St. Bernard of Clairvaux
"Mother, please Tell Me More about the Knights of Christ!" A noble young Christian mother was sitting in her home with her young son Bernard, waiting for the church bells to summon them to Matins. It was late on Christmas Eve in the year 1098, in the little school-town of Chatillon in Burgundy. In order to pass the time and to inspire in her boy the religious vocation which the mother knew by revelation that he was destined to embrace, she had been telling him how the holy old Abbot Robert of Molesmes, with a band of fervent young monks known as the Knights of Christ, had founded in the Spring of that year a very strict new monastery at nearby Citeaux. "He dedicated the house and all his community to the Blessed Virgin Mary," she went on. "Why?" asked Bernard, a bit sleepily.
"Because he loves her very much and he wants her to protect his work -- and also because some time before he was born, she appeared to his good mother and said: 'I want your child to become my spouse!"' "Oh," murmured little Bernard dreamily, and within a minute he was fast asleep in his mother's arms. And then he had an experience which he never forgot: he saw a lovely young woman praying in a stable -- and all of a sudden she was holding in her arms a marvelously radiant baby. With-out being told, Bernard recognized the lovable Babe of Bethlehem. Then Mary turned to him and smiled and let him tenderly caress her Divine Child...
"Come, Bernard dear;" his mother's voice interrupted. "The bells are ringing now!" Bernard awoke with a start. And on the way to church he excitedly told his mother all about his wonderful vision, which was Mary's Christmas present to both son and mother.
During the thirteen happy years which Bernard spent as a brilliant student at the school of Chatillon, he developed a deep devotion to Mary. He loved to pray and meditate in the church before an old wooden statue of her with her Child on her lap. His ever-growing love for her made him happy; and it made his mother happy, too.
But soon after he left school when he was nineteen, he and his five brothers and one sister lost their beloved and saintly mother. Despite his grief, Bernard felt that henceforth he had two mothers in Heaven.
>Now he had to make a big decision: should he become a monk, as he knew his mother had wished, or should he become a great poet, as he himself wished?
He experienced a mystic attraction for the hard life of the holy monks of Our Lady of Citeaux, especially when he prayed to Mary or thought of his mother. He had heard some thrilling stories about the supernatural favors which the Blessed Virgin was showering on that monastery. It was said that the monks knew that she was always present when they were chanting their Office. And once during Office she had appeared to St. Robert's successor, the holy Abbot Alberic, and had given him a dazzling all-white habit as a pattern for the new Order. She had also predicted to a monk that the Order was destined to increase marvelously and do much for salvation of souls. And a few years ago, Abbot Alberic had died a beautiful death, his face all aglow, while reciting the words "Holy Mary, pray for us!" in the Litany of the Saints. The present Abbot, an Englishman named Stephen Harding, was also said to have seen Mary in vision.
But all Bernard's relatives vehemently opposed his "burying himself in the woods of Citeaux with those odd monks!" Besides, they insisted, his delicate constitution could never stand such a strict discipline. And then too, Bernard was such a gifted poet! As a matter of fact, he was sorely tempted to go to study in Germany and become a famous writer and scholar.
One Autumn day in the year 1111, the handsome youth of twenty-one went into a country chapel, and in deep distress knelt down and begged God to have mercy on him, and to help him choose the right way of life. Suddenly he saw his mother -- surely Mary had sent her to guide him -- and in a flash Bernard knew that God wanted him to become one of Mary's pure, selfless, white-robed monks of Citeaux! In that moment he gladly gave himself completely to God. Henceforth his one rule in life was: All for Jesus through Mary! While warm tears flowed down his cheeks, the young Knight of Christ felt God's healing peace enter and fill his heart.
Bernard was a true apostle: he knew at once that God wanted him to share with others what God had given him. And he did something about it!
The following Spring -- just when Abbot Stephen was almost despairing of more vocations at Citeaux, Bernard came to the monastery one day and humbly begged permission to enter the Order -- with thirty-one companions, including several of his brothers and relatives!
