Ask Ivor

Paul asks:

"Who was Saint Bernard? The patron saint of large furry animals?"

Bernard, the son of aristocrats, was born in 1090 at Fontaines, the family castle near Dijon (about 160 miles southeast of Paris). He was a shy and introverted child. At school he was regarded as a literary genius, and it is said he was particularly clever at composing pornographic poetry.

Bernard's mother died when he was in his teens. His friends urged him to a life of pleasures, and his relatives urged him to further studies and a fancy career, but Bernard was troubled by visions of his mother, telling him that "she had not brought him up with such love and care so that he could adopt this kind of empty existence, and that it was not for the fulfillment of such worldly ambitions that she had brought him into this world."

At the age of 22, on the eve of departing for Germany and further studies, Bernard chose instead to join the local monastery at Citeaux. His friends and relatives strongly opposed this sudden decision. Bernard responded to their opposition by persuading two of his uncles, two of his cousins, four of his brothers, and some two dozen of his friends, to all join the monastery with him. (Later, his fifth brother and his father also joined.) A number of these men abandoned wives and children, and/or profitable careers, to follow Bernard.

Bernard said he was aware of a light in his body "like the flame which turns the forest into a roaring blaze and then goes on to burn the mountains black." Bernard saw this as spiritual, but that sentiment was not necessarily shared by all his neighbors. As one contemporary put it, "Mothers hid their sons and wives their husbands" from Bernard.

At Citeaux, which means "stagnant pools," Bernard and the other monks lived in primitive huts in a marshy valley, clinging to a life of manual labor and prayer, eating barley bread and boiled beech leaves. They avoided ostentation, regarding their simple buildings as representing the "architecture of truth." Bernard criticized the carvings of "disgusting monkeys and spotted tigers" found in another monastery, but he also admitted that he chose a more austere discipline for himself because: "I was conscious my weak character needed a strong medicine."

Bernard imposed strict fasts upon himself when he first became a monk, and this caused him to suffer constant gastric upset and poor health the remainder of his life. It is also said that when aroused by the sight of beautiful women, Bernard would throw himself into a half-frozen pond.

In 1115, after three years at Citeaux, Bernard was sent to Clairvaux (earlier known as Valley of Wormwood) to establish a monastery there. Clairvaux became the "motherhouse" to 338 other monasteries in Bernard's lifetime, 65 of which he personally established.

It was as a writer that Bernard made his reputation. The sweetness of his words led to his becoming known as "Doctor Mellifluous." His better known works are: Sermons on the Song of Songs, Grace and Free Will, The Steps of Humility, and On Loving God. Here are some examples of his writing:

"[God] comes, not with a sound in the ears, but as penetrating the heart."

"Free choice cooperates with grace... by the act of consent. To consent, then, is to be saved."

"In persecution, all that the ferocity of men can do is to show us if the will is weak or not."

"[Man] is like a mountaineer who can fall at any time by the pull of gravity into the abyss, or he can go on climbing the steep slopes."

"If salvation and life are the character of the homeland, then the blessings of the pilgrimage are those of grace."

"Our actions... can only be but the seedbeds of our hopes, the incentives of love, the portents of a hidden predestination, the harbingers of our future blessings, the road to the divine Kingdom."

"The reason for loving God is God Himself."

"Dignity without wisdom is worthless, and wisdom without virtue is harmful."

"If ignorance makes beasts of us, then presumption makes devils of us."

"The Church sees the Father's only Son carrying His cross, the Lord of glory slapped and covered with spittle. She sees the Author of life pierced by nails, wounded by a spear, and overwhelmed by abuse. She sees Him at last laying down His precious life for His friends. As she witnesses all the suffering, the sword of love pierces her own soul, and so she repeats the same words: 'Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I languish with love....' She refreshes herself with the fruits of His Passion which she gathered from the tree of the cross, and with the flowers of His resurrection, whose fragrance will induce the Bridegroom to visit her frequently.... Pleased by such perfumes, the Bridegroom enters willingly and frequently into the chamber of the heart that He finds is decked with the flowers and fruits of grace.... She enters the bridal chamber. For inside there, she will receive the longed for caresses and say: 'His left hand is under my head and His right hand does embrace me.' Then she will enjoy all the tokens of His affection, seeing how the right hand excels all the sweetness she received from the left hand when He first caressed her."

"Here is a marvelous thing, for it is impossible to seek the Lord unless one is already found of Him."

"Prayer is the affection of a man who clings to God with an intimate and devout conversation."

"At length we perhaps venture to lift our eyes to that countenance full of glory and majesty, for the purpose not only to adore, but (I say it with fear and trembling) to kiss His lips, because the Spirit before us is Christ the Lord, to whom being united in a holy kiss, we are by his marvelous condescension made to be one spirit with Him."

"God is Existence that is uncreated, unlimitable, and unchangeable."

"The last temptation is that of the noontide devil."

Bernard once had a vision of Christ coming down off the cross to embrace him. Another time, the Virgin Mary moistened Bernard's lips with milk from her breast, and restored his inspiration and eloquence.

As Bernard's reputation for wisdom grew, so did his involvement in politics. He was drawn increasingly out of the monastery and into the public eye, asked to serve as peacemaker, reformer, judge, and adviser, all over Europe.

In 1130, when both Innocent II and Anacletus II were claiming the papal throne, Louis VI asked Bernard's opinion. A majority of the College of Cardinals had elected Anacletus, but Bernard argued for Innocent on the basis of personality. He claimed Innocent was the more virtuous man, and besides, Anacletus had Jewish blood, and, "It would be an insult to Christ if the offspring of a Jew occupied the throne of Peter." France thereupon lent its support to Innocent, and Bernard went on to be instrumental in gaining the similar support of Henry I of England and King Lothair of Germany.

In 1145, Pope Eugenius III, a former pupil of Bernard's, asked Bernard to preach a crusade against the Seljuk Turks, who had captured Edessa. Bernard said things like: "Evil men have begun to occupy this land of the new promise.... They will profane the Holy Places... purpled with the blood of the immaculate Lamb"; "Go to the sure fight, where to win will be glorious and where to die will be gain"; and "God... can award to those fighting for Him wages: the remission of their sins." Response to Bernard's preaching was enthusiastic. Fifty thousand volunteers set forth from France alone. This was the Second Crusade, and it ended with the defeat of the crusaders at Damascus in 1148.

Many blamed Bernard for the failure, but he blamed the crusaders' lack of faith. He responded to criticism by saying, "How can human beings be so rash as to dare to pass judgment on something they are not in the least able to understand?"

A clue to how Bernard felt about his political involvements can perhaps be found in these words of his: "My burdened conscience, and my life, resemble some kind of fabled monster... a chimera of the century, acting neither as a monk nor as a layman... driven about through the abysses of the world." Perhaps he should have taken more to heart his departed mother's admonitions against worldly ambitions.

Bernard died in 1153, and was declared a saint by Pope Alexander III in 1174.

Dante, Thomas à Kempis, Martin Luther, and Pascal were all big fans of Saint Bernard.

The St. Bernard breed of dog is named after the St. Bernard pass in the Swiss Alps, where St. Bernard of Menthon (died 1081) established a hospice for travelers.