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Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Biography of Bernard de Clairvaux

Bernard de Fontaines was born in 1090 at the Château de Fontaine-les-Dijon, from a noble Burgundian family, and the third of seven children. Her mother, Aleth, was of great piety, while she was pregnant, she sensed an inner revelation of the exceptional vocation of her third son. Indeed, very early on, the child exhibited silence and contemplation. He studied with the canons of Saint Vorles and proved to be gifted.He particularly liked to read the sacred Scriptures. One Christmas night, Bernard had a dream: he had a vision of the Child Jesus, after which he asked for the grace to remain pure. He grew up to be a handsome, blond young man, and his family had big plans for him. Following the death of his mother, however, Bernard renounced his future as a knight. He nurtured the desire to enter into a strict life of asceticism and prayer.

In 1112, without warning, Bernard traveled to Cîteaux to become a monk. His family tried to get him back, but he had  accepted an assignment to travel for a few months, preaching the ideal of Cistercian life around him. He had such charisma that when he returned to the abbey, he was accompanied by about thirty companions, including four of his brothers. Three years after entering religious life, Bernard founded the Abbey of Clairvaux, which he placed under the protection of the Virgin Mary. Bernard remained the abbot for 38 years, rejecting the honors and opportunities open to him. Together with the abbots of the first foundations, Bernard wrote the Charter of Charity.

Of great firmness, sometimes even severity, Bernard would not cease to defend the truth, even if he had to face great renowned theologians or erroneous public opinion. In particular, he opposed the thought of Abelard, whose danger and heresy he saw. Abelard considered faith as a simple opinion, with reason being all-powerful. Bernard said of him: "A false Catholic is more pernicious than a declared heretic." Bernard's spirituality was centered on submission to Sacred Scripture and surrender to the Will of God. Humbly acknowledging his weaknesses and shortcomings, Bernard entrusted them to the Blessed Virgin.

Bernard knew how to touch souls with solid, profound teachings that went straight to the heart. He was soon to be noticed for his persuasive qualities and was called upon for all sorts of problems, to resolve conflicts, etc. He thus found himself traveling through Europe and taking part in the political and religious questions of his time. He worked for the unity of the Church, for relations with the papacy, and thus exerted political influence. A great thinker by nature, Bernard became a preacher out of love, for he said he would: “rather die than speak in public.” At the request of Pope Eugene III, he preached the second crusade.

Bernard received the gift of performing miracles, however, while absorbed in contemplation, he never availed himself of them and affirmed: “There is no connection between these miracles and me.” After a life to work for Christ on all levels, both temporal and spiritual, Bernard died in 1153.

He was canonized only 21 years after his death, on January 18, 1174 by Alexander III, and is celebrated on August 20. In 1830, Pius VIII proclaimed him Doctor of the Church.

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The Historical Context of Saint Bernard's life

The life of Saint Bernard is completely intertwined with the history of his time. The writer Ernest Hello would rightly say: "It is impossible to write the story of his life without writing the story of the whole world during his life. To get a grasp of Saint Bernard, one must look into everything, the books and the battlefields, the palaces of kings, the councils, the peoples, and the oratory where the monks prayed. Saint Bernard is one of the most representative men of the twelfth century. This period was marked by great upheavals in all fields: philosophy, poetry, economic and social transformations, the birth of urban planning, the emergence of commerce, the establishment of royalty, with its centralization in the face of the feudal nobility, we also witnessed clashes between the Church and the State, the birth of heresies, the beginning of the crusades that opened the doors of the East. In this context, Saint Bernard was in great demand because of his great faith, his intellectual potential, and his literary and oratory qualities. He played a leading role in conducting the affairs of the Church and the State and helped to shape Western Europe and the Church of the 12th century. His motivation was always the defense of the interests of God.

Works of Saint Bernard

The foundation of monasteries

Very quickly, the community of Cîteaux experienced a remarkable growth and founded four new abbeys, "daughters of Cîteaux" in the Cistercian word. Bernard himself founded Clairvaux, the third daughter of Cîteaux, in 1115. Clairvaux quickly detached three colonies which founded Troisfontaines (1115), Fontenay (1118), and Foigny (1121). Throughout his life, Bernard would not cease to participate in the organization and expansion of the Cistercian order; at his death, Clairvaux had 341 abbeys and 700 monks. The Cistercian order has 165 foundations.

The Writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux left many writings, including more than 300 sermons and 500 letters, which testify to his great role as a spiritual advisor. Among his most famous books are:

  • On Grace and Free Choice, written in 1127.
  • Treatise on the Love of God, written in 1124.
  • "Praise of the new chivalry (de laude novae militiae) written in 1129.
  • Hymne of Saint-Malachie written in 1148.
  • Commentary on the Song of Songs, where Bernard reveals his heart in love with the heart of God aspiring to union with his beloved.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Virgin Mary

Saint Bernard became the singer of Mary through his enthusiastic style. His thought echoes that of the Fathers of the Church. Numerous words and quotations of Saint Bernard reveal his great love for the mother of God. He deepens the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word and marvels at the instrument chosen by God for this: the Virgin Mary. He says: “Let us strive to ascend to the Savior the same way he followed to come to us.” He further states: "when you think of her, you don't go astray." Saint Bernard insists on the place of the Blessed Virgin who brings man closer to God through her role as mediator, he says: “If you want an advocate near Jesus: go to Mary. I say it without hesitation: Mary will be heard because of the consideration due to her. The son will listen to his Mother and the Father to his Son. Here is the scale of the sinner: absolute confidence. This is what my hope is based on.

Saint Bernard explains his Marian spirituality in several of his works: in his sermons: sermons for Advent, for February 2nd (Purification of Mary), for the Assumption, for the Annunciation, for September 8th (Nativity of Mary).

The Prayers of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Rememberance Prayer of Saint Bernard


O most merciful Virgin Mary,

of whom we have never heard

that none of those who asked for

to your protection,

begged your assistance

or demanded your advocacy,

has been abandoned.

Inspired by such trust,

o virgin of virgins, my mother,

I run to you,

and moaning under the weight

of my sins,

I bow down to your feet.

O Mother of the Incarnate Word,

do not despise my prayers,

but listen to them favorably

and deign to grant them.

Amen. Amen.

The Prayer of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: “Look at the star, invoke Mary


When you assault the winds of temptations, when you see the pitfalls of misfortune appear, look at the star, invoke Mary. If you are tossed on the waves of pride, ambition, slander, jealousy, look at the star, invoke Mary. If anger, greed, fleshly seductions come to shake the light boat of your soul, look up at Mary. In peril, anguish, doubt, think of Mary, invoke Mary. May her name leave neither your lips nor your hearts! And to obtain her intercession, do not turn away from her example. By following her, you will not go astray. By begging her, you will not know despair. By thinking of her, you will avoid any mistakes. If it sustains you, you will not sink; if it protects you, you will have nothing to fear; under its guidance you will ignore fatigue; thanks to its favor, you will achieve the goal. Amen 

This famous prayer was repeated by the Emmanuel in song : Regarde l’Etoile, invoque Marie

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