St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience October21, 2009

During his general audience on Oct. 21, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on the great theologians of the Middle Ages. He shared his reflections on St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard combined the austerity of the Cistercian monastic renewal with intense service to the Church. Because of his great learning and deep spirituality, he is venerated as a doctor of the church and is often called the “last of the Fathers.” He was a prolific writer, who developed warm friendships with those around him, defended sound doctrine, combated heresy and fought against anti-Semitism. His spirituality was deeply Christ-centered, and he had a fervent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to speak about St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who is often called “the last of the Fathers” because back in the 12th century he helped renew and update the great theology of the Fathers of the Church.

We are not familiar with the details of his childhood. However, we do know that he was born in 1090 in Fontaines (France), part of a large family of modest wealth. As a young man, he excelled in his studies of the so-called liberal arts — especially grammar, rhetoric and dialectics — at a school that was run by the canons at the Church of St. Vorles in Châtillon-sur-Seine. Over a long period of time, he reached his decision to enter religious life.

When he was about 20 years old, he entered Citeaux, a new monastic foundation that was more dynamic than the ancient and venerable monasteries of his day, yet more austere in practicing a lifestyle based on the Gospel.

A few years later, in 1115, Bernard was sent by St. Stephan Harding, the third abbot of Citeaux, to found a new monastery at Clairvaux. There, the young abbot, who was only 25 years old at the time, was able to refine his own concept of monastic life and dedicate himself to putting it into practice.

After considering the discipline in other monasteries, Bernard stressed the need for a lifestyle of moderation and simplicity in the food, clothing and structures of the monastery, at the same time encouraging support and care for the poor. During this time, the community at Clairvaux grew steadily in size and multiplied its foundations.


During the period prior to 1130, Bernard maintained vast correspondence with a multitude of people, both people of importance as well as people of modest social status.

Besides the many letters from this period, he wrote numerous sermons, tracts and treatises. His lasting friendship with William, the abbot of St-Thierry, and with William of Champeaux, both of whom were important monastic figures of the 12th century, also dates back to this period.

From 1130 on, Bernard became involved with numerous serious issues affecting the Holy See and the Church. For this reason, he often had to leave his monastery, sometimes traveling outside of France. He also founded some monasteries for women and carried on a lively correspondence with Peter the Venerable, the abbot of Cluny, whom I spoke about last Wednesday.

His polemical writings were addressed, above all, against Abelard, a great thinker who had initiated a new method of approaching theology, introducing the dialectical-philosophical method into the construction of theological thought.

Defender of the Church

Bernard also waged a battle against the heresy of the Cathars, who, by despising material matter and the human body, thereby despised the Creator. On the other hand, he felt it was his duty to defend the Jews, condemning increasingly widespread outbursts of anti-Semitism.

Several decades later, Ephraim, a rabbi in Bonn, zealously honored Bernard for this aspect of his apostolic activity. During this period, this saintly abbot wrote some of his most famous works, such as his renowned Sermons on the Song of Songs.

During the last years of his life (he died in 1153), Bernard had to limit his travels, without, however, having to give them up completely. He took advantage of this time to undertake a definitive review of all his letters, sermons and treatises.

One particular book, which Bernard completed during this period — in 1145 — when one of his pupils, Bernardo Pignatelli, was elected pope and took the name of Pope Eugene III, is worth mentioning.

On this occasion, Bernard, as the spiritual father of the new pope, wrote a text called De Consideratione to his spiritual son, which contained teachings on how to be a good pope.

In this book, which has had and continues to have relevance for the popes throughout the ages, Bernard not only speaks about how to be a good pope: He also expresses his profound vision on the mystery of the Church and the mystery of Christ, which ultimately finds its resolution in the contemplation of the mystery of the triune God.

“You must continue to pursue the quest for this God, who has not yet been sufficiently sought,” the saintly abbot wrote, “but perhaps he can be sought better and found more easily through prayer than through discussion. Therefore, let us bring this book to an end, but not the quest” (XIV, 32: PL 182, 808), the journey toward God.