Again, Mary and Bernard's mother were happy.
A year later; one of the monks who was especially devoted to the Blessed Virgin was granted an inspiring vision of the Saints in glory in Heaven, including all the Saints of the Orders of St. Augustine, St. Benedict, Cluny, etc. But he was terribly troubled at not seeing any of his own order. So he turned in his bewilderment to the lovely Queen of Heaven and plaintively asked her where were the Cistercians who loved her so much. With a soothing smile Mary replied, "The Cistercians are so pleasing to me that, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, so I wish to have under mine the elect that your order gives to my Son's Kingdom!"
And with a graceful gesture she spread open her great mantle, revealing to her overjoyed servant on earth a large number of Cistercian monks and nuns.
Of all these saints, the fiery young Bernard of Clairvaux soon became by far the greatest in fame. Men everywhere looked upon him as an angel of God in human form because of his utterly extraordinary purity, humility, fervor, courage, justice, charity and eloquence - not to mention the astounding miracles which he performed for years all over Europe. For after a period of superhuman self-denial and self-discipline in the cloister, this shy and delicate young poet was transformed by God's grace and Mary's help into a fearless, energetic, practical Abbot and founder of over sixty monasteries, an inspired leader of men and reformer of the Church, to whom Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and Princes turned for guidance and arbitration. It has even been said of this veritable hero of God that "in his solitude he governed all the churches of the West", and that he "carried the twelfth century on his shoulders." And yet he found time to write over four hundred helpful letters, several hundred inspiring sermons, and a number of theological works of such genius that he is known as "The Last of the Fathers of the Church", and "The Mellifluous [honey-tongued] Doctor."
But it is as a loving child of Mary, as the celebrated "Troubadour of Mary," that we are considering St. Bernard at present. His own touchingly fervent devotion to her and his many moving sermons praising her were so effective in bringing millions of men and women and children to her feet, that some uninformed persons have even stated that he invented devotion to her; whereas actually all he did was to spread and increase that devotion, which has been a glorious tradition of the Church ever since the time of the Apostles.
The famous "Memorare" is based on some lines of St. Bernard. And Cardinal Manning has declared that "of all the writers of the first thousand years of the Church... none is more conspicuous for ardent affection and veneration for the Mother of God.
Three beautiful incidents in his eventful life will now prove to us both St. Bernard's intense love for Mary and her merciful response to it.
On Christmas Eve in the year 1146, St. Bernard received a triumphant welcome into the city of Speyer. The German Emperor and the Bishop conducted him into the great German cathedral and down the main aisle in solemn procession, while the choir joyfully sang the beautiful "Hail, Holy Queen." The fifty-six-year-old Saint no doubt remembered that unforgettable Christmas Eve vision of his boyhood; and then, recalling all the marvelous graces and joys which Mary had given him, and through him to countless others during all those years, as the choir finished with the words "... show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus," St. Bernard cried out in a transport of love and gratitude, genuflecting at each aspiration: "O CLEMENT, O LOVING, O SWEET VIRGIN MARY!"
Though these touching words might have been added to the prayer earlier; St. Bernard is generally credited with having on this occasion greatly increased their popular use.
Once, when gravely ill -- during most of his life he suffered acutely from abdominal pains, because he ate so little -- St. Bernard asked a Brother to pray for him in the chapel. The humble Brother did so, praying at the altars of the Blessed Virgin, St. Lawrence and St. Benedict. Meanwhile, Mary and these two Saints appeared quite clearly before Bernard, who immediately recognized them with a thrill of joy. Then, smiling down at him in a kind and loving way, they placed their hands gently on the source of his pain - and he was completely and instantaneously cured!
And as a final reward for his long years of faithful service to her Son, when the great Saint died on August 20, 1153 at the age of sixty-three, surrounded by his heartbroken Brothers, Mary is believed to have again appeared to her Troubadour, welcomed his soul when it left his exhausted body, and conducted him personally to the throne of his King in Heaven.
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