Think of St. Bernard and one immediately thinks of the Cistercians and reform in monastic life in the early middle ages. Think of St. Bernard and one recollects the Order of Templars, a dedicated body of knights who went off to fight as Crusades. Think of St. Bernard and one ponders on some of those wonderful spiritual writings such as On the Love of God and commentary on The Song of Songs. Think of St. Bernard and one reflects on his  soteriological theology. Think of St. Bernard and one recalls disputed Papal elections and his efforts for harmony. Think of St. Bernard and one is reminded of sharp disputes with other theologians such as with Peter Abelard. Think of St. Bernard and one contemplates that lovely hymn, Jesus, dulcis memoria, "Jesu the very thought of you/ With sweetness fills my breast."

Bernard regarded as the last of the Fathers, was an outstanding and influential son of the Church in the 12thC. At a very early age, he and his companions entered the monastery at Citaeux. Soon under Bernard's influence this Cistercian abbey was transformed, and as a consequence he was made abbot oft a new monastery at Clairvaux in France, which quickly attracted men from afar, despite its very harsh beginning. Once the Cistercian order gained strong Papal support its numbers increased rapidly. Clairvaux was instrumental in establishing those famous Cisterican abbeys in Britain, including Riveaulx and Fountain in Yorkshire. Overall he founded one hundred and sixty-three monasteries in different parts of Europe.; at his death they numbered three hundred and forty-three.
Although Bernard sought seclusion, he spent much of his life travelling to confer with bishops, kings and popes. In 1128 he was elected secretary at the Council of Troyes called by Honorius II. It was at this Council that Bernard drew up the rule for the knights of the Order of Templars, which became the ideal of the French nobility.
Two year later, Honorius died and schism broke out in the church with the election of two popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II. The latter banished Innocent. Bernard intervened and persuaded the French king and other Catholic powers to support Innocent. This abbot then accompanied Innocent II to Italy and calmed the agitated regions. After that he was a constant companion of this Pope. Bernard too defended the rights of the Church against encroachments of kings and princes.
After the setting up of the knights of the Templars, he preached fervently on the cause of the Crusades, and many from all walks of life rallied to his call and took up the cross to the Holy Land. However this crusade, known as the second, ended in miserable disaster and was Bernard's great failure.

Bernard was a noted theologian. Some of the most memorable analogies and metaphors of mediæval piety and doctrine were from this abbot. One of the most quoted was his metaphor of the cross as liber charitis, 'the very book of love' laid open before us so that we may read the love in the cleft of Our Lord's heart. Another was seeing the cross as a window. "'The nails and spear-head serve as keys to let us in'" and to look closer "into the palms of His hands, wherein saith [Isaiah], He hath graven us, that He might never forget us." When we "look into his side," in the words of St. John we shall see it is "'opened'" for us. Through that opening we may look into His heart that is full "of kindness and compassion that would endure to be so entreated. Yea, that very heart of His, wherein we may behold the love of our salvation to be the very heart's joy of our Saviour." 
His most popular analogy was based on Anslem's  soteriological teaching Psalm 85. v. 10. "Justice met with Mercy, and Righteousness and Peace kissed each other." He depicted a debate  in heaven between Mercy and Justice after Adam's trangression.
Mercy with tears in her eyes falls at the feet of God almighty and pleads for wretched man. She confessed that man "is not worthy to be pitied; but is not thy mercy worthy to be magnified? He hath forgotten to be dutifull, for he is a man, but canst thou forgett to be gracious, who art a God?  Thus Mercy prayed, and would thus have continued; but Justice an angry suitor, stepp'd in and thus interrupted her. Great Judge 'tis now my turn to plead, be not persuaded by this importunate advocate my sister Mercy; she knowes thy tenderness, and still she hopes thus to weep thee into pitty.  Didst thou not plant in him a goodly image of thine own majesty, and leave him thy lieutenant upon earth dreadfull and venerable to all thy creatures? Didst thou not give him an easy law to try his obedience with power enough to do it? And didst thou not say, that death and vengeance should pursue his apostacy? And were not all these acts of mercy? Now then (L[ord]) hear me thy Justice; and compare his contempt with all this thy courtesy. To requite thy favours he hath sinned, and how? I cannot name his wickedness at once; 'twas not only pride, or presumption, or ingratitude, or luxury, or cruelty to his offspring, or infidelity or apostacy, but all these. And shall not the Judge of all the world do right? Mercy never suffers thee to punish the innocent, and can Justice permitt thee to spare the guilty?  This sharp oration prickt Mercy at the heart, and with fresh teares she answers, Lord, Justice sayed true, for if man were innocent he should not need thy mercy. But suppose him worse (if that may be supposed) can his wickedness equall or surmount thy pitty? Can he do that which thou canst not pardon? Then should his malice be more infinite than thy clemency. Thy goodness indeed he richly tasted in his creation; but he shall never feel thy Mercy, unlesse now thou send me to releeve him in his misery. And hast thou no regard to thy tender Mercy, wilt thou never use me?  But shall Justice still prevail and exclude thy Mercy? Shall she now again, by one weak wilfull man ruine all his poor posterity? Nay shall Satan thine enemy triumph in so rich a spoil, and rob thee at once of this whole most noble tribe of all thy earthly creatures? This was his hope and aim when he seduced him. But who then shall be left on earth to serve thee? Who shall honour thy majesty, when the devill hath all mankind under his obedience? Justice herself hath yeilded that thee delights not in man's misery, pardon and pitty them (gracious Lord) and redeem this worm thy servant from that hellish tyranny. For I resolve not to leave my suit, till thou hast graciously answered me.
Here Justice again replied, But canst thou (Lord) neglect thy Justice which is thy self? Canst thou forgett thy word, and not make good that commination, in the same day thou eatest [thou shalt] surely die? 'Tis me thy Justice whom man hath wrought, and wilt thou put up this injury and not see me satisfied?
While these two pithy orators were thus pleading the Almighty heard them both with patience; and beholding with equall favour sometimes, the one, sometimes, the other, Tho' he seemed rather enclined to his Mercy, yet again looking upon his Justice  He was loath to disrespect her; At length the LOVE of God calls upon him, and prays him to set his Wisedome on work to meditate a Peace between Mercy and Justice and to compose the controversy. Indeed this was a proper work for God's infinite Wisedome; she readily undertakes the task, and propounds to both parties this temperament; what if we could find some innocent Mediator, that would be content to suffer the punishment which man hath deserved, and to die that he may live? But where shall we seek him, in earth? 'Tis man that sinned. In heaven? But which of the angells hath either so much power or so much charity, as to buy off man's torments with his own? No he must needs be a person of no lesse than infinite dignity; and he must be both man to suffer death and God to conquer it; and thus may both Justice be satisfied, and Mercy gloriously honoured.
Then Wisedome fixing her eye upon the eternal son of God, who presently takes Wisedome at the word and looking upon his Father, he sayes, Behold here I am to do - fitt me a body; for I resolve to be made flesh, and to dispatch all this business. Hereupon Mercy and Justice straightwayes met together, they embraced and kissed each other.  
And thus was Almighty God highly pleased, his Love, his Goodness, his Mercy, his Justice, his Truth, Power, Wisdome all glorified and poor man reconciled and his sins purged."

