Walking with the Saints

Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, 1153

Bernard was born in 1090 into Burgundian landowning aristocracy.  He grew up in a family of five brothers and one sister. He saw in his parents exceptional models of virtue, mercy, justice, and loyal affection for others. His mother’s death caused Bernard to move toward a life of renunciation and solitude.

In 1098 Bernard decided to enter a struggling, small, new community established by St. Robert of Molesme.  The monks worked to restore Benedictinism to a more primitive and austere pattern of life.  Bernard persuaded his brothers and about 25 companions to join him.  Bernard entered the Citeaux community in 1112.  From then until 1115, Bernard cultivated spiritual and theological studies.

In 1115 Bernard was appointed to lead a small group of monks to establish a monastery at Clairvaux. It was more than a decade before Clairvaux was self-sufficient.

By 1119 the Cistercians received a charter approved by Pope Calixtus II for nine abbeys under the primacy of the abbot of Cîteaux.  This was a period when Bernard experienced what he understood as the divine in a mystical and intuitive manner. Bernard claimed a higher knowledge that reached completion in prayer and contemplation. Bernard was considered a very influential leader whose opinion was sought by both prelates and princes.

Bernard struggled to live with the inevitable tension created by his desire to serve others in charity through obedience and his desire to cultivate his own inner life by remaining in his monastic enclosure. He experienced poor health and lived with many illnesses.

His more than 300 letters and sermons show his quest to combine a mystical life of absorption in God with his friendship for those in misery and also with his concern for the faithful execution of responsibilities as a guardian of the life of the church. 

Bernard preached the crusade against the Albigensians and the Crusade to liberate Jerusalem. This brought him strong criticism.  He participated actively in controversies that hit the church.

Among Bernard’s writings are treatises on papal duty, on love, on the veneration of Mary, and a commentary on the Song of Songs.  Among well known hymns , he is credited with having written “O sacred head sore wounded” ( The Hymnal 1982, #168;169) “Jesus the very thought of thee” (#642) and “O Jesus, joy of loving hearts” (#649; 650).

Those who enjoy winter sports enjoy the fact that Bernard was confirmed as the patron saint of the Alps in 1923. He is considered the patron saint of skiing, snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering.

He died about 1153.