Faithful Through the Ages - Friday, February 28, 2014

Bernard of Clairvaux - Preaching Christ Most Excellently

Quote:"While I am in this life this more sublime philosophy will be mine—to know Jesus Christ, and Him crucified."

The most celebrated of the Cistercians monks and the leading reformer of the twelfth century, Bernard (1090 - 1153) was more than a monastic leader. He was a theologian, a papal confidant, a Crusader, and a hymn writer. Indeed, he was one of the few medieval Roman Catholics widely heralded by the Reformers. John Calvin regarded him as the premier proclaimer of truth in the centuries between Gregory the Great and the Reformation, and Martin Luther found him to be "superior to all the doctors in his sermons, even to Augustine himself, because he preaches Christ most excellently."

Born in a French castle, Bernard turns away from wealth and prestige to become a Cistercian monk in his early twenties. Like his six brothers and a sister, he is influenced by the deep faith of their mother, Aletha. According to his earliest biographer she, with her husband, "governed the household in the fear of God, devoting herself to deeds of mercy and rearing her children in strict discipline. . . . not so much for the glory of her husband as for that of God; for all the sons became monks and the daughter a nun."

Bernard's decision to become a monk, according to his biographer, occurs suddenly. Riding one day through a dense forest, he comes upon a roadside chapel, goes in, and prays. "From that hour . . . God had kindled [fire] in the heart of his servant." Bernard then seeks out a Cistercian monastery, bringing thirty men with him. His early life of luxury is behind him, and three years later he is commissioned to take twelve monks and start a new community. They march northward through deep forests to a valley near the headwaters of the River Aube. Here he and his followers build the Abbey of Clairvaux.

For the next thirty-four years Bernard ministers in this region, preaching, praying, and reaching out to those in need in the surrounding areas. So compelling are his recruitment efforts that women reportedly warn their husbands and lovers and sons to stay away from his monastery because he has magical powers for turning men into monks. The story of his sister Humbelina—the one sibling who had refused to enter the cloister—sheds light on his power. She is married with children, but Bernard is not moved by her maternal instincts. When she turns away from his demands, he refuses to speak with her. Eventually he breaks her will, and she consents to leave her family and spend the rest of her life in seclusion.

A celebrated traveling wonderworker, Bernard leaves behind testimonies of healings—particularly of young boys suffering a variety of afflictions who then join his band of recruits. On one occasion thirty young men who are healed or witness a healing follow him back to the monastery. By the middle of the twelfth century the Abbey of Clairvaux has some seven hundred monks and seventy daughter houses under his strict discipline—all secluded cloisters. When a monk leaves for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Bernard appeals to the pope, demanding that the monk be returned lest he encourage others to leave.

Yet for all his insistence on curbing the travel and curiosity of his monks, Bernard abides by no such rule for himself. Engaged in the most critical debates of the era, he is tireless in his efforts to end a church schism in 1130, and he becomes the attack dog in the campaign against Abelard. With the same intensity, he promotes the Second Crusade, launched in 1145. Before he becomes involved, there is little excitement for another long march east. But then he aims his evangelistic arrows at those needed to liberate the Holy Land. "I opened my mouth," he testifies, "and at once the Crusaders have multiplied to infinity."

Bernard spends a year traveling from town to town, appealing for troops. But the early news of Crusader defeats dampens his spirits. Surely, he reasons, God must be punishing the sins of the Crusaders. In the end, the Islamic armies prevail, and Jerusalem is taken. Despite setbacks, his popularity is high, and he is canonized a saint in 1174, barely two decades after his death.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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