Getting to Know the Fathers: Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard had such a longing for Christ. Though he was as complex as any sinner-saint, and though we might well find fault with some of the positions he maintained and the things he did, he was consistent in this: he preached Christ Jesus.

It is the way of men to make of great figures either heroes or villains. There are good guys and bad guys, black hats and white hats. Real people, however, are not so easily categorized. We are, all of us, complicated creatures. The best among us has elements within him more appropriate (we suppose) to the worst among us. This is as true of the saints of the Church as it is of anyone. The great thinkers and preachers of the Church, like any Christian, struggled in that state of being that theologians identify as simul justus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner.

Bernard of Clairvaux too was a complicated man. He was a humble and pious monk, yet found himself caught up and deeply involved in the affairs of kings and popes. He was one of the greatest preachers the Church has known and was greatly admired by Martin Luther for his teachings on grace and absolute reliance on Christ. Yet we find Luther saying that while he “was superior to all the doctors of the church when he preached… he became quite a different man in his disputations, for then he attributed too much to law and to free will.”1 St. Bernard was very much a man of his time. What we see as theological inconsistencies were not always viewed as such in his day. Bernard could uphold papal authority and yet debate about who legitimately sat on St. Peter’s throne. He could speak of the absolute dependence of the sinner upon the grace of Christ, and yet talk of things like indulgences and merit. He could promote warfare in the name of God, yet teach that those who took up arms for Christ should conduct themselves as monastic pilgrims. A complicated man indeed!

He was born to a family of minor nobility in the year 1090 and received an education typical of those of his class.2 He became a monk in the newly founded order of Citeaux at the age of 21.3 His rise among the Cistercians was rapid. Within three years of having taken the cowl, Bernard was sent off to found a new monastery with a few other monks and was chosen to be their abbot. That monastery was to become known as Clairvaux. Chiefly due to his reputation for piety and fine preaching, so many men rushed to join his new Cistercian house that Clairvaux quickly became one of the chief Cistercian monasteries in Europe, and it became necessary to spawn several daughter houses. Even his own father became a monk under Bernard’s leadership.

It is as an abbot and preacher that Bernard truly shines. His sermons are eloquent and insightful. His preaching breathed the vocabulary of Scripture, with the person and grace of Christ at its center. Martin Luther opined, “Whenever monks were saved, however, they were constrained to crawl to the cross of Christ again. This is what St. Bernard did. I regard him as the most pious of all monks and prefer him to all the others, even to St. Dominic. He is the only one worthy of the name ‘Father Bernard’ and of being studied diligently. He is dressed in a cowl. But what does he do when matters become serious? He does not try to satisfy the judgment of God with his cowl; instead he takes hold of Christ.”4 We can see this ourselves, for example, in a sermon he preached on the Feast of All Saints: “But what can all our righteousness amount to before God? Will it not, as the prophet says, be considered as a menstruation rag (Is. 64.6), and if judged strictly will not all our righteousness be found unrighteous and lacking? What then of our sins when not even our righteousness can answer for itself to God? Therefore, resolutely crying out with the prophet, ‘O Lord, do not enter into judgment with Your servant,’ let us in complete humility run to His mercy, which alone can save our souls.”5

By the 1120s Bernard’s writings began to be published and his fame as a theologian spread. Though a monk, increasingly as his reputation flourished, Bernard found himself called upon to function as an arbiter, advisor and statesmen. He traveled widely in this capacity, and often counseled kings and queens, popes, bishops, abbots and members of the nobility. In this role he, though personally humble, was not afraid to call to repentance those in the highest offices, encouraging faithfulness to vocation and the courage to do what is right. But it is as a crusade propagandist that Bernard’s statesmanship is best remembered.

Around 1147 a former monk of his, Pope Eugenius III, appointed Bernard to preach the second crusade.6 So successful were his efforts in this that he later wrote in a letter to the pope, reminding him in regard to a certain matter that Eugenius was just a little in his debt: “‘I have declared and spoken it: they have multiplied beyond number.’ Cities and villages are empty. And now hardly will seven women find one man to call their husband, so many everywhere remain widows with their husbands still living.”7 Unfortunately Bernard’s crusade sermons are no longer extant. But we learn from one of his letters promoting the ill-fated crusade how impassioned his preaching must have been: “Behold, brothers, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of full salvation. The earth is moved and shakes because the God of heaven has begun to lose His land. His, I say, in which He was made manifest as the Word of His Father, to teach and to converse for more than thirty years as a man and with men. His own land, yes, which He made famous by His miracles, which He made holy by His blood, in which the flowers of His resurrection first appeared. And now, because our sins asked for it, the enemies of the cross have raised their sacrilegious head, depopulating the land of promise by the edge of the sword. Indeed, the time is near, if no one resists them, that they will attack the very city of the living God, overturn the workhouse of our redemption, pollute its holy places, once dyed crimson by the blood of the spotless Lamb.”8 No wonder so many forsook the safety of home and hearth to fight in distant Palestine!

