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St. Bernard

      In 1091, when the career of the Cid was drawing to a close in Spain, a yet greater Christian champion was born in France; greater, if only in this, that the weapons of his warfare were not carnal. That the work was good in itself, we think will be clear from a perusal of the life of the warrior-monk, St. Bernard.

      His birthplace was Fontaines, near Dijon, in Burgundy; his father, Tecelin, a knight of honorable reputation, and so absorbed in his profession that he was compelled to leave the care of his seven sons, of whom Bernard was the third, to his wife Aleth. She was a pious and gentle woman, strictly attached to the duties of religion, and anxious for the spiritual rather than the temporal welfare of her children, whom she therefore devoted to the cloister. A dream, it is said, had indicated to her the future fame of her third son, before his birth. He rapidly displayed signs of possessing no ordinary character. His education was undertaken by the then celebrated school of Chantillon and the University of Paris, where he remained some years, actively pursuing his studies. His mother died soon after his return home, and he then proceeded to fulfil her wish, which accorded with his own, of becoming a monk. His father and friends endeavored to dissuade him from this step, but instead, he persuaded five of his brothers and twenty-five other friends to join him in the career which he had chosen. His father and remaining brothers subsequently followed him, and the whole family took monastic vows. Bernard did not select for his abode one of those monasteries whose wealth and splendor had corrupted the intention of their founders, and softened the severity of the original discipline. His motive was truly religious, and took the superstitious form then almost inseparable from earnest piety. He and his comrades entered the poor convent of Citeaux, near Dijon, where the rules of life enjoined by St. Benedict in the sixth century were observed with great rigor.

      Frequent watchings, fasts, bleedings, and scourgings, for the purpose of mortifying the body; abstinence from conversation or laughter; habits of perpetual devotion, laborious exertion, and humble obedience to the abbot, were the main features of the system. Bernard undertook the duties of his office with such incessant zeal, and displayed such amazing control over his appetites, that he seriously weakened his health, but at the same time enlarged his reputation to such an extent that the convent became overcrowded with the number of those whom he had attracted thither. He was therefore appointed, after three years' residence at Citeaux, to head a colony of monks which was to be fixed in the valley of Clairvaux--a desolate though beautiful spot in the bishopric of Langres. The tears of their brethren accompanied the departure of Bernard and the twelve others who composed the band. It was in the year 1115, and at the age of twenty-six, that he was made Abbot of Clairvaux. His appearance at the consecration is described as that of a corpse rather than a man, so emaciated with the rigors of devotion had he become. He had frequent visions, perhaps from his weakness, in one of which he imagined that the Virgin Mary herself appeared to him. The privations of the members of his little colony were most severe. The season for sowing had been spent in building the convent, and when the winter came they were reduced to little better than starvation. Coarse bread and beech-leaves steeped in salt were their only food. This scanty sustenance, together with the strict adherence to the Benedictine rule, in which Bernard still persisted, so shattered his health, that the bishop of the diocese, who was his personal friend, at last interfered, and released him from the active duties of abbot. But as soon as a brief respite had restored his strength, Bernard renewed his self-mortifying practices. A fresh attack of illness followed, and he was obliged permanently to relax his habits. In after-years he lamented the error into which his early enthusiasm and mistaken zeal had led him, the effects of which greatly marred his future influence for good.

The Vision of St. Bernard.

      Though debarred from laboring in his own sphere, Bernard's energetic mind would not let him rest, and he began from this time to exercise the power which his reputation for sanctity had brought him, in political life. He well knew the nature of the position which he was thus enabled to take, and did not shrink from its perils. "Bernard! wherefore art thou here on earth?" is said to have been his constant self-appeal. Poor and unarmed, a priest or monk in those days had nothing wherewith to oppose the tyranny of the powerful nobility, save the weapons of religion and intellect. How righteously they could be used we shall see in the case of Bernard. In repeated instances he interposed the weight of his authority between the anger of a king or noble and the weakness of a subject or tenant, and scarcely ever failed in his object. One of the most remarkable examples of this kind was his conduct toward the Count of Aquitaine. This nobleman, a man of immense strength of will no less than body, and violent and despotic beyond his fellows, having espoused the cause of one rival Pope against another, dismissed from their sees several excellent bishops in his territory who were adverse to his views, and supplied their places without regard to fitness of character. Bernard, having twice remonstrated in vain, after the last interview held a solemn mass in the church near the count's castle, at which that nobleman, as excommunicated, could not be present, but stood outside. The consecration of the wafer was duly performed, and the blessing bestowed upon the people, when Bernard suddenly made his way through the crowd, bearing in his hand the Host on its paten (or plate), and confronted the astonished count as he stood at the church door amid his soldiery. With pale, stern face, and flashing eyes, the daring monk thus addressed the haughty chief: "Twice have the Lord's servants entreated you, and you have despised them. Lo! now the blessed Son of the Virgin--the Head and Lord of that Church which you persecute--appears to you! Behold your Judge, to whom your soul must be rendered! Will you reject Him like His servants?" A hush of awe and expectation among the bystanders followed these words, broken by a groan from the conscience-stricken count, whose imagination was filled with such lively terror of Divine wrath that he fell fainting to the ground. Though raised up by his men, he again fell speechless. Bernard, seizing the opportunity, called to his side one of the deposed bishops, and on the count's recovery ordered that the kiss of reconciliation should be bestowed, and the exile restored. The effect of this scene was not transient, for the proud spirit had been subdued in the count's heart, and he performed penance for his offences by going on pilgrimage.

