In a castle in Burgundy, in north-eastern France, a man came into the world who, in the first half of the 12th century, enlightened the Church and Christianity: he is St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
Newsroom (22/05/2023 09:00, Gaudium Press) Bernard’s parents, who belonged to the nobility, had seven children: six boys and one girl. When she was pregnant with her third child, his mother dreamed that she carried in her womb a little dog of dazzling whiteness, which emitted loud barks.
Very worried, she consulted a holy hermit who reassured her by saying: “You will give birth to a boy who will be the faithful guardian of the house of the Lord. By the power of his words, he will instil fear into the enemies of the Church and heal the wounds of a great number of souls.”
Battles to guard chastity
Soon after his birth, he was baptized and consecrated to God by his virtuous mother. When he reached adolescence, he studied in a school run by monks in Chatillon-sur-Seine, and there he shone especially brightly for his angelic innocence.
When he was travelling, he had to stay at a friend’s house. At night, a woman moved by satanic design, tried to enter his room. He shouted against her in such a loud voice that all the residents woke up and threw her out.
He prayed a lot and struggled to keep his chastity and, by special divine grace, he kept his virginity all his life. One day, because he had not kept perfect vigilance when looking at a girl, he imposed this penance upon himself: he entered a reservoir of icy water which was up to his neck, and he remained there praying for a long time.
Forty noblemen placed themselves under his direction
Wanting to give himself totally to the Church, Bernard thought of joining a religious order. Some people informed him of the existence of the Cistercian Abbey, but they criticised it, saying that the way of life there was very harsh. He thought: “But what I want is a monastery where one seeks perfection in a radical way and not a soft and easy life!”
So he began to speak with his family about his very high ideal. His mother had died and his father was approaching old age. His older brother was married and had two young daughters. Persuaded by Bernard, the brother spoke to his wife and they agreed that they would become religious members in different monasteries.
Another brother, highly esteemed by all for his military valor, was not convinced. Bernard, who already possessed the charisma of prophecy, pointed to one side of his brother’s torso and said that in that place a spear would soon wound him, but would not kill him. A few days later, in a battle, precisely that happened.
Spilling blood, he was chained and thrown into an underground prison. Moved by divine grace, he promised to follow Bernard if he was freed. At night, an Angel appeared to him, broke his shackles and opened the door of the dungeon. He took refuge in the church next door. In this way, according to the law in force at the time, he became free.
The young Bernard also convinced an uncle, a knight of great renown and owner of a fine castle in Autun in Burgundy. His name was André de Montbard, and he subsequently went to Jerusalem where he became a leading member of the Order of the Knights Templar.
Having formed a group of about 40 people, they settled in a huge house in Châtillon-sur-Seine, where they stayed for six months, leading a disciplined life under the direction of St. Bernard. This man of God, who was 22 years old, convinced them all to go with him to the Cistercians to seek admission as novices to the abbey.
St. Bernard and his four brothers went to the castle where they had been born to ask their old father’s blessing. As they were leaving, they saw the youngest who was little and said to him, “Have the whole inheritance! We are going to a monastery.” The boy stated, “You receive Heaven and leave me the earth? I want to go with you.”
When he reached the proper age, he too became a monk, and soon after his good father did the same.
The Absinth Valley became Clairvaux
Cistercian Abbey had been founded in 1098 and was ruled by St. Stephen Harding. A life of holiness was led there, but the number of monks was decreasing and no new members were entering. Many people said that it would soon be closed.
In 1113, St. Bernard, accompanied by 32 noblemen, knocked on the door of the abbey and asked to be admitted as novices. Joyfully welcomed, the abbey flourished in a prodigious manner. They all fulfilled the rule perfectly, prayed and worked in the fields. The Saint was an example of humility and spirit of sacrifice. Although frail, he tilled the land, cut down trees and carried firewood on his back.
Due to the increase in the number of religious, two other monasteries were built. Even so, it was necessary to found a third. The Count of Champagne donated to the Cistercians an estate in Aube, in the far east of France, called the Absinth Valley, which was a haven for thieves.
St. Stephen sent St. Bernard there as abbot, accompanied by twelve monks. Some time later, everything was transformed and the Valley of Wormwood – a bitter herb – was renamed Clara Vallis – Luminous Valley or Clairvaux.
His younger brother became a monk, and his father himself was admitted as a convert brother, and became obedient to his son, the abbot. All the members of his family became religious, and the only one missing was his sister Umbelina, who was married and very worldly.
Conversion of his sister
One day, richly adorned and with a large retinue, Bernard’s sister Umbelina arrived at the door of Clairvaux to pay a visit. St. Bernard refused to receive her because of the ostentation with which she presented herself. One of his brothers, a porter of the monastery, told him that in those dazzling costumes she resembled an adorned dunghill.
Umbelina, shedding tears, affirmed, “Though I am a sinner, Jesus Christ died for me. If Bernard despises my body, I beg him not to reject my soul. Let him come and command me what I must do; I am ready to obey him!”
St. Bernard went to attend her, accompanied by all his brothers who were monks at Clairvaux. He forbade her to wear worldly garments and gave her as a model the life of her mother. She returned to the Castle of Fontaines and lived there as if in a convent.
After two years, she obtained permission from her husband to become a nun and entered a convent at Jully-sur-Sarce, founded for the wives of those who had followed St. Bernard. Some time later, she was elected abbess and died there in 1136; her body exuded a sweet perfume. For her very high virtues the Church beatified her, and her memory is celebrated on 12 February.
By Paulo Francisco Martos
Compiled by Sandra Chisholm