I first read In Praise of the New Knighthood, Bernard of Clairvaux’s instructions to the Knights Templar (written circa 1130), and thought it an embarrassment. One expects this when reading medieval lit, which rarely fails to offend some modern sensibility. Bernard tells the warriors in Jerusalem to remember how “blessed [it is] to die as a martyr! Rejoice, brave athlete, if you live and conquer in the Lord; but glory and exult even more if you die and join your Lord.” Sounds like Mabel admonishing local policemen to destroy the pirates of Penzance. Those Victorian constables are horrified when she commands them: “[G]o ye forth and die!” The Templars, however, were blissful, knowing – as Bernard also told them – that a “Christian glories in the death of the pagan” and a Christian soldier goes to heaven.
See what I mean? It’s like a page from al-Qaeda’s playbook.
But as G.K. Chesterton wrote: “You cannot be just in history. . . . Applaud, admire, reverence, denounce, execrate. But judge not, that ye be not judged.” Much written about the Templars in our time is the work of cowards, but in their day, the Knights had a stalwart ally in Bernard (“of Clairvaux,” referring to a monastery he founded).
He has been called the “Second Pope” and “the greatest moral force of his day” (and things less flattering). The force of his energy and the power of his intellect were undeniable. When he took over leadership of the Cistercians, the order had a handful of monasteries. By the time he died, he had personally established 163 chapter houses, and from those had come another 179. It’s no wonder the Templar spirit appealed to him, or that the Templars responded to his brand of enterprising piety.
The Templars emerged at the end of the First Crusade, which was a triumph of sorts, and received their rule from Bernard three decades later as he was rallying the Second, which became a bloody disaster. Bernard was nine when news swept over Europe that Christian warriors had captured Jerusalem. Being a younger son and (under the rules of primogeniture) unlikely to inherit any of his noble family’s wealth, Bernard surely considered the knight’s life, but he chose the monk’s instead – and the charismatic twenty-two-year-old took with him thirty other young Burgundian nobles when he presented himself to Stephen Harding, abbot of Citeaux, the Cistercian foundation house near Lyons.
The future Saint Stephen was joyous. Unlike the Benedictine monasteries at Cluny or Molesme (from which the new order had come), Citeaux was not yet a great structure. Monks’ habits were not dyed black but, for the sake of economy, plain, raw wool – grayish-white. Stephen surely studied their faces, looking for signs of true vocation, which at Citeaux truly meant poverty, chastity, and obedience – an asceticism that challenged the resolve and the bodies of the most devoted spiritual athlete. Did he see something special in Bernard? Maybe. He surely saw extraordinary things later on.
It beggars imagination to comprehend what Bernard would accomplish before his death in 1153. In addition to those monastic foundations, his role in the Second Crusade, and his influence on the Templars, he would debate and defeat Peter Abelard and other schismatic and heretical philosophers; he would write books and preach sermons that were the most influential in the Middle Ages; he would adjudicate disputes between popes and anti-popes; he would intercede to stop pogroms against Jews (which is why many Jews take the name Bernard even today). And he would place the Virgin Mary at the heart of Catholic worship.
Some Greek and Latin Church Fathers and several early popes began the development of Mariology. There were some churches built in her honor, and the Ave Maria had become popular in Christian worship in the half-century before Saint Bernard was born. But it was he as much as anyone who is responsible for the fact that so many churches built after 1100 are called Notre Dame de something-or-other.
Yet Bernard was set against the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which he called “unknown to the Church, unapproved by reason, unjustified by ancient tradition.” The Church had yet to embrace the doctrine, so Bernard did not embrace it. If we venerate Mary’s conception, he argued, should we not “for the same reason . . . demand the same . . . of the father and mother of Holy Mary?” Why not also her ancestors “to infinity”?
But Bernard extolled the Queen of Heaven as our mediatrix, who will never let us go astray:
You can see why Dante chose Bernard as the final guide to the Beatific Vision in the Divine Comedy.
He was almost always sick. He was an ecstatic lover of Christ. Medievalist Gillian Evans has written: “Bernard’s God is huge and present and compelling, and he ought to be the focus of the most gigantic of human passions; this is what he demands and what he rewards.”
In his encyclical tribute to Bernard (“Doctor Mellifluus”), Pius XII quotes Bernard’s exhortation to his brothers: “Merely to shine is futile; merely to burn is not enough; to burn and to shine is perfect.”