      Various other instances of Bernard's boldness in rebuking kings, nobles, and even Popes, might be adduced. His most remarkable appearance as a political peace-maker was in the dispute which took place after the death of Pope Honorius II., as to the succession to the popedom. Two rival factions at Rome contended for the claims of separate candidates: one a wealthy and worldly, the other a learned and pious, cardinal. Bernard, as we may suppose, supported the cause of the latter, who took the name of Innocent II. At the council of Etampes, where Louis VI. of France and his nobles were assembled, the monk's eloquence prevailed over all the arguments of diplomacy, and the influence of France was pledged to the side of Innocent. Bernard next engaged aid from Henry I., of England, and Lothaire, the Emperor of Germany. He then proceeded to Milan, where the party of the rival Pope, Anaclete, and his supporter, Conrad, Duke of Suabia, Lothaire's antagonist, was strongest. Bernard's fame was so great, and the imaginations of those who beheld him so fascinated by his force of will, that on his way the sick were carried forth to meet him, and numerous miracles were said to be wrought by the touch of his garments. In Milan, through his eloquence, Anaclete's party was completely vanquished, and the Milanese so impressed that they offered to displace their archbishop in Bernard's favor. But on this and other occasions he steadily refused any such rank, content to live and die in a sphere where he could be more useful, if less exalted. He returned to France, after a lengthened absence, in 1135, meeting on his way with a royal reception.

      He was once more absorbed in the duties of his office, as Abbot of Clairvaux, when again summoned to Italy by Innocent II., to oppose the power of Roger, the Norman King of Sicily, whose aid Anaclete had obtained. Bernard first passed into Germany, and successfully mediated between the emperor and the Suabian princes, inducing the latter to relinquish their rebellion. Lothaire was then prevailed upon to aid Innocent by force of arms, while Bernard proceeded to employ force of intellect in the same service. He first won over by his arguments many of Anaclete's chief supporters, and then accepted a challenge which King Roger threw out, to dispute publicly in the Court of Salerno as to the claims of the rival Popes, with Anaclete's champion, Cardinal Pietro di Pisa. At this public contest Bernard not only confuted, but converted, the cardinal, and reconciled him to Innocent. With Roger, Bernard was not so successful, and a battle ensued between the armies of the contending Popes. Innocent was captured, but contrived to make favorable terms with Roger; and a peace was agreed to, which was finally ratified by the death of Anaclete, in 1138. Another anti-pope having been set up, Bernard used his personal influence with the pretender, and induced him to yield. Thus the schism in the Church was healed, and the good abbot returned to Clairvaux.