As a defender of the Church Bernard took exception to the teaching and life of Peter Abelard, and his crusade resulted in the pope denouncing this great thinker and theologian as a heretic. A mutual friend Peter the Venerable tried to reconcile the two, but one real blot of Bernard's character was that he never really forgave Abelard.
This has to be balanced against his incredible number of writings and sermons, which have influenced many down the centuries. Probably his most attractive and simple writings is his treatise On the Love of God, which has become a spiritual classic.
You wish then to hear from me why and how God ought to be loved.
I answer: The cause of loving God is God Himself. The way to love him is without measure.
God deserves of' us all our love, a love which knows no bounds. This is the first thing to understand. The  reason is because God was the first to love. God, who is so great, loves us so much; he loves us freely, poor, pathetic, worthless creatures though we be. This is why I insist that our love for God should know no bounds. And since love given to God is given to the One who is infinite and without boundary, what measure or boundary could we make anyway?
Furthermore, our love is not bestowed for no reason, as God's love is for us: we render it in payment of-a debt. God, infinite and eternal, who is love beyond our human capacity to comprehend, whose greatness knows no bounds, whose wisdom has no end, simply loves. Should we, for our part then, set limits on our love for God?
'1 will love you, O Lord my strength, my strong rock and my defence, my Saviour, my sole desire and love.' My God, my helper, I will love you with all the power you have given me; not worthily, because that is impossible, but nevertheless to the best of- my ability. Do what I will in life, I can never discharge my debt to you and I can love you only according to the power you have given me. But I will endeavour to love you more and more, as you see fit to enable me to do so; and yet, never, never, as you should be loved. 'Your eyes saw my unformed substance.' In your book are written all who do the best they can, though they never pay their debt to you in full.
The reason, then, for our loving God is God. He is the initiator of our love and its final goal. He is himself- the occasion of human love; He gives us the power to love, and brings our desire to consummation. God is loveable in Himself, and gives himself to us as the object of- our love. He desires that our love for him should bring us happiness, and not be arid and barren. His love for us opens up inside us the way to love, and is the reward for' our own reaching out in love. How gently He leads us in love's way, how generously he returns the love we give, how sweet he is to those who wait for him!
God is indeed rich to all who call to him, for he can give them nothing better than to give them himself. He gave Himself to be our righteousness, and he keeps himself to be our great reward. He offers himself as refreshment to our souls, and spends himself to set free those in prison. You are good, Lord, to the soul that seeks you. What, then, are you to the soul that finds you? The marvel is, no one can seek you who has not already found you. You want us to find you so that we may seek you, but we can never anticipate your coming, for though we say 'Early shall my prayer come before you,' a chilly, loveless thing that prayer would be, were it not warmed by your own breath and born of-your own Spirit.

The Church and lives of Christians down the centuries would have been much poorer without Bernard's many contributions. His life too was a like a window through which the love of God could be seen.

Marianne Dorman
Return to Index