St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a great man of the Church. Bernard was painfully aware of the contradiction of his double life as a cloistered monk and a religious celebrity of his century. He tried to be a simple monk and an obscure abbot but it was not meant to be. God used him to guide the Roman Church through the perils of the Twelfth Century. Bernard certainly had his faults and limitations–and overwhelming confidence; an ignorance of politics in which he invariably interfered, often contradicting himself; a forcefulness of will; a lack of tact. He could also be very conscious and frank about his faults and acknowledge them truthfully with sincere contrition. He certainly learned by the end of his life to let go of power and influence.
But he also knew that he was caught up in God’s purpose for him calling him beyond his personal goals and preferences and wishes. He did what God required of him to his own great cost. He was genuinely selfless. And he demanded selflessness of others, a characteristic not always easy to live with. He used the new Order of Citeaux, which he had entered to be nothing but a humble monk, for the greater need, as he saw it, of strengthening the Church of his day. And so the houses of the white monks spread rapidly all over Western Europe and supported the reform of the Latin Church which had begun in the previous century. Bernard, with single-minded determination, did what he needed to do. It may have not have been what the founders of Citeaux, Robert, Stephen and Alberic, had envisioned for their brothers and certainly not what they had foreseen. But God used Bernard and Bernard used the Order of Citeaux. During his lifetime and several decades after his death, the Cistercian reform influenced the renewal of monastic life in Europe and readily supplied effective bishops to faithfully shepherd believers when the secular clergy of the day were less effective and more a part of the feudal system than challengers of it. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that the Cistercians of that time were an effective part of the glue holding the Church together through some major crises and paving the way for the popular and urban reforms of the mendicants–the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites–of the next century. The laity were given an appetite for holiness manifest in those living the vowed life.
St. Bernard challenged the status quo as a great spiritual teacher. He sought poverty, rather than security, in the monastic life, teaching Cistercians to be “naked” men following the naked Christ to Calvary. Over and against the exteriorized rituals of the previous century, he used the sacraments and liturgy as portals to interiority. He emphasized the personal relationship of the monk to God through Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit. He recalled the Trinitarian spirituality of the early centuries of the Church instead of collapsing the Triune Deity into the person of Christ, the conquering and fearful Judge of earlier medieval piety. He emphasized the ascent to God through love and repentance rather than through the punctilious execution of religious obligations. He never claimed to be perfect nor cut off from God as a result of his imperfection. These is no negligible body of teaching. Against the background of the rapid expansion of Cisterciam life in St. Bernard’s day, it is an amazing achievement, challenging monasticism to be a countercultural challenge rather than a pillar of the status quo.
from a Chapter Talk of Abbot Robert Barnes