Bernard of Clairvaux, as a result of whose ministry flames of real revival were lit right across Europe, is said to have been one of the most powerful preachers ever in the history of the Church. He was passionately in love with the Lord, and proclaimed a message of God’s grace, inspiring hundreds of thousands seek God.
Bernard was born in 1091 into the minor nobility of Burgundy, France, grew up relatively privileged, and received a very good education. At the age of twenty-two, however, he turned his back on a life of ease to join the newly founded Cistercian Order. He influenced thirty men from the same background to move with him to Cîteaux - an uncle, four brothers and twenty-five others. Only three years later Bernard was asked to found a new monastery at Clairvaux, where he was to remain as abbot until his death in 1153.
From this base, Bernard travelled around Europe, preaching the gospel. History records that many knights responded to his message, commiting their lives to Jesus, renouncing their glory, warfare and immoral behaviour, a considerable number of them joining the Cistercian Order, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and learning to live by the Scriptures.
A colourful personality towering over the twelfth century, Bernard became the most prominent figure of his day, and one of the most influential Christian leaders of all times.
Over the next thirty years, Bernard founded sixty-eight new Cistercian communities, teaching Scripture and moulding Christ-like character. With these communities and their daughter houses, Bernard ended up being personally responsible for 164 centres across Europe. He threw himself into discipling new believers and training leaders for these monastic houses which became centres of genuine faith and conduits of spiritual regeneration for the surrounding countryside. Bernard’s writings led many to Christ during his lifetime and sparked a series of revivals that would sweep Europe over the next three centuries. But that’s not all. He carried on a huge correspondence in which he even corrected bishops, popes and kings, as he called the powerful in both church and state to genuine faith and servant leadership.
Nor did Bernard shy away from the controversies of his time. He boldly stood up against compromise in the church wherever he found it. He opposed the growing rationalism that he saw in the universities. And he urged the nobility of Europe to unite against the military threat of Islam.
Mostly, however, Bernard tirelessly preached the gospel to his generation.
Scripture fills Bernard’s preaching and writing. In his written works, there is a quote or allusion to the Word of God in just about every sentence. He was soaked in Scripture! He loved it, and had memorised so many passages - that everything he said radiated God’s Word.
Bernard was an evangelist, pleading with his hearers to make a total commitment to Jesus. He wanted their conversion to be authentic. He was a strident critic of the “nominal Christianity” predominating among clergy and laity alike. In his tract “On Conversion” he confronted sin head-on and declared that a new conversion is absolutely essential.
Bernard would not allow lukewarm or halfhearted faith in the Cistercian movement. All who joined were to have been soundly converted and following Jesus with zeal.
For Bernard, conversion is not just a matter of renouncing the world. It is to enter into a deeply personal friendship with Jesus. He proclaimed and lived an evangelical catholicism. At a time when scholastic theologians were debating abstract propositions, Bernard insisted on practical application of the Scriptures in the disciple’s daily life. And though he wrote in beautiful Latin and was a gifted scholar, he brought Scripture down to earth, making it come alive at an individual level for each disciple in such a way as to nourish his or her relationship with God.
The image Bernard consistently uses in portraying our relationship with God is the nuptial symbolism of bride and bridegroom, in fact, resting on the primordial image in Scripture of Christ as the heavenly Bridegroom, with the church as his bride (Eph 5:25-33), being prepared for the great wedding feast (Matt 25:1-13; Rev 19:7-9 and 21:1-27).
In his writings, and especially in his sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard personalises this reality and welcomes each believing soul to see itself as Christ’s bride and receive the Lord’s tender touch. [Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, trans. Kilian Walsh, 4 Vol. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1976).] Sometimes referred to as bridal spirituality, this message invites men and women alike to experience the closest possible relationship with the Lord. The goal of Bernard’s whole ministry was to bring hungry souls into true intimacy with Jesus.
“God is love,” (1 John 4:8) is the key verse in all that the Abbot of Clairvaux says. For dogmatic and political reasons, the medieval church often saw Jesus as the vengeful King coming to condemn the ungodly on the Day of Judgment. In Bernard’s teaching Jesus is the Good Shepherd whom the Father sends into the world to save the lost and dying. Jesus is approachable, offering grace to those drowning in their sin.
In his work, “On Loving God,” Bernard asks: How much did God love us? He answers with a tour-de-force of passages from the New Testament:
St John says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son” (Jn 3:16). St Paul says, “He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us” (Rom 8:32). The Son, too, said of himself, “No one has greater love than the man who lays down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). [Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, trans. G. R. Evans, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 175.]
Throughout his writing Bernard emphasises God’s love and maintains that salvation is entirely by God’s grace. We could never earn it. In response to God’s love for us, we love him, desire him and seek him with our whole heart. The forgiven soul, says Bernard, “seeks eagerly for his Creator, and when he finds him, holds to him with all his might.” [Ibid., 176.]
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Anglicans are most aware of St Bernard through the well known translation of two of his hymns:
Jesu dulcis memoria
Jesu! the very thought is sweet!
In that dear Name all heart-joys meet;
But sweeter than the honey far
The glimpses of his presence are.
No word is sung more sweet than this:
No name is heard more full of bliss;
No thought brings sweeter comfort nigh,
Than Jesus, Son of God most high.
Jesu! the hope of souls forlorn!
How good to them for sin that that mourn!
To them that seek thee, O how kind!
But what art thou to them that find?
Jesu, thou sweetness, pure and blest,
Truth’s Fountain, Light of souls distressed,
Surpassing all that heart requires,
Exceeding all that soul desires!
No tongue of mortal can express,
No letters write his blessedness,
Alone who hath thee in his heart
Knows, love of Jesus! what Thou art.
O Jesu! King of wondrous might!
O Victor, glorious from the fight!
Sweetness that may not be expressed,
And altogether loveliest!
(This hymn is also translated as: ”Jesus, the very thought of thee”
and “Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts”
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Jesu, Rex admirabilis
O Jesus, King most wonderful,
Thou Conqueror renowned,
Thou Sweetness most ineffable,
In whom all joys are found!
When once thou visitest the heart,
Then truth begins to shine,
Then earthly vanities depart,
Then kindles love divine.
O Jesus, Light of all below,
Thou Fount of life and fire,
Surpassing all the joys we know,
And all we can desire!
Thy wondrous mercies are untold,
Through each returning day;
Thy love exceeds a thousand fold,
Whatever we can say.
May every heart confess thy Name;
And ever thee adore;
And seeking thee, itself inflame,
To seek thee more and more.
Thee may our tongues forever bless;
Thee may we love alone;
And ever in our lives express
The image of thine own.