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THE MAN FROM THE BRIGHT VALLEY

Father Francis's picture
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

A 19 year old soldier was far from home and very unhappy. He was not enjoying his military service and to his great sorrow his mother had just died. He was at a cross-roads in his life and he prayed to Our Lady, asking her to be a mother to him. With her help and inspiration he went on to become a powerful preacher and founder of monasteries, leaving his mark on every aspect of medieval life as no other man of his time.

Born in 1090 to a noble Burgundian family at the castle of Fontaines, he took up a military career to please his parents. He did not enjoy the company of his fellow soldiers and felt burdened by temptations of all kinds. He often thought of leaving military life and entering a monastery, and it was a vision of Our Lady in her role as mother that helped him to make up his mind. He decided to go to the great Benedictine monastery recently founded at Citeaux, and it says a great deal for Bernard’s leadership qualities that he persuaded 31 men to accompany him including his five brothers, two uncles and several young noblemen.

The life of the monks, the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and even the buildings in which they lived and worked, were simple and austere. The community at Citeaux flourished and Bernard, at the age of 25, was sent by the abbot to found a new monastery in a remote location known as the Valley of Wormwood. The little group of 13 monks set to work building a house and cultivating the land. The soil was poor and yielded very few crops, and the monks ate coarse barley bread and boiled beech leaves. Discipline was strict. Nevertheless, the reputation of Abbot Bernard's holiness attracted many vocations. It was said that he spoke so enthusiastically about his life as a monk that parents would hide their young sons when they knew he was coming! Soon there were 130 monks, and the name of the valley was changed to Clairvaux, 'the bright valley', where Bernard could write and meditate.

Yet time after time he was called away to act as a peacemaker for princes and bishops and, when a dispute arose over the papal succession, Bernard lent his support to the rightfully elected pope.

It was through obedience to the pope that Bernard became well-known as a preacher. In 1145 he was asked to travel into Languedoc, where the Albigensian heresy had taken firm hold. He achieved great success, though unfortunately it was short lived; it fell to another great preacher, St. Dominic, to finish the task.

In 1146 the pope had another preaching assignment for Bernard. The Turks had captured territory in the Holy Land and Bernard was urgently requested to preach a crusade. He was so persuasive that huge numbers of people, of every rank, volunteered to go and fight the Moslems. On one occasion, there were not enough badges for the crusaders and Bernard tore strips from his own habit to make more. He wrote letters and went in person to visit heads of state, urging them to give their support. Large armies were raised in France and Germany, but all their efforts ended in disaster. The Christian forces suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks. The failure of the Crusade was a terrible disappointment to Bernard and caused him much heartache towards the end of his life.

In 1153 Bernard returned to his beloved monastery at Clairvaux and he died there on 20 August, aged 63. He has become known as 'the Honey Sweet Doctor' because of his writings which were written with great emotion, expressing his love of God and of Christ. His devotion to Our Lady was steadfast and he dedicated to her the beautiful prayer, the Memorare. He loved his fellow monks, too, and he spoke touchingly of how much he missed them when he was away from the monastery.

Bernard is loved in return, particularly by the Cistercians because he showed the world how to live a true monastic life. From the little valley of Clairvaux, 68 monasteries were established. Today, as vocations appear to be dwindling, let us ask Saint Bernard to draw more young men to the religious life.