      In 1146 he was mainly instrumental in promoting the second crusade. News reached Europe that, two years before, the Christian state of Edessa (which, as we have already seen, was founded by Baldwin, brother of Godfrey de Bouillon) had, through the weakness of its government, fallen into the hands of the Sultan of Bagdad, and Jerusalem was again in peril. Inflamed with enthusiasm, Bernard stirred up the hearts of his countrymen to zeal in the cause of the Cross. Louis VII., of France, was readily persuaded to undertake the crusade as a penance for his crimes; but the Emperor Conrad, of Germany, was indisposed to exertion; and to him, therefore, Bernard hastened, rousing the people of France and Germany as he travelled through. The frozen reluctance of the monarch could not withstand the fiery earnestness of the monk. Conrad is said to have dissolved into tears at the discourse, and eagerly accepted the cross which was offered. While in Germany Bernard showed his liberality of thought--rare in those days--by sternly rebuking the ignorance of a monk who was denouncing the Jews as the cause of the recent calamities. At the council of Vezelay (in Burgundy), held in 1146, Bernard's eloquence was as exciting in its influence on his hearers as that of Pope Urban had been on a previous occasion. As the speaker, at the end of his oration, held up the cross which was to be the badge of the enterprise, Louis VII. threw himself at the feet of his subject, and the whole assembly thronged round him, shouting the old war-cry, "It is God's will!" Bernard distributed to thousands of eager hands all the crosses which he had brought with him; and finding these insufficient for the demand, took off the Benedictine robe which he wore, and tore it into cross-shaped pieces. So impressed were the chiefs of the crusading army with his power over the people, that at a subsequent assembly they even offered the command of the expedition to him--an unwarlike monk.

      He declined the post on the ground of unfitness, but had he accepted it, the issue of the crusades might have been different from what it was. His authority would at least have kept in check the discords, perfidies, and excesses to which he, probably with justice, afterward attributed the failure of the enterprise. From these causes, together with a fatal incapacity on the part of the French and German generals, the second crusade resulted in nothing but the wholesale massacre of the Christian armies by the Turks. Bernard, who had predicted the success of the expedition, was deeply distressed at the unfortunate result; the more as, with great injustice, the weight of popular indignation fell upon him and seriously damaged his influence. This disappointment, however, did not discourage him, and only served to concentrate his attention for the rest of his life on the more immediate duties of his calling.

      These he had never neglected, even while immersed in religious politics. By advice and example he greatly reformed the discipline of monastic life. He continually preached in his own convent; and, either personally or through agents, is said to have founded upward of sixty monasteries in alliance with Clairvaux. Among them the Hospice of Mount St. Bernard, in Switzerland, has distinguished itself by loving deeds worthy of its founder. Bernard was an eminent theologian, both in theory and practice, and many of his works are extant. They disclose very forcibly his strong intellect and warm heart. Many of his opinions were most liberal for his age, and he rejected several tenets, on which the Roman Catholic Church has since insisted, with a decision which would have ranked him among heretics had he lived a few centuries later. He manifested, nevertheless, a want of freedom in his conduct toward the great Abelard, who in that age represented the true Protestant spirit of inquiry into the received doctrines of the Church. Against this daring thinker Bernard unjustifiably employed the weight of authority which he possessed, to silence what he deemed a dangerous boldness of opinion. Toward Abelard personally, however, he displayed nothing but generous and respectful courtesy, even in the heat of controversy; and it is satisfactory to know that a cordial interchange of kindly feeling passed between these two eminent men long before their deaths.

      Many of Bernard's wise and good deeds are recorded, which cannot be noticed here. We may refer to but one, which greatly influenced the world for centuries after his death; namely, the sanction and aid which he gave to the establishment of the Knight-Templars, a body of soldier-priests, who devoted their lives to the preservation of the Holy Places and the protection of pilgrims. Had they faithfully adhered to the statutes which he drew up for their conduct, the exhibition of zeal which they were designed to make might have been as blessed to Christendom as their arrogance was cursed.

      A few years before his death, Bernard had the gratification of seeing one of his own disciples raised to the papal chair, as Pope Eugenius III. The new pontiff recognized his master's authority no less than before his accession, and Bernard's counsel and influence were repeatedly used in his behalf. But the over-activity of the good abbot too soon decayed the slender strength which his firm will had wrested, as it were, from death in a hand-to-hand struggle that lasted for more than forty years. Always sickly, frequently reduced to the brink of the grave, yet perpetually at work, his constitution gave way in 1155, at the age of sixty-three. His last act was worthy of his life. He was on a dying-bed when a discord broke out between the nobles and the burghers of the town of Mentz. Bernard rose, and once more entered the arena of strife with the olive-branch of peace in his hand. The proud barons and the angry citizens listened humbly to his gentle words, and shrank from the mild glances of those eyes which his biographers scarcely ever mention without calling dove-like. The turbulence of passion was hushed, and Bernard returned to die. The filial tears of his disciples at Clairvaux, and the regrets of all the nation, followed him to the grave. About twenty years after his death a decree of canonization awarded him the title of Saint, which, considering how it has been disgraced by unholy bearers, will not seem so fitly to recognize his merit as that name which the reverence of the Church has further bestowed on him--the last of the Fathers.

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