul that rightly we can call you more than martyr, because in you the participation in the passion of the Son by far surpasses in intensity the physical sufferings of martyrdom" (14: PL 183, 437-438). Bernard had no doubts: "per Mariam ad Iesum", through Mary we are led to Jesus. He attests with clarity to Mary's subordination to Jesus, according to the foundations of traditional Mariology. But the body of the Sermon also documents the Virgin's privileged place in the economy of salvation, following the Mother's most particular participation (compassio) in the sacrifice of the Son. Not for nothing, a century and a half after Bernard's death, Dante Alighieri, in the last canticle of the Divine Comedy, was to put on the lips of the "mellifluous Doctor" the sublime prayer to Mary: "Virgin Mother, daughter of your own Son, / humble and exalted more than any creature, / fixed term of the eternal counsel, ..." (Paradise 33, v 1ss).

These reflections, characteristic of a lover of Jesus and Mary like St Bernard, in a salutary way provoke still today not only theologians, but all believers. Sometimes one pretends to have resolved the fundamental questions about God, about man and about the world with the sole forces of reason. Instead St Bernard, solidly founded on the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, reminds us that without a profound faith in God, nourished by prayer and contemplation, by an intimate relationship with the Lord, our reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming a vain intellectual exercise, and lose their credibility. Theology refers to the "science of the saints", to their intuition of the mysteries of the living God, to their wisdom, gift of the Holy Spirit, which become a point of reference for theological thought. Together with Bernard of Clairvaux, we too must recognize that man better seeks and more easily finds God "with prayer than with discussion". In the end, the truest figure of a theologian and of every evangelizer remains that of the apostle John, who laid his head on the heart of the Master.

I would like to conclude these reflections on St Bernard with the invocations to Mary, which we read in one of his beautiful homilies: "In dangers, in distress, in uncertainties," - he says - " think of Mary, invoke Mary. Let her never be detached from your lips, let her never be detached from your heart; and that you may obtain the help of her prayer, never forget the example of her life. If you follow her, you will not go astray; if you pray to her, you will not despair; if you think of her, you cannot be deceived. If she sustains you, you do not fall; if she protects you, you have nothing to fear; if she guides you, you do not grow tired; if she is favourable to you, you will reach the goal" (Hom II super "Missus est", 17).

Saint Bernard, from his Sermons on the Song of Songs:

Love is self-sufficient; it is pleasing to itself and on its own account. Love is its own payment, its own reward. Love needs no extrinsic cause or result. Love is the result of love, it is intrinsically valuable. I love because I love; I love in order to love. Love is a valuable thing only if it returns to its beginning, consults its origin and flows back to its source. It must always draw from that endless stream. Love is the only one of the soul's motions, senses and affections by which the creature in his inadequate fashion may respond to his Creator and pay him back in kind. When God loves, he wishes only to be loved in return; assuredly he loves for no other purpose than to be loved. He knows that those who love him are happy in their love. 

The Bridegroom's love, that Bridegroom who is himself love, seeks only reciprocal love and loyalty. She who is loved may well love in return! How can the bride not love, the very bride of Love? Why should Love itself not be loved?

The bride, duly renouncing all other affections submits with all her being to love alone; she can respond to love by giving love in return. When she  has poured forth her whole being in love, how does her effort compare with the unending flow from the very source of love? Love itself of course is more abundant than a lover, the Word than a created soul. the Bridegroom than the bride, the Creator than the creature. As well compare a thirsty man with the fountain which satisfies his thirst!

Can it be that all will perish and come to nought, the promised love of the bride, the longing of the creature here below, the passion of the lover, the confidence of the believer, simply because it is futile to race against a giant, or to contend with honey in sweetness, with the lamb in gentleness, with the lily in whiteness, with the sun in splendour, with Love in love? Not at all. Even though the creature loves less than the Creator, for that is his nature, nevertheless if he loves with all his being, he lacks nothing. One who so loves, therefore, has indeed become a bride; for she cannot so offer love and not be loved in return: in the agreement of the partners lies the wholeness and the perfection of marriage. Who can doubt that the Word's love for the soul is prior to, and greater than, the soul's love for him?

Saint Bernard - 1st Sermon of the Epiphany

“Behold, goodness and kindness has appeared, the humanity of God our Savior” (Tit 3,4 Vg). Thanks be to God, through whose mercy in this our pilgrimage, in this our banishment, in this our state of misery, has also greatly increased our consolation... Before his humanity appeared, his goodness remained hidden too. Of course, it existed beforehand, for “the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting” (Ps 103[102]. But how could we have known its greatness? It was the object of a promise, not of an experience, which is why many people did not believe in it...

Now, however, people can believe in what they see, since: “The Lord's decrees are worthy of trust indeed”, and: “He has pitched his tent in the sun” (cf. Ps 93[92],5; 19[18],5). Now peace is no longer promised but sent, not reserved until later but given, not prophesied but set forth. Now God has sent the treasures of his mercy upon earth, treasures that are to be exposed by his Passion to pour forth the prize of our salvation concealed in them... For if it is only a tiny child that has been given to us (Is 9,5), yet “in him dwells the whole fulness of the godhead bodily” (Col 2,9). In the fullness of time it came in the flesh to be visible to our eyes of flesh, that seeing his humanity and his kindness we should recognize his goodness... Does anything better prove his mercy than to see him take on our misery? “What is man, O Lord, that you notice him; the son of man that you take thought of him?” (Ps 144[143],3; Jb 7,17 Vg).