Bernard of Clairvaux

"Your Lovingkindness In The Morning"    W. Zeitler 
with Amy Gonos, soprano
"Cause me to hear your lovingkindness in the morning, for in Thee do I trust. Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk, for I lift up my soul unto Thee." Ps.143:8

“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” 


Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was born on the outskirts of Dijon in Burgundy into a knight's family and educated in the fashion of medieval aristocracy. His mother in particular exerted a great spiritual influence on him and her death when Bernard was 17 marked for him the beginning of his "long path to complete conversion."

Bernard sought the counsel of the abbot of nearby Citeaux, Stephen Harding, and decided to enter his struggling, small, new community called the Cistercians (still a significant order of the Catholic and Anglican churches today. The Trappists are directly related to the Cistercians, Thomas Merton (1915-1968) being perhaps their best known member, with an eloquence methinks in Bernard's league).

The Cistercian order had been established in 1098 to restore Benedictine monasticism to a more primitive and austere state. Bernard was so taken with the order that he persuaded not only his brothers but some 25 others to join with him.

There he began practicing lifelong ascetic disciplines (strict fasting, sleep deprivation, etc.), which severely impaired his health — he was plagued by anemia, migraines, gastritis, hypertension, and an atrophied sense of taste his whole life. And 'Lectio Divina' — using Scripture as a meditation tool — was a cornerstone of his spiritual practice. Within three years of joining the order he was appointed abbot of the third Cistercian monastery (at Clairvaux). Despite the objection of some monks who thought his disciplines too severe, the monastery prospered under his leadership. By 1118 Clairvaux was able to found its first daughter house — the first of some 70 Cistercian monasteries Bernard founded (which in turn founded another 100 monasteries in Bernard's lifetime).

As the order grew, so did Bernard's influence and responsibilities. Though he longed to return to a life of solitude (he had been a hermit for a time), he was thrust into the world for many of his remaining years: — kings and popes sought his advice. Pope Eugenius III was Bernard's former pupil. Bernard also wrote the Rule (the 'constitution') for the Knights Templar, an order of men who took monastic vows and swore to defend the Holy Land militarily.

And Bernard led the political charge to launch the Second Crusade — a bad idea which also suffered from bickering and ineffective leadership. It was an unmitigated disaster ending in embarrassing retreat. Consequently Bernard's reputation suffered the last four years of his life.

Nevertheless, Calvin (and a host of others) regarded him as one of the great spiritual luminaries of the Middle Ages. What Bernard is remembered for today, more than his reforming zeal and crusade preaching, is his mystical writings. His best known work is _On Loving God_, in which he states his purpose at the beginning: "You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason he is to be loved."

The text to our hymn "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" is also attributed to him. Although there is question whether Bernard is the author, there is none that it reflects the religious life he promoted. The original poem is titled "Salve caput cruentatum" (something like "Hail, wounded head!") and contained seven parts, each to be sung on a different day of the week addressing a different part of Christ's body hanging on the cross: feet, knees, hands, sides, breast, heart, and head.