Relationship With Christ

I would now like to reflect on two key aspects of Bernard’s rich teaching, namely Jesus Christ and his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Bernard’s concern for the intimate and life-giving participation of Christians in God’s love in Jesus Christ did not give a new orientation to the academic discipline of theology. However, with great decisiveness, Bernard of Clairvaux likened the theologian to the contemplative and the mystic.

Only Jesus — Bernard insisted as he confronted the complex dialectic arguments of his time — is “honey to the mouth, music to the ear, and joy to the heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde iubilum).”

Indeed, this is the origin of the title that tradition affords him: Doctor mellifluus. Indeed, his praise of Jesus Christ “flows like honey.”

In the tiresome battles between the nominalists and the realists — two philosophical currents of his time — Bernard of Clairvaux never tired of saying that only one name mattered: the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Food for the soul is dry,” he confessed, “if it is not drizzled with this oil and insipid if it is not seasoned with this salt. What you write is tasteless to me unless I hear the name of Jesus resound in it.”

He concludes by saying: “When you argue or speak, it has no taste for me if I do not hear the name of Jesus resound therein” (Sermones in Cantica Canticorum XV, 6: PL 183,847).

Indeed, for Bernard, true knowledge of God consists in a personal and profound experience of Jesus Christ and his love. This, dear brothers and sisters, applies to every Christian: Faith is first and foremost a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus. It means experiencing his closeness, his friendship, his love. This is the only way we can learn to keep knowing him better, to keep on loving him and following him more closely. May this happen for each one of us!

Devotion to Mary

In another famous sermon, the “Sermon for the Sunday Within the Octave of the Assumption,” St. Bernard described in passionate terms Mary’s intimate participation in her Son’s redemptive sacrifice: “Oh holy Mother,” he exclaimed, “truly a sword did pierce your soul! ... The violence of pain pierced your heart to such a degree that we can rightly call you more than a martyr, because your participation in your Son’s passion surpassed by far the intensity and physical sufferings of martyrdom” (14: PL 183,437-438).

Bernard had no doubt: “Per Mariam ad Iesum” (Through Mary we are led to Jesus). He clearly affirms that Mary is subordinate to Jesus, in accord with the basics of traditional Marian teaching. But the body of his sermon also documents the Virgin Mary’s privileged place in the economy of salvation thanks to her entirely unique participation as mother (compassio) in the sacrifice of her Son.

Fittingly, a century and a half after Bernard’s death, Dante Alighieri, in the last canto of The Divine Comedy, places this sublime prayer to Mary on the lips of the Doctor mellifluus: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son, / Humble and exalted more than any creature, / The fixed limit of the eternal counsel ...” (Paradiso 33, vv. 1ss.).

Lessons for Today

These reflections, typical of a person who is in love with Jesus and Mary, as St. Bernard was, continue to stimulate not only theologians, but all believers today in a very wholesome way.

At times, we think we can resolve the fundamental questions about God, mankind and the world merely using the power of reason. St. Bernard, however, solidly rooted in the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, reminds us that without profound faith in God that is nourished by prayer, contemplation and an intimate relationship with the Lord, our reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming a vain intellectual exercise and lose their credibility.

Theology defers to the “science of the saints,” to their intuition concerning the mysteries of the living God, to their wisdom — a gift of the Holy Spirit — which become a reference point for theological thought.

Together with Bernard of Clairvaux, we too should recognize that man seeks God better and finds him more easily “through prayer than through discussion.”

Ultimately, the most authentic model of theologian and of evangelizer remains that of the apostle John, who rested his head on the Master’s heart.

I would like to conclude these reflections on St. Bernard with his words on Mary, which we find in one of his beautiful homilies: “Amid danger, distress and uncertainty,” he said, “think of Mary, call on Mary. Let her never leave your lips; let her never leave your heart. In order to obtain the assistance of her prayer, never forget the example of her life. If you follow her, you cannot go wrong; if you pray to her, you cannot despair; if you think of her, you cannot make a mistake. If she supports you, you will not fall; if she protects you, you have nothing to fear; if she guides you, you will not tire; if she favors you, you will reach the goal” (Hom. II super Missus est 17: PL 183, 70-71).

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