Challenge is fashionable. We talk about a ‘challenging situation’ and mean one that we find difficult. I have not the slightest hesitation in describing St Bernard as ‘challenging’. It was, after all, his sermons that transformed my own academic study into a personal quest for God in the monastic way of life. But he is challenging in other ways.
He wrote like an angel, especially when he was angry (which was often). His Latin is as near to French prose as anything I know, and there are times when he manages to say nothing and say it very brilliantly as most French writers do (no racist slur there). He was beastly to Abelard (who actually wasn’t very nice and certainly no romantic) and he is usually condemned for preaching the Second Crusade, yet Bernard was kind to Jews at a time when no one was kind to Jews. Indeed, in the early fourteenth century we find a rabbi in Cologne recalling the help and protection afforded by the abbot of Clairvaux, so at least his reputation for good survived him (he died in 1153) instead of being interred with his bones, as is often the case. He had a great love of family and inspired lasting affection in those who knew him, yet he was not exempt from criticism. I rather like Cardinal Haimeric’s put-down, when he thought Bernard had been meddling in matters above him, ‘It is not fitting that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.’ But I like even better the response Bernard made, which disarmed Haimeric and showed the true monk, ‘Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes . . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption.’
Bernard has been called a protestant avant la lettre because he did not hold the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and because his understanding of justification was often quoted by Calvin in his exposition of the sola fide principle. ‘Our words are ours, their ends none of our own.’ Bernard is scarcely to be blamed for any interpretation put upon his words in after centuries. No one could really accuse him of lacking orthodoxy. In his lyrical writing on the Blessed Virgin Mary, he himself admits that he sometimes runs on a little too far. Pius XII proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church and called him the ‘last of the Fathers’, but perhaps his best memorial is the fact that his name has become synonymous with the Order he did so much to foster. He was involved in the foundation of no fewer than 163 monasteries in his lifetime. At his death, the Cistercians, the first true Order in the Church, numbered 343 communities. Even today, in Spain, you will hear the Cistercians referred to as ‘los bernardos’. It is a fitting epithet.