August 20: Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, 1153

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About this commemoration


Bernard, fiery defender of the Church in the twelfth century, was famed for the ardor with which he preached love for God “without measure.” He was completely absorbed, even to the neglect of his own health, in support of the purity, doctrine, and prerogatives of the Church. He fulfilled his own definition of a holy man: “seen to be good and charitable, holding back nothing for himself, but using his every gift for the common good.”

Bernard was the son of a knight and landowner who lived near Dijon, France. He was born in 1090 and given a secular education, but in 1113 he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Citeaux. His family was not pleased with his choice of a monastic life, but he nevertheless persuaded four of his brothers and about twenty-six of his friends to join him in establishing a monastery at Clairvaux in 1115.

During the following ten years, Bernard denied himself sleep that he might have time to write letters and sermons. He preached so persuasively that sixty new Cistercian abbeys were founded, all affiliated with Clairvaux. By 1140, his writings had made him one of the most influential figures in Christendom. He participated actively in every controversy that threatened the Church. He was an ardent critic of Peter Abelard’s attempt to reconcile inconsistencies of doctrine by reason, because he felt that such an approach was a downgrading of the mysteries.

When a former monk of Clairvaux was elected Pope, as Eugenius III, Bernard became his troubleshooter. He preached the Crusade against the Albigensians, and the Second Crusade to liberate Jerusalem, winning much support for the latter in France and Germany. When that Crusade ended in disaster, Bernard was roundly attacked for having supported it. He died soon after in 1153. He was canonized in 1174.

Among Bernard’s writings are treatises on papal duty, on love, on the veneration of Mary, and a commentary on the Song of Songs. Among well known hymns, he is credited with having written “O sacred head sore wounded,” “Jesus, the very thought of thee,” and “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts.”

Collect of the Day

O God, by whose grace your servant Bernard of Clairvaux, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 39:1–10

Jude 1–3

John 15:7–11

Psalm 19:7–11(12–14)

Preface of a Saint (1)

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

9 thoughts on “August 20: Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, 1153

  1. New NT Reading: It is only 3 verses long.

    Bernard may have preached ‘without measure’ – but we only read three verses of Scripture.
    Something is unbalanced here. 🙂

  2. A great writer, but to say he was “an ardent critic” of Abelard whitewashes Bernard’s role in the trial and condemnation of “the preeminent philosopher of the twelfth century and perhaps the greatest logician of the middle ages.” Bernard belongs in the calendar on the “whole man” theory, but for my money Abelard is a better fit for a church dedicated to “the old Anglican foundations of research and fair statement.”

  3. August 20: Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, 1153
    Even though this bio is already in LFF, I want to muddy its water a bit.
    “He was completely absorbed, even to the neglect of his own health, in support of the purity, doctrine, and prerogatives of the Church”
    (COMMENT: Hagiography inevitably idealizes its subjects; that is its job, in part. But, if it idealizes the wrong features of its subjects it could end up by scandalizing rather than inspiring. “Neglecting one’s health” sounds like heroic asceticism here, but it’s not. It’s bad stewardship of the most basic of God’s gifts, the gift of one’s body as the vehicle of physical life. It is bad hagiography to include the words, “even to the neglect of his own health” — even though it be true of Bernard.)
    “He was an ardent critic of Peter Abelard’s attempt to reconcile inconsistencies of doctrine by reason”
    (COMMENT: This makes it sound as if Abelard thought up and practiced independent reasoning all by himself, and that Bernard’s issue was with him as an individual. Shouldn’t it be acknowledged that reasoned theology was a growing movement that foreshadowed both scholasticism and scientific thinking?)
    (COMMENT: LFF prints this as two separate words, not a single term. Is this an intentional change done for good reason, or is it done unintentionally as a concession to informal speech?)
    “He preached the Crusade against the Albigensians, and the Second Crusade to liberate Jerusalem”
    (COMMENT: I find it an embarrassment, and a reason for shame and repentance, that my Christian forebears undertook killing people as a way to defend the gospel. It clearly countervenes the spirit of the gospel and the life of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. Instead of highlighting Bernard’s prowess at this and then mentioning in a subordinate way that he was “roundly attacked for having supported” the crusades, shouldn’t we present it the other way around? Especially in today’s world, tacit acceptance of violence as a religious activity runs counter to the integrity of Christian Life and the Baptismal Covenant.)
    “He was canonized in 1174.”
    (COMMENT: Since the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion does not “canonize” per se, it understands its commemorations of holy women and men differently from the Roman Church’s understanding of canonized (officially declared) “saints,”and it eschews the need for documented post-mortem miracles by them, etc., do we really want reference to their canonization dates in our official devotional publications? Their date of death should be of greater significance for our purposes, and far less likely to result in the impression that our intention in some way is to affect an Episcopal canonization.
    “Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ”
    (COMMENT: The Collect explicitly upholds imitation of Bernard’s Christ-based discipline. This underlines how important it is to emphasize elements that can be upheld as norms for Christians today, and equally, to avoid idealizing elements that may be true of his era but which run counter to our church’s spirituality and morality in our own era.

    • I want to say, “Thank you, for your thoughtful comments.” You have said succinctly and deliberately made several points which bothered up but which I count not put into words.

      The ascetic ideal has been a part of Christianity almost from the beginning. Sometimes it is just more obvious than at other times. Undoubtedly in a world of excess, the goal of supreme asceticism is appealing. At times, it seems that criticism of that ascetic ideal is almost heresy. Self-denial has a very important place in Christian way of life. But self-denial to the point of deliberate harm to one’s body has only been pointed out as poor stewardship once and a while.

      I have always found Dominic’s support of the crusade against the Cathars and the Second Crusade to be very problematic. These are two events which cannot be white washed away and neither should they be. But somehow, it needs to made clear that from the 21st century perspective these policies were profoundly flawed.

      I suspect that I am not the only Episcopalian whose heart is much more with Peter Abelard than Dominic. For there is great comfort and joy in Abelard’s words (as translated by the recently recognized John Mason Neale):
      Truly, “Jerusalem” name we that shore,
      city of peace that brings joy evermore;
      wish and fulfillment are not severed there,
      nor do things prayed for come short of the prayer…
      Now, in the meantime, with hearts raised on high,
      we for that country must yearn and must sigh,
      seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
      through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

      In addition to the asceticism which is idealized, I find myself very uncomfortable with the misogynist bent of many of these early and medieval Church fathers. I am sure I am exaggerating, but I see a tendency to those venerated for their contributions to the Church to have this anti-woman bias. The more these men promoted the veneration, even worship, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the more they thought of real woman as harlots and the source of all evil since they were descendants of Eve. I had better stop here before I say anything that might be too offensive to some dogmas.

      • I was obviously not paying close attention to my proof-reading when I wrote this. I wrote “Domind” but I meant “Bernard.”

        I was thinking about Dominic though. He is on my list of “grit your teeth” “saints.” The list is my informal one of early Church fathers, doctors and major theologians who are recognized because of their major contributions to Christianity and Christian theology. and Christian orthodoxy. But personally I find these men throughly dislikeable because of their attitudes toward women. But then, I must confess, I find William of Ockham’s law of parsimony far superior to much of the theological speculation which is a hallmark of the middle ages. If more had followed this line of reasoning, there would be many fewer theologians.

  4. The tomb of Abelard and Heloise in the Pere La Chaise cemetery is very moving. A recent French biography of Heloise gives a good picture of Abelard too, and the whole story, including the reconciliation of Abelard and Bernard. About misogyny: Heloise’s uncle had hired Abelard to teach her, because he wanted her to be happy, If I remember right. When they fell uncontrolably in love, he was angry with both and felt taken advantage of and had an unforgivable thing done to Abelard. –Both Abelard and Heloise wound up being religious leaders of their day, Heloise at the head of a convent. -I heard Karen Armstrong speak on compassion (the title of the talk had to do with its importance in the Abrahamic faiths) yesterday in Chautauqua; hadn’t heard her before and didn’t think I was going to like her, but the way she taught the concept was original and extemely helpful, I thought. For her, she said, It started with her learning to appreciate medieval spirituality (which at one time she was very critical of) when a French writer said it wasn’t appropriate to look at that age with the rationalism of the present age; it was important to “make room” in one’s mind and heart for another way of looking at things. For Armstrong, that opened the door to a range of new understandings. (Not of wrong actions; Armstrong has written critically of the crusades–but of spirituality).

  5. I have come late to this commentary project, so to perhaps prevent repitition, I suggest that the editors adopt a uniform policy about how the failings of these people are presented. None of the Western Crusades, which victimized Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Cathers, and others, are praise-worthy. They are an occasion of shame. Instances of anti-Semitism and racism should not be glossed over, as they also are occasions for repentance. The same goes for blatant misogyny. You might also consider simply dropping some of these – Louis of France, for example, as well as Bernard. And yes, for those already in the book that is not in the compass of this committee, but I take it the committee can make recomendations to General Convention.

  6. “He preached the Crusade against the Albigensians…” I believe this Crusade committed genocide against the Abligensians. Just google “Massacre at Béziers,” where 20,000 people were slaughter by Crusaders. Our “saints” need better scrutiny before we give them their crowns.

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