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Bernard of Clairvaux and the Active Life

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 22, 2006

When Pope Benedict XVI warned us against excess activism during his audience last Sunday, he used the saint of the day, Bernard of Clairvaux, as his example. Bernard, who was one of the most active men of his time, had the secret to success. He remained always rooted in prayer.

St. Bernard lived in France from 1090 to 1153. He was widely recognized as the most learned man in Europe, giving counsel to popes and kings from the time he was 30. His reputation for wisdom and holiness was also unparalleled. Bernard was a driving influence in monastic reform, he participated in Church councils, and he recalled many high-ranking bishops from their worldly lifestyles. Bernard was also called upon frequently to dispute with heretics and reconcile political and ecclesiastical opponents. He was instrumental in settling the schism between followers of Innocent II and the antipope Anacletus II.

St. Bernard was commissioned by his friend Pope Eugenius III to preach the second crusade. Everywhere he went throughout Europe on this mission, miracles followed in his wake, increasing the fervor of those who pledged to fight. The ultimate conduct of the Christian leaders and troops doomed the crusade to failure, for which Bernard was often unjustly blamed. Bernard himself believed that the enterprise was favored by God but that the sins of the participants brought about their defeat, as he explained to the Pope.

Even more famous than his preaching of the crusade was Bernard’s intervention to refute the errors of Abelard, another intellectual giant of the day, who unfortunately advocated several heresies. After hearing Bernard’s refutation, Abelard was reportedly left speechless. He accepted the decision of the Church, withdrew his errors, and lived for the rest of his life at the great monastery of Cluny under the rule of Peter the Venerable. Some notable historians regard Bernard's confrontation with Abelard as the greatest drama of the 12th century.

Despite being the most active and accomplished man of his time, Bernard longed to retire from the world and remain in his own monastery at Clairvaux. He returned there at every opportunity, devoting himself to prayer, preaching and writing. Among his works are treatises on pride, on the conversion of clerics, on the love of God, on the rule of St. Benedict, on grace and free will, on ecclesiastical reform, and on the office of bishop. His sermons were very numerous, and many have survived. Perhaps his most famous series of sermons was his prolonged commentary on the Song of Songs, which remains the deepest penetration to date of that Biblical book. These works, composed only at intervals and amid many distractions, have earned Bernard the title of doctor of the Church.

Truly, Bernard’s life was a love affair with God not unlike that depicted in the Song of Songs. His deep and abiding relationship with Christ, rooted in humility and prayer, caused St. Bernard’s activism to nourish others like a fruitful vine. Bernard's spirituality teaches us the secret of the active life.

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