Sadly, Bernard’s success in this endeavor rested not only upon his rhetorical genius, but also upon the dangled promise of complete remission of sins for all who took up the cross, which Pope Eugenius would grant via a jubilee indulgence. Bernard, however, proves a complicated man again, for he never detaches such things from faith in Christ. He doesn’t question the pope’s authority to grant such an indulgence. But he was no Tetzel. Pious devotion to Jesus and His cross was necessary for remission of sins. The cross, rather than the indulgence, was the sign of salvation. And the indulgence he treats as absolution given in response to repentance, signified by the taking up of the crusading cross.9 It was faith in Christ, moreover, that was to motivate the crusader all along his pilgrimage, and faith that was to guide the crusader’s behavior as a warrior of the cross.10

Personal faith, expressed in love, was a chief theme of his great work on the Song of Songs, delivered as a series of homilies to the monks of Clairvaux.11 In the first of these sermons, commenting on the Song of Songs 1:2, Bernard proclaims, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth; let his gracious presence and streams of beautiful teaching become in me the spring of water springing up to eternal life… His living and active word is to me a kiss indeed, not the union of lips, which meanwhile belies the union of souls, but the full infusion of joys, revealing of secrets, a marvelous and somehow inseparable fusion of the heavenly light and the illuminated mind. Clinging to God, it is one spirit with him (1 Cor. 5.17). With good reason, then, I put no stock in visions and dreams, I desire no images and enigmas. I tire even of angelic beauty. So far my Jesus surpasses them all with his splendor and his beauty. I seek no other therefore, whether angel or man, but him alone, to kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.”12

Much later in these homilies, Bernard speaks more explicitly of the connection between faith and love: “How then can he be righteous who loves neither God nor God’s Church, to whom it is said, ‘The righteous love you’? If then neither faith without works nor works without faith suffice for the righteousness of the soul, we who believe in Christ, brothers, must be zealous to make our ways and our pursuits righteous. Let us lift our hearts to God along with our hands, so that we may be found completely righteous, proving the righteousness of our faith by righteous actions, as lovers of the bride and loved by the bridegroom Jesus Christ, our Lord, who is God, blessed forever. Amen.”13

The theme of love for Christ also rings out in one of Bernard’s hymns:

“Jesu! the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far thy face to see,
And in thy presence rest.

Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find,
A sweeter sound than thy blest name,
O Saviour of mankind!

O Hope of every contrite heart,
O Joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah! this
Nor tongue nor pen can show:
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but his loved ones know.

Jesu! our only joy be Thou,
As Thou our prize wilt be;
Jesu! be thou our glory now,
And through eternity.”14

Bernard had such a longing for Christ. Though he was as complex as any sinner-saint, and though we might well find fault with some of the positions he maintained and the things he did, he was consistent in this: he preached Christ Jesus. “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; I will sing praise and give thanks to your name, and I will say, Your name is oil poured out…because you crown me with mercy and kindnesses… O name so gentle and so sweet! O name so renowned, so excellent, so exalted, yes, highly exalted forever and ever. This is truly the oil that gladdens the face of man, that anoints the head of the one who fasts so that he may not pass over the oil of the sinner. This is the new name which the mouth of the Lord has declared (Is. 62.2), which also was named by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2.21). Not only the Jew, but anyone who calls on this name will be saved (Joel 2.32). It has been poured out absolutely everywhere. This name the Father gave to his Son, the Bridegroom of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”15

End Notes

1 Martin Luther, Table Talk, ed. Helmut Lehmann, vol. 54, in Luther’s Works, American Edition, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 105.

2 Beverly Mayne Kienzle, Introduction to The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux, translated by Bruno Scott James, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1998), xix.

3 Kienzle, Introduction to The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux, xix.

4 Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vol. 22, in Luther’s Works, American Edition, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), 388. Luther Works Vol. 22 © 1957, 1985 Concordia Publishing House. Used with permission.

5 Bernard, “On the Feast of All Saints, Sermon One,” translated by Christian Preus from the Latin.

6 Malcomb Barber, Introduction to In Praise of the New Knighthood, Cistercian Fathers Series: Number 19b, translated by M. Conrad Greenia, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2000), 23.

7 Bernard, “Letter 247,” translated by Christian Preus from the Latin.

8 Bernard, “Letter 363,” translated by Christian Preus from the Latin.

9 Bernard, “Letter 363”

10 For more on Bernard’s teachings on the crusade, see his treatise In Praise of the New Knighthood, translated by M. Conrad Greenia, (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2000).

11 Author Leon Podle, among others, has found fault in Bernard for this and blames him for setting in motion a feminization of the Christian Church. See Leon Podle, “The Feminization of the Church,” Baltimore Sun, May 24, 1994, Podle opines that Bernard, “preached that God was the lover and the human soul his spouse. After that a feminine emotional relationship with Jesus replaced masculine comradeship in spiritual warfare as the most common Christian experience.” While it is true that Bernard preached an intimacy with the Savior and expressed such intimacy in emotional terms, Podle’s accusation is unfair. There has always been in Christian theology and piety a balance between the corporate love for and faith in the Bridegroom of the Bride herself and the individual aspects of the same in all who are members of the Bride. The Church, corporately, is feminine, after all, even as believers individually are sons of God. Bernard upheld both of these truths. Both the Bride (whom Bernard unfailingly identifies as the Church) and her members love and long for the Bridegroom.

12 Bernard, “Sermon 2 on the Song of Songs” translated by Christian Preus from the Latin.

13 Bernard, “Sermon 24 on the Song of Songs” translated by Christian Preus from the Latin.

14 Bernard, “Jesu, dulcis memoria,” in Lyra Catholica, edited and translated by Edward Caswall (New York: E. Dunigan and Brother, 1851), 102-103. This hymn is taken from the first five stanzas of what is a longer poem. For all 12 stanzas of the original poem in translation, see the notes on Hymn 350 in The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal.

15 Bernard, “Sermon 16 on the Song of Songs” translated by Christian Preus from the Latin.


David Kind

Rev. David Kind is Pastor of University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis, MN, and teaches early and medieval history and literature at Wittenberg Academy.

Subscribe to
Christian Culture

Christian Culture is the magazine of Luther Classical College. Visit for more information